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Barrett Brown, journalist charged with sharing a hyperlink, reportedly strikes plea deal

Barrett Brown, journalist charged with sharing a hyperlink, reportedly strikes plea deal

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Barrett Brown, the journalist who has spent the past 15 months fighting federal charges that included fraud and identity theft, has reportedly reached a plea deal that could reduce a decades-long maximum prison sentence to less than five years. According to Wired, the agreement is currently sealed by the court and Brown's lawyer isn't talking, making details about it hard to come by. In an indictment filed earlier this week, though, the government brought only two charges: being an accessory to hacking after the fact and obstructing a search warrant. He was arrested in 2012 after being indirectly linked to a hack on the Stratfor intelligence company and faced over a dozen charges, but the government chose to drop many of them in early March.

Among other things, Brown reported on the hacker collective Anonymous, and after the Stratfor hack he posted a link to a file containing Stratfor customer information, including some credit card details. Federal prosecutors summarily charged Brown with identity theft for "distributing" the material, issuing a series of indictments for that and other offenses. The hyperlink prosecution became emblematic of the government's severe treatment of anything it considered close to hacking, as did its attempts to curtail Brown's public statements about the case. Before new charges were brought, he faced a maximum sentence of around 100 years in prison. These long potential sentences (hacktivist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide in 2013, faced up to 35 years) aren't generally sought, but they've been criticized as a way to scare defendants into a plea deal.

Last month, prosecutors elected to drop 11 charges against Brown, including those relating to the hyperlink. Accusations of device fraud were not dropped, but when a new indictment was brought, it no longer mentioned that charge. Instead, he was alleged to have been an accessory after the fact to the actual perpetrators of the hack and to have obstructed a warrant when he and his mother hid a computer from FBI agents; his mother was sentenced to six months of probation in early 2013. He was separately charged with threatening a federal agent in statements posted online, and it's not clear whether the plea deal covers these alleged offenses as well — as of last month, he was still facing two separate trials.

"Although in principle he shouldn't have to plea to anything, this spares everyone the spectacle of a costly trial, and the bottom line is that Barrett will be coming home — as he's already served 19 months unnecessarily," wrote Brown's legal defense fund director Kevin Gallagher in a statement, although it's unclear precisely how much the legal defense fund actually knows about the deal, as it cites Wired in its release. "Supporters can be assured that this is in accordance with Barrett's wishes plus expert legal advice." His sentencing date is April 29th.

Update and correction, April 3rd, 2014, 4:55PM: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Brown had been indicted under hacking charges; he was charged with possessing unauthorized access devices and acting as an accessory to hacking. The Sentencing date has been added.