Journalist Barrett Brown was jailed for making threats against a federal officer. Supporters hope a letter-writing campaign will yield his early release. (Barrett Brown/YouTube image)
Supporters of a jailed Texas journalist have launched a letter-writing campaign seeking the early release of the man whom the media deemed to be the unofficial mouthpiece of a prominent hacker community.
Barrett L. Brown, 33, was arrested in September 2012 for threatening a federal law enforcement agent in a video posted online. The video came six months after the FBI executed a search warrant on Brown’s apartment and the home of his mother in search of material related to the hacktivist community Anonymous and a splinter hacking group called LulzSec.
Authorities seized a computer, but did not charge Brown with a crime. Six months later, Brown uploaded a series of videos to YouTube in which he ordered the FBI to apologize to him for the raid and return the confiscated laptop. In one video, Brown threatened to “ruin” the life of FBI agent Robert Smith and “look into his fucking kids” if his property was not returned.
Shortly after the video was posted, Brown was arrested for threatening retaliation on a federal law enforcement official and “conspiracy to make publicly available restricted personal information of a government employee.” Two months later, a federal grand jury handed down a separate indictment charging Brown with a dozen counts related to the hack of an intelligence think-tank called Stratfor.
Though Brown was not accused of hacking Stratfor, he was accused of being an accessory for sharing a hyperlink in a chatroom that resolved to a database containing thousands of e-mail addresses and credit card numbers of Stratfor clients that had been published by someone else. Prosecutors alleged the sharing of a hyperlink in a chatroom full of hackers amounted to distributing stolen material, fraud and identity theft. For this, Brown faced 100 years in prison.
Activists and journalists had been closely watching Brown’s case, concerned that the outcome could set a legal precedent in which linking to certain material online would be a crime. In a court motion filed earlier this year, Brown’s attorneys said their client could not have committed a crime by linking to a database that had been published by someone else online.
One day after the filing, federal prosecutors moved to dismiss most of the charges against Brown related to the Stratfor hack. Later that month, a superseded indictment brought two new charges against Brown — one for being an accessory after the Stratfor hack, and another for attempting to obstruct justice during the FBI raid on his mother’s home (the charge against Brown related to the YouTube threat remained).
Brown signed a plea agreement to the new charges on March 31. In doing so, his potential sentence was reduced from 100 years to just more than eight. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 24.
For two years, Brown and his attorneys have been unable to speak on the case due to a court-imposed gag order. The gag order gave way to a grassroots movement called Free Barrett Brown, an online group that has received support from prominent journalists, politicians and organizations. Last week, Free Barrett Brown organizers started encouraging supporters to write letters seeking leniency for the jailed journalist ahead of his sentencing in November.
(Disclosure: The author of this post was contacted about writing a letter in support of Brown).
“Barrett regrets his words and behavior of September 2012 and has had ample time to reflect and learn his lesson,” the organization said in a note posted online. “We believe the court should give him the opportunity to re-integrate himself into society immediately.”
In an e-mail distributed to supporters, organizers speculated that federal prosecutors would ask for the maximum 8.5-year sentence against Brown. “It would be horrible if that were to happen!” the e-mail said. “We need to bring him home — it’s already been 764 days.”
Organizers are asking supporters to pen a one- to two-page letter focusing less on Brown’s case and more on his work as a freelance journalist. “The purpose of these support letters is to help Judge Lindsay understand the value of Barrett’s contributions to society and culture as a writer, investigative journalist, researcher, political satirist and humorist,” organizers wrote. “Your letter should not be about Barrett’s case … nor should the letter assert the defendants’ innocence.”
Several journalists have already written letters in support of Brown, including Global Post reporter Jeb Boone and former Guardian correspondent Glenn Greenwald (now at The Intercept). In his letter, Greenwald wrote that Brown was “an outstanding journalist” whose work materially contributed to several stories published by Greenwald.
“He understands and embodies the purest journalist ethos as envisioned by the country’s founders: To hold the most-powerful factions accountable by scrutinizing their claims, investigating their actions and imposing transparency,” Greenwald wrote.
Organizers are requesting people address the letters to the judge presiding over Brown’s sentencing, but not to mail them to the judge directly. Instead, organizers are collecting the letters themselves and will submit them to Brown’s defense attorney as part of an forthcoming sentencing submission. More details of the letter-writing campaign can be found on the website FreeBarrettBrown.org.
Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.