In a rebuke to a legion of online supporters and what the journalist and one-time member of Anonymous called a “dangerous precedent”, Barrett Brown was sentenced to 63 months in prison by a federal judge in Dallas on Thursday.
Brown’s backers from across the web had hoped he would be able to walk free with his 31 months of time served for what they insist was “merely linking to hacked material”. But the 33-year-old, who was once considered something of a spokesman for the Anonymous movement, will face more than twice that sentence. The judge also ordered him to pay more than $890,000 in restitution and fines.
In a statement released after his sentencing, Brown was sarcastically upbeat: “Good news!” he wrote. “The US government decided today that because I did such a good job investigating the cyber-industrial complex, they’re now going to send me to investigate the prison-industrial complex.”
Kevin Gallagher, the director of the Free Barrett Brown campaign, whom Brown personally singled out for thanks in his pre-sentencing statement, told the Guardian that his first reaction was that the judge had got it wrong. “I was shocked and disappointed,” he said.
Independent journalist Barrett Brown
At one point, Brown was facing a possible combined sentence of over 100 years. But after prosecutors dropped several charges against him following a plea deal, Brown’s sentencing parameters were reduced.
Gallagher warned that the long sentence would nonetheless set a precedent for journalists. “Basically,” he said, “if you share a link to publicly available material without knowing what’s in it – maybe it could contain stolen credit card info – you could be prosecuted.”
“Any journalist that uses hackers as sources is extremely chilled by this,” Gallagher added.
Gallagher said that he spoke to Brown on Wednesday and found him in high spirits. “We thought he’d get between 30 and 40 months,” he said. “I think he’s just as upset as we are.”
An investigative journalist, essayist and satirist who has written for the Onion, Vanity Fair and the Huffington Post, as well as for the Guardian, Brown claims to have split with Anonymous in 2011, and the leaderless structure of the collective makes the idea of a “spokesman” difficult to even imagine.
Brown also founded Project PM, a crowdsourced investigative thinktank dedicated to looking into abuses by companies in the area of surveillance.
In September 2012, Brown was arrested by the FBI for allegedly threatening a federal agent in a video posted to YouTube. In October 2012, after being held for two weeks without charge, he was indicted on charges of making an online threat, retaliating against a federal officer and conspiring to release personal information about a government employee.
Two months later, he was indicted on 12 further charges related to the hacking of private intelligence contractor Stratfor in 2011.
Jeremy Hammond, the hacker who actually carried out the Stratfor breach, was sentenced to the maximum possible 10 years. Writing for the Guardian from prison in December, Hammond bemoaned that Brown “continues to await his sentencing for merely linking to hacked material”.
Political activist and computer hacker Jeremy Hammond, serving 10 years in prison.
Brown, who was accused of sharing a link to the data Hammond obtained from the breach (as well as several further indictments related to withholding or hiding evidence and obstructing the FBI), at one point faced a possible sentence of 105 years.
He will reportedly be eligible for supervised release after one year, and once released will have his computer equipment monitored. The $890,250 in restitution payments will go to Stratfor and other companies targeted by Anonymous. He will pay $225 in fines.
Ladar Levison, who ran the Lavabit email service used by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, was in court for the verdict. Levison shut down his service rather than hand over the encrypted keys to Lavabit to the FBI.
Levison told the Guardian he was galled by the sentence. “It’s the type of verdict which leads honorable men to take up the quill and pen strong statements. I fear that for some people words will not be sufficient,” he said.
In his statement to the judge before his sentencing, Brown expressed regret for posting the threatening videos which led to his arrest, calling them “idiotic” and reiterated his defence’s contention that he made them in a manic state brought on by drug withdrawal.
But he also criticised the government’s methods in pursuing his case, and expressed concern that contributors to Project PM might be “indicted under the same spurious charges” as he had been.
In his statement following the judge’s ruling, Brown struck a different tone. “For the next 35 months,” he said, “I’ll be provided with free food, clothes and housing as I seek to expose wrondgoing by Bureau of Prisons officials and staff and otherwise report on news and culture in the world’s greatest prison system.”