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From Bradley Manning to Aaron Swartz -- The Government's Inhumane Persecution of Brave Truth Tellers

The Justice Department’s legal assault on Swartz is one of many attacks on people who carried important information into the public realm.

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Prosecutors have cast activists like Swartz as cyber-terrorist Bond villains. In reality, they are more like earnest variations on Lisa Simpson. Swartz’s account of how he got involved with the fight to stop the SOPA/PIPA intellectual property bill in Congress reads like a Capra-esque rhapsody to American democracy. Manning, neck-deep in the worst foreign-policy disaster since Vietnam, hoped his leaks would lead to “worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms” because “without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.” Jeremy Hammond’s rhetoric admittedly tends to the extra-spicy, but many of his alleged misdeeds—revealing corporate spying on ordinary citizens—are a public service. Is getting the truth out really such a bad thing?

To be sure, the truth alone has never been enough to set anyone free. And truth, whether about foreign civilians killed or domestic surveillance programs, is very often the last thing people want. District attorneys know this. Perhaps the greatest tribute to the power of knowledge is the prosecutorial state’s panicked attempts to suppress it.

The notion that information should be easy to come by was not cooked up at the annual DefCon hacker conference. It was James Madison who wrote, “Popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.” In the year 2013, such an Enlightenment cliché should not be sounding radical. (It is only since the summer of 2011 that Washington finished declassifying material from the Madison administration—a lag measured in centuries.) 

The death of Aaron Swartz has rallied a small counterattack against the know-nothing state: mild law professors are spitting nails about bullying prosecutors, and the US attorney overseeing the case, Carmen Ortiz, no longer has a bright future in Massachusetts politics. “Aaron’s Law,” a bill proposed by Representative Zoe Lofgren, would prune the overreaching Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and even right-wing Senator John Cornyn is asking whether the case against Swartz was retaliation for the activist’s assertive use of Freedom of Information Act requests.

These are good developments, but they are overshadowed by runaway overclassification, toothless whistleblower-protection laws and an intellectual property regime driven by greed alone. Ignorance enforced by police and prosecutors will not bring us security, wealth or justice.

William F. Baker writes that the FTC’s investigation of Google has skirted the issue of the search-engine giant’s ability to restrict readers’ access to news. 

Chase Madar is a lawyer in New York. He reviews and reports for the London Review of Books, Le Monde Diplomatique, the American Conservative Magazine and CounterPunch.
 
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