Is Aaron Swartz implicated in the WikiLeaks case involving Bradley Manning?
This is the question that certain studious people are coming close to asking, but not quite coming out and asking, because they tend to want to exonerate Swartz as a fellow geek and "progressive".
So I'll ask it.
MANNING'S CONNECTION TO HACKERS AT CAMBRIDGE
Here's what the leftist blog Empty Wheel has come up with -- without really saying it (see comment no. 62 under this post):
Look, part of the Manning investigation pertained to who helped Manning scrape lots of data w/encryption to avoid notice. He got a software tool to help him do that in Jan-Feb 2010 in Cambridge. According to Adrian Lamo, he had already told the Feds who that was by August. In Cambridge at that time (though I have no idea if he was at the parties earlier) was someone who had ALREADY scraped massive amounts of data without being identified. So it’d be unlikely that he would totally escape their interest.
And presumably, one way to learn more about that would be to learn how Swartz uploaded the PACER documents to Amazon. That’s another thing he was FOIAing–what kind of info the govt got from Amazon in that investigation. And that’s something the GJ in this case was investigating too.
I’m fairly sure they used the GJ to investigate if he had ties to WikiLeaks, and that’s what his lawyer was trying to learn about in his discovery motions.
Empty Wheel doesn't come out and say it, but I will: was that scraper Swartz, or did Swartz help the scraper who helped Manning? (I've always respected Empty Wheel because the writers make careful, text-based and documented posts; Marcy Wheeler, the main blogger, is famous for having blogged about Bush and Iraq and is critical of Obama -- if you want to get the whole story on drones, the failure to close Guantanamo, that's your blog, it's serious. I don't share their politics, but I find them decent.)
WHEN VIRTUAL GOES INTO REAL
On the multiple posts about Swartz's case on Empty Wheel, Saul Tannenbaum, a former MIT IT director, now retired, turns in some of the best comments I've seen anywhere parsing what the chain of events was at MIT over the breach of security (which I will address in a separate post). Basically, while a card-carrying geeky progressive, rather than reaching for the "prosecutor overreach theory," Tannenbaum explains something simpler: IT people felt as if the hack and physical breach of the wiring closet and the disguising of identity and running from police offline made it "not their job" and required them to "call in law-enforcement" -- and then law-enforcement involved the Secret Service and various IT forensic experts.
Here's what Tannenbaum writes very cogently about the Swartz/WikiLeaks issue on his own blog. He asks whether it was simply the Cambridge Police who brought in the feds:
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.
It's funny how this now-retired IT geek puts this entire story together about someone he likely sympathizes with, who he likely feels didn't get fairly treated, better than anyone at Wired or the Times or anywhere else has put it together -- because he knows it inside out. I've been looking long and hard for some voice of sanity on this story who would cut through all the script-kiddie bullshit and posturing lawyering and lawfaring and try to tell us the straight story. He may come out at a different place than I do on this whole saga, but at least I feel he's being honest and questioning some of the kneejerk assumptions of his colleagues.
As we know from Twitter surges, House then turned against Assange this summer, and in fact did not then continue to go to Manning's hearings. He was reamed out by a number of anonymous Internet personages who seemed to think he was just exploiting the case for his own vanity. But the reality is, he threw the party mentioned by Frontline and Wired as part of the BUILDS open house, at which Manning and his then-boyfriend, who was at MIT and in hacker circles, hung out with Danny Clark and others. (Who is the girl with the purple hair? The grand jury had the same question.)
The funny thing is that I came up with this question about Swartz's connection to Manning by reading the tweets and blogs of a lot of people who are actually busy doing all kinds of research trying to prove that federal prosecutors were "overreaching" in prosecuting Swartz -- not just for the sake of copyright and hacking issues, but for the sake of WikiLeaks and a grand jury investigation into persons suspected of helping Julian Assange and/or Bradley Manning.
In other words, these hackers and "progressives" are so confident that Swartz *doesn't* have anything to do with WikiLeaks/Manning that they think that discussing the *feds'* interest in this is just a way of showing how the government agents are hounding and persecuting him. But what if the feds were on to something, and what if that was what drove Swartz to despair?
Remember in my post speculating ruefully that this will all come out rather bad for the sake of real freedom and justice, and will be a whitewash of hacker criminality and an erosion of the independent judiciary -- anyone can claim speciously then "overreach" and bully prosecutors personally over the Internet and get their way.
I asked about two things that were missing from the saga for me that I had come to see as usually the ingredients in these kinds of sagas -- the IT people at MIT were never, ever mentioned in any tech media or blogs -- ever -- and no one seemed to have turned against Swartz from among his peers. Well, it turns out that in fact you can find this information with some digging in obvious places -- but with such a swarm of information out, and testimonials and memorials, it's hard to get at right away. Some of it I had even read and just not put together. (I will address the MIT IT people in a separate post).
WIKILEAKS CLAIMS SWARTZ IS A 'SOURCE'
Curiously, WikiLeaks put out tweets last month claiming that Swartz was "a source" and had helped them. When I saw that soon after it was posted to the WikiLeaks Facebook group and Twitter, I thought it was just self-serving dreck that the WL goons posted to try to ride on the coat-tails of this tragedy. They gave the dates of "in 2010-2011" and I didn't really focus on it. I figured they were just dining out on the whole thing.
But then I read through Empty Wheel's speculations about this, and another thought crossed my mind: maybe WikiLeaks was trying to pin everything on a dead man, and try to distract from a live man, you know, like Jacob Appelbaum, who is one of the persons investigated by the grand jury (about whom I've written critically in the past here and here).
That seemed very characteristic of the unethical WikiLeaks and in keeping with how goons do various maneuvers like this online. Aaron could take the hit for them because he was dead. They could even glamourize it and he committed suicide rather than have to betray his comrades. (I was led to this line of thinking not only by the many prototypes of this story in Second Life, but by contemplating the suicide of the Russian activist Dolmatov at the same time, and his suicide note that he couldn't return to Russia because he had betrayed a good man -- a reference that no one can piece together but could have to do with some sort of interrogation somewhere -- he died in a deportation center in Holland after his plea for political asylum failed).
Yes, this is all total speculation and I get all that, but as I said, I'm not the one who started all these probes and timelines and matchings of FOIAs and all the rest -- Empty Wheel has done all the leg work on that, but from the premise that he was a ""target for daring to ask about the treatment of Bradley Manning". I think he was trying to see if he got mentioned, or his scripts got mentioned and to see what he had to admit or not admit in his dealings with the feds.
'TAKING CABLES FROM THE LIBRARY REALLY, REALLY FAST'
If you think about what Manning did -- download an awful lot of files really fast and get them all on discs supposedly (diguised as Lady Gaga CDs) -- it's really similar -- identitcal -- to what Aaron Swartz did -- and got good at doing -- in 2006, with the Library of Congress, where he took a lot of files rapidly to "liberate" them; again in 2009 with rapid downloads from PACER to try to smash that system of paid court documents; and of course in again in 2010-2011 with JSTOR and MIT, taking the 4 million documents.
You might say Swartz was the movement's expert on how to "keepgrabbing" stuff, and then, well, putting it somewhere for sake keeping. He used Amazon servers for his PACER caper; WikiLeaks also used Amazon servers for Cablegate until they were kicked out.
Now, sure, someone will say he just wrote some simple python script (keepgrabbing.py, it was handily called) that anyone might write, or the task itself is trivial, and we are always told by script kiddies that "you could just do this in your browser" and it's "taking too many books from the library". Well, not really, and there are a series of things that have to be done, whether making the fake accounts, or spoofing the MAC addresses or swapping out laptops from wiring closets -- not to mention encryption then as you try to send it somewhere. (The Dutch annoyance in the comments on previously posts keeps saying that Swartz "couldn't have" just "given back" what he stole from JSTOR because of course he would have copies -- and it may be no coincidence that after he hacked JSTOR, some of the files appeared on Pirate Bay. But it's a lot of files, and chances are he did in fact give back the big download to JSTOR because he hadn't done anything with it).
So maybe Swartz showed Manning how to do this, or showed someone else who showed Manning how to do this -- or conversely, helped Manning get his product out to WikiLeaks and/or Amazon.
Swartz was friends with an MIT hacker Danny Clark, who was said by the prosecutors as we saw above to have had breakfast with Manning when Manning came to Boston with his then-boyfriend and attended a party -- an open house to celebration BUILDS, the hacking collective started by David House, another MIT hacker who figured into the Manning case and was questioned by the grand jury.
What is Clark doing today? He's clicking "like" on the news on the MIT Facebook group where it is said that Prof. Abelson's report will come out "in a few weeks". But other than that, he is laying low.
This is old ground -- PBS Frontline did a film on WikiLeaks in which they probed this MIT connection and the house party, where the video made shows Bradley Manning drinking a cup of beer and standing next to Danny Clark and David House and others on the scene. (The video of the opening on the BUILDS site doesn't show Manning; another video made the same night does and is included in the PBS film.) Swartz doesn't seem to be in these clips, but then, no one was interested in him back then in this story, he was just one more hacker floating around fighting SOPA and doing various projects.
WAS IT TO DISTRACT FROM APPELBAUM?
The WikiLeaks announcement -- in defiance of their supposed strict policy of not revealing or harming their sources (they don't mind if they harm the sources of the people in the cables) -- sparked the Ycombinator boys to ask the same question I asked about distractive techniques. They thought it could be Jacob Appelbaum in this Ycombinator discussion:
rdtsc 11 days ago
The connection is like this:
Aaron Swartz was good friends with Jacob Appelbaum. You'll notice that the picture you'll see of Aaron on Reddit is taken by Appelbaum. http://blog.reddit.com/2013/01/aaronsw-1986-2013.html anyway, point being they were good friends and worked together.
Now Appelbaum is associated with Wikileaks (former spokesperson etc.) and has been repeatedly harassed and bullied by customs agents http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacob_Appelbaum , Appelbaum mentions how people from his contacts list (his cell phones have been confiscated numerous times) have also been questioned. I bet Aaron was one of them.
The assistance Aaron provided is probably in forms of software or development, probably working together with Appelbaum.
danso 11 days ago | link
This is entirely plausible and I would like to see it come from Wikileaks itself. It's worth noting that Applebaum is of course not famous just for his association with Wikileaks, but many other projects before 2010.
Also, Twitter successfully fought the court order to seal the federal requests for Applebaum's twitter contacts. Was Aaron Swartz's name found among the named associates of Applebaum? http://news.cnet.com/8301-31921_3-20027893-281.html
danso 11 days ago
Of course there's no mystery there -- Swartz and Appelbaum were good friends -- he took the widely used photo above.
The story of the MIT hacker community connection to Manning was covered fairly extensively back in the day -- the Washington Post asked questions about it and Wired had the clip of the party used by Frontline -- but it should be revisited in light of Swartz's FOIAs, his investigation, and his suicide.
Julian Assange was part of this hacker culture in the '80s and early ’90s, and continues to be, but he was at that time. And like many people who are involved in that scene, Assange gets involved in writing open-source software, software based on the premises that Richard Stallman founded, the sort of free software ideals. Bradley Manning, later in his life, becomes good friends with a fellow named Danny Clark, who worked for Richard Stallman at the Free Software Foundation, and to some degree, I think, became interested in Stallman's ideas and the notion that information should be free.
At that BUILDS open house, a representative from the FSF gave a talk -- this seems to have been Benjaman Mayo, who also was close friends with Swartz. He even took over his apartment after Swartz went to California to work with Redditt. So it's likely that Swartz was at this meeting, if he was in town -- but he may not have been, he may have been in San Francisco. And he doesn't need to be physically present to be in touch with his virtual community -- he phoned in to meetings of projects they had in common and obviously would tweet or email.
SOMEONE HELPED MANNING INSTALL ENCRYPTION ON HIS LAPTOP
In the interviews with Adrian Lamo, who leaked his chat logs with Manning about his hacking and relationship to Assange to the feds, Wired also explains the connection between Manning and Clark, and indicate that Lamo said someone helped Manning install encryption, and maybe it was Clark. "He admitted to being suspicious that someone, perhaps Clark, had helped Manning install encryption on his laptop."
Was that Appelbaum, who as a Tor master is a whiz at encryption obviously?
THE MANNING-ASSANGE CONNECTION
When it came out in a hearing of Manning's case that there were more than Lamo's chat logs linking Manning to Assage, the copyleftists and their libertarian customs worked furiously throughout the next month to discount it. The Atlantic said that the linkage couldn't really be established. But the conservative blog Hot Air was among those that posted that the Manning-Assange connection was established and were also earlier shocked that the hearing was closed.
From the first time I read the full version of the Wired chat logs of Lamo and Manning, the connection seemed to me to be clearly established, because Lamo asked pointedly "why do you answer to Assange" and Manning defensively said he didn't but...(1:51:14 PM) firstname.lastname@example.org: Anything unreleased?
But that's not "trial truth," just the essential truth about how oppressive little hacking collectives work online as they haze and bully one another -- and get the story out of one another and also work as snitches for the feds.
The feds needed more than Lamo's chat logs with Manning, because arguably the Assange connection would not only help them clinch the "aiding the foreign enemy" piece of their prosecution but maybe would help in the attempt to try Assange.
Swartz contacted the privacy expert Chris Soghoian about Google turning over his communications to the government.
And as this blog notes, he was interested in FOIAs about Amazon because he had used Amazon to store his stolen files before:
Swartz is no stranger to the feds being interested in his skills at prodigious downloads. In 2008, the federal court system decided to try out allowing free public access to its court record search system PACER at 17 libraries across the country. Swartz went to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals library in Chicago and installed a small PERL script he had written. The code cycled sequentially through case numbers, requesting a new document from PACER every three seconds. In this manner, Swartz got nearly 20 million pages of court documents, which his script uploaded to Amazon’s EC2 cloud computing service.
WHO TESTIFIED AGAINST SWARTZ?
And now comes the part where in fact we find out that somebody *is* alleged to have turned state's evidence on Swartz or others. The hackers' drive-by anonymous dox dumpster Pastebin has the alleged story:
WIRED contributor Quinn Norton was involved in Aaron Swartz JSTOR MIT hack, cooperated with feds, served as secret witness for grand jury that indicted Swartz. What a rat!
This seems outlandish, but in fact the court documents are the source of the claim:
Promises, rewards, or inducements have been given to witness Erin Quinn Norton. Copies of the letter agreement with her and order of immunity with respect to her grand jury testimony are enclosed on Disk 3.
Indeed that is what the court document says. But it doesn't say that she ratted out Swartz -- it just says she cooperated with the grand jury -- and I don't see that we know about what.
Quinn herself and others have called the person tweeting about this a troll and a liar.
Quinn is Swartz's former partner, with whom she established a relationship after her divorce. She writes a moving -- gut-wrenching -- tribute to him that hardly seems to be the sort of thing someone who had snitched on him to the feds would have written after his death. She also spoke at his memorial, which in this tightknit community, would hardly be anything that anyone would want if she had ratted him out. It just doesn't make logical or emotional sense.
So why is she mentioned as getting an inducement to talk to the grand jury? And about what? It may have been as simple as identifying all the people at the BUILDS party and their relationship. The lady with the purple hair and the man in the red t-shirt near Manning. The kind of thing that someone might tell themselves is okay to confirm because the feds know it anyway -- and then you can leave.
And maybe after rattling and scarifying the MIT hacker community and getting them all to clam up in fear, the feds didn't come up with anything. That seems more than likely, if they offered Swartz a plea bargain of 6 months, and didn't seem to made any charges whatsoever related to WikiLeaks.
WELL, IS THEIR A CONNECTION TO WIKILEAKS?
But what if their probe of Swartz's stuff, including his laptop and his previous patterns of activity with Amazon servers and all the rest inadvertently produced a WikiLeaks connection, not just a JSTOR hack connection? What if their investigation of Appelbaum made them even more interested in this connection? What if Quinn inadvertently confirmed something for them?
That's a lot of what-ifs, and there are many more, but it's much more plausible to consider that Swartz committed suicide over some real moral/spiritual agony, like betrayal, deliberate or inadvertent, of people he cared about, than the idea that he was too frail to serve six months in jail -- that his lawyer would have likely got further reduced as he engineered the media circus and professors' outrage.
Heather Brook posted a passage from her book on hackers, the Revolution Will be Digitized, in the connection with the death of Swartz, who she met, mentioning the secretive, clammed-up atmosphere in MIT after the feds probed everyone in the hackers' community. She interviews Swartz and Mako about Reddit and learns Swartz has been fired and come back East -- so Heather places Swartz in Boston in this time period of the BUILDS party:
He’s since been fired, dropped out of Stanford and is now a fellow at the Center for Ethics at Harvard University as well as running his campaign group. He has an intense curiosity that lasers into whatever happens to interest him at any given moment, but the attention is short, and soon he’s off delving into something else. Fortunately his immediate interest is my ‘quest’, so he grabs a nearby laptop to see what he can find online. A quick glance of Tyler Watkins’ and David House’s social networks reveals they’re both linked to someone called Danny Clark. It’s a long shot, but I ask Mako if he knows Danny Clark. His response is straightforward enough: ‘Never heard of him.’
‘But he’s on your list of LinkedIn contacts,’ says Aaron, now perusing Mako’s profile, and I remind Mako there’s no privacy on the Internet. He reiterates that he’s ‘not involved in any of this, and I don’t want anything to do with it’.
‘What’s wrong with answering her questions?’ Aaron counters.
‘You don’t understand, there’s been all kinds of people round here.’
‘I understand completely. I was investigated by the FBI, don’t forget. That doesn’t mean you can’t talk. We’re not in a police state yet.
If Heather's account is accurate, the curiosity that Swartz himself is exhibiting toward possible connections to Manning suggest that he himself didn't have them, or didn't think/or wasn't aware of the Manning/Clark connection even if in town at the same time moving in the same circules.
Maybe, in the atmosphere of the paranoid hackers already antagonistic to the state, he came to believe that he was in a police state or at least was being targeted or would not be able to get through his case without spilling what he knew, and that it would help the prosecution of Manning somehow.
Now, I'm only driving to the conclusion that in fact first Marcy Wheeler at Empty Wheel and Saul Tannenbaum at his blog set up with their careful analysis of documents and timelines and events.
They don't come out and put it this way because they don't likely think any MIT hacker really was material assistance to WikiLeaks or at least they want to protect their tribe and the "progressive" movement, deep down. Tannenbaum is at least intellectually honest enough to keep positing plausible scenarios.
What all of these materials seem to do is implicate Clark more than Swartz, mainly because Clark is there in a red t-shirt with Manning, and that he was also said to have had breakfast with him in the morning. As Empty Wheel said, the feds were probing:
who helped Manning scrape lots of data w/encryption to avoid notice. He got a software tool to help him do that in Jan-Feb 2010 in Cambridge. According to Adrian Lamo, he had already told the Feds who that was by August.
Lamo himself probed Clark to try to get this admission, apparently with the feds tutelage or knowledge.
But the fact that Clark is at large and free to click "likes" on Facebook about a biased founder of Creative Commons, Prof. Abelson, reporting soon on the MIT connection to Swartz's case lets us know that the feds don't seem to have a case -- yet.
Was there anything about the JSTOR hack that was designed to cover the tracks of a WikiLeaks connection through MIT's servers? Is it possible that the best way to disguise the rapid transfer of huge amounts of illegally-obtained government files organizing what seems like an ideological hack of JSTOR and downloading a lot of professors' papers? I just don't know: I ask.
And there's nothing that the lawyer for Swartz has said about WikiLeaks, even though WikiLeaks themselves say they are certain Swartz is a source but can't prove it because the way in which their system firewalls contacts and sources (supposedly). (Naturally no lawyer would even entertain such an allegation publicly, even if true.)
BLINK BLINK BLINK AND YOU MISSED IT
The rapid, rapid blinking of Assange's eyes when the Frontline journalist questions him about his relationship to Manning and Manning's dumping of the documents let us know that he is likely lying, just as he lied outright to the media that he had "no" relationship to Manning when in fact Manning describes in detail pursuing him, finding things out about him from the cables, and then reaching him finally after months and telling him what was known about him. The Wall Street Journal, like the leftist tech press, dismissed the idea that the feds had anything on Assange's connection to Manning in the end, although I asked all these same questions in a comment there and got no answer.
Some script kiddie is sure to say that teaching people computer stuff, like scripts or rapid downloading so you can "take books out of the library too fast" is in itself not a crime -- just like, oh, all that lock-picking that the lovely BUILDS people do "only with their own locks, never with other people's!". Sigh. And if Bradly Manning -- who was a savvy computer user and an analyst of intelligence but *not* a computer forensics expert -- picked up some tips on how he could do his heist better, it's likely not something that the feds were able to pin successfully on anybody in this community.
But there's this: Manning is going to allocute, as I've already written. And everything is being set up for his confession and admission so that he can get the least possible sentence -- after all, there isn't any way anyone can say that he didn't commit this offense. And maybe part of getting him to do that involved shaking and rattling all those geeks in MIT and confronting Manning with what they said either deliberately or accidently.
There's still Appelbaum, however. The grand jury did put him under investigation and he's been repeatedly detained and questioned and his phones taken, even if they couldn't get very far with David House. Did WikiLeaks succeed in shifting attention from @ioerror, as Appelbaum's Twitter handle is called, on to @aaronsw as Swartz's name was on Twitter? And did Appelbaum help?
From the very first moment I heard about Cablegate, I thought that it was impossible that this 20-year-old kid who was emotionally disturbed and had a troubled past and incidents of violence in the army did this enormous hack on his own. I didn't think that he was capable, even being an intelligence analyst, to understand what he had, and what to get. I assumed that he had help, and I assumed that the help was in the State Department, some eminence griese, some Wickifier of State itself (there are quite a few of them in the Goverati, as the gov 2.0 brigade calls themselves). It never occurred to me that there would be any path to this profound act of treason through the hackers' collective at MIT, although, of course, as I learned at the tech @State conference last summer, the very notion of Wikifying the US government in the first place -- which ultimately led to its deadly vulnerabilities -- came from the geeks at MIT, George Washington, and other universities who had ecstatic weekend conferences together with US officials about Wikipedia meet-ups and the movement for the Wikification of Everything.
But even when the news of the connection to the MIT hackers' community came out, via the connection with Manning's ex boyfriend, I didn't think much of it and concentrated more on another connection -- Manning's friendship with the social media IT guy in the White House. It never occurred to me that Lessig's prodigies would be connected to WikiLeaks, but of course, it all goes together, all that "sharing"...