In the US government’s campaign against journalists (FAIR Blog, 8/27/13), Barrett Brown is one of the lesser-known victims. And now even less will be forthcoming about his story, as the Texas-based writer, satirist and Internet activist is under a federal court gag order, forbidden to talk about his case or the charges that could land him in prison for more than 100 years.
Brown was arrested in Dallas a year ago, hit with a dozen charges of identity theft for pasting a link to the chat room of ProjectPM, a wiki research forum he founded in 2009. The link led to a huge cache of hacked documents posted to WikiLeaks that had been purloined from the intelligence contractor Stratfor Global Intelligence. Among some 5 million documents, some politically embarrassing to the firm and its clients, were some files containing credit card information. Brown’s linking to the huge trove containing a relatively small amount of personal financial information is the basis for the identity theft charge. Brown is also on trial for related charges of concealing evidence and threatening a federal agent.
Brown says the didn’t know what was in the encrypted documents he’d linked to, and he’ s on record condemning theft and the use of purloined credit cards by activist hackers. According to Brown, he posted the link in order to make the information available for crowd-sourced research. ProjectPM had previously published revealing information about other government contractors, including a plan by contractor HBGary to discredit journalist Glenn Greenwald with a disinformation campaign for his support of WikiLeaks (Nation, 6/18/13.)
Explaining Brown’s actions and how they fit into the larger context of journalism, the New York Times‘ David Carr wrote an exceptional story yesterday, reporting:
But keep in mind that no one has accused Mr. Brown of playing a role in the actual stealing of the data, only of posting a link to the trove of documents.
Journalists from other news organizations link to stolen information frequently. Just last week, the New York Times, the Guardian and ProPublica collaborated on a significant article about the National Security Agency’s effort to defeat encryption technologies. The article was based on, and linked to, documents that were stolen by Edward J. Snowden, a private contractor working for the government who this summer leaked millions of pages of documents to the reporter Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian along with Barton Gellman of the Washington Post.
In his September 4 ruling for a gag-order, U.S. District Judge Sam Lindsay sided with a prosecution motion arguing that a gag should be imposed because Brown was trying to use the media to…defend himself (Dallas Morning News, 9/4/13):
Assistant U.S. Attorney Candina S. Heath told Lindsay that Brown has tried to manipulate the media from behind bars for his benefit.
She called as a witness an FBI agent who had listened to jail recordings of Brown’s conversations with journalists and others about the publicity he sought.
In her motion, Heath said the government believes Brown’s attorney “coordinates and/or approves of his use of the media.” She also said most of the publicity about Brown has contained false information and “gross fabrications,” according to the motion.
If trying to get a hearing in the media for one side or the other in a trial is grounds for a gag, it’s a wonder that any case escapes silencing. Moreover, it’s passing strange that a federal judge would gag a journalist, effectively declaring the court a First Amendment-free zone– particularly in a case where the nature and practice of journalism is the core issue. No doubt many other government institutions–whether it’s the IRS, the CIA or the EPA–think that many discussions of their operations contain “gross fabrications,” but it’s absurd to think they should therefore have the right to prevent citizens from talking about them. Why, then, should the courts–supposed to be the guardians of the Bill of Rights–be given that power?
While one might hope for a flurry of stories about Brown by journalists concerned by the dubious charges, the dangerous precedent for investigative journalism and the gagging, there has been very little in the corporate media. Besides Carr’s piece, the Times has published one other story (4/14/13) mentioning Brown’s case. The Washington Post has published a single 138-word brief (9/14/12), exclusively about the allegations that Brown had threatened a federal agent. Brown’s case and subsequent gagging have never been mentioned on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN or Fox. The only mention of Brown on MSNBC was by the late journalist Michael Hastings, on the early weekend morning show Up with Chris Hayes (2/24/13), but nothing since the gag order.