Jeremy Hammond

The activist accused by the United States government of hacking into the private intelligence firm, Stratfor, and releasing the firm’s emails to WikiLeaks pled guilty to violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). He now faces up to ten years in prison and is scheduled to be sentenced on September 6 of this year.

Hammond wrote in a statement published on the “Free Jeremy Hammond” website that he had agreed to a “non-cooperating plea agreement” so he could finally tell the world what he had done and why, “without exposing any tactics or information to the government and without jeopardizing the lives and well-being of other activists on and offline.”

“During the past 15 months I have been relatively quiet about the specifics of my case as I worked with my lawyers to review the discovery and figure out the best legal strategy. There were numerous problems with the government’s case, including the credibility of FBI informant Hector Monsegur,” he stated. “However, because prosecutors stacked the charges with inflated damages figures, I was looking at a sentencing guideline range of over 30 years if I lost at trial. I have wonderful lawyers and an amazing community of people on the outside who support me. None of that changes the fact that I was likely to lose at trial.”

The government would not have been willing to let him go free if he was found not guilty. They would have apparently continued to zealously pursue him for his involvement.

“Even if I was found not guilty at trial, the government claimed that there were eight other outstanding indictments against me from jurisdictions scattered throughout the country,” according to Hammond. “If I had won this trial I would likely have been shipped across the country to face new but similar charges in a different district. The process might have repeated indefinitely. Ultimately I decided that the most practical route was to accept this plea with a maximum of a ten year sentence and immunity from prosecution in every federal court.”

For fifteen months, Hammond has been in prison at the Manhattan Correctional Center and held without bail. Some of the time he has been in solitary confinements. His family and friends have been able to contact or visit him. He had no interest in seeing this “grinding process” repeat.

The plea freed him up to openly admit to his supporters that he had worked with Anonymous to hack into Stratfor and other websites. He called it a “relief” to be able to admit that he had hacked into not only Stratfor but also “military and police equipment suppliers, private intelligence and information security firms, and law enforcement agencies.”

“I did this because I believe people have a right to know what governments and corporations are doing behind closed doors. I did what I believe is right,” he declared.

His brother, Jason Hammond, told supporters in a press release put out by Sparrow Media that Jeremy had “taken responsibility” but “should not face such harsh sentence for an act of protest from which he did not personally benefit.”

Hammond, especially if the judge feels he has no remorse for hacking into Stratfor and is proud, is likely to receive a sentence close to the maximum of ten years. If he does go to jail for that length of time, it will stand in stark contrast to the recent sentencing of three LulzSec hacktivists in the United Kingdom.

Ryan Ackroyd and Jake Davis were both sentenced to 15 months and one year in prison, respectively. Mustafa al-Bassam was sentenced to 300 hours of community service. They were each involved in hacking into major institutions but received much shorter sentences than Hammond is likely to receive.

As the National Lawyers Guild points out, this is all due to the incredible power the government has to use an “outdated” and “vague” computer crimes statute to come down hard on hacktivists:

…[T]he CFAA has seen increasing use against information activists in an effort to criminalize everything from the sharing of links to violating terms of service agreements. The most highly publicized CFAA case involved 26 year-old information activist Aaron Swartz, who was threatened with decades in prison for downloading freely available documents from the academic database JSTOR. Swartz took his own life earlier this year…

The disparity in punishment for hacking is made more clear by the fact that, even though Davis will serve only one year in the United Kingdom, the US government may pursue his extradition to the US to face trial for his involvement in hacking.

What happened today is indicative of how justice increasingly seems to work. One is over-charged and made to experience a level of pretrial punishment before being convicted of any crimes so that prosecutors can ensure the case is won. They intimidate those with limited resources and individuals who believe they did not convict any crime by threatening them with a future where they might be hauled into court to defend themselves again and again.

Similarly, this is what happened in the prosecutions of NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake and CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou. Both have families. Both have children. Both had their lives destroyed by the government. Both ultimately chose to plead guilty—Drake to a misdemeanor violation of improperly accessing a computer and Kiriakou to a violation of the Intelligence Identities and Protection Act. Drake had to complete so many hours of community hours while Kiriakou was sentenced to jail for thirty months.

It is all intended to force the kind of plea that Hammond entered today because the Justice Department does not want hacktivists like Jeremy Hammond or whistleblowers to actually go to trial. They want these people to submit to prosecutors and enter a plea so the Justice Department can have a guaranteed win and not have to bother with arguing the government’s case in a court of law.

Photo by freejeremy.net under Creative Commons license