The details surrounding the death of the young genius inventor Aaron Swartz get more bizarre by the day. Days before the Obama administration was to release its secret files covering the persecution and prosecution of Swartz, the government and MIT sued to stop it. The university insists its employees will be in danger once the world finds out the role MIT played in the death of Aaron Swartz.
It’s only been six months since the tragic death of internet pioneer Aaron Swartz. The 26 year-old inventor of the RSS feed and a co-owner of the popular site Reddit killed himself in January of this year. His family, as well as millions of others across the country, accuse federal authorities of terrorizing the young man so much, they caused him to take his own life to end the constant persecution.
What was once considered an open-and-shut case, considering Aaron Swartz was reportedly cooperating with federal prosecutors, has suddenly become a real-life who-done-it right out of a Sherlock Holmes story. It’s not so much the facts of the case that are so controversial, as much as the government’s, and now MIT’s, insistence that the facts remain sealed and secret from the American people.
Aaron Swartz wasn’t some common criminal. His crime consisted of hacking into a multi-university digital library and releasing thousands of works of literary genius. The books, journals and other publications created one of the largest and most advanced collections of human intelligence in existence. But it was only available to the world’s wealthy or those connected to the most prestigious universities. Aaron Swartz was a crusader for open and free access to knowledge and reading materials. He understood that knowledge is power.
Aaron Swartz didn’t do it for money, ego or any other selfish reason. The statement released by his family immediately after his death sheds some light on his possible motives, ‘Aaron’s insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable—these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter. We’re grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world.’
On January 11, 2013, Aaron Swartz took his own life to put an end to the non-stop threats, terror and intimidation at the hands of government agents and prosecutors.
When Aaron Swartz passed away, government agents and university officials thought the story was over. But his family, friends and former co-workers wanted to know the truth. Among them was Kevin Poulsen, Editor of Wired.com. He filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking for the release of all the documents relating to the government’s investigation and prosecution of Aaron Swartz.
With an alphabet soup of government agencies persecuting Swartz, Kevin Poulsen cast a vast net and sued the Department of Homeland Security. As it turned out, it was the Secret Service that had initiated the criminal investigation of Aaron Swartz in 2011 after he illegally downloaded the contents of MIT’s JSTOR university library. A sub-agency of DHS, the Secret Service none the less refused the FOIA request and insisted the government’s investigation needed to remain secret.
Two weeks ago, a federal judge ruled against the Executive Branch and ordered the Obama administration to release the documents in the Aaron Swartz case. As detailed by Poulsen and Wired.com, US District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled, “Defendant shall promptly release to Plaintiff all responsive documents that it has gathered thus far and shall continue to produce additional responsive documents that it locates on a rolling basis.”
Days before Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s order, the Secret Service petitioned the court for a stay in its ruling. The agency alleges that it just discovered another large collection of files relating to the Swartz case at a facility outside Washington DC. Agency attorneys insist the Secret Service needs a large extension of time in order to collect and review the just-discovered documents.
In its petition to the court three weeks ago, the Secret Service wrote, ‘Defendant has exercised diligence in processing these records. As part of that effort, it undertook an additional search for responsive records in certain agency files, including files located outside agency headquarters in the Washington, D.C. area. Based on this additional search, it learned yesterday, July 2, of files located outside the agency’s headquarters that contain several thousand additional pages that may be responsive to Plaintiff’s FOIA request…The agency’s review of those files will require a substantial amount of additional time.’
The court granted the federal agency a brief delay to allow it to investigate its latest discovery. The Secret Service now has an August 5 deadline, not to release the Aaron Swartz files, but to release a timetable showing when they think they might finally be able to release them. Kevin Poulsen and others who’ve submitted FOIA requests for the same information aren’t optimistic. Government officials blew right through a May 23 deadline and the plaintiffs wouldn’t be surprised if the Obama administration simply ignored the newest deadline as well.
Perhaps the most curious and surprising revelation over the past few days has been MIT University’s legal filing asking to be a party to Poulsen’s lawsuit against the Dept. of Homeland Security. But rather than join the Wired.com Editor as a Plaintiff in the FOIA case against DHS, MIT voluntarily joined Homeland Security as a Defendant in the lawsuit.
After the initial surprise wore off, critics of the government’s actions began submitting their own theories. The only facts confirmed by MIT officials involved the admission by the University that it feared for the lives and safety of some of its employees and staff if the government’s files on the Swartz investigation were made public. But what could MIT staff have done in the persecution and prosecution of Aaron Swartz that was so bad that those same individuals are in fear for their lives?
According to the latest account from Wired.com, ‘MIT claims it’s afraid the release of Swartz’s file will identify the names of MIT people who helped the Secret Service and federal prosecutors pursue felony charges against Swartz for his bulk downloading of academic articles from MIT’s network in 2011. MIT argues that those people might face threats and harassment if their names become public. But it’s worth noting that names of third parties are already redacted from documents produced under FOIA.’
Showing how America’s legal system truly works, a non-party like MIT gained access to a federal judge and arranged a secret conference call with attorneys for Kevin Poulsen, attorneys for DHS and the judge herself. MIT requested an emergency stay in the court’s order to release the Aaron Swartz documents. MIT notified the judge that they intended to file a legal motion later that day, but wanted to take advantage of their privileged access and sit down and talk to the judge in an admittedly “off the record” setting.