An activist and writer linked to the hacking collective Anonymous was sentenced to five years in prison Thursday for threatening an FBI agent and helping share stolen data, marking the end of a criminal case criticized by free-speech advocates.
Barrett Lancaster Brown originally faced charges that carried more than 100 years in prison, but he pleaded guilty to greatly reduced charges last year. He will receive credit for the more than two years he's already spent in prison.
Supporters say Brown was targeted by the federal government after sharing data hacked from the Austin-based defense contractor Stratfor. The 33-year-old was often quoted on the workings of Anonymous, a shadowy group of hackers that has staged several high-profile attacks on governments and businesses all over the world. Brown courted attention on the Internet with provocative tweets and YouTube videos -- including a live chat he conducted while taking a bubble bath. But some of those posts also landed him in trouble, including one in which he threatened an FBI agent.
Brown read a lengthy statement before he was sentenced, saying he broke the law to reveal illegal government activity going unpunished.
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"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've called for the criminals at government-linked firms ... to be punished," he said. "When we start fighting crime by any means necessary, we become guilty of the same hypocrisy as law enforcement agencies throughout history that break the rules to get the villains, and so become villains themselves."
He was arrested in September 2012, shortly after posting a video in which he threatened the FBI agent by name, promising to "ruin his life and look into his (expletive) kids." Three separate indictments followed, carrying a maximum sentence of more than a century in prison.
Brown's lawyers won the dismissal of most of a broad indictment related to his posting a link to the Stratfor data.
He eventually pleaded guilty in April to three counts: obstructing the execution of a search warrant, making Internet threats and being an accessory to an unauthorized access of a protected computer. The reduced charges carried a maximum sentence of more than eight years in prison.
According to plea agreement documents he signed, Brown admitted to sending online messages "threatening to shoot and injure" FBI agents.
Brown also acknowledged helping someone access the stolen data and obstructing the execution of a search warrant at his home. His mother pleaded guilty to helping Brown hide laptops during a March 2012 raid, and was given six months' probation.
The case drew attention as the U.S. Justice Department sought in recent years to subpoena reporters' phone records and force some to testify in criminal cases. Among Brown's supporters is Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists who reported on the National Security Agency's domestic spying program revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden.
Brown has continued to be published online while in custody with the help of his lawyers and supporters.
Prosecutors have declined public comment but made negative and occasionally sarcastic references in court documents to the attention the case has received.
Much of the publicity about Brown contains "gross fabrications and substantially false recitations of facts and law which may harm both the government and the defense during jury selection," prosecutors wrote last year in a motion accusing Brown of trying "to continue to manipulate the public."