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Aaron Swartz and Bradley Manning: How the US Government Contains Those Who Would Free Information

Swartz and Manning's crimes were that they individually sought to liberate the information our government didn't want us to see. This government is just creating martyrs. And history shows us that martyrs have a way of catalyzing change.

“Remember how they outlawed acid soon as they found out it was a channel to something they didn't want us to see? Why should information be any different?”

So says paranoid, stoner gumshoe Doc Sportello to the protohacker Fritz in Thomas Pynchon's stem-winding psychedelic noir novel Inherent Vice. Doc’s referring to ARPANET, an early form of the internet. Pynchon may just have been playing to countercultural nostalgia, but then again, as any Pynchon nut will tell you, the hermetic author has always been on the side of misfits, running his subversive types through a gauntlet of endless Menippean carnivals.


But here's the thing that Pynchon misses (maybe it's just a function of Doc's stoned operating filter): information has always been, in some form or another, outlawed. Did the good doctor forget prepsychedelic human history? Perhaps Doc’s naïveté is irrelevant when we consider that the internet and psychedelics—likened to one another by Tim Leary, Terrence McKenna, and others—blow information and consciousness wide open.

When Doc asks Fritz when the government is going to outlaw ARPANET and thus information, Fritz responds, “What. Why would they do that?”

Western civilization's democracies will likely never outlaw the internet (they need it for the free market, you see)—but they have declared war on those who would use it to free once-secret information. And so it was with Aaron Swartz, and thus shall it be with Bradley Manning, the young Army soldier suspected of supplying WikiLeaks with its diplomatic cable dump. One is dead, the other contained (for now).

Manning knows the dimensions of his prison cell well. Since his arrival in 2010 he's probably surveyed every dimple and crenulation of his cell’s concrete walls during his daily 23-hour isolation sessions.

Outside the walls of his prison in 2010, another information activist was hard at work as details of Manning's jailhouse accommodations filtered into the American consciousness. Aaron Swartz, co-founder of RSS, Reddit, Demand Progress, and Creative Commons—a crusader for social and political justice for the Internet Age—exercised his right as a US citizen by filing a Freedom of Information request (FOIA). According to some sources, he was after, among other information, records of Manning's prison treatment. As is typical of FOIA requests, Swartz found himself in an absurdist, Gilliamesque world where answers were few, excuses many, and time rearranged itself according to the flows of bureaucratic existence.


One could write a play of it. Stage right: Manning in a cell. Center stage: a gaggle of bureaucrats piled atop a desk decorated with black redaction markers. And then Swartz at his computer, stage left, interfacing with that fleet of government pencil pushers. Each scene proceeds in different perceptions of time. For Manning, it’s a slow, interminable wait and possible execution at some undefined endpoint— a bureaucracy that’s all triplicate forms and pneumatic tubes. And there is Swartz, who had an almost preternatural ability to instantaneously create what he envisioned, bending time as it were. He stares at a glowing screen, reminded once again why information must be liberated—if only to make everything more instantaneous and less subject to human meddling.

When Swartz walked into the MIT server room to liberate millions of academic papers (freeing knowledge in the process), he was unwittingly opening the door to his very own cell alongside Manning. One need not be in a tiny room to feel the walls closing in. The law does a great job of that—the shadow of America's boot heel spreading all around, snuffing out the light. Defendants are forced to deal: plead guilty and serve a short sentence, or fight the system and serve much more time. Justice indeed.

Americans should be considering the connection between the prosecutions of Manning and Swartz. But we're too busy with Super Bowl hangovers and Beyoncé. Talis vita est. Well, at least one American politician acknowledged the umbilical cord that lay between Manning and Swartz, or at least a thread of it anyway.


Three weeks ago Texas Senator John Cornyn sent a letter to President Obama's attorney general Eric Holder. In that letter Cornyn wondered if Swartz had faced aggressive prosecution because of his Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests related to Manning's treatment in prison. Cornyn was not alone in his curiosity. Author and co-founder of Boing Boing Cory Doctorow theorized that Swartz and others in the MIT crowd of hackers were being hounded by the government for their connections or sympathies to Manning. Information isn't free, you see: It must be paid for by McCarthyist tenacity.

Doctorow proffers a fair theory. Legally and officially the US Department of Justice can only prosecute crimes listed in an indictment. But indictments say nothing of any other possible prosecutorial motivations. A target as public in his information rebellion as Swartz was always going to be big game for the DOJ. It makes no difference if he was a young, widely admired genius who openly and idealistically quested for a more responsive and honest democracy.

If true, one would have expected this sort of reactive, vengeful maneuvering from the Bush administration (see Cheney and the Valerie Plame affair). But with Obama, who in many ways remains the American Left's messiah—even as his legacy is burnished with a mixture of the bad (drone wars, secrecy) and the ugly (fiscal crisis)—there’s hardly an imperative to force the DOJ to speak the truth about Swartz's prosecution. The administration is silent—probably focus grouping for an official PR campaign. Should we even expect the truth from the DOJ? Probably not.


Last week Representatives Daryl Issa and Elijah Cummings sent a letter to Attorney General Holder, demanding a briefing about the decisions by federal prosecutors to bring charges against Swartz. Issa is a known antagonist of Holder (the Fast and Furious witch hunt), but he's also a respected champion of internet freedom. Issa may just force an official response on the Swartz prosecution.

Demand Progress's executive director David Segal commended Issa and Cummings “for taking the first steps in an investigation into Aaron's prosecution. We believe that a non-partisan inquiry into prosecutors' handling of Aaron's case will air important facts, demonstrate the over-breadth of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act [CFAA]—under which he was prosecuted, and might even reveal misconduct on the part of the prosecutors who led the crusade against him.” Demand Progress is also calling on Obama to fire Carmen Ortiz, the lead prosecutor for the District of Massachusetts. An online petition with the White House has surpassed the 25,000 signature threshold required for an official response from Obama. It’s unlikely that either Ortiz or assistant prosecutor Stephen Heymann will be canned.

The prosecutorial aggression in Swartz’s case might just hinge on ambition. Like J. Edgar Hoover, Heymann is eager to cement his reputation by bringing a public figure down. This may be true, but it's not the whole story. Is it also possible that elements within the government took a tactic from Scientology's payback playbook and intentionally drove Swartz, a man with admitted mental-health issues (depression), to the brink, if only for an added advantage? They've already done it with Manning, whose depression is well-known at this point. Stick with what works, apparently. The Boston Globe's Kevin Cullen noted that Andy Good, Swartz's first lawyer, stated that Ortiz & Co. knew of Swartz's depression and were “heedless.” Apparently Heymann said, “Fine, we'll lock him up.”

All that we know is that Swartz, one of the most persistent thorns in the side of government, is now gone. Like Manning, he is now neutralized and silent. The only consolation is that the government's Whack-a-Mole policy with free-information activists, many of whom commit crimes as acts of civil disobedience, cannot possibly win in the end. Information wants to be free.

Swartz and Manning's crimes were that they individually sought to liberate the information our government didn't want us to see. This government is just creating martyrs. And history shows us that martyrs have a way of catalyzing change.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Bradley Manning has been detained at Guantanamo Bay and was a Marine. He has, in fact, spent his time incarcerated in prisons in the US and served in the Army.