Hope X sign for “Manning Room” where presentations have been taking place

The tenth Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE X) conference has been organized around supporting dissenters, especially how to support hackers or hacktivists who are targeted by the government.

A number of talks highlighting the government’s targeting of hackers and the nexus this has with the government’s war on whistleblowers were held on July 18 in the “Manning room,” which was a room in the Hotel Pennsylvania renamed to honor Chelsea Manning.

On the conference website, a page lists out the famous dissenters they are championing. This list includes people like John Adams, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emma Goldman, Arthur Miller and Rosa Parks.

National Security Agency whistleblower Thomas Drake was interviewed at the conference by film director Vivien Weisman. He lent his support to hackers like Andrew Auernheimer (“Weev”), Barrett Brown and Jeremy Hammond.

While Drake had been outspoken about supporting government employees who reveal fraud, waste, abuse and illegality in government (just as he did), he had never so openly expressed support for any of the hackers who had been targeted by the government in recent years.

Drake told the audience that Jeremy Hammond performed an “extraordinary service” by hacking into Stratfor so emails could be released to the public. He recalled that while he was at NSA he had become aware of how certain firms had specialized relationships with the government. These firms were brokering intelligence. They were selling secret government information to clients.

This was a “state secret” that had not received appropriate attention prior to Hammond.

Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project, who is one of the lawyers who represents NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, explained her view that hackers and whistleblowers face a war on information. The war targets hackers and journalists, as well as whistleblowers in government that are seeking to expose criminal misconduct and abuses of power.

She highlighted attempts by Drake to go through all conceivable channels at the agency to blow the whistle. His superiors, including an inspector general, did not help him investigate and hold NSA accountable for unconstitutional surveillance. They turned his name over to the Justice Department for prosecution.

Likewise, it is highly difficult to have a fair and just trial if one is prosecuted for a leak. There is no public interest defense for those prosecuted under the Espionage Act. That makes it so useful for bludgeoning whistleblowers. And, she added, “If the court martial of Chelsea Manning is any example, justice will not prevail.”

In addition to the provocative and insightful presentations given by Drake and Radack, a panel on the case of journalist/activist Barrett Brown was held.

As author and professor Gabriella Coleman put it, Brown was essentially prosecuted for being a journalist. He was swept up in this “Nerd Scare,” where government is targeting hacker-types, because of work he did with a group called Project PM on private intelligence companies.

Ahmed Ghappour, one of Brown’s defense attorneys, reflected briefly on his background as an attorney representing Guantanamo Bay prisoners and others in terrorism cases. He said, while defending individuals like Brown, he had approached these cases as if they were being prosecuted for terrorism.

He explained to the audience that Brown was indicted for engaging in what is typically “protected speech.” For example, Brown shared a hyperlink and was charged with a crime (which the federal government later dropped).

The FBI, a grand jury and the judge all accepted that Brown could be criminalized for sharing a hyperlink. To Ghappour, this demonstrated the “unknown” could be made to seem extremely dangerous. Making the “unknown” seem dangerous is what prosecutors do routinely when prosecuting alleged terrorists.

Cases like Brown’s are intended to promote fear of hackers. It amps up paranoia and generates public support for pursuing information activists. Ghappour noted that as long as the public is afraid zealous prosecutions of people like Brown will continue to take place.

Remarkably, the government did back down. Gallagher spoke about the effect that having a support group has had. It makes prosecutors watch their moves and what they say more closely. It pushes them to target funds raised for providing a good and robust legal defense. It drives them to go to the judge to get a gag order. (All of which happened in Brown’s case.)

Gallagher suggested that the Justice Department’s strategy is to prejudice the public from supporting a defendant through what it says about that person in the department’s first press release announcing the case. They don’t like having to fight support organizations that are challenging their abuse of discretion or prosecutorial tactics. So, they may search for any way to pressure defendants into abandoning public campaigns to build support for them.

In some way or another, these dissenters are people who have become targets of the national security state for having the audacity to challenge the national security state’s activities. Only through sharing these stories of dissenters—and promoting ways to protect past and future dissidents—can freedom for all be protected and restored.

Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden speak from 12-2 pm EST on July 19. Watch here.