Barrett Brown is a journalist and activist who has been in jail for a year awaiting trial on a number of charges - chief among them copying and pasting a link to leaked documents into an IRC chat room. Ed Pilkington of The Guardian talks to Bob about Brown's case, and the implications it has for other journalists.
BOB GARFIELD: Barrett Brown is a journalist and activist who is awaiting trial in Texas on a series of federal charges, related to hacking and obstruction of justice, that could keep him in prison for 105 years. Brown has done some serious investigative journalism but he’s also an online provocateur, associated with the vigilante hacktivists, Anonymous. And he’s notoriously erratic. He’s been accused in the past of harassing people he writes about and he’s accused in court of threatening an FBI agent. But, according to Ed Pilkington, chief reporter for The Guardian US, Brown faces the most jail time, not for that alleged threat but for something many of us do every day, copying and pasting a link.
ED PILKINGTON: What had happened was that a group of hackers had broken into a security website called Stratfor and downloaded millions of emails from that organization. And Barrett Brown had posted a link to that material on a chat room. He's being accused, because he posted that link, of disseminating some of the information that was contained in that - those millions of emails, particularly a series of credit card numbers relating to the subscribers of that service. The US government is arguing that he disseminated stolen information.
BOB GARFIELD: It seems to me that analogy might be a journalist posting a link to a Jihadist website preaching the violent overthrow of the United States and maybe including all sorts of illegal tactics, and being charged for participating in the conspiracy.
ED PILKINGTON: And it goes wider than that. I mean, if you think about my news organization, The Guardian, we’ve had a, a celebrated run of stories based on Edward Snowden's leak. Our stories are based on linking to some of that material. Now, are we to be charged for disseminating stolen material? I think the permutations and the possibilities and the consequences of this prosecution, as is so often the case with the aggressive way the US government is pursuing journalists and leakers, are, are really wide ranging and very frightening.
BOB GARFIELD: And whether or not Barrett Brown, in some aspects of his life, is a jerk or a vandal or any number of other things that he might be, he is also practicing journalism. And tell me about some of it.
ED PILKINGTON: Well, the most important thing, I think, he did was that Anonymous released a whole stash of thousands of emails from a security company called HBGary Federal, and Barrett Brown found out and made public the fact that this security firm, in, in line with others, had been coming up with a strategy to investigate and besmirch the reputations of some prominent liberal journalists, including The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, who’s been doing all this NSA work. And what they were going to do was investigate them and run a sort of dirty tricks campaign in which they would put out information that would make their reputations look bad.
BOB GARFIELD: So Brown’s done some significant journalism, but he’s not a journalist, in the traditional sense?
ED PILKINGTON: What's happening is you’re getting a younger generation of people coming up through Reddit, they’re coming up through chat rooms. They start there. And through those conversations they’re having on social media, they get engaged in subjects. And through that, they come to journalism. It’s a totally different route into the profession than the traditional one. These people are passionate first, journalist second . And we’ve got to get our heads around that. I think. If we don’t, we’re not gonna see the significance of what's happening, which is that the US government is going after and prosecuting journalistic behavior, in ways that will not only affect the life of Barrett Brown.
I mean, Barrett Brown potentially can spend the rest of his life in jail in Texas, but if he is prosecuted and found guilty of criminal behavior because he posted a link, that is going to affect everybody.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there’s another wrinkle to this case, beyond the question of prosecuting a journalist for publishing a link. And that is a gag order that was imposed by the federal judge in this case. The prosecution sought that gag order, arguing what?
ED PILKINGTON: They say that Barrett Brown and his legal team have been sort of operating a sort of media campaign ,trying to whip up media coverage of the case, in a way that the prosecution has claimed is potentially going to pervert any jury that they could put together to sit in judgment of Barrett Brown. The judge did go with a gagging order. It’s now being imposed. Barrett Brown's legal team have expressed incredible surprise over this because, you know, there has been very little media coverage. Barrett Brown’s case has been virtually uncovered, up to now.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, if that was the goal of the prosecution, to stifle public discussion [LAUGHS] of the case, it's apparently backfiring. We’re speaking on Wednesday. A couple of days ago the New York Times’ David Carr wrote about the case. You have written about the case in The Guardian. That is the kind of national attention that is seldom paid to a - an obscure court case in Texas.
ED PILKINGTON: I mean, as you say, it’s kind of backfiring, and I think the same pattern can be seen with the way the government has treated the Edward Snowden case, the way it treated Chelsea Manning. They’ve gone in incredibly aggressively in a way that actually has attracted more media coverage of these cases. But it – it’s made me wonder why that is then. I mean, I'm starting to think it’s not about that they’re trying to suppress coverage of these cases. They’re trying to put a chill that will put off other young people who are coming up through Reddit and these chat rooms. And that’s my worry. It's the long-term future consequences of all this.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, if your speculation - and it is speculation - is correct, it seems that – that perhaps that could backfire, as well. The government could successfully create a chilling effect, and it also could make a martyr out of Barrett Brown, certainly, someone who could capture the imagination of the very future Hacktivist journalists you describe.
ED PILKINGTON: This guy is not your champion journalist. He is not a perfect guy. He’s had lots of problems in his own life. He's a very maverick individual, who’s done some very odd things. But he’s done some important journalism. And, if they turn him into a martyr, they will be inspiring a whole new bunch of people coming up behind him.
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BOB GARFIELD: Ed, thank you so much.
ED PILKINGTON: Thanks.
BOB GARFIELD: Ed Pilkington is the chief reporter for Guardian US.