24 November 2014

U.S. ranks lower than El Salvador on press freedom

On April Fool’s Day, Wired magazine reported that long imprisoned journalist Barrett Brown had accepted a plea agreement. Brown's pending case on hacking charges that many called flimsy at best. The best-selling author of Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design and the Easter Bunny, Brown was facing over 100 years for posting a link in a chat room. The link was to a list of clients of the defense and intelligence firm Stratfor that included some credit card information. None of the information linked to publicly and openly by Brown was used to defraud anyone.

Brown is accused of posting the link in a chat room used by other journalists working on a project he founded known as Project PM. Project PM was founded in part to examine information released by hacktivists associated with the group Anonymous about domestic spying by corporations on private citizens. Brown is also accused of hiding his laptop at his mother's home to avoid it being found during the execution of a search warrant. Brown's mother was charged with obstruction of justice and remains on federal probation.

Brown's Project PM sought to bring together journalists to analyze and document information released in part by hacktivists. The trove of information that included the credit card data also included plots by private security companies to discredit and destroy journalists and citizen groups opposed to the agenda of the US Chamber of Commerce. Until his arrest, Brown led efforts by the group to make rational sense of the data.

The group continued its work after Brown's arrest and this journalist was invited to participate in July of 2013. The group's work has lagged somewhat without Brown's editorial guidance and because of constant attention from secret state police agencies. The hacktivist that is alleged to have captured the initial trove of information, Jeremy Hammond, was sentenced to 10 years in prison after a plea agreement late last year.

Until the plea agreement, it appeared as though the government was backing away from its case. The prosecution had dropped most of the 37 charges that Brown was facing, despite earlier draconian pre-trial maneuvers. Brown and his defense team had been slapped with a gag order to prevent them from speaking to the media about his case.

This silence is mirrored by the plea agreement, which is sealed. It is also mirrored by the government's new indictment, which is also sealed. The government has agreed to make a motion to lift the gag order before re-arraignment on Brown's new charges of being an accessory after the fact to the crimes of “Hacker O” and obstruction of justice, for which his mother was already sentenced. “Hacker O” is presumed to be Hammond.

Brown has been held without bail and is prevented from making public statements for over a year, and faces a maximum of five years when sentenced. He is to appear before Judge Sam Lindsay in the Northern District of Texas. Many of Brown's supporters fear a maximum sentence from Lindsay, who worked closely with the FBI during his time as a prosecutor.

Reporters Without Borders, a group monitoring attacks on journalists worldwide, has downgraded the United States on their world press freedom index as a result of cases like Barrett Brown,, government harassment of Glen Greenwald and his partner, and the mysterious death of Michael Hastings. Reporters Without Borders now rates the United States as having less press freedom than El Salvador. The index now ranks the US at 46, just a step above Haiti, as we race Putin's Russia to a cuddle puddle at the bottom with North Korea.

The motion to seal Brown's plea agreement is available at the end of this article.