Jailed Reporter Barrett Brown on Press Freedom, FBI Crimes & Why He Wouldn't Do Anything Differently

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We turn now to the investigative reporter Barrett Brown, who recently completed a four-year prison sentence related to the hacking of the private intelligence firm Stratfor, which exposed how the firm spied on activists on behalf of corporations. He was released from prison earlier this year but was unexpectedly rearrested late last month, one day ahead of a scheduled interview for an upcoming PBS documentary. Brown was detained for four days and then released without receiving any formal written explanation for the arrest. For more, we speak with Barrett Brown, along with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to investigative reporter Barrett Brown, who recently completed a 4-year prison sentence related to the hacking of the private intelligence firm Stratfor, which exposed how the firm spied on activists on behalf of corporations. At one point, Brown faced a hundred years in prison before pleading guilty to lesser charges, including transmitting threats, accessory to a cyber-attack and obstruction of justice. Supporters say Brown was unfairly targeted for investigating the highly secretive world of private intelligence and military contractors. Prior to his arrest, Brown appeared in the documentary We are Legion and talked about the importance of information obtained by hackers.

BARRETT BROWN: Some of the most important things that have been—have had the most far-reaching influence and have been the most important in terms of what’s been discovered, not just by Anonymous, but by the media in the aftermath, is the result of hacking. That information can’t be obtained by institutional journalistic process, or it can’t be obtained or won’t be obtained by a congressional committee or a federal oversight committee. For the most part, that information has to be, you know, obtained by hackers.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2009, Barrett Brown created Project PM which was, quote, "dedicated to investigating private government contractors working in the secretive fields of cybersecurity, intelligence and surveillance." He was particularly interested in the documents leaked by WikiLeaks and Anonymous. In 2011, the group Anonymous hacked into the computer system of the private security firm HBGary Federal and disclosed thousands of internal emails. Barrett Brown was not accused of being involved in the hack itself, but he did read and analyze the documents, eventually crowdsourcing the effort through the Project PM. One of the first things he discovered was a plan to tarnish the reputations of WikiLeaks and the journalist Glenn Greenwald, who would later win a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

While serving in prison, Barrett Brown won the 2016 National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary for columns he wrote for The Intercept. He was released from prison earlier this year but was unexpectedly rearrested late last month, one day ahead of a scheduled interview for an upcoming PBS documentary. Barrett Brown was detained for four days and then released without receiving any formal written explanation for the arrest. Despite pressure from authorities not to speak to the media while under house arrest, Barrett Brown has opted not to keep silent. Democracy Now!’s Nermeen Shaikh and I spoke to him earlier this week, along with Glenn Greenwald, who was in our New York studio. I began by asking Barrett Brown why he was imprisoned for four years.

BARRETT BROWN: The FBI’s original search warrants came out after we had began—begun documenting the DOJ and FBI’s illegal involvement with intelligence contractors against journalists and activists. The search warrants stated that they were looking for information on HBGary, one of the firms, as you mentioned, that had been involved in these crimes; Endgame Systems, another firm we were looking at; and our wiki on which we compiled this research. Later on, they charged me with entirely different crimes involving the Stratfor hack, which had already occurred and—you know, before these particular search warrants. They were just looking for something to get me on, that wouldn’t involve going into some of these more nefarious projects that they were indirectly involved in. So, I eventually pled to—after they dropped a number of very bizarre charges involving linking to information, after a public outcry, I pled guilty to interference with a search warrant, threatening a federal agent and accessory after the fact, for having called the executive from Stratfor and offering to redact sensitive information. So, that was the—that was what they got me on, eventually.

So I did four years, first in low security, then in medium-security federal prison, documented further abuses by the BOP, you know, spent about six months altogether in the hole, or the SHU, of that 4-year period, and, you know, did what I could to try to show people how the prisons operate, the extent to which due process violations are very common and hard to defend against. But none of that really came to anything, obviously. You can only document so much in a culture like this and expect anything to happen from it. And it’s sort of a difficult culture to actually really get journalism to work in.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Barrett, could you tell us what reason you were given, if any, for your rearrest?

BARRETT BROWN: Before I was arrested, the BOP had been claiming that I was not allowed to do interviews without their permission, which I happen to know is false. It’s actually documented very clearly in the Bureau of Prisons program statement on media contacts, which I’ve linked to in a recent D Magazine piece, that there is no such stipulation. Even inmates in the prisons can talk to journalists by the phone or mail without permission. The only aspect of that that requires permission is if a journalist was to come into an actual prison on a certain day and interview an inmate at that prison. The BOP was trying to get me to force PBS and Vice television to fill out these forms, which were completely inappropriate. I told them I wouldn’t do it, until they showed me a program statement saying otherwise. And then I recorded conversations with the local BOP regional representative, Luz Lujan, in which they threatened me with an abusing-an-order charge if I refused to sign these illegally ascertained documents. So, the next day I was arrested by the federal marshals, held for four days. A law firm, [Haynes and Boone], hired by one of my other publishers, Wick Allison for D Magazine, threatened the BOP, said they would go to a court and challenge the terms of my confinement. And I was immediately released after that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Had you been informed, Barrett, at all that you were not permitted to speak to the media?

BARRETT BROWN: Well, they were telling me that, and I recorded the conversations in which she—which these BOP officials and halfway house staff tried to tell me that. And as I said in the recordings, "There is no such dictate in the program statements, and unless, you know, I’m shown a program statement saying I don’t have a right, I’m going to exercise that right." And I’m certainly not going to help them force media outlets to seek prior restraint authorization from a random BOP official before doing their job. That’s contrary to a number of principles not just journalists have, but, you know, that go straight to the heart of the First Amendment. And again, just it’s not legal. It’s not a power they have. And, you know, but they knew they could get away with holding me for a few days without any long-term consequences, and they’re probably right. This is a prison issue in one way, but it’s a larger issue of the rule of law and whether or not it actually exists, which I tend to claim that it doesn’t.

AMY GOODMAN: Barrett Brown, you have said that you’re considering taking asylum overseas after being reimprisoned?

BARRETT BROWN: Yes. You know, the—I’ve been covered quite a bit in the press, especially when I was involved in Anonymous back in 2011, sometimes over really silly things, inconsequential things, but, you know, things that were kind of lurid and exciting and perhaps seemingly romantic. In this case, even after I made very clear and did my best to document that a extraordinary crime against the First Amendment and against journalists, not just me, but other journalists, had been committed, there was really no press coverage, other than from outlets like The Intercept and D Magazine, that I write for, a few independent outlets, as well. It just—the BOP and the DOJ and the FBI can operate beyond the law to a pretty high extent, especially when dealing with activists.

And I’m going to continue to do my activism work. I’m going to continue to try to organize citizens against state criminality. But I can’t do that from here, you know, without being arrested, you know, by any official who chooses to do so. You know, in another—I have no problem doing prison time or being oppressed, you know, in the public eye, if it helps. But it just doesn’t help that often. It just doesn’t lead to anything. This is not the kind of society in which people say, "Oh, no, that’s—you know, something terrible has happened. Let’s act on it." They just don’t. In Germany, you know, a few years ago, it really impressed me when a state prosecutor was found to have been investigating a news website that had been publishing leaked documents. And after that came to light, there were several days of marches. And three days after that, the prosecutor was out. That would never happen in the U.S. And that’s the kind of country I want to live in, with people who I share some, you know, degree of decency with.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you just freely leave?

BARRETT BROWN: After my probation is finished, which will be, at the maximum, two years from now, but more likely one year, I guess I’ll be able to leave the country, at which point I’ll be giving up my citizenship and applying for citizenship elsewhere.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Barrett Brown, by analyzing the information from the HBGary hack, you discovered the security firm’s plan to undermine our guest journalist Glenn Greenwald’s defense of WikiLeaks. One slide read, quote, "Without the support of people like Glenn wikileaks would fold." HBGary intended to spread disinformation to discredit both Glenn Greenwald and WikiLeaks. In the documentary We are Legion, the director spoke to former HBGary CEO Aaron Barr about these plans.

BRIAN KNAPPENBERGER: It seems like you’re trying to attack a journalist here.

AARON BARR: Yeah, and I—you know, I don’t want to talk too much more about Glenn Greenwald, but other than, you know, what I previously said. You know, there was never an intent to attack journalists, not on my part. You know, I guess I should say—I should generalize that and to say that, you know, I would never just outwardly attack a journalist, other than if I felt that there was a journalist, in my mind, that was acting unethically, that, you know, that is a—that’s a fair game for having a public discussion about.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that was the HBGary CEO Aaron Barr speaking in the documentary We are Legion. Barrett Brown, can you explain what HBGary is and the significance of what happened?

BARRETT BROWN: Yeah, it was—what they were doing was significant, because we saw a number of contractors aligned with the DOJ going after private citizens in this very nefarious combination of state and corporate actors. You know, the—Bank of America, which is concerned with WikiLeaks, and the Chamber of Commerce, which is concerned with several left-wing activist groups, can go to the DOJ—and did—and ask them, you know, "Hey, can you help us go after our enemies? They’re also citizens, but we don’t like them, and you probably don’t like them, either." And the DOJ will say, "OK, let’s put you in touch with the Hunton & Williams law firm, and they’ll arrange Palantir and HBGary and Endgame Systems, and they’ll set up a covert disinformation campaign, and they’ll hack servers, and they’ll try to set up activists on charges of fraud, and it’ll be great." That’s an extraordinary symptom of what’s wrong with this country.

I should note, what’s really important about all of this is that the Team Themis thing was actually stumbled upon by several different people at once. This was a great example, one of several great examples, of crowdsourced journalism. Later on, we went on to document, you know, further abuses both by HBGary and by Palantir, showed that Palantir was lying when they claimed they—you know, this was a low-level person only that was involved in this, and they didn’t—you know, they didn’t approve of it, when in fact their chief counsel and a number of other employees were in on those emails. There were other projects, as well, that are also, I think, very indicative not just in what it says about how the state operates with these interests, but also what they can do now. Persona Management was one particularly frightening technology, that involves fake online personas, that the military—CENTCOM, in this case—can operate. These are provided by private companies, which can turn around and sell them to whoever else, including foreign despots, immoral corporate actors across the world. We’ve seen this over and over again with additional hacks that have shown, you know, how Tunisia, for instance, was being assisted by the French government in repressing its citizens. We see a company called Qorvis in D.C. that assists Bahrain in smearing dissidents.

So, crowdsourced journalism did in this case what mainstream journalists couldn’t do, which was stay on the—stay on this subject, go through all of these emails, even after the headlines were over, after the month of musings or media aftermath from the actual hack was over. We, you know, kept on it. We created an array of sort of relationships that other journalists could come and look at and use as a starting point, if they wanted to go after this larger story.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Glenn Greenwald, if you could comment on this, because you were a subject of this, explain more who HBGary is and their attempts to discredit you and what it meant for you.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, let me just say that the Barrett Brown case is probably one of the most significant threats to press freedom that has happened in the United States in the last, I would say, two decades at least. And it’s received remarkably little attention in the mainstream press, because they only pay attention when they themselves are attacked. So, Donald Trump attacks some—posts some childish insult about the media or calls them the enemy of the people, and it’s wall-to-wall coverage in The New York Times and CNN. And yet, here was Barrett, doing some of the most intrepid and important journalism in the United States, digging into this incredibly opaque and powerful faction, and because of his journalism into those areas, that is what directly triggered this FBI investigation and attempt to imprison him. And the reason he got so little support from media organizations defending his press freedom was because they only care about press freedom when it comes to large corporate media outlets that aren’t actually threatening to the government.

And this was a case where Barrett discovered extreme levels of wrongdoing and corruption, including this slide that said it wanted to destroy my reputation to prevent me from continuing to defend WikiLeaks, talking about defending—destroying the reputation of people who are activists against the Chamber of Commerce. He was doing incredibly important work. He’s obviously a very talented journalist. The scribblings he did for us in prison on paper with pencil won the National Magazine Award for the columns that we published. And yet, now he’s saying, just like Laura Poitras felt when she had to edit her film Citizenfour, that he can’t safely do journalism in the United States. So we love to talk about Russia and press freedoms there, even though we have no impact on it when we do. We spend very little time talking about the real threats to press freedom in this country, because they happen to people like Barrett Brown rather than to MSNBC and The New York Times.

AMY GOODMAN: But explain why it mattered what HBGary was saying, this information coming out, for example, on you.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, these contractors, that very few people have heard about, including HBGary—I had never heard of them until this happened—or Palantir, the organization funded by the billionaire Peter Thiel, exert extreme levels of power inside of this murky world of intelligence and defense contractors. And what they were planning to do was they were putting a pitch together to Bank of America, using the firm Hunton & Williams, which is this powerhouse in D.C., to try and tell the Bank of America, which at the time thought it was going to be the target of a WikiLeaks disclosure, "Let us use our dark arts and dirty little tactics to destroy the people who will be your critics." And that was the plan they were putting together, that Anonymous discovered and Barrett reported on. And the only reason why it was discovered is because Anonymous randomly hacked into it. And what was amazing about it was, there were dozens of people talking about these plans, that were illegal, or certainly unethical, and not one person ever said, "Wait a minute. Isn’t this going a little bit too far to destroy journalists for reporting on these events?" That’s how common this mentality is in that world and how much impunity there is for it. And that was what Barrett was on the verge of really uncovering at the time the FBI began trying to put him in prison.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, in an interview on Tuesday with the ACLU, you talked about, elaborated on the point you made now, about how the media itself persecutes its own sources and that journalists take the lead in advocating for policies that would restrict their own press freedom. So, could you explain why you think that is? Because, of course, it’s completely counterintuitive.

GLENN GREENWALD: Right. You would think, in just a normal, healthy democracy, you would have the government over here being adversarial to press freedoms, and then you would have journalists vehemently defending the power of the freedom of the press. That’s how it’s supposed to work. And yet, in so many cases, especially when the government targets journalists who aren’t popular among or working within these mainstream outlets, not only do the journalists ignore it or acquiesce to these efforts to punish and criminalize and attack independent journalists, they become the leading cheerleaders. When I first started doing the Snowden reporting, it wasn’t, you know, James Clapper or Keith Alexander going on TV calling for my imprisonment; it was David Gregory or Andrew Ross Sorkin or other journalists who work at The New York Times, someone with an institution with a history of defending press freedom. And so, that is a huge problem, is, because so many mainstream journalists in the United States identify not with journalism, but with serving the interest of the U.S. government and the national security state, they become the leading spokespeople, the leading advocates, for the right to criminalize journalism. The U.S. government doesn’t have to defend trying to put Julian Assange in prison for publishing documents. Journalists are happy to take the lead in arguing that that should happen, even though that will directly threaten them.

AMY GOODMAN: Has that changed at all under Trump? Now that Trump has called the media the enemy of the people, the enemy of the American people, the media has found its backbone in some cases.


AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that will extend to what you’re describing?

GLENN GREENWALD: No, unfortunately, I don’t. And if you notice, there are certain lines that the, quote-unquote, "resistance," including the media, won’t cross. So, for example, when Trump bombed Syria with no congressional authorization and no plan, the media largely cheered. When he dropped the so-called Mother of All Bombs in Afghanistan, the largest bomb short of a nuclear weapon in Afghanistan, the media cheered. And now that the CIA and Jeff Sessions are threatening to prosecute WikiLeaks and Julian Assange under the Espionage Act for publishing documents, you have major media figures, simply because they hate WikiLeaks and are incredibly shortsighted, supporting Jeff Sessions, supporting Mike Pompeo, in the idea that WikiLeaks’s publication of documents should be criminalized, even though that can then be turned around and used against them. So, no, they place off-limits certain policies that are really dangerous, even if Trump is the one advocating them.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m wondering, Barrett Brown, if you would do anything differently, given that you ended up in jail for four years?


AMY GOODMAN: And I’m wondering your thoughts on Donald Trump firing James Comey, the FBI director? To say the least, you had a lot of dealings with the FBI.

BARRETT BROWN: Yeah. There was a great deal of disingenuousness in the argument over the last year over the Clinton investigation on both sides. You know, I watched Comey testify before Congress regarding the Clinton decision from the federal prison. The federal inmates, all of us, had been pursued at some point, sometimes multiple times, by the FBI and other federal agencies. And when he said that we treat everyone the same, there was, you know, audible laughter in the audience there.

The FBI—first of all, no one can really say one way or the other what the FBI does. There is no broad set of procedures. Individual FBI agents and individual prosecutors across the country largely act as they feel is appropriate in a particular situation. FBI agents lie on the stand pretty routinely. In my case, you can see them trying to present something that Bob Beckel on Fox News said about killing Assange as something that I had said, which is obviously [inaudible], for several reasons. You can just see over and over again that there’s no negative feedback to this system. There’s no reason why a prosecutor shouldn’t lie or withhold evidence, as they did in my case. There’s no reason why the FBI shouldn’t pick and choose who they prosecute or who they go after, you know, just based on ideological, personal or haphazard factors. That’s quite extensive. Obviously, my—you know, my mother was indicted for obstruction of justice, for hiding my laptops in her kitchen cabinet, when they did not get a warrant for her house.

So, Clinton, Hillary Clinton, had she been someone else, you know, probably would have been indicted. Having said that, George Bush, George W. Bush, and many of his administration, had they been other people, had there not been a political element there or a sort of an establishment sort of back-scratching ethos, whereby we really don’t go after powerful people, you know, they would have been indicted, as well, had they just been regular people. So, the fact is, none of these people know. None of these people in the Senate and Congress really know what’s normal for the FBI. There is no normal, other than a degree of disingenuousness that kind of changes from case to case. DOJ, same thing. None of these people who were so upset about the DOJ, about Loretta Lynch meeting with Clinton, which, of course, was an extraordinarily egregious act, you know, none of them were really upset about when the DOJ, again, was conspiring to go after journalists and activists in a way that just not only goes against their charter, but goes against the entire reason for being.

There’s a great deal—there’s a great dance of disingenuousness that goes on in our national dialogue. And part of it’s wrapped up in the establishment’s regard for other establishment figures, whether they be in journalism or law enforcement or politics. And part of it just has to deal with the deterioration of how we think as a society, what kind of people make it to the top, what kind of people lead our national conversation. And it’s a huge, all-encompassing, fundamental problem. And it’s all the more dangerous because this is such a powerful nation with such an extensive machinery that goes all across the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Barrett Brown, are you able to step foot outside? You’re under house arrest.

BARRETT BROWN: I’m able to—I can go to my front yard, I imagine. I’m supposed to be here unless I’m going to work or some other wholesome appointments. I really don’t mind, though. I’m kind of a homebody anyway. I’ll be off home confinement in a few weeks. Then I’ll be under the DOJ’s probation department. Another good example of how haphazard this all is, the local probation department here in the Northern District of Texas is actually very kind, very—you know, they’re run by sort of social worker types, who wanted to get into this kind of business to help people. So, it just goes to show how these institutions are—they’re not monolithic. There’s nothing you can really say about them, that they’ll do this, they want to do this. It all just comes down to, you know, when the rule of law doesn’t really apply, when procedures can be violated at whim, both for good or ill, it’s—you’re dealing with a big, amorphous mass, rather than some, you know, really pristine rule-of-law procedures that you can point to and say, "This is a—this is a wholesome system of governance. This is something we can definitely practice free speech under. We can definitely expect that our rights will be maintained." It’s more complicated than that.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you allowed to use a computer?

BARRETT BROWN: I am—that’s debatable. The BOP representative, just like—just like with their interview stipulation, that they’ve now backed off of, originally claimed that under my terms of home confinement, that I’m not allowed to use a computer. And they’re basing that off of my terms of supervised release, which doesn’t even start yet. That’s my probation.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s investigative journalist Barrett Brown, speaking while under house arrest in Dallas, Texas. He recently served a 4-year prison sentence. And then, when he was released a few weeks ago, he was rearrested and then inexplicably released. Also we were speaking to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald.

When we come back, Black Mama’s Bail Out Day, an effort to raise money to free as many African-American women from jail as possible before Mother’s Day. Stay with us.

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