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Barrett Brown Faces 105 Years in Jail

But no one can figure out what law he broke. Introducing America's least likely political prisoner

Barrett Brown
Nikki Loehr
September 5, 2013 3:45 PM ET

The mid-June sun is setting on the Mansfield jail near Dallas when Barrett Brown, the former public face of Anonymous, shuffles into the visitors hall wearing a jumpsuit of blazing orange. Once the nattiest anarchist around, Brown now looks like every other inmate in the overcrowded North Texas facility, down to his state-issued faux-Crocs, the color of candy corn.

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Brown sits down across from his co-counsel, a young civil-liberties lawyer named Ahmed Ghappour, and raises a triumphant fist holding several sheets of notebook paper. "Penned it out," he says. "After 10 months, I'm finally getting the hang of these archaic tools." He hands the article, titled "The Cyber-Intelligence Complex and Its Useful Idiots," to his lawyer with instructions to send it to his editor at The Guardian. Brown used to write for the British daily, but since he's been in prison, it's written about him and his strange legal ordeal that has had him locked up for nearly a year while he awaits trial next month. Should he be found guilty of all the charges the federal government is bringing against him – 17 counts, ranging from obstruction of justice to threatening a federal officer to identity fraud – he'll face more than 100 years in prison.

Given the serious nature of his predicament, Brown, 32, seems shockingly relaxed. "I'm not worried or panicked," he says. "It's not even clear to me that I've committed a crime." He describes his time here as a break from the drug-fueled mania of his prior life, a sort of digital and chemical fast in which he's kicked opiates and indulged his pre-cyber whims – hours spent on the role-playing game GURPS and tearing through the prison's collection of what he calls "English manor-house literature."

Brown has been called many things during his brief public career – satirist, journalist, author, Anonymous spokesman, atheist, "moral fag," "fame whore," scourge of the national surveillance state. His commitment to investigating the murky networks that make up America's post-9/11 intelligence establishment set in motion the chain of events that culminated in a guns-drawn raid of his Dallas apartment last September. "For a long time, the one thing I was happy not to see in here was a computer," says Brown. "It appears as though the Internet has gotten me into some trouble."

Encountering Barrett Brown's story in passing, it is tempting to group him with other Anonymous associates who have popped up in the news for cutting pleas and changing sides. Brown's case, however, is a thing apart. Although he knew some of those involved in high-profile "hacktivism," he is no hacker. His situation is closer to the runaway prosecution that destroyed Aaron Swartz, the programmer-activist who committed suicide in the face of criminal charges similar to those now being leveled at Brown. But unlike Swartz, who illegally downloaded a large cache of academic articles, Brown never broke into a server; he never even leaked a document. His primary laptop, sought in two armed FBI raids, was a miniature Sony netbook that he used for legal communication, research and an obscene amount of video-game playing. The most serious charges against him relate not to hacking or theft, but to copying and pasting a link to data that had been hacked and released by others.

"What is most concerning about Barrett's case is the disconnect between his conduct and the charged crime," says Ghappour. "He copy-pasted a publicly available link containing publicly available data that he was researching in his capacity as a journalist. The charges require twisting the relevant statutes beyond recognition and have serious implications for journalists as well as academics. Who's allowed to look at document dumps?"

Brown's case is a bellwether for press freedoms in the new century, where hacks and leaks provide some of our only glimpses into the technologies and policies of an increasingly privatized national security-and-surveillance state. What Brown did through his organization Project PM was attempt to expand these peepholes. He did this by leading group investigations into the world of private intelligence and cybersecurity contracting, a $56 billion industry that consumes 70 percent of the U.S. intelligence budget.

Meet Jacob Applelaum, the American Wikileaks Hacker

"Barrett was an investigative journalist who was merely doing his professional duty," says Christophe Deloire of Reporters Without Borders. "The sentence that he is facing is absurd and dangerous."

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