DALLAS (CN) - Anonymous-linked hacktivist/journalist Barrett Brown was sentenced Thursday to five years in federal prison after pleading guilty to three charges accusing him of posting a hyperlink to stolen credit card information and interfering with execution of search warrants.
At sentencing, U.S. District Judge Sam Lindsay said Brown's posting of the link "is more than that appears," citing testimony and documents showing that Brown was an active participant rather than just a mere observer.
"In my mind, it is more than just posting the link," Lindsay said at the sentencing hearing. "What took place will not chill the First Amendment rights of journalists."
In his plea agreement, Brown, 33, of Dallas, admitted he hid his computers during execution of a search warrant at his mother's home, and posted profanity-laced videos of himself threatening to shoot FBI agents investigating him, including Special Agent Robert Smith.
Brown was indicted in October 2012 on charges of making an Internet threat, conspiring to make restricted personal information of a federal employee publicly available, and retaliating against a federal law enforcement officer.
He was indicted a second time and accused of linking to stolen credit card information obtained from Anonymous' 2011 hacking of Austin-based security firm Stratfor Global Intelligence. Prosecutors claimed the link led to 5,000 credit card account numbers.
A third indictment alleged obstruction of justice for the FBI raid on his mother's home.
Brown was angry that agents confiscated his computers and questioned his mother, who was later sentenced to one year of probation for obstructing a search warrant. Brown agreed to plead guilty to one charge from each indictment, ending the criminal case against him. He said he had rejected an offer of pleading guilty to one fraud charge even if it meant a lighter sentence.
Judge Lindsay was not persuaded by pleas for leniency by Barrett's attorneys, who said Brown should be sentenced to 30 months in federal prison and be released immediately with time served.
Lindsay agreed with prosecutors and sentenced Brown to 63 months in federal prison, the maximum allowed under federal sentencing guidelines.
Lindsay also ordered Brown to pay $900,000 in restitution and fines and to serve two years of supervised release.
Defense attorney Charles Swift, with Swift McDonald in Seattle, asked Lindsay to put Brown's threats against the FBI agents in the context of the "unique world of the Internet."
Citing this week's "Deflategate" controversy involving the New England Patriots football team, Swift said the comments people posted with news stories about the controversy as being "over the top" and not the kind of comments people "would make in a public square."
Linsday was not swayed, pointing to Brown's hiding his computers and the investigation against his mother as reasons why Brown would be upset.
"I don't know if your analogy is on point," Lindsay said. "We have threats being made here during a federal investigation."
But Swift urged for a lighter sentence, saying that Brown's "uncharacteristic rage and mental state" at the time was the result of a drug dependency that he was trying to break.
"Brown has used narcotics from an early age and his personality changed when he tried to go off" them, Swift said.
Lindsay was not persuaded, citing the threats made against Smith and his children.
"As a public official, I have no way of assessing his mental state if he makes threats against me," Lindsay said.
The judge added that if allowed to stand, the threats would have a chilling effect on federal officials who were doing their jobs.
Lindsay cited several letters in support of Brown by other journalists and members of the public. He also listened to a statement by D Magazine editor Tim Rogers on Brown's behalf, who told the judge that Brown had been writing for his publication while in jail and that he would hire him if he were released.
Speaking on his own behalf, Brown expressed his regret for "some of the things I have done."
He blamed his "manic state" in the videos on "sudden withdrawal from Paxil and Suboxone."
"I don't think anyone doubts that I regret quite a bit about my life, including some of the things that brought me here today," Brown said. "Your Honor has the acceptance of responsibility document that my counsel submitted to you. Every word of it was sincere."
Brown denied being the spokesman for Anonymous, but acknowledged his ties to the hacktivist group.
Brown acknowledged that he "didn't have the right" to hide his computer files from federal agents, and said he would have been better off trying to protect contributors to his ProjectPM "think tank" by going through the courts.
Brown also thanked Lindsay for overruling an earlier request by prosecutors to subpoena information about those contributors.
"I do not want to be a hypocrite," Brown said. "If I criticize the government for breaking the law but then break the law myself in an effort to reveal their wrongdoing, I should expect to be punished, just as I have called for the criminals at government-linked firms like HBGary and Palantir to be punished."
Immediately after sentencing, Brown released a statement mocking federal officials for prosecuting his case.
"The U.S. government decided today that because I did such a good job investigating the cyber-industrial complex, they're now going to send me to investigate the prison-industrial complex," Brown said.
"For the next 35 months, I'll be provided with free food, clothes, and housing as I seek to expose wrongdoing by Bureau of Prisons officials and staff and otherwise report on news and culture in the world's greatest prison system. I want to thank the Department of Justice for having put so much time and energy into advocating on my behalf; rather than holding a grudge against me for the two years of work I put into in bringing attention to a DOJ-linked campaign to harass and discredit journalists like Glenn Greenwald, the agency instead labored tirelessly to ensure that I received this very prestigious assignment."
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