US imprisonment of dissident journalist Barrett Brown raises press freedom concerns

(By Deutsche Welle) An investigative journalist in the US has been sentenced to more than five years in prison. Civil libertarians are concerned that the case of Barrett Brown could have a chilling effect on investigative reporting.

Barrett Brown has often been referred to as the erstwhile unofficial spokesman for the hacktivist collective Anonymous, a label he has rejected. But the 33-year-old Texan is the founder of Project PM, an Internet platform that collects and analyzes leaked information, often investigating the secretive dealings of private security and intelligence contractors.

In September 2012, Brown was arrested for threatening a federal law enforcement officer in a YouTube video entitled “Why I’m going to destroy FBI Agent Robert Smith.” In the video, the recovering heroin addict said, “Robert Smith’s life is over.”

“And when I say his life is over, I don’t say I’m going to go kill him, but I’m going to ruin his life and look into his f—ing kids,” Brown said in the video. “How do you like them apples?”

The YouTube video threat had been precipitated by a March raid on the Dallas home of Brown’s mother. Law enforcement was investigating Brown in connection with the 2011 hack of the private US intelligence firm, Stratfor. During the raid, Brown’s laptops were found hidden in a kitchen cabinet. His mother was charged with obstruction of justice and ultimately plead guilty, receiving six months probation.

“My mom has not been involved in any of this at all,” Brown said angrily in the YouTube video. “I hid the laptops the next morning after the visit from the FBI, not her. I wouldn’t have told her.”

This week, a US federal judge sentenced Brown to 63 months in prison and ordered him to pay $890,000 (770,000 euros) in damages, bringing the two-year case to a close.

“The severity of the penalty really demonstrates that this case was not about the charges on the books but about Brown’s work as an investigative journalist,” Kathleen McClellan, national security and human rights deputy director at the Government Accountability Project, told DW.

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Obama turns WWI-era law against leakers

(By Deutsche Welle) During WWI, President Wilson signed off on the Espionage Act, in a bid to keep a lid on German spies in the US. But 96 years later, President Obama is using the act to aggressively prosecute leaks to the press.

The Obama administration has cracked down hard on national security leaks to the press over the past four years, dusting off the almost 100-year-old Espionage Act to pursue prosecutions against leakers in seven cases, twice the number of any other presidency combined.

At the end of last month, Bradley Manning became the first successful Espionage Act conviction under the Obama administration. Manning was WikiLeaks’ source for some 700,000 diplomatic cables and battlefield reports, the largest single leak of secret information in US history. Edward Snowden, who leaked several secret National Security Agency surveillance programs to the press, is the latest leaker to be charged under the act.

Signed into law in 1917, the Espionage Act criminalizes the transmission of defense information, which could cause injury to the US or give advantage to a foreign nation, to unauthorized people. According to Stephen I. Vladeck, an expert on national security law, the language of the act makes no distinction between old-fashioned espionage by foreign spies and whistle-blowing government abuse to the press.

“For better or worse, the Espionage Act is the American statute that best fits the crime of wrongfully disclosing national security information to someone who’s not entitled to receive it,” Vladeck told DW via email.

“Whether we’d call it leaking, whistle-blowing, or classic espionage, the statute treats all three as the same offense – and so the government understandably gravitates toward it in any case where it can,” he said.

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