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The Detention of Barrett Brown

Exposing the Invisible Empire

by BINOY KAMPMARK

This is the world we accept if we continue to avert our eyes.  And it promises to get much worse.

– Barrett Brown, The Guardian, Jul 2, 2013

The United States has a growing crop of political dissidents.  While it may be less conspicuous than other powers in doing so – China and Russia, to take but two examples – that should hardly be surprising.  When the empire gets shoddy and insecure, it will react with consternation at those who expose its links, its paranoia, its premises.

Indeed, the dedicated and somewhat obsessive Barrett Brown has truly riled officialdom, having been indicted since 2012 for allegedly trafficking in stolen identification information and aggravated identity theft (12 felony counts), threatening FBI Special Agent Robert Smith (3 felony counts), and concealing evidence (2 felony counts).  Federal prosecutors via the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Dallas were happy to file charges that, if shown, will land Brown in the nick for over a century.

In July, Brown would write about that “cyber-intelligence complex and its useful idiots”. Penning his views for The Guardian (July 2), he spoke about “that unprecedented conglomeration of state, military and corporate interests that together exercise growing power over the flow of information.”  This was less a matter of the busy spooks than absentee scrutineers living in denial before the “invisible empire”.  Take, for instance, that professional defender of American values Thomas L. Friedman, who felt that the exposure brigade of surveillance programs was “behaving as if 9/11 never happened” (New York Times, Jun 11).

In fact, Friedman steadfastly fantasies about another 9/11, the engrossing nightmare that justifies the random and near ritualistic violations of privacy Brown excoriates.  It is with feint irony that such worries are held precisely because Friedman values “our open society”.  May it be monitored vigilantly to prevent the lids from shutting.

The latest development in this narrative of pro-surveillance disease is the gagging order granted on September 4 preventing Brown, his attorneys, and the prosecution from discussing the case with the media.  Discussions on finances and matters of public record are exempt from the ruling.

This provides another delicious irony in the league of Friedman’s open society dream: the prosecution were concerned that Brown’s right to a fair trial would be violated by favourable publicity for his plight.  Brown, via the testimony of an unimaginatively named Agent Smith, became an animating Svengali, or at the very least a masterful puppeteer “controlling” the media from his facilities.  And so, the wheels of absurdity turn once more.

Geoffrey King of the Committee to Protect Journalists is particularly concerned about the charges connected with setting up the hyperlink to a chat room Brown supposedly set up to “crowdsource information about the intelligence contracting industry.”  This move on the part of the prosecution “represents a troubling turn in an already troubling case for press freedom – a case that could criminalize the routine journalistic practice of linking to documents publicly available on the Internet, which would seem to be protected by the First Amendment”.

The reasoning of the prosecution is disturbing in so far as it presumes that a journalist can be held criminally liable for merely linking a publicly available file that might contain sensitive material irrespective of whether they played a role in obtaining it.  This was the case when hackers of Stratfor published credit card information from the firm, information which Brown purposely linked in discussions.  This shines a light on yet another government effort to stifle the operations of the Web.

An editorial by WikiLeaks (Sep 16) makes it clear the reach of Brown’s reportage.  “He is being prosecuted for critical reporting on the growing surveillance state, for being an outspoken supporter of WikiLeaks and Chelsea Manning, and for being a reporter who spent periods of time embedded with Anonymous.”  His work at ProjectPM involved casting an eye over emails hacked from the intelligence contractor and cybersecurity firm HBGary Federal.  For years, Brown has dug into the noxious soil of a security establishment that has become self-replicating and gargantuan.

The victim of this state sanctioned gang assault is not merely Brown but the First Amendment and the journalist’s pursuit.   While the Obama administration worships the holies of transparent government, it dirties the sepulchre of disclosure.  When individuals like “Cobra Commander” Brown, as he likes to term himself, fall silent, states of power rejoice. How important then to realise that a hissing Brown is far better than a quiet one.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  He ran for the Australian Senate with Julian Assange for the WikiLeaks Party.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com