Barrett Brown

Jason Reed/Daily Dot

Why Barrett Brown should not be in jail

Brown's name-checked in the new season of House of Cards. Here's what you need to know. 


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Posted on Feb 19, 2014   Updated on May 31, 2021, 5:55 pm CDT


Almost everything about Barrett Brown‘s case is extreme and concerning.

Consider the excessive charges, the case against his mom, the gag order, the subpoena of his research wiki Project PM, and the attempt to seize his defense fund. His prosecutors have truly gone overboard. Every article that I write about him goes into an FBI file somewhere, and all of his communications are closely monitored.

After President Obama’s State of the Union address, we observed an ex-FBI agent, Michael Grimm, threaten a local reporter. As a member of the privileged class of U.S. representatives, he was able to apologize and get away with no consequences. Yet, when there’s a comparable, inverse situation–say, a reporter uses hyperbolic speech while vowing to defend himself and expose the FBI agent investigating him, he gets arrested, detained, and indicted.

That’s the sad case of Barrett Brown, a Dallas-based journalist name-checked in the new season of House of Cards. He was apprehended in September 2012 after allegedly threatening an FBI agent in a YouTube video, an act his defense disputes. He faces two jury trials, slated to begin in April and May, and a combined penalty of more than 100 years in prison.

The majority of the time Brown faces is for sharing one hyperlink. In a chat room, he posted a link to the customer database of Stratfor Global Intelligence hacked by Anonymous. That’s it.

Links are important; they are the fabric of the World Wide Web. In 2011, a State Dept. diplomat lost his top-secret clearance because he linked to WikiLeaks. (It’s worth mentioning that Quentin Tarantino is now suing Gawker for sharing a link to a leaked script.) Brown’s case could establish a chilling precedent in the U.S., one where technology reporters are even more afraid of linking to data dumps released by hackers than they already are.

By contrast, a European court has just declared that linking to Web content without permission is entirely legal.

Was Brown a spokesperson for Anonymous? No, it doesn’t quite work that way. He was more of a propagandist, an information operations talent, an embedded journalist reporting from within. Put another way, “if Anonymous [was] the wrecking crew, Brown … assembled the pieces of the rubble into meaningful insights,” the New York Times wrote.

He was a published author in the areas of politics, satire, and skepticism long before he ever became intertwined with Anonymous. So why did he become involved? By his own account, it was the Arab Spring that inspired him to throw in with a worldwide struggle for democracy and against dictatorship. But honestly by mid-2012, that nebulous group of hacktivists was not his primary concern. He claimed to quit more than once. Since many members were arrested after major operations, Anonymous has had trouble returning to its former glory. Plus, he often tired of all the trolling.

Brown was more predisposed to serious matters. He was intent, since late 2009, on changing the worst tendencies of the media and bringing transparency to the world of private intelligence and cybersecurity contractors. He facilitated contributions from many researchers to his distributed or crowdsourced think-tank, Project PM, which was always perpetually recruiting.

Project PM, with its focus on the intelligence community, connects uncannily with the current National Security Agency and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) reportage enabled by whistleblower Edward Snowden. It also relates to Assange’s original concept of WikiLeaks, by virtue of hosting analysis of leaked emails from HBGary and Stratfor.

This initiative consisted of an investigation into a nefarious nexus of interests and relationships. For example: military-grade software for fake online identities and sockpuppetry, the use of predictive analytics and CCTV surveillance, sophisticated data-mining applications, the sale of zero-day exploits, tools for spreading disinformation and propaganda, and corporate espionage tactics.

I would argue that Project PM‘s adversarial and investigative efforts are actually the reason for Brown’s current legal woes. The pretext for raiding him in March 2012 was to search for evidence of “fraud,” but actually the search warrant revealed that the FBI was looking to find out what Brown knew about two contractors he’d written about: HBGary and Endgame Systems. One possible conclusion: The FBI was trying to get his sources.

As many would argue is his right under the First Amendment, Brown is said to have hidden from government agents his computers, which contained his journalistic work product, including a book he was writing about Anonymous. (His evidence of a concerted campaign of intimidation and harassment against him was also conveniently seized.) His mom is now serving a six-month probationary sentence for trying to protect her son that day.

But the events that ultimately led to Brown’s arrest did not occur in a vacuum. When he uploaded a three-part video series detailing his complaints with the FBI, a certain informant, and some ex-military contractors, it was only after those computers were taken—and after his mom was threatened with charges.

So why did six months pass without notice? Because up to that point Brown hadn’t done anything remotely criminal. That makes the severity of his potential sentence all the more alarming.

Even worse, Brown is forbidden from speaking about his case or defending himself in the press. Apparently, after a litany of questionable legal maneuvers and denial of due process, the government suddenly claimed to care about Brown’s right to a fair trial. But Dr. Jon Bruschke, an expert on pretrial publicity, told me that “the research doesn’t really support [the] conclusion … that publicity can bias the outcome of a trial.” He added that the media coverage of Brown to date “is unlikely to affect the outcome of the trial in any way, even if every single juror heard every word of it.”

And did I mention the arguments justifying his continued detention are completely sealed from the public?

Brown is now writing a column for D magazine’s FrontBurner, called The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Jail. His dispatches from behind bars are brilliant and hilarious, but he shouldn’t be there to begin with.

If you take a look at his work, you’ll see why it’s important and why he doesn’t deserve to be in jail.

Kevin Gallagher is a writer, systems administrator, and activist based in western Massachusetts. He’s also the director of Free Barrett Brown. Follow him @ageis.

Illustration by Jason Reed

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*First Published: Feb 19, 2014, 12:00 pm CST