Chris Hedges: "Why should we be impoverished so that the profits of big banks, corporations, and hedge funds can swell?"

Jeremy Hammond's a hero who exposed surveillance-state secrets. His excessive prison sentence should terrify us all

By Chris Hedges
Published May 16, 2015 3:59PM (EDT)
  (Wikimedia/Gracefire/AP)
(Wikimedia/Gracefire/AP)

Excerpted from "Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt"

I sat in the front row of a New York federal court in November 2013 the day Jeremy Hammond was sentenced to 10 years in prison for hacking into the computers of a private security firm that works on behalf of the government, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Marine Corps, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and corporations such as Dow Chemical and Raytheon.

Hammond, then age twenty-six, released to WikiLeaks, Rolling Stone, and other publications some 5 million emails in 2011 from the Texas-based company Strategic Forecasting Inc., or Stratfor. His four co-defendants, convicted in Great Britain, were sentenced to less time combined—the longest sentence was 32 months—than the 120-month sentence meted out to Hammond. The 5 million email exchanges, once made public, exposed the private security firm’s infiltration, monitoring, and surveillance of protesters and dissidents on behalf of corporations and the national security state. And perhaps most importantly, the information provided chilling evidence that antiterrorism laws are being routinely used by the state to criminalize nonviolent, democratic dissent and falsely link dissidents to international terrorist organizations. Hammond sought no financial gain. He got none.

The email exchanges Hammond provided to the public were entered as evidence in my lawsuit against Barack Obama over Section 1021(b (2) of the National Defense Authorization Act. One of my co-plaintiffs was Alexa O’Brien, a journalist and content strategist who cofounded the U.S. Day of Rage, an organization created to reform the election process. Because of the Hammond leaks, we know that Stratfor officials attempted to falsely link her and her organization to Islamic radicals and websites as well as jihadist ideology, setting her up for detention under the new law. U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest ruled, in part because of the leak, that we did as plaintiffs have a credible fear, and she nullified the law, a ruling that the higher appellate court overturned when the Obama administration appealed her ruling.

Hammond’s 10-year sentence was one of the longest in U.S. history for hacking. It was the maximum the judge could impose under a plea agreement in the case. It was wildly disproportionate to the crime—an act of nonviolent civil disobedience that championed the public good by exposing abuses of power by the government and a security firm. But the excessive sentence was the point.

I met Hammond in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center about a week and a half before his sentencing. He was wearing an oversized brown prison jumpsuit that fell over his shoes. He had long brown hair and a wispy beard. He had been held for 20 months.

“People have a right to know what governments and corporations are doing behind closed doors,” he said.

Judge Preska, who sentenced Hammond with the same venom she displayed in sentencing Syed Fahad Hashmi, is a member of the right- wing Federalist Society. And the hack into Stratfor disclosed the email address and password for a business account of Preska’s husband, Thomas Kavaler, a partner at the law firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel.

Some emails of the firm’s corporate clients, including Merrill Lynch, also were exposed. The National Lawyers Guild, because the judge’s husband was a victim of the hack, filed a recusal motion. Preska, as chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and therefore the final authority, was able to deny it. Her refusal to recuse herself allowed her to oversee a trial in which she had allegedly a huge conflict of interest.

The judge, who herself was once employed at Cahill Gordon & Reindel, fulminated from the bench about Hammond’s “total lack of respect for the law.” She read a laundry list of his arrests for acts of civil disobedience. She damned what she called his “unrepentant recidivism.” She said: “These are not the actions of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela . . . or even Daniel Ellsberg”—an odd analogy given that Mandela founded the armed wing of the African National Congress, was considered a terrorist by South Africa’s apartheid government and the U.S. government, and was vilified, along with King and Ellsberg, by the U.S. government. Preska said that there was a “desperate need to promote respect for the law” and a “need for adequate public deterrence.” She read from transcripts of Hammond’s conversations in Anonymous chat rooms in which he described the goal of hacking into Stratfor as “destroying the target, hoping for bankruptcy, collapse,” and called for “maximum mayhem.” She admonished him for releasing the unlisted phone number of a retired Arizona police official who allegedly received threatening phone calls afterward.

The judge, in addition to the 10-year sentence, imposed equally harsh measures for after Hammond’s release from prison. She ordered that he be placed under three years of supervised control, be forbidden to use encryption or aliases online, and submit to random searches of his computer equipment, person, and home by police and any internal security agency without the necessity of a warrant. The judge said that Hammond was legally banned from having any contact with “electronic civil disobedience websites or organizations.”

The sentence required the judge to demonstrate a callous disregard for transparency and our right to privacy. It required her to ignore the disturbing information Hammond released showing that the government and Stratfor had attempted to link nonviolent dissident groups, including some within Occupy, to terrorist organizations so that peaceful dissidents could be prosecuted as terrorists. It required her to accept the frightening fact that intelligence agencies now work on behalf of corporations as well as the state. She also had to sidestep the fact that Hammond made no financial gain from the leak.

Hammond’s draconian sentence, like the draconian sentences of other whistle-blowers, will fan open defiance of the state. It will solidify the growing understanding that we must resort, if we want to effect real change, to unconventional and illegal tactics to thwart the mounting abuses by the corporate state. There is no hope, this sentencing showed, for redress from the judicial system, elected officials, or the executive branch.

Why should we respect a court system, or a governmental system, that does not respect us? Why should we abide by laws that protect only criminals like Wall Street thieves while leaving the rest of us exposed to abuse? Why should we continue to have faith in structures of power that deny us our most basic rights and civil liberties? Why should we be impoverished so that the profits of big banks, corporations, and hedge funds can swell?

Hammond, six feet tall and wiry, defined himself when we met in jail as “an anarchist communist.” He said he had dedicated his life to destroying capitalism and the centralized power of the corporate state and that he embraced the classic tools of revolt, including mass protests, general strikes, and boycotts. And he saw hacking and leaking as critical tools of this resistance, to be used not only to reveal the truths about systems of corporate power but to “disrupt/destroy these systems entirely.”

Like Assange and Chelsea Manning, Jeremy Hammond had an unconventional childhood. He and his twin brother Jason were raised by their single father, Jack, in Glendale Heights, Illinois, a working-class suburb in western Chicago. His mother, Rose, left the family when the twins were three; while she provided some financial support, she left most of the child rearing to Jack. Hammond’s father was an aspiring punk rock musician who dropped out of high school and earned about $35,000 a year giving guitar lessons.

Jeremy showed an early and precocious talent for computers, as well as politics. He responded to the war jingoism that enveloped the country after the 9/11 attacks by organizing school protests against the calls to invade Iraq. He founded an underground newspaper that was designed, as he wrote in the first editor’s letter, to get students to “most of all think.” “WAKE UP . . . Your mind is programmable—if you’re not programming your mind, someone else will program it for you.”

“My first memories of American politics was when Bush stole the election in 2000,” he told me, “and then how Bush used the wave of nationalism after 9/11 to launch unprovoked, preemptive wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. In high school, I was involved in publishing ‘underground’ newsletters criticizing the Patriot Act, the wars, and other Bush-era policies. I attended many antiwar protests in the city [Chicago] and was introduced to other local struggles and the larger anti-corporate globalization movement. I began identifying as an anarchist, started to travel around the country to various mobilizations and conferences, and began getting arrested for various acts.”

He said that his experience of street protest, especially against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, was seminal, for he saw that the state had little interest in heeding the voices of protesters and other public voices. “Instead, we were labeled as traitors, beaten and arrested.”

Hammond was living at home in Chicago in 2010 under a curfew from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. for a variety of acts of civil disobedience when Manning was arrested. Like Manning, he had shown an astonishing aptitude for science, math, and the language of computers from a very young age. He hacked into the computers at a local Apple store when he was sixteen and then showed the stunned sales staff how he had done it. When he hacked into the computer science department’s website at the University of Illinois–Chicago as a freshman, the university responded to this prank by refusing to allow him to return for his sophomore year. He was an early backer of “cyber-liberation” and in 2004 started an “electronic-disobedience journal” he named Hack This Zine.

That same year, Hammond called on hackers in a speech at the DefCon convention in Las Vegas—the largest and best-known underground hacking conference—to use their skills to disrupt the upcoming Republican National Convention. By the time of his arrest, Hammond was one of the shadowy stars of the hacktivist underground. He was also the FBI’s No. 1 most wanted cybercriminal in the world. It was Manning’s courage that prompted Hammond to commit his own act of cyber civil disobedience, although he knew the chances of being caught were high.

“I saw what Chelsea Manning did,” he said when we spoke, seated at a metal table in a tiny room reserved for attorney-client visits. “Through her hacking, she became a contender, a world changer. She took tremendous risks to show the ugly truth about war. I asked myself, If she could make that risk, shouldn’t I make that risk? Wasn’t it wrong to sit comfortably by, working on the websites of Food Not Bombs, while I had the skills to do something similar? I too could make a difference. It was her courage that prompted me to act.”

Hammond, with black tattoos on each forearm—one a gridlike “Glider” symbol that was proposed by computer programmer Eric S. Raymond as a symbol for the hacker subculture, and the other the shi hexagram from the I Ching, meaning “leading” or “army” or “troops”— is steeped in radical thought. He swiftly migrated politically as a young teenager from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party to the militancy of Black Bloc anarchists. He was an avid reader in high school of material put out by CrimethInc, an anarchist collective that publishes anarchist literature and manifestos, including "The Anarchist Cookbook." Hammond is steeped in the work of old radicals, from Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman to black revolutionaries such as George Jackson, Elaine Brown, and Assata Shakur. He admires the Weather Underground.

Hammond told me he made numerous trips while in Chicago to Forest Home Cemetery to visit the Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument, which honors anarchists who took part in the labor wars, four of whom were hanged in 1887. On the sixteen-foot-high granite monument are the final words of one of the condemned men, August Spies: The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voice you are throttling today. Emma Goldman is buried nearby. Hammond became well known to the state for a variety of acts of civil disobedience over the last decade, ranging from painting antiwar graffiti on walls in Chicago to protesting at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, to hacking into the right-wing website Protest Warrior, for which he was sentenced to two years at Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Greenville in Illinois.

He told me that his goal was to build “leaderless collectives based on free association, consensus, mutual aid, self-sufficiency and harmony with the environment.” It is essential, he said, that all of us work to cut our personal ties with capitalism and engage in resistance that includes “mass organizing of protests, strikes, and boycotts,” as well as hacking and leaking, which are “effective tools to reveal ugly truths of the system or to disrupt/destroy these systems entirely.”

Hammond spent months within the Occupy movement in Chicago. He embraced its “leaderless, nonhierarchical structures, such as general assemblies and consensus, and occupying public spaces.” But he was critical of what he said was Occupy’s “vague politics, which allowed it to include followers of Ron Paul and some in the Tea Party, as well as “reformist liberals and Democrats.” Hammond said he was not interested in a movement that “only wanted a ‘nicer’ form of capitalism and favored legal reforms, not revolution.” He said he did not support what he called a “dogmatic nonviolence doctrine” held by many in the Occupy movement, describing it as “needlessly limited and divisive.” He rejected the idea of protesters carrying out acts of civil disobedience that they know will lead to arrest. “The point,” he said, “is to carry out acts of resistance and not get caught.” He condemned the “peace patrols”— units formed within the Occupy movement that sought to prohibit acts of vandalism and violence by other protesters, most often members of the Black Bloc—as “a secondary police force.”

Furthermore, Hammond dismissed the call by many in Occupy not to antagonize the police, whom he characterized as “the boot boys of the one percent, paid to protect the rich and powerful.” He said such a tactic of nonconfrontation with the police ignored the long history of repression by the police in attacking popular movements, as well as the “profiling and imprisonment of our comrades.” He went on: “Because we were unprepared, or perhaps unwilling, to defend our occupations, police and mayors launched coordinated attacks driving us out of our own parks.”

“I fully support and have participated in Black Bloc and other forms of militant direct action,” he said. “I do not believe that the ruling powers listen to the people’s peaceful protests. Black Bloc is an effective, fluid, and dynamic form of protest. It causes disruption outside of predictable/controllable mass demonstrations through unarrests, holding streets, barricades, and property destruction. Smashing corporate windows is not violence, especially when compared to the everyday economic violence of sweatshops and ‘free trade.’ Black Bloc seeks to hit them where it hurts, through economic damage. But more than smashing windows, they seek to break the spell of ‘law and order’ and the artificial limitations we impose on ourselves.”

When he was sentenced, Hammond told the courtroom: “The acts of civil disobedience that I am being sentenced for today are in line with the principles of community and equality that have guided my life. I hacked into dozens of high-profile corporations and government institutions, understanding very clearly that what I was doing was against the law, and that my actions could land me back in federal prison. But I felt that I had an obligation to use my skills to expose and confront injustice—and to bring the truth to light.

“Could I have achieved the same goals through legal means?” he asked the court. “I have tried everything from voting petitions to peaceful protest and have found that those in power do not want the truth to be exposed. When we speak truth to power, we are ignored at best and brutally suppressed at worst. We are confronting a power structure that does not respect its own system of checks and balances, never mind the rights of its own citizens or the international community.

“I targeted law enforcement systems because of the racism and inequality with which the criminal law is enforced,” he admitted in court. “I targeted the manufacturers and distributors of military and police equipment who profit from weaponry used to advance US political and economic interests abroad and to repress people at home. I targeted information security firms because they work in secret to protect government and corporate interests at the expense of individual rights, undermining and discrediting activists, journalists, and other truth seekers and spreading disinformation.

“Why the FBI would introduce us to the hacker [Sabu] who found the initial vulnerability and allow this hack to continue remains a mystery,” Hammond said as he faced the judge. “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.”

At Sabu’s urging, Hammond broke into other websites too. Hammond, at Sabu’s request, provided information to hackers that enabled them to break into and deface official foreign government websites, including those of Turkey, Iran, and Brazil.

“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 said.

“I don’t know how other information I provided to him may have been used, but I think the government’s collection and use of this data needs to be investigated,” he went on. “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?

“The hypocrisy of ‘law and order’ and the injustices caused by capitalism cannot be cured by institutional reform but through civil disobedience and direct action,” Hammond told the court. “Yes, I broke the law, but I believe that sometimes laws must be broken in order to make room for change.”

As Hammond was escorted out of the courtroom on the ninth floor of the federal courthouse at 500 Pearl Street after the sentencing, he shouted to roughly 100 people—including a class of prim West Point cadets attending in their blue uniforms—gathered there: “Long live Anonymous! Hurrah for anarchy!” In a statement he read in court, he thanked “Free Anons, the Anonymous Solidarity Network, [and] Anarchist Black Cross” for their roles in the fight against oppression.

“Being incarcerated has really opened my eyes to the reality of the criminal justice system,” Hammond told me in the jail. “[It] is not a criminal justice system about public safety or rehabilitation, but reaping profits through mass incarceration. There are two kinds of justice—one for the rich and the powerful who get away with the big crimes, then [one] for everyone else, especially people of color and the impoverished. There is no such thing as a fair trial. In over 80 percent of the cases, people are pressured to plea out instead of exercising their right to trial, under the threat of lengthier sentences. I believe no satisfactory reforms are possible. We need to close all prisons and release everybody unconditionally.”

After committing a series of minor infractions, as well as testing positive, along with other prisoners on his tier, for marijuana that had been smuggled into the prison, Hammond had already lost social visits for the next two years and “spent time in the box.” He said prison involved “a lot of boredom.” He was playing a lot of chess, teaching guitar, and helping other prisoners study for their GED.

He insisted that he did not see himself as different from other prisoners, especially poor prisoners of color, who were in for common crimes, especially drug-related crimes. He said that most prisoners are political prisoners, caged unjustly by a system of totalitarian capitalism that has snuffed out basic opportunities for democratic dissent and economic survival.

“The majority of people in prison did what they had to do to survive,” he said. “Most were poor. They got caught up in the war on drugs, which is how you make money if you are poor. The real reason they get locked in prison for so long is so corporations can continue to make big profits. It is not about justice. I do not draw distinctions between us.

“Jail is essentially enduring harassment and dehumanizing conditions with frequent lockdowns and shakedowns,” he said. “You have to constantly fight for respect from the guards, sometimes getting yourself thrown in the box. However, I will not change the way I live because I am locked up. I will continue to be defiant, agitating and organizing whenever possible.”

He said resistance must be a way of life. “The truth,” he said, “will always come out.” He cautioned activists to be hypervigilant and aware that “one mistake can be permanent.” Activists should “know and accept the worst possible repercussion” before carrying out an action and should be “aware of mass counterintelligence/surveillance operations targeting our movements.” But, he added, “don’t let paranoia or fear deter you from activism. Do the down thing!”

“In these times of secrecy and abuse of power there is only one solution—transparency,” wrote Sarah Harrison, the British journalist who accompanied Snowden to Russia and who has also gone into self-imposed exile in Berlin. “If our governments are so compromised that they will not tell us the truth, then we must step forward to grasp it. Provided with the unequivocal proof of primary source documents people can fight back. If our governments will not give this information to us, then we must take it for ourselves.

“When whistleblowers come forward we need to fight for them, so others will be encouraged,” she went on. “When they are gagged, we must be their voice. When they are hunted, we must be their shield. When they are locked away, we must free them. Giving us the truth is not a crime. This is our data, our information, our history. We must fight to own it. Courage is contagious.”

This piece was excerpted from "Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt" by Chris Hedges (Nation Books, 2015). Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.


Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges is the former Middle East bureau chief of the New York Times, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a columnist at Scheerpost. He is the author of several books, including "America: The Farewell Tour," "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America" and "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning."

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