Jeremy Hammond Pleads Guilty to Stratfor Hack

Lulzec/Anti-Sec hacker Jeremy Hammond pleaded guilty in federal court yesterday to the Stratfor hack. He did not cooperate for a lesser sentence, and faces up to 10 years in prison. Had he gone to trial and lost, his sentencing guidelines exceeded 30 years. The Government has agreed not to bring additional cases against him.

Jeremy released this statement after his plea.

[E]ven 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. 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.

He says it's a relief to admit his actions. As to his hacking activities, he says "I did what I believe is right." [More...]

Now that I have pleaded guilty it is a relief to be able to say that I did work with Anonymous to hack Stratfor, among other websites. Those others included 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.

Hammond is scheduled to be sentenced in September. Since pleading guilty doesn't guarantee one will receive the "acceptance of responsibility" credit under the sentencing guidelines, I'm not sure that was the best way to phrase his sentiment. His lack of remorse is unlikely to sit well with the sentencing judge. I think he could have made the same point by saying "I did what I believed was right at the time."

From the plea agreement, available here.

Nothing in this Agreement limits the right of the Government to seek denial of the adjustment for acceptance of responsibility, see U.S.S.G. §3E1.1, regardless of any stipulation set forth above, if the defendant fails clearly to demonstrate acceptance of responsibility, to the satisfaction of the Government, through his allocution and subsequent conduct prior to the imposition of sentence.

That aside, this is a tough plea agreement for Hammond. His guidelines will probably exceed the 10 year maximum penalty. He has a substantial criminal history according to the plea agreement -- placing him in Criminal History Category IV. He's agreed that the conduct in the dismissed charges can be considered as "relevant conduct" for the purpose of computing his guideline range. That makes his agreed upon sentencing guideline range 151 to 188 months, assuming he gets the acceptance of responsibility credit. (Without it, the range would be even higher.)

Since the statutory maximum trumps the guidelines, the most he can get is 10 years. The judge may view him as already having received a substantial benefit from the charge bargaining that limits his maximum to 10 years. She may also consider the what his sentence might have been had he gone to trial and lost, and think 10 years is lenient, by comparison.

The plea agreement prevents Hammond from appealing his sentence by direct appeal or habeas or seeking to withdraw his plea. It prevents him from seeking a departure under the guidelines (although he can ask for a non-guideline sentence, known as a variance), and it prevents him from appealing any restitution order unless he is ordered to pay more than $2.5 million.

His lawyer says she will ask for a sentence of time served, based on the sentences in Great Britain handed down to his co-defendants, who were also charged there. Ryan Ackroyd, Jake Davis and Ryan Cleary were sentenced in May. (Ackroyd and Davis are named in Hammond's indictment, while Cleary was charged in a California case.) From the London police website:

  • Ryan Cleary - 32 months
  • Jake Davis - 24 months
  • Ryan Ackroyd - 30 months
  • Mustafa Al-Bassam - 20 months, suspended for 2 years. 200 hours of unpaid work.

Hammond's lawyer says she will argue that Hammond is similarly situated to Ackroyd, who did not cooperate with the Government.

As to the other two charged in the U.S., Jake Davis, age 20, agreed to plead immediately (and cooperated), and has since renounced his activities.

Jake Davis, who went by the online alias Topiary, says he now regrets "95% of the things I've ever typed on the internet".

"It was my world, but it was a very limited world. You can see and hear it, but you can't touch the internet. It's a world devoid of empathy - and that shows on Twitter, and the mob mentality against politicians and public figures. There is no empathy...."So it was my world, and it was a very cynical world and I became a very cynical person."

Ryan Cleary also cooperated when arrested. He also suffers from Asberger's.

There is a wide disparity in sentencing in these hacking cases, but a lot of it seems to turn, like in most cases, on cooperation. Cody Kretzinger, who pleaded to two counts involving a Sony hack (not the playstation one), got 12 months, but it's clear from the docket and sealed sentencing pleadings, he cooperated. In a related case, defendant Raynaldo Rivera, pleaded guilty to a five year count. He will be sentenced in August, and it's unknown whether he's cooperating. If he isn't, depending on his criminal history, his guideline range will probably be close to or more than 5 years.

Meanwhile, Anonymous Sabu, the hacktivist-turned-snitch, has yet to be sentenced. Sabu began cooperating with the FBI on the day of his arrest in June, 2011, six months before the Stratfor hack. The FBI, using Sabu, got the hacked data to be stored on an FBI server. Here's an unsourced timeline. More here. Sabu's plea agreement is here. While he could potentially get 122 years, I'd be surprised if he gets as many as Hammond. (Sabu is most likely in the witness protection program.)

There's no question that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act needs to be revamped. It gives far too much discretion to prosecutors, who arbitrarily use it as a sledge-hammer to induce cooperation and pleas to reduced charges. Those who refuse end up paying a disproportionately high price. Does it even make sense to base a penalty on economic loss when for so many of these hackers, their intent was not to profit economically but to further their views of social justice?

Also interesting to me is how quickly all of these defendants caved to the Government. Other than Aaron Swartz (who was not involved in Lulzsec)I have yet to see a Lulzsec related case where the defense filed a substantive pleading -- challenging search warrants or electronic surveillance, seeking more discovery, or anything else. In these cases, and at least another half-dozen I've followed on PACER, the dockets go from Indictment to references that the defense received discovery, to guilty pleas. The only pleadings the defense seems to file are motions for a continuance and motions directed to sentencing.

Why is this? I suspect that because in addition to "charge bargaining", the Government uses the other hammers in its toolbox, including (as I wrote here, in discussing Aaron Swartz):

  • Take the deal now, or the offers will only get worse
  • Take the deal now, or we’ll supersede with more charges. (In drug cases, it is often, plead now, or we’ll file an enhancement notice for your prior drug conviction and double the mandatory minimum sentence from 10 years to 20 years.)
  • This offer is only open until the motions due date. If you file motions, all offers are withdrawn and there will be no future offers.
  • If you don’t plead before the pre-trial motions hearing, you are going to trial.
  • No offer unless you cooperate
  • Here’s the offer, but you have to waive your right to appeal
  • Here’s the offer, but you have to agree to a sentence of X and you can’t request a lesser or non-guideline sentence.
  • If you take the offer, we’ll agree not to prosecute your wife (or husband or child or parent). If you don’t, they are fair game and we aren’t threatening them, but we think we have a good case against them.

The vast amounts of electronic discovery in these cases can also serve as a hammer. For many defendants, particularly those who are detained without bond pending trial, the interminable delays over discovery issues and the difficulties trying to navigate the discovery on a jail computer, coupled with restrictive protective orders not allowing detainees to have their own copy of significant portions of the discovery, can be torturous. For many, there is a cumulative buildup of stress and anxiety over the uncertainty of the case outcome and frustration that the case is dominating all aspects of their lives. If they have retained counsel, the legal bills keep mounting. They just want the case over with. Many want to give up and take the plea being offered, fair or not. Hammond seems to fall in this camp.

What's unfortunate is that Congress will use these guilty pleas to pat DOJ on the back for its "success," not demand changes to the law or greater transparency in its plea-bargaining policies.

One exception to those opting to cave in to the Government's assertion of power may be Barrett Brown, who is promising to fight hard, despite being held without bond in Texas, and facing three indictments, including one related to the Stratfor hack (he's alleged to have shared a link to the site posting the stolen credit card information.) He's also charged with making online video threats to an FBI agent. In the third, he's charged with concealing his laptop and impeding the investigation. The Government even charged his mother with the misdemeanor offense of obstructing the execution of a search warrant for hiding his laptop. She pleaded guilty, with cooperation, and faces up to a year in prison. According to the FreeBarrett website, these are the issues Barrett's legal team will be raising. Barrett's charges could result in a sentence of 100 years.

It's a fair question whether the Government is just playing hardball, or whether it's using a steamroller to drive over ants. And whether this is good policy. A ten year sentence is not simply punishment. It's life-changing. The person becomes institutionalized. If he or she thinks the sentence is unfair, the bitterness will fester. They will have a much harder time adjusting to society when they get out. By the time they get released, they will know far more about how to commit crimes than when they went in.

Back to Jeremy Hammond. Here is the U.S. Attorney's press release on Hammond's guilty plea. The Superseding Information he pleaded guilty to is here. The Superseding Indictment (with charges from May, 2012) is here. The original Complaint is here. The relevant sentencing guideline is here. EFF has this article on how the guideline works in computer fraud and abuse cases.

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  • Display: Sort:
    And Wall Street mafioso walk free (none / 0) (#1)
    by Dadler on Wed May 29, 2013 at 09:50:05 AM EST
    What a country.

    Do you have to say you're sorry? (none / 0) (#2)
    by parse on Thu May 30, 2013 at 08:05:27 AM EST
    To earn the "acceptance of responsibility" credit, does the defendant have to say "I'm sorry I did this"? Claiming "I did it and I'm not sorry" sounds like accepting responsibility to me, but is there something in the statute that means expressing remorse is an element of accepting responsibility? Or do judges have enough discretion that it's enough if they decide a lack of remorse is a sign a defendant isn't accepting responsibility, regardless of what anyone else might think?

    Doesn't sound like justice... (none / 0) (#3)
    by kdog on Thu May 30, 2013 at 11:18:45 AM EST
    "I didn't do anything wrong, but these bastards will hound me forever jurisdiction hopping.  I just can't win, so let's get this over with."

    Is that about right?

    that what he thinks (none / 0) (#4)
    by nyjets on Thu May 30, 2013 at 11:41:03 AM EST
    While he may think hacking into computers where he is not allowed to hack into is all right, most people would rather keep that activity illegal.