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The New Political Prisoners: Leakers, Hackers and Activists

Meet the new generation of dissidents being locked up for taking a stand against the government

Bradley Manning

On February 28th, Army private first class Bradley Manning pleaded not guilty to the charge of aiding the enemy for leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks in 2010. After more than 1,000 days in prison, Manning may be America's most famous political prisoner – but he's far from the only one. From environmentalists to hackers to whistleblowers, the U.S. government has made a policy of charging and convicting a wide range of activists across the country. To the FBI, an information transparency activist like the late Aaron Swartz is apparently more dangerous than the men who ruined the nation's economy, and an environmentally-minded economics student poses a greater threat than the oil companies polluting America's natural resources. The government insists that such harsh penalties are necessary to protect national security – but as hacker Jeremy Hammond said in a recent letter from prison, this misleading rhetoric ultimately "enables the politically motivated prosecution of anyone who voices dissent."

By Meredith Clark

Related:
Bradley Manning Explains His Motives
The Rise and Fall of Jeremy Hammond: Enemy of the State
The Brilliant Life and Tragic Death of Aaron Swartz

Bradley Manning

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Bradley Manning

WHO: Bradley Manning, 25

THE CHARGE: As Janet Reitman describes in her latest Rolling Stone feature, "Bradley Manning's War," Manning is the Army private who has been accused of leaking hundreds of thousands of classified diplomatic cables to Wikileaks in 2010 – along with a clip of U.S. forces opening fire on unarmed Iraqi civilians, later released under the name "Collateral Murder."

PROBLEMS WITH THE CASE: According to government prosecutors, the documents that Manning gave to Wikileaks contained information that could be used to attack U.S. interests and inflame anti-American sentiment, which is why he has been charged with aiding the enemy. This is a serious logical stretch: Manning said in a statement that he specifically selected information that would shame the U.S. for its actions without threatening national security. In fact, the Wikileaks document releases' primary effect was to deeply embarrass the U.S. government – something authorities seem to consider a greater crime than the possible killing of civilians documented in the "Collateral Murder" footage.

THE PUNISHMENT: After his arrest in May 2010, Manning was subjected to harsh treatment that has been widely condemned as torture by groups such as the ACLU. He was kept in solitary confinement for nearly a year. While in jail at Quantico marine base in Virginia, he spent 23 hours a day locked in his cell and was not allowed to use the bathroom without supervision. He was also placed on suicide and prevention of injury watches, which meant he was forced to strip, was not allowed reading material and had his glasses taken away. Manning recently passed his 1,000th day in custody. He was transferred to Kansas' Fort Leavenworth in April 2011 to await trial; if convicted, he faces life in prison.

Jeremy Hammond

AP Photo/Cook County Sheriff's Department

Jeremy Hammond

WHO: Jeremy Hammond, 28

THE CHARGE: Rolling Stone's Janet Reitman profiled this radical hacker in November 2012's "Enemy of the State." In December 2011, while working with Antisec – a group of hackers connected to Anonymous – Hammond allegedly accessed the servers of Stratfor, a private intelligence firm, and stole client lists, credit card information, and millions of emails. Wikileaks later published the data.

PROBLEMS WITH THE CASE: Hammond's lawyers will argue that their client's case raises questions of entrapment. Unbeknownst to Hammond, one of his closest Antisec colleagues, Hector Monsegur, became a government informant around the time that he invited Hammond to join Antisec. As Reitman wrote in her RS article, it appears that Hammond was the victim of an elaborate set-up in which Monsegur, under FBI guidance, lured Hammond into the Stratfor hack. Loretta Preska, the judge presiding over Hammond's case, recently refused to recuse herself from the case despite the fact that her husband was an alleged victim of the Stratfor hacks.

THE PUNISHMENT: After waiting for more than eight months at Manhattan's Metropolitan Correctional Center, Hammond was denied bail in late November. He was placed in solitary confinement in early February, from which he recently wrote an open letter about Aaron Swartz's suicide and the government's persecution of hackers. He faces up to life in prison.

Andrew Auernheimer

AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Andrew Auernheimer

WHO: Andrew "Weev" Auernheimer, 27

THE CHARGE: For years, Weev was most infamous as an Internet troll, using his hacking skills for provocative, often racist and homophobic ends. He once told The New York Times Magazine that he makes "people afraid for their lives." But that's not why he's in trouble with the law. In June of 2010, Daniel Spitler, Auernheimer's co-defendant, discovered that AT&T was not protecting its web database of iPad user accounts. Auernheimer and Spitler wrote a computer script that collected customer email addresses and names, and Auernheimer then shared that information with the website Gawker in order to expose the hole in AT&T's data security.

PROBLEMS WITH THE CASE: All of the data that Auernheimer and Spitler "stole" was not encrypted, which means that anyone could have gained access to it. Exposing security flaws to companies so that they can be fixed is a mainstay of hacking. Many Internet security experts believe that Auernheimer's conviction could make other "white hat" hackers less willing to point out such flaws, leaving people less secure online.

THE PUNISHMENT: On November 20, 2012, Auernheimer was convicted of identity theft and conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (the same law under which Aaron Swartz was charged). He faces up to 10 years in prison.

Barrett Brown

Barrett Brown

WHO: Barrett Brown, 31

THE CHARGE: Brown, a self-proclaimed spokesman for Anonymous, faces multiple indictments since his arrest in September 2012 – for allegedly threatening an FBI agent in a rambling YouTube video, for posting a link to emails obtained from the 2011 Stratfor hack (the hack for which Jeremy Hammond faces decades in prison) to a chat room and for allegedly concealing evidence about another Anonymous hacker when FBI agents raided his apartment in March 2012.

PROBLEMS WITH THE CASE: Brown has long been a target of the government for his work with Anonymous, and according to Brown, FBI agents threatened his mother with an obstruction of justice charge during their investigation. While threats should be taken seriously, there is reason to believe Brown is being treated with disproportionate harshness: Another recent case involving a threat against an FBI agent resulted in a sentence of only a year and a half. Brown, who is not charged with actually participating in the Stratfor hack, is also a recovering heroin addict who has chronicled his multiple relapses and struggles through videos and online chats.

THE PUNISHMENT: Brown faces more than 100 years in prison for the laundry list of crimes he is charged with, and has been in prison since September 2012. He was ruled mentally competent to stand trial in January.

Tim DeChristopher

AP Photo/Jim Urquhart

Tim DeChristopher

WHO: Tim DeChristopher, 31

THE CHARGE: In December 2008, Tim DeChristopher attended an auction at which the U.S. government was selling oil and gas drilling rights. While he initially intended merely to make a speech, DeChristopher ended up bidding on more than 22,000 acres of land, throwing the auction into turmoil. For what was essentially a prank, DeChristopher was charged with two felonies.

PROBLEMS WITH THE CASE: Within weeks of taking office, President Obama canceled the leases for 130,000 acres of land near two national parks, including those that were up for auction when DeChristopher went to bid. This did not stop the government from going ahead with its case.

THE PUNISHMENT: DeChristopher was sentenced in July 2011 to two years in prison and fined $10,000. He was moved to a halfway house in Salt Lake City in October 2012, where he will finish out the remainder of his sentence.

John Kiriakou

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

John Kiriakou

WHO: John Kiriakou, 48

THE CRIME: John Kiriakou is a former CIA agent who led the team of agents that found Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah in 2002. He was also a frequent source for journalists covering national security. Kiriakou emailed the name of a covert CIA officer to a reporter; the reporter never published the officer's name.

PROBLEMS WITH THE CASE: Kiriakou has been hailed by human rights groups for identifying the U.S. government's use of waterboarding as torture in a 2007 interview with ABC News. He is the most high-profile in a number of cases the Obama administration has brought against people for leaking information to the media. These cases form a pattern that could have a chilling effect on other government workers who want to expose government misdeeds.

THE PUNISHMENT: Kiriakou pleaded guilty last year and received a sentence of two and a half years in prison in January. No one involved in creating and overseeing the brutal techniques he discussed has gone to prison. As a fellow former CIA officer told The New York Times in January, "The irony of this whole thing is, very simply, that he's going to be the only C.I.A. officer to go to jail over torture."

Eric McDavid

Courtesy of Support Eric McDavid

Eric McDavid

WHO: Eric McDavid, 35

THE CHARGE: McDavid and two others, Zachary Jenson and Lauren Weiner, were arrested in January 2006 and charged with conspiracy over plans to bomb several locations in California.

PROBLEMS WITH THE CASE: In the early 2000s, during what activists have called the "Green Scare," the federal government used controversial tactics to target radical environmental groups like the Earth Liberation Front, which Eric McDavid was a member of. An FBI informant, known only as "Anna," was paid more than $65,000 by the government and was given money to pay for gas, food and supplies for McDavid and the others – enough to raise serious questions of entrapment. Two jurors later submitted declarations saying that they believed McDavid deserved a new trial and condemned the FBI's behavior in the case.

THE PUNISHMENT: Weiner and Jenson both pled guilty to lesser conspiracy charges and agreed to cooperate with the government against McDavid, who was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison after being found guilty in May 2008.