A US writer and activist linked to the hacking collective Anonymous has pleaded guilty to federal charges alleging that he shared stolen data and posted an online threat saying he would try to harm a federal agent who was investigating him.
Barrett Lancaster Brown, 32, pleaded guilty in Dallas federal court to obstructing the execution of a search warrant, making Internet threats and being an accessory to an unauthorized access of a protected computer.
While Brown's attorneys got prosecutors to drop nearly a dozen other counts, he still faces up to 8½ years in prison. He will be sentenced in August.
Brown was a writer and one-time spokesman of sorts for Anonymous, a worldwide hacking collective that has staged attacks on governments, businesses and organizations. Brown acted as a self-appointed spokesman for the group and has been quoted by several news outlets, including The Associated Press, even if some within the movement dismissed him as a fabulist who craved attention.
Brown was arrested two years ago after posting YouTube videos and tweets threatening an FBI agent who was investigating him. In a rambling, angry series of posts, Brown vowed to "ruin his life and look into his (expletive) kids."
Some of his tweets hinted at violence, including one before his arrest in which he said he would regard "any further armed raids as potential Zeta assassination attempts and respond accordingly," referencing the Mexican drug cartel.
Federal authorities came down hard on Brown, obtaining three separate indictments against him. Free-speech advocates protested an indictment accusing Brown of trafficking in stolen information by posting a link to data hacked by Anonymous from Stratfor, an Austin, Texas-based defense contractor.
"Barrett's always wanted to accept responsibility for what he's actually done," said Ahmed Ghappour, one of Brown's attorneys, after the hearing. "The problem is that the allegations in the government's case did not reflect what he'd actually done until the government dropped the majority of charges."
Brown's supporters say he was working as a journalist investigating the data. Among his defenders is Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who published information from documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Prosecutors also charged Brown's mother, Karen McCutchin, with helping him hide two laptops during the execution of a search warrant in March 2012. She pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge and was given probation. McCutchin attended Tuesday's hearing, saying afterward that she was "cautiously optimistic" about Brown's upcoming sentencing.
According to signed plea agreement documents filed earlier this month, Brown acknowledged he sent online messages "threatening to shoot and injure agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation." He also admitted to helping someone using the nickname "o'' access stolen Stratfor data, as well as obstructing the execution of the search warrant at his home.
His attorneys succeeded in getting most of the indictment for republishing a link to the Stratfor data dismissed. They argued that Brown was working with contributors around the world to investigate public materials "such as information obtained from leakers and hackers".
With the help of his attorneys and supporters, Brown has continued to write and publish from jail. He's written online columns on the television habits of fellow inmates and other aspects of jail life, and his supporters have published an e-book in which he critiques the mainstream media and television pundits.