What a Small World: Carmen Ortiz, Aaron Swartz, and Tarek Mehanna

Revised: January 15, 2012, 3:25 pm; revised again 10:02 pm.

Update I & II (below).

You have probably heard of Carmen Ortiz. She is the US Attorney who has become notorious for vigorously initiating charges against Aaron Swartz, a cyber-activist and prodigy who, according to the Massachusett’s US Attorney‘s office, engaged in criminal activity by breaking through the security firewalls* of JSTOR via MIT computer networks and downloaded millions of public-access files. Swartz committed suicide a few days ago; his family suggests that the cause in part was the intense prosecutorial zealousness, where he faced a possible felony conviction and 30-year sentence, and up to $1 million in fines, for the “theft” of public-access articles. This was a prosecution which JSTOR opted out of supporting, but which MIT did support despite the fact that it has one of the most intentionally accessible networks of most universities.

What you may not know is that under Massachusetts law, the potential sentence that Swartz faced was more than the maximum sentence given to a rapist who has subdued his victim with a threat of physical force, namely 20 years. If a firearm is added to the mix, but if the victim is not subjected to “serious bodily injury,” then the rapist can receive a maximum of 20 + 10, or 30 years. In other words, the same as for downloading gazillions public-access, royalty-less articles—a crime which caused no harm.

What you also may not know is that Ortiz, who—until 5 days ago–was considering a run as the Democratic candidate for the Governor of Massachusetts, was chosen as the 2011 Bostonian of the Year by the Boston Globe. As evidence of her brilliant credentials, the Boston Globe referred to her work alongside a young Eric Holder in the Justice Department over fifteen years ago, during which time she helped to prosecute Abscam, sending the likes of Jim Jenrette and other Congressmen to jail for accepting bribes in one of the most famous FBI stings until the era of the War on Terror. Of course, in order to ascend through the ranks of (the Department of) Justice, one must make it a religion to be a “law and order” prosecutor. The Globe, in its attempt to confirm its support for this marvelous candidate, makes sure we know about Ortiz’ famous pursuit of James “Whitey” Bulger, the mafia member who was on the lam for 20 years before he turned up a few years back.

What you also may not know is that under Ortiz’s auspices as the US Attorney, other young Massachusetts men were inordinately harassed and pursued for political dissent–along with the singular crime of being Muslim. Among them are Tarek Mehanna and Rezwan Ferdaus. Mehanna, a US citizen, was convicted and sentenced to 17.5 years. Ferdaus, also a citizen, was entrapped by the FBI, convicted, and sentenced to 17 years for building explosive devices. I wrote about them some months ago, so here I will mostly highlight Mehanna’s case.

To judge by the U.S. Attorney’s prosecution of Mehanna, you would have thought there were enormous amounts of evidence pointing to his terrorist activities. Mehanna’s crime was political dissent against the U.S.’s vigorous pursuit and harassment of Muslims in its self-declared War on Terror. In fact, let me be even clearer: Mehanna was not convicted of killing, assaulting, or even threatening Americans. He was convicted of

conspiracy to provide material support to al Qaeda, providing material support to terrorists (and conspiracy to do so), conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country, conspiracy to make false statements to the FBI, and two counts of making false statements.

In the scheme of counterterrorism laws, conspiracy is one of the weakest charges that can be leveled, since conspiracy charges require an extremely low standard of evidence. In fact, the three men of Somali descent who were rendered from Djibouti last month to a Brookyn Federal court, are also charged with “conspiracy,” despite having been detained for over 3 months in Somalia and over 1 month in Brooklyn. This tells us that very little evidence has been found to support a stronger charge, like of actual material support to terrorists.

To hear the Boston Globe and the Boston FBI’s office tell the story, Mehanna was on the verge of waging jihad. The accounts by Adam Serwer, Kevin Gostola and Glenn Greenwald vigorously counter this story. Adam Serwer, for example, suggests:

Civil liberties advocates say the case represents a slippery slope. In the 2010 case Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, which decided whether or not providing nonviolent aid (such as legal advice) to terrorist groups constitutes material support for terrorism, the Supreme Court ruled that even protected speech can be a criminal act if it occurs at the direction of a terrorist organization. Based on that ruling, you could be convicted of materially supporting terrorism merely for translating a document or putting an extremist video online, depending on your intentions.

And yet, Mehanna was left in solitary confinement without a trial for over 3 years, with very few chances to see his parents–or anyone else. In prison, he like many other young Muslim men, faced a range of “Special Administrative Measures” (SAM’s) that are rather arbitrarily administered for various infringements of ad hoc rules, such as praying in Arabic, etc. All this…for…critical political speech.

Regarding Ferdaus, as I wrote in October, he is:

Another Massachusetts resident, a U.S. citizen of Bangladeshi descent, who was convicted of terrorism by making IED detonators per request of undercover FBI agents. He pled—i.e. there was NO trial and so NO public evidence—to charges of attempting to destroy a federal building and “attempts to provide material support” to terrorists.” He was also a drummer in a rock band “Goosepimp Orchestra,” and went by the name “Bollywood.” Until 2010—when he was 25 years old—not 16, 18, or 20—he suddenly evinced an urge to kill Americans—at the prompting of undercover FBI agents. Really? At the age of 25, he undergoes a shift from drummer to terrorist? Clearly, young South Asian musicians need to watch out—they might find themselves overwhelmed by “terrorist leanings.” Prior to 2010, Ferdaus’ only evidence of “terrorist” behavior was a high school prank—pouring cement on the doors of his high school as a senior, and smoking pot. Yes—such evidence of “terrorist behavior…just imagine. By this rubric, every male white high school senior is well on his way to being a terrorist. Wait. Except of course that they’re white. And Ferdaus is not.

Conversely, Aaron Swartz was not Muslim, and thus his chances of being targeted as a potential terrorist were significantly decreased. However, his crime was taking concepts like public-access and creative commons too seriously–and thus thwarting the private property interests of info-hoarding profitable (though “officially” non-profit) companies like JSTOR–and officially for-profit companies like Elsevier. As with most policies under the Bush and Obama Administrations, what we have come to understand is that they will fiercely, staunchly, defend the interests of banks, mortgage companies, and their Wall Street friends–and be perfectly equanimous about trampling powerless individuals–especially if they are hotheaded, suggestible, or “excessively” idealistic about standards of fairness and justice.

It is not surprising that Eric Holder and Carmen Ortiz are consistent in their overzealous prosecutions against individuals who are engaged in political dissent: For Aaron Swartz, this dissent took the form of challenging the electronic paywalls that prevented public access to work done by scholars like myself, who will never see a penny from the tens of articles that I have published. Mehanna’s speech at sentencing is worth reading; he is clearly a politically aware young man. His dissent took the form of challenging and criticizing the US government’s imperial war—perhaps in extreme terms—but that is also part of the flexible boundaries of speech.

When young white men engage in extreme speech in colleges, they might be suspended, but they are rarely put in maximum security prisons and solitary confinement for years at a time before they are given a trial. It appears however that the inexcusable sin of young white men–is to effectively run circles around big corporations and wealthy educational institutions–and to do so without remorse. That’s enough to get the state to come after you. As Marcy Wheeler notes, 2 days before Swartz’ arrest, his case was taken over by the Secret Service.

Are these cases really that different, then? They are all targets of nationally directed efforts to target young men for–essentially–the crime of significantly challenging the state’s actions and loyalties. In Walter Benjamin’s words, that makes them Great Criminals.

Swartz, Mehanna and Ferdaus are also young men who have little capacity to come up with the resources—the money or the connections–needed to fight the U.S. government. These are small fish, they’re easy to hook, and the prizes are big: fame and professional ascendance as the “good guys,” at the same time that—at least Holder’s office—decides to ignore the crimes of big banks like HSBC, who are engaged in deliberate money laundering and massive material support to terrorists and drug cartels.

It is horrific and tragic that Aaron Swartz is dead, by suicide no less. I didn’t know much about him, or even his name until Saturday morning, but I do remember the case of a young “hacker” who managed to download 4.2 million public-access JSTOR files. Given that they were public access files that could only be obtained by being affiliated with an institution who subscribed, i.e. paid thousands of dollars to JSTOR—and given that those profits were never seen by the authors whose articles were included–it is clear that this is a theft without a victim. The bigger theft is conducted by academic publishers and databases—and I suspect, by copyright attorneys, who made it profitable to aggregate these files and demand exorbitant rates for access to them.

Judging from the moving testaments by so many others whose work I admire, I sense that his is a tragic loss not only to his family and friends, but to the project of political justice. For that I am intensely sad and furious at the pressure that he must have felt during the last few years.

It is also horrific and tragic that Mehanna and Ferdaus were each subjected to years in solitary confinement and entrapped by the FBI, and that the FBI is doing this more and more frequently. These two men did not kill themselves. However, a number of young Muslim men have died at the hands of US government, like Adnan Latif did (see my last post for links). Still, Mehanna and Ferdaus are part of the same move to overzealous prosecution that has victimized many young men under the auspices of the US Attorney Ortiz—in Massachusets and her counterpart, Eric Holder, at the federal (and international) level. We can see similar prosecutions all over this country–including in New York under US Attorney Preet Bharara. Bharara’s office zealously prosecuted Fahad Hashmi–again for political dissent. Hashmi, who was ultimately convicted for “conspiracy” to provide material support, also spent years in solitary confinement and was sentenced to 15 years on the basis of very little evidence.

One of the many things that those who are outraged at the death of Aaron Swartz can do is to challenge the copyright restrictions that publishers and academic databases impose on universities and scholars alike.

Another is to recognize and articulate–constantly, repeatedly, loudly–the commonalities between Swartz’s prosecution and the persecution of others like Mehanna, Ferdaus, and Hashmi. Challenges to the harassment of individuals–whether cyber-activists, Occupy protesters, whistleblowers, or Muslim political dissenters by the U.S. state–need to be sought –and based–in the legal, political, thematic links between individuals who may look and appear to be engaged in different “crimes” but who in fact are not so different in terms of how they are being pursued and targeted by the US state.


Update (Jan 14, 2013, 7:33 am): I forgot to add the obvious: Swartz was also a key figure in challenging SOPA, another reason the state was none too happy with him.

Update II:( January 19, 2013: 12:20 pm): Marcy Wheeler has made a remarkable set of connections between Aaron Swartz’ FOIA request for information on Bradley Manning and the Secret Services’ confiscation of his computer and then arrest several days later, and DoJ’s ensuing harsh treatment. Read her posts that follow as well.

*An earlier version of this post incorrectly described Aaron Swartz’s ‘crime’ as having hacked through JSTOR’s paywall. In fact, according to the US Attorney’s office, Swartz is alleged to have broken through the JSTOR’s and MIT’s security firewalls.


20 thoughts on “What a Small World: Carmen Ortiz, Aaron Swartz, and Tarek Mehanna

  1. Pingback: Carmen Ortiz Used Swartz Case to Advance Her Career? - Pilant's Business Ethics

  2. Pingback: Librarians: When do we stand up for freedom of inquiry? | Bibliographic Wilderness

  3. Couple of issues to mention. In no way did Aaron “break through” JSTOR’s paywall. MIT had decided to open access to JSTOR through MIT’s access to ANYONE with a wireless connection. Furthermore, IIRC, Aaron HAD his own access to JSTOR, as a result of being Harvard faculty. Aaron used MIT’s connection because it was faster.

    At worst, when he connected to MIT’s network to quickly download articles, what he did was the equivalent of turning on the sink or flushing the toilet while your flatmate is in the shower.

    There was no hacking involved.

  4. So the bankers who created false documents and illegally foreclosed on MILLIONS of families pay no fines and face no prosecution, so the bankers who laundered millions for the drug cartels face to prosecution and personally pay no fines. In fact they get others, (the shareholder to pay their fines).

    Yet someone who only wanted share information and the aggrieved first party did not even want to press charges has the full force of the totally useless Justice dept brought to bear and they bully this gentle soul until he [supposedly] committed suicide. (I wonder who made that determination!)

    Ortiz and Holder should be fired, not receive Boston Globe awards.

    If Swartz had used hid incredible talent to amass a personal fortune as much lesser people in the computer world had done, these bullies Holder and Ortiz couldn’t have touched him because he could have hire all they slick lawyers with inside connections he needed to defend himself. But Arron Swartz didn’t succumb to greed and instead worked for the common good, and because he dared to challenge his government of “freedom and liberty”, he paid the price.

    Instead humanity suffers a great loss, and we will never know what great things Aaron Swartz could have contributed to the common good.

    History will not look favorably at these two tyrants Eric Holder and Carmen Ortiz, who abused their power to help corporate interests and did NOTHING to help the victims of economic fraud.

  5. Thank you for writing that. I am sure if Dr. Tarek Mehanna was able to read this piece himself, he would have thanked you as well! Please keep up the good work in showing our nation the truth about many of these cases and how verdicts vary so much and are too often more severe than those of actual criminals.

  6. Excellent piece. Important, however, not to let off the hook others in the prosecutorial chain. In particular, MIT President Susan Hockfield who pressed for prosecution while JSTOR did not. Hockfield as a member of the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board pushed for “the increased cooperation between federal authorities and academia is facilitated by the political framework brought about by the war on terror.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Security_Higher_Education_Advisory_Board

  7. I saw your post at BLCKDGRD, and have re-posted to my FB and anybody else’s I see by way of contrast for those who might be thinking that the dreck from The New Yorker, for instance, in any way gets to the heart of it. You’ve connected exactly the right dots. Overkill has come home to roost and it’s everywhere. Spectacular post! You have a new reader.

    • Thanks. I’ve changed the wording. I will check into this further, but my understanding is that nothing prevents non-profits from paying directors and managers huge salaries. People are certainly profiting, even if the company has a tax-exempt status.

      • I think you’re a little confused about how JSTOR works.
        My understanding is that they negotiate contracts with the publishers of these journals. they don’t own any copyrights themselves.
        they aren’t demanding these fees, the copyright holders are.
        I’m sure they get paid for the technical work they do, scanning physical articles, providing search and electronic access, but I don’t think that is inherently wrong.
        I do believe there is a bigger problem with the academic journal process, but I’m not so sure that any fault lies with JSTOR.

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