Another day, another dark website, another journalist silenced in fear

Citing the decision by the secure email provider Lavabit to close rather than install NSA spying hardware and/or software directly on its servers, an important and long lived legal news blog shuttered this week. The founder of the blog, Pamela Jones or PJ, had collaboratively covered major intellectual property lawsuits, anti-trust suits and issues around open source software for 10 years with both programmers and lawyers, bridging the gap between the two professions in a masterpiece project of investigative citizen journalism. The owner of Lavabit, Ladar Levison, claimed he was threatened with arrest several times while being dragged through court in order to compel him to spy on his customers. Sources quoted by NBC have said that the US attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia is now considering charging Levison for shuttering his business.

PJ began her career as a paralegal who blogged on the side. She was the get-it-done tech guru of her law office at a time when the legal profession still thought that Notepad was yellow and 8.5” x 11”. She leveraged her self-taught savvy into a blog that changed the industry. Her own experience as the local conscripted office tech guru had led her to using open source software and Linux based operating systems. It was a legal challenge to the open licensing system that keeps Linux free that caused her to write what turned out to be her most important article: SCO Falls Downstairs, Hitting its Head on Every Step.

Her reporting over the years about that suit and the ones that followed was part of a movement that defended free software. Without PJ's help, the word processing software I'm writing this on might not exist. Without PJ's ability to collaborate freely with her sources over the internet, the Linux machines that keep the Free Press humming along would not be here. We could not afford to run the programs we used to count Dianne Feinstein's money. We owe not just the developers who wrote the software, but the community who supports it. PJ was an important defender of that community, a purveyor of facts and rationality, a well of quiet competence.

Because of the secret government threats to Levison, ethically PJ feels she cannot continue. In her final post she said “There is now no shield from forced exposure. Nothing in that parenthetical thought list is terrorism-related, but no one can feel protected enough from forced exposure any more to say anything the least bit like that to anyone in an email, particularly from the US out or to the US in, but really anywhere. You don't expect a stranger to read your private communications to a friend. And once you know they can, what is there to say? Constricted and distracted. That's it exactly. That's how I feel.”

Meanwhile, the secret government has a special man to deal with Levison. His name is James Trump. He is the US attorney for the district that is home to most of America's spy agencies and the corporations that staff them. When the government needs to defend torture, James Trump is one of the names that spin to the top of the Rolodex. He missed his chance to defend confessions extracted under torture when Congress cruelly deprived him of the privilege of trying Khalid Sheik Mohammad in federal court and opted for a military tribunal instead.

While the prosecution of Khalid Sheik Mohammad may be waterboarding under the bridge, Trump jumped on other chances to defend the actions of the secret state police. Last year his prosecution of former CIA agent John Kiriakou yielded a plea agreement and a 30-month sentence for revealing the name to the New York Times of a CIA employee who carried out torture in secret prisons.

Kiriakou's plea saved the government the embarrassment of holding journalist Scott Shane in contempt of court, in an ironic twist of the source protecting the journalist. Shane may have faced the same kind of treatment that other journalists are now facing to protect their sources. The compliant media need not worry about imprisonment, as they are increasingly in favor of punishing their own for insufficient loyalty. It is not clear if Trump supports waterboarding journalists who refuse to testify.

NBC claims that source have informed them that Trump is contemplating charges against Levison for shutting down his encrypted email business rather than spy on his customers. It's a convoluted world where the government seeks to subvert the 3rd Amendment along with the rest of the Bill of Rights, but such a claim may not be far off the mark. Levison has but a single employee and runs his secure server himself. Domain registration information shows Lavabit being inside a luxury apartment complex in Dallas less than a block from Levison's other known address. The NSA is a joint civilian-military entity. In order to spy on his customers, it appears that the NSA wished to quarter electronic equipment in Levison's home.

This latest conscription to defeat encryption is just another daily excess of post-constitutional America and the secret state police that run it. As PJ said in her farewell letter: “My hope was always to show you that there is beauty and safety in the rule of law, that civilization actually depends on it. How quaint.”

Date Originally Published: 
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Article originally published at: 
Gerry Bello