Did the Cambridge Police Bring the Federal Government into the Aaron Swartz Case?

Did the Cambridge Police Bring the Federal Government into the Aaron Swartz Case?

  • Posted on: 26 January 2013
  • By: stannenb

"Aaron was killed by the government," a grieving Robert Swartz told mourners at the funeral of his son, Aaron. The federal government prosecution of Swartz, 26, he said, drove his son to commit suicide in his Brooklyn apartment earlier this month. How a case of rogue downloading became a major federal prosecution under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a prosecution widely criticized by activists, lawyers and a retired Federal judge ,is still not completely known. But the path, based on available documents and news reports, leads directly through the Cambridge Police Department. And Swartz's connections to Wikileaks may have strengthened the government's interest.

On January 4, 2011, after a months long game of technical cat and mouse, MIT network administrators located the computer involved in the massive downloading of academic papers from JSTOR, a non-profit consortium that provides a repository for journal articles, discovering a netbook concealed in a network wiring closet. Their response in that situation seems routine. They called the MIT Police. Network administrators don't investigate possible trespassing, nor, as a matter of personal safety, would they confront anyone who might return for the equipment.

The closet, located in MIT's Building 16, quickly filled with law enforcement. According to Swartz's arrest report (pdf), MIT police officers were joined by a Cambridge detective, the Cambridge crime scene unit, a Boston officer, and a local Secret Service agent. The Huffington Post, citing a "source close to the investigation", reported that it was the Cambridge Police who brought federal law enforcement into the case:

[MIT police] called Cambridge police, where the call was then routed to a detective assigned to the New England Electronic Crimes Task Force. That detective contacted another member of the task force, Michael Pickett, a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service, who helped lead the investigation.

According to the arrest report, the Cambridge detective was Joseph Murphy who is described in an unrelated court filing as (pdf) "assigned to the Secret Service as a computer forensic examiner." The Boston police officer is identified as Timothy Laham, whose LinkedIn profile describes him as a Computer Forensic Examiner and a member of the New England Electronic Crimes Task Force. And Special Agent Pickett's Linkedin profile, available via Google cache, says:

Member of the New England Electronic Crimes Task Force Forensic Laboratory, a multi-agency computer forensics lab consisting of nine forensic examiners. served as the liaison between participating agencies.

The New England Electronic Crimes Task Force, organized by the Secret Service, describes its mission as follows:

The mission of the New England Electronic Crimes Task force is to establish a strategic alliance of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, private sector technical experts, prosecutors, academic institutions and private industry to and suppress technology-based criminal activity that endangers the integrity of the nation's financial payments systems and to investigate threats against the nation's banking, finance, telecommunications and transportation infrastructures.

Court documents state that Pickett took a leadership role in the investigation recommending, for example, the video surveillance that led to Swartz's capture. And,
according to the Huffington Post report, from MIT's perspective, the case "snowballed" out of control once the Secret Service got involved.

The intense law enforcement response to a rogue downloader of academic papers has troubled the MIT community and spawned speculation about its trigger. While the involvement of the New England Electronic Crimes Task Force may have been the result of a routine call from the Cambridge Police, Swartz's other associations may have intensified his prosecution.

In early 2010, the government alleges, Pfc. Bradley Manning, a US Army soldier serving in Iraq, downloaded approximately 750,000 documents from classified government systems to which he had access. Manning seemingly admitted this activity in May 2010 in an online chat with a journalist who had promised him confidentiality. Instead, the journalist, Adrian Lamo went to the FBI and Manning was arrested on May 26th. Wikileaks, the online international organization that publishes previously secret information gathered from anonymous sources, published documents, allegedly provided by Manning, over the course of 2010, culminating in a massive release of US government diplomatic cables in late November 2010. Treating this as a violation of the Espionage Act, the US government launched an intense investigation seeking to directly connect Manning to Wikileaks.

Manning was no stranger to Boston and Cambridge, visiting his then boyfriend, a Brandeis graduate student active in the Boston area hacker community. During these visits, the last of which was in January 2010, Manning met David House, a founder of a Boston University hackerspace and an MIT researcher. After Manning's arrest and subsequent solitary confinement, House helped found The Bradley Manning Support Network, an activist group seeking to bring attention to what they saw as the inhumane treatment of Manning. House, himself, later became a target of the Wikileaks Grand Jury. During his grand jury appearance, in which he invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, House was questioned about a supposed meeting with Bradley Manning and others during his January 2010 visit, including a breakfast at the Oxford Spa in Cambridge on January 27th.

In December of 2010, while his downloads of academic papers from JSTOR was proceeding and the government was separately investigating Manning and Wikileaks, Swartz filed a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests seeking documentation of Manning's treatment while in custody. One of these requests, which was for a tape of a jailhouse conversation between House and Manning, required Swartz to obtain and provide a privacy waiver from House, which he did.

Investigative blogger Marcy Wheeler, who came to prominence as the recognized expert on the Bush administration efforts to discredit opponents of the Iraq War, points to an alignment of timing with the Wikileaks investigation. She notes that, subsequent to Swartz's arrest on January 6, 2011 there was little activity in the investigation until February 9th, when the Secret Service applied for and executed search warrants for Swartz's home and office. Wheeler notes that this renewed federal government interest in Swartz corresponds to news reports that the central avenue of Wikileaks investigation - the connection between Manning and Wikileaks - had stalled.

In Swartz, the government had someone who they alleged had downloaded a massive archives of documents, evading detection for months, allegations that parallel those made against Manning. And, in Swartz, they had an internet activist who had written the "Guerilla Open Acess Manifesto", a known associate of David House, and who had shown a specific interest in the treatment of Bradley Manning. It seems inconceivable that, if the government connected these dots, they wouldn't have shown great interest in Swartz.

The connection between Swartz's FOIA activities and his eventual prosecution has not escaped congressional inquiry. Senator John Conryn (R-TX), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as part of his questioning the Department of Justices handling of the Swartz case, has asked Attorney General Eric Holder:

[W]as the prosecution of Mr. Swartz in any way retaliation for his exercise of his rights as a citizen under the Freedom of Information Act? If so, I recommend that you refer the matter immediately to the Inspector General.

And, on January 19, 2013, in a series of tweets that observers consider authentic but in violation of its vow of anonymity for its sources, Wikileaks added to the speculation.

Cambridge Police spokesperson Lt. Dan Rivello declined to answer questions about the Cambridge Police's handling of the Swartz investigation, referring inquiries to the US Attorney's Office in Boston. Christina DiIorio-Sterling, spokesperson for the US Attorney's office declined to elaborate beyond what was already on the public record, which, she noted, is available through the US Court's PACER computer system. PACER records, though they are public domain records of the taxpayer funded court system, generally require a fee for each page retrieved. Swartz's PACER records are available, for free, at the Internet Archive, through an project that Swartz himself helped to create through his large-scale downloading of PACER documents. Though the FBI investigated Swartz for this activity, no charges were ever filed.