He is neither an NSA-leaker like Edward Snowden, nor a troubled dreamer like cross-dressing leaker Bradley Manning.
Dallas-based journalist Barrett Brown, now apparently a perceived enemy of the state, neither hacked nor leaked.
He quite simply linked.
And for that – and a few other things – he could now face 105 years in jail.
Yes, you read that right.
In an article Brown posted on the internet in Dec. 2011, he included a link which, if readers chose to click on it, led them to information – stolen by others, yet freely available on the internet – that the U.S. government considers “sensitive.”
Today Brown is facing a 17-count indictment.
If U.S. lawyers succeed in prosecuting Brown, it would send shockwaves through cyberspace, raising alarm bells with anyone who has ever posted a link on the web.
That would include almost everyone with a keyboard – but mostly journalists.
Equally frightening, prosecutors have introduced a motion, to be heard in a Dallas courtroom Thursday, for a gag order preventing Brown, his lawyers and anyone else from commenting on the case.
“The motion 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,” writes San Francisco-based constitutional lawyer Geoffrey King.
That phrase, “would seem to be protected,” is troubling in itself.
Brown is no fly-by-night scribe. His investigative work has appeared in Vanity Fair, The Guardian and the Huffington Post among other publications.
For the better part of the last two years, however, he has concentrated his investigative efforts on the nexus between private security and intelligence contractors, and U.S. federal agencies, a fact that, not surprisingly, brought him to their attention.
Brown was arrested September, 2012 and has been behind bars ever since.
Former federal prosecutor Orin Kerr, now a professor at George Washington University, told The Guardian this year, Brown’s case was “business as usual in federal criminal cases around the country – mostly with defendants who no one has ever heard of and who get locked up for years without anyone caring.”
The newspaper’s Glenn Greenwald called it “prosecutorial abuse,” saying such heavy handedness is pretty well pro-forma now, “the preeminent weapon used by the U.S, government to destroy such activism.”
Hope spread among American liberals when Barack Obama first tossed his hat into the presidential ring. But now, into a second term, his administration has prosecuted more people under the nation’s secrecy than all previous U.S. administrations put together.
Bill Schiller has held bureau postings for the Star in Johannesburg, Berlin, London and Beijing. He is a NNA and Amnesty International Award winner, and a Harvard Nieman Fellow from the class of '06. Follow him on Twitter @wschiller