Concerns Raised About Aaron Swartz's Prosecution And The Wikileaks Connection

from the fishing-expedition dept

Let's state upfront that a lot of what's in this post is conjecture based on a few pieces of information out there. I'm not convinced that it presents enough evidence of an actual connection. However, a bunch of folks have been talking about this (and submitting it here), so we wanted to raise the issue to see what people thought, and if there was any other information that could confirm or deny some of the conjectures in the piece. As far as we can tell, some of the timing is a bit odd, but it could very well be a coincidence. We'd love to have the full story if there was one, but federal prosecutors -- especially those under media scrutiny -- aren't known for suddenly opening up about these sorts of things. Given that, we thought we'd post some of the details of the discussion for the sake of continuing the discussion and seeing if anyone had anything more conclusive, either showing a connection between Aaron Swartz's prosecution and Wikileaks... or debunking it.

We've already discussed how Wikileaks bizarrely outed Aaron Swartz as a possible source, and that's leading to other speculation as well, including a question as to whether or not the grand jury investigation into Swartz was really more about the fishing expedition against Wikileaks, rather than the whole MIT/JSTOR effort. The Emptywheel blog (linked above) notes that Swartz's defense indicated it was aware of a much deeper investigation concerning Swartz that went beyond MIT and JSTOR to Twitter, Google, Amazon, the Internet Archive and possibly more -- and asked the government to turn over such materials:

These paragraphs request information relating to grand jury subpoenas. Paragraph 1 requested that the government provide “[a]ny and all grand jury subpoenas – and any and all information resulting from their service – seeking information from third parties including but not limited to Twitter. MIT, JSTOR, Internet Archive that would constitute a communication from or to Aaron Swartz or any computer associated with him.” Paragraph 4 requested “[a]ny and all SCA applications, orders or subpoenas to MIT, JSTOR, Twitter, Google, Amazon, Internet Archive or any other entity seeking information regarding Aaron Swartz, any account associated with Swartz, or any information regarding communications to and from Swartz and any and all information resulting from their service.” Paragraph 20 requested “[a]ny and all paper, documents, materials, information and data of any kind received by the Government as a result of the service of any grand jury subpoena on any person or entity relating to this investigation.”

Swartz requests this information because some grand jury subpoenas used in this case contained directives to the recipients which Swartz contends were in conflict with Rule 6(e)(2)(A), see United States v. Kramer, 864 F.2d 99, 101 (11th Cir. 1988), and others sought certification of the produced documents so that they could be offered into evidence under Fed. R. Evid. 803(6), 901. Swartz requires the requested materials to determine whether there is a further basis for moving to exclude evidence under the Fourth Amendment (even though the SCA has no independent suppression remedy).


Moreover, defendant believes that the items would not have been subpoenaed by the experienced and respected senior prosecutor, nor would evidentiary certifications have been requested, were the subpoenaed items not material to either the prosecution or the defense. Defendant’s viewing of any undisclosed subpoenaed materials would not be burdensome, and disclosure of the subpoenas would not intrude upon the government’s work product privilege, as the subpoenas were served on third parties, thus waiving any confidentiality or privilege protections.

Given all of that, it's leading some to wonder if this was more about the big fishing expedition a grand jury has supposedly been working on for quite some time, trying to sniff out anything that can be used against Wikileaks. There is no confirmed connection to the Wikileaks investigation, but Emptywheel notes some oddities in the timing -- such as the grand jury investigation into Aaron seeming to ramp up just as it appeared that the big Wikileaks grand jury was coming up empty. In fact, as Emptywheel showed in a different post, it looked like the investigation into Swartz was going absolutely nowhere... until the grand jury suddenly showed renewed interest long after the arrest. The post notes that the Secret Service didn't even bother searching the laptop onto which Swartz had downloaded the JSTOR material for weeks after getting involved in his case.

But what happened in between the arrest and the sudden decision to really look into Swartz? The DOJ drew a big, fat blank against Wikileaks. The timeline:
  • Swartz was arrested on January 6th, 2011.
  • On February 9th it was reported that the Justice Department had drawn a blank on anything it could use to go after Wikileaks.
  • That same day, February 9th, the Secret Service suddenly got around to issuing warrants to search Swartz's hardware
Oh, and one other key date. Just a couple weeks before all of this, on December 27th, 2010, Swartz had filed a FOIA seeking information concerning the treatment of Bradley Manning. As is noted in the posts linked here, it's not at all normal for the Secret Service to wait so long to get a subpoena.

I will say that I'm far from convinced there was a full connection here. There is way too much speculation and conjecture and it is quite possible (even probable) that the timing is all a coincidence. But the timing is at least worth noting, since it seems that more and more information keeps coming out about this.

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  1. identicon
    The Ultimate Anonymous Coward, 24 Jan 2013 @ 7:00am

    A form of justice at last?

    It has come to my attention that the alt.usenet.kooks Usenet newsgroup has nominated the United States Department of Justice for their "Bobo Award", which is the "highest" of their awards and is given only to those kooks whose online looniness leads to bad real-life consequences. The previous "winner" was Andrew Cheung, the starvation-diet proponent who ended up causing several deaths. The reason for the DOJ's Bobo nomination is, of course, having driven Aaron Swartz to suicide.

    The nominating post is available at Google Groups:
    /alt.usenet.kooks/msg/8c4a53aec01d0af0 is the individual message link (minus hostname part), or you can search for "bobo justice 2013" and it is fourth on the list, titled "Major Dual NOMINATIONS". (Warning: that thread has several trolls posting to it.)

    People might be interested in voting for those clowns at the DOJ when the awards are voted on, I think in February.

    You might also be interested that the author of the nomination extensively cites Techdirt's own coverage of the story in support of her arguments.

    (Note: voting would require making Usenet posts to a newsgroup known to harbor its own share of stalkers and nutjobs; you might want to take steps to protect your identity, not from the government but from other kooks. Free news server AIOE requires some configuration but obscures your posting IP and allows arbitrary "from" names, without signup; Google Groups is easy to use if you're not familiar with Usenet, but exposes your posting IP, so you might want to use a proxy of some sort if you vote from there, or to post from a public WiFi some distance from both your home and work.)

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