Free Barrett Brown

It seems like it was only yesterday that we were talking about the need for America to let go of the national security state. Here's another reason: A journalist that the U.S. government wants to put behind bars for as long as 100 years...for posting a link.

David Carr does a good job introducing the reader to the complicated world of Barrett Brown, an expert on the murky world of computer hacking who's written for a number of reputable publications like the Guardian and the Huffington Post. He's used his connections with the shadowy group Anonymous to expose some of the connections between the government and private security firms, but since he posted a link online to files that were stolen by someone else -- Anonymous -- he's been in jail for a year and faces major time.

But keep in mind that no one has accused Mr. Brown of playing a role in the actual stealing of the data, only of posting a link to the trove of documents.

Journalists from other news organizations link to stolen information frequently. Just last week, The New York Times, The Guardian and ProPublica collaborated on a significant article about the National Security Agency’s effort to defeat encryption technologies. The article was based on, and linked to, documents that were stolen by Edward J. Snowden, a private contractor working for the government who this summer leaked millions of pages of documents to the reporter Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian along with Barton Gellman of The Washington Post.

By trying to criminalize linking, the federal authorities in the Northern District of Texas — Mr. Brown lives in Dallas — are suggesting that to share information online is the same as possessing it or even stealing it. In the news release announcing the indictment, the United States attorney’s office explained, “By transferring and posting the hyperlink, Brown caused the data to be made available to other persons online, without the knowledge and authorization of Stratfor and the card holders.”

And the magnitude of the charges is confounding. Jeremy Hammond, a Chicago man who pleaded guilty to participating in the actual hacking of Stratfor in the first place, is facing a sentence of 10 years.

Look, it's not necessary to be a big fan of Barrett Brown or his style of reporting to be outraged at what's going on here. Once again, the Obama administration has taken unprecedented steps to criminalize the act of reporting. As Carr notes today, Brown has done nothing that hasn't been done by scores of top reporters before him, and shared information that was already placed in the public domain, based on an informed judgment of what citizens have a right to know.

The old instinct was to err on the side of that right to know; the new instinct, which has worsened considerably in the Obama era, has been to move away from it. But this war on the 1st Amendment is the real crime here. The first step for the Justice Department to win back some credibility on civil liberties would be to free Barrett Brown...immediately.