An investigative journalist in the US has been sentenced to more than five years in prison. Civil libertarians are concerned that the case of Barrett Brown could have a chilling effect on investigative reporting.
Barrett Brown has often been referred to as the erstwhile unofficial spokesman for the hacktivist collective Anonymous, a label he has rejected. But the 33-year-old Texan is the founder of Project PM, an Internet platform that collects and analyzes leaked information, often investigating the secretive dealings of private security and intelligence contractors.
In September 2012, Brown was arrested for threatening a federal law enforcement officer in a YouTube video entitled "Why I'm going to destroy FBI Agent Robert Smith." In the video, the recovering heroin addict said, "Robert Smith's life is over."
"And when I say his life is over, I don't say I'm going to go kill him, but I'm going to ruin his life and look into his f---ing kids," Brown said in the video. "How do you like them apples?"
The YouTube video threat had been precipitated by a March raid on the Dallas home of Brown's mother. Law enforcement was investigating Brown in connection with the 2011 hack of the private US intelligence firm, Stratfor. During the raid, Brown's laptops were found hidden in a kitchen cabinet. His mother was charged with obstruction of justice and ultimately plead guilty, receiving six months probation.
"My mom has not been involved in any of this at all," Brown said angrily in the YouTube video. "I hid the laptops the next morning after the visit from the FBI, not her. I wouldn't have told her."
This week, a US federal judge sentenced Brown to 63 months in prison and ordered him to pay $890,000 (770,000 euros) in damages, bringing the two-year case to a close.
"The severity of the penalty really demonstrates that this case was not about the charges on the books but about Brown's work as an investigative journalist," Kathleen McClellan, national security and human rights deputy director at the Government Accountability Project, told DW.
The crime? Sharing a link
Brown was never charged with involvement in the actual hack, which released the emails and credit card information of thousands of Stratfor subscribers. Instead, he shared a link to a zip file containing the stolen information in the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel of his organization Project PM. Brown apparently wanted to comb through the files with a group of volunteers in an attempt to dig up information on Stratfor's dealings.
Prosecutors originally charged him with 12 counts of aiding and abetting the trafficking of stolen credit card information, aiding and abetting the illegal possession of that information, and aiding and abetting identity theft. On top of charges related to the YouTube video threat and obstruction of justice, Brown faced a whopping 105 years in prison.
In contrast, Jeremy Hammond - the hacker who actually stole the information from Stratfor - faced 30 years in prison and was ultimately sentenced to 10.
"Brown didn't actually disclose anything," McClellan said. "He posted a link that was already public that many other reporters posted. It doesn't make sense that Brown would be prosecuted and sentenced heftily when other reporters aren't."
First Amendment protections
In response, five advocacy groups planned in 2014 to file an amicus brief calling for some of the charges against Brown to be dropped. The groups included the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Reporters without Borders, Freedom of the Press Foundation, and the Pen American Center.
"The First Amendment protects Mr. Brown's publication of a publicly available and lawfully obtained web address linking to millions of pages of documents discussing suspect activities of the United States government intelligence contractor Stratfor Global Intelligence," the amicus brief read.
"The publication concerned matters of public significance, namely - the brazen hack into Stratfor's servers and the fact that Stratfor had been discussing rendition and assassinations with its clients along with methods to subvert journalists, political groups and foreign leaders," the brief continued.
'Enormous chilling effect'
But before the brief could be filed, prosecutors threw out the 12 charges related to the link containing the credit card information. Ultimately, Brown struck a deal, pleading guilty to charges of threatening a federal agent, obstructing justice, and accessory after the fact. According to prosecutors, the latter charge stemmed from his attempt to conceal the identity of a hacker involved in the Stratfor leak.
Although Brown's looming sentence was reduced from more than a century to just over five years in prison, First Amendment advocates are concerned that the damage has already been done. McClellan called Brown "essentially a political prisoner."
"The culture of press freedom right now in the US is very precarious because of this unprecedented war on hacktivists, journalists, and on whistleblowers," she said. "Even when those whistleblowers, or journalists or hacktivists win, simply the government's attack on them has an enormous chilling effect."