Hammond calls his 10-year sentence a ‘vengeful, spiteful act’ by US authorities eager to put a chill on political hacking
Jeremy Hammond, the Anonymous hacktivist who released millions of emails relating to the private intelligence firm Stratfor, has denounced his prosecution and lengthy prison sentence as a “vengeful, spiteful act” designed to put a chill on politically-motivated hacking.
Hammond was sentenced on Friday at federal court in Manhattan to the maximum 10 years in jail, plus three years supervised release. He had pleaded guilty to one count under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) flowing from his 2011 hack of Strategic Forecasting, Inc, known as Stratfor. In an interview with the Guardian in the Metropolitan Correction Center in New York, conducted on Thursday, he said he was resigned to a long prison term which he sees as a conscious attempt by the US authorities to put a chill on political hacking.
He had no doubt that his sentence would be long, describing it as a “vengeful, spiteful act”. He said of his prosecutors: “They have made it clear they are trying to send a message to others who come after me. A lot of it is because they got slapped around, they were embarrassed by Anonymous and they feel that they need to save face.”
Most pointedly, Hammond suggested that the FBI may have manipulated him to carry out hacking attacks on “dozens” of foreign government websites. During his time with Anonymous, the loose collective of hackers working alongside WikiLeaks and other anti-secrecy groups, he was often directed by a individual known pseudonomously on the web as “Sabu”, the leader of the Anonymous-affiliated group Lulzsec, who turned out to be an FBI informant.
Hammond, who is under court orders restricting what he says in public, told the Guardian that Sabu presented him with a list of targets, including many foreign government sites, and encouraged him to break into their computer systems. He said he was not sure whether Sabu was in turn acting on behalf of the FBI or other US government agency, but it was even possible that the FBI was using Sabu’s internet handle directly as contact between the two hackers was always made through cyberspace, never face-to-face.
“It is kind of funny that here they are sentencing me for hacking Stratfor, but at the same time as I was doing that an FBI informant was suggesting to me foreign targets to hit. So you have to wonder how much they really care about protecting the security of websites.”
In the interview, conducted in a secure prison meeting room hours before the 28-year-old Chicagoan was sentenced, he was sanguine about his prospects. “I knew when I started out with Anonymous that being put in jail and having a lengthy sentence was a possibility. Given the nature of the targets I was going after I knew I would upset a lot of powerful people.”
Dressed in a brown prison jump suit, and with a long wispy goatee and moustache (he planned to shave both off before the sentencing hearing), Hammond was scathing about the way the CFAA was being twisted in his view for political ends. “They are widening the definition of what is covered by the Act and using it to target specifically political activists,” he said.
He invoked the memory of Aaron Swartz, the open-data crusader who killed himself in January while awaiting trial under the CFAA for releasing documents from behind the subscription-only paywall of an online research group. “The same beast bit us both,” Hammond said. “They went after Aaron because of his involvement in legitimate political causes – they railroaded charges against him, and look what happened.”
Hammond has been in custody since March 2012 having been arrested in Chicago on suspicion of the Stratfor leak of millions of emails that were eventually released by WikiLeaks as the Global Intelligence Files. His sentence is an indication of the aggression with which prosecutors have been pursuing political hackers in the US – other Anonymous members in Britain involved in the breach of Stratfor were sentenced to much shorter jail terms.
Hammond stressed that he had not benefitted personally in any way from the Stratfor email release, that exposed surveillance by private security firms on activists including Anonymous members themselves, Occupy protesters and campaigners in Bhopal, India involved in the push for compensation for victims of the 1984 industrial catastrophe. “Our main purpose in carrying out the Stratfor hack was to find out what private security and intelligence companies were doing, though none of us had any idea of the scale of it.”
Paradoxically, Hammond insists that he would never have carried out the breach of Stratfor’s computer system had he not been led into doing it by Sabu – real name Hector Xavier Monsegur – the fellow hacker who is himself awaiting sentencing having pleaded guilty to 12 hacking-related criminal charges. “I had never heard of Stratfor until Sabu brought in another hacker who told me about it. Practically, I would never have done the Stratfor hack without Sabu’s involvement.”
Hammond discovered that Monsegur was an FBI informant the day after his own arrest. As he was reading the criminal complaint against him, he saw quotes marked CW for “co-operating witness” that contained details that could only have come from Sabu.
“I felt betrayed, obviously. Though I knew these things happen. What surprised me was that Sabu was involved in so much strategic targeting, in actually identifying targets. He gave me the information on targets.”
Part of Sabu’s interest in him, he now believes, was that Hammond had access to advanced tools including one known as PLESK that allowed him to break into web systems used by large numbers of foreign governments. “The FBI and NSA are clearly able to do their own hacking of other countries. But when a new vulnerability emerges in internet security, sometimes hackers have access to tools that are ahead of them that can be very valuable,” he said.
Looking back on his involvement with anonymous, the Chicagoan said that he had been drawn to work with Anonymous, because he saw it as “a model of resistance – it was decentralised, leaderless.” He grew increasingly political in his hacking focus, partly under the influence of the Occupy movement that began in Wall Street in September 2011 and spread across the country.
Chelsea Manning, the US soldier formerly known as Bradley who leaked a massive trove of state secrets to WikiLeaks now serving a 35-year sentence in military jail, was a major influence on him. Manning showed him that “powerful institutions – whether military or private security firms – are involved in unaccountable activities that the public is totally unaware of that can only be exposed by whistleblowers and hackers”.
Hammond has often described himself as an anarchist. He has a tattoo on his left shoulder of the anarchy symbol with the words: “Freedom, equality, anarchy”. Another tattoo on his left forearm shows the Chinese representation of “leader” or “army”, and a third tattoo on his right forearm is a glider signifying the hacking open-source movement that is drawn from the computer simulation Game of Life.
He says he plans to use his time in prison “reading, writing, working out and playing sports – training myself to become more disciplined so I can be more effective on my release”. As to that release, he says he cannot predict how he will be thinking when he emerges from jail, but doubts that he would go back to hacking. “I think my days of hacking are done. That’s a role for somebody else now,” he said.
The Anonymous hacktivist sentenced on Friday to 10 years in federal prison for his role in releasing thousands of emails from the private intelligence firm Stratfor has told a Manhattan court that he was directed by an FBI informant to break into the official websites of several governments around the world.
Jeremy Hammond, 28, told a federal court for the southern district of New York that a fellow hacker who went under the internet pseudonym “Sabu” had supplied him with lists of websites that were vulnerable to attack, including those of many foreign countries. The defendant mentioned specifically Brazil, Iran and Turkey before being stopped by judge Loretta Preska, who had ruled previously that the names of all the countries involved should be redacted to retain their secrecy.
Within a couple of hours of the hearing, the three countries had been identified publicly by Forbes, the Huffington Post and Twitter feeds serving more than a million followers. “I broke into numerous sites and handed over passwords and backdoors that enabled Sabu – and by extension his FBI handlers – to control these targets,” Hammond told the court.
The 28-year-old hacker has floated the theory in the past that he was used as part of an effective private army by the FBI to target vulnerable foreign government websites, using the informant Sabu – real name Hector Xavier Monsegur – as a go-between. Sabu, who was a leading figure in the Anonymous-affiliated hacking group LulzSec, was turned by the FBI into one of its primary informants on the hacker world after he was arrested in 2011, about six months before the Stratfor website was breached.
Referring to the hacking of foreign government websites, Hammond said that in one instance, he and Sabu provided details on how to crack into the websites of one particular unidentified country to other hackers who then went on to deface and destroy those websites. “I don’t know how other information I provided to [Sabu] may have been used, but I think the government’s collection and use of this data needs to be investigated,” he told the court
He added: “The government celebrates my conviction and imprisonment, hoping that it will close the door on the full story. I took responsibility for my actions, by pleading guilty, but when will the government be made to answer for its crimes?”
Hammond’s 10-year federal prison service makes it one of the longest punishments dished out for criminal hacking offences in US history. It joins a lengthening line of long jail terms imposed on hackers and whistleblowers as part of the US authorities’ attempt to contain data security of government agencies and corporations in the digital age.
Preska also imposed a three-year period of probationary supervision once Hammond is released from jail that included extraordinary measures designed to prevent him ever hacking again. The terms of the supervision state that when he is out of prison he must: have no contact with “electronic civil disobedience websites or organisations”; have all his internet activity monitored; subject himself to searches of his body, house, car or any other possessions at any time without warrant; and never do anything to hide his identity on the internet.
Hammond’s 10-year sentence was the maximum available to the judge after he pleaded guilty to one count of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) relating to his December 2011 breach of the website of the Austin, Texas-based private intelligence company Strategic Forecasting, Inc. Delivering the sentence, Preska dismissed the defendant’s explanation of his motivation as one of concern for social justice, saying that he had in fact intended to create “maximum mayhem”. “There is nothing high-minded and public-spirited about causing mayhem,” the judge said.
She quoted from comments made by Hammond under various internet handles at the time of the Stratfor hack in which he had talked about his goal of “destroying the heart, hoping for bankruptcy, collapse”. She criticised what she called his “unrepentant recidivism – he has an almost unbroken record of offences that demonstrate an almost total disrespect for the law.”
Before the sentence came down, Hammond read out an outspoken statement to court in which he said he had been motivated to join the hacker group Anonymous because of a desire to “continue the work of exposing and confronting corruption”. He said he had been “particularly moved by the heroic actions of Chelsea Manning, who had exposed the atrocities committed by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. She took an enormous personal risk to leak this information – believing that the public had a right to know and hoping that her disclosures would be a positive step to end these abuses.”
In his own case, he said that as a result of the Stratfor hack, “some of the dangers of the unregulated private intelligence industry are now known. It has been revealed through Wikileaks and other journalists around the world that Stratfor maintained a worldwide network of informants that they used to engage in intrusive and possibly illegal surveillance activities on behalf of large multinational corporations.”
Margaret Kunstler, a prominent member of the Hammond’s defence team, told the Guardian after the sentencing that the maximum punishment was “not a great surprise”. She said that Preska had turned Hammond’s own comments in web chats against him, “but I think she doesn’t understand the language that’s used in chat rooms and the internet – for her to have used such language against him and not understand what his comments meant seemed piggy to say the least.”
• This article was amended on 17 November 2013. An earlier version incorrectly described Margaret Kunstler as Hammond’s lead defence lawyer.