Barrett Brown Faces 105 Years in Jail

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It takes a suspension of disbelief to hear a credible physical threat as defined by law. The rail-thin Brown appears a desperate, pathetic character in need of psychiatric help. A more humane FBI office might have sent a doctor rather than a car of armed agents. But the FBI didn't send a shrink. That evening a team of armed agents stormed Brown's apartment, threw him violently to the ground and arrested him for threatening a federal officer.

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Over the next four months, federal grand juries issued three multicount indictments for obstruction and "access device­fraud" related to the Stratfor link. It is the last of these that concern civil-liberties activists and that could have a possible chilling effect. "One can't apply the transfer provision of the statute to someone conducting research," says Ghappour. "If cutting and pasting a link is the same as the transfer of the underlying data, then anyone on the Internet is prone to violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act."

The FBI has shown interest in expanding that theoretical "anyone" to include Brown's circle of volunteers. In March, the bureau went hunting for the digital fingerprints of Project PM administrators with a subpoena. The action has shaken the group's inner circle, as it was surely intended. "It was a pretext to sow discord and fear in Barrett's project," says Alan Ross, a U.K. investigator for Project PM. "They were desperate to bolster their case. After the subpoena, people began to worry about being monitored. I worry about my personal safety even though I acted within the confines of the law. I worry about travel."

Travel is one thing Brown does not have to worry about at the moment. Nor, if the government gets its way, will he have to worry about handling the media, his former specialty. In August, the prosecution requested a gag be placed on Brown and his lawyers, a move that suggests they understand the dangers of public scrutiny of the legal peculiarities of United States vs. Barrett Lancaster Brown.

Meanwhile, Brown has not joined the prison tradition of mastering the law behind bars. Rather than study up on cyberfraud statutes, he has resumed his writing on intel contractors and the pundits who defend them. "Nobody talks to me here," Brown says of his year in jail, "but I was pretty unsociable on the outside too." One of the hardest things about incarceration for the atheist has been contending with his cellmates' singing of hymns. "Prison is great for reading and for thought, until they start in with their Pentecostal nonsense," says Brown. "It ruins everything."

His friends keep him supplied with articles and printouts, which lately have included material related to the Edward Snowden leak. Snowden gained access to information about secret NSA spying on private citizens while working for the intelligence subcontractor Booz Allen Hamilton, a company that had been on Brown's radar long before most Americans learned of it in the wake of Snowden's bombshells.

"This is all much bigger than me," Brown says in the visiting room. "What matters is this." He leans over to tap his handwritten manuscript. The pages of the essay are messy on the table, and sticking out from under the pile is the last sentence on the last page. "This is the world that we accept if we continue to avert our eyes," it says. "And it promises to get much worse."

This story is from the August 29th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

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