The following is the bottom one-third-plus of the MLK Conspiracy Trial Transcript, Volume 9, from November 30th, 1999, the source for which is at: http://www.thekingcenter.com/tkc/trial/Volume9.html ---------------------------------------------------------------------------- Testimony of Mr. William Schaap, attorney, military and intelligence specialization, co-publisher Covert Action Quarterly, on the role of the U.S. Government in the assassination of Martin Luther King MLK Conspiracy Trial Transcript - Volume 9 November 30, 1999 THE CIRCUIT COURT OF SHELBY COUNTY, TENNESSEE THIRTIETH JUDICIAL DISTRICT AT MEMPHIS _______________________________________________ CORETTA SCOTT KING, MARTIN LUTHER KING, III, BERNICE KING, DEXTER SCOTT KING and YOLANDA KING, Plaintiffs, Vs. Case No. 97242-4 T.D. LOYD JOWERS and OTHER UNKNOWN CO-CONSPIRATORS, Defendants. _______________________________________________ PROCEEDINGS November 30th, 1999 VOLUME IX _______________________________________________ Before the Honorable James E. Swearengen, Division 4, Judge presiding. _______________________________________________ DANIEL, DILLINGER, DOMINSKI, RICHBERGER, WEATHERFORD COURT REPORTERS Suite 2200, One Commerce Square Memphis, Tennessee 38103 (901) 529-1999 DANIEL, DILLINGER, DOMINSKI, RICHBERGER, WEATHERFORD (901) 529-1999 1185 - APPEARANCES - For the Plaintiffs: MR. WILLIAM PEPPER Attorney at Law 575 Madison Avenue, Suite 1006 New York, New York 10022 (212) 605-0515 For the Defendant: MR. LEWIS K. GARRISON, Sr. Attorney at Law 100 North Main Street, Suite 1025 Memphis, Tennessee 38103 (901) 527-6445 Reported by: MS. MARGIE J. ROUTHEAUX Registered Professional Reporter Daniel, Dillinger, Dominski, Richberger & Weatherford 2200 One Commerce Square Memphis, Tennessee 38103 DANIEL, DILLINGER, DOMINSKI, RICHBERGER, WEATHERFORD (901) 529-1999 1186 - INDEX - WITNESS: PAGE NUMBER . . . WILLIAM SCHAAP Direct Examination By Mr. Pepper --------------- 1299 TRIAL EXHIBITS 24 --------------- 1265 (Collective) 25 --------------- 1271 26 --------------- 1275 27 --------------- 1286 28 --------------- 1304 MR. PEPPER: Plaintiffs call Mr. William Schaap to the stand. WILLIAM SCHAAP, Having been first duly sworn, was examined and testified as follows: DIRECT EXAMINATION BY MR. PEPPER: Q. Good afternoon, Mr. Schaap. A. Good afternoon. Q. Would you state your full name and address for the record, please. A. My name is William Schaap. My address is 143 West Fourth Street, New York, New York. Q. Could you give us a summary of your professional background, please. THE COURT: Before you do that, spell your last name. THE WITNESS: I'm sorry. S C H A A P. THE COURT: Thank you. A. I'm an attorney. I graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1964. I've been a practicing lawyer since then. And I'm a member of the bar of the State of New York and of the District of Columbia. I specialized in the 1970's in military law. I practiced military law in Asia and Europe. I later became the editor in chief of the Military Law Reporter in Washington for a number of years. And in the 70's and 80's I was staff counsel of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City. I also in the late 1980's was an adjunct professor at John J. College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York where I taught courses on propaganda and disinformation. Q. (BY MR. PEPPER) Have you also been involved in journalism and publishing? A. Yes, I have. Since 1977 or '78, in addition to being a practicing lawyer, I've also been a journalist and a publisher and a writer specializing in intelligence-related matters and particularly their relationship to the media. For more than 20 years I've been the co-publisher of a magazine called the Covert Action Quarterly which particularly deals with reporting on intelligence agencies, primarily U.S. agencies but also foreign. I published a magazine for a number of years called Lies Of Our Times which specifically was a magazine about propaganda and disinformation. And I've been the managing director of the Institute for Media Analysis for a number of years. I also, for about 20 years now, I think, was one of the principals in a publishing company called Sheraton Square Press that published books and pamphlets relating to intelligence and the media. Q. Do you also write? Have you authored articles and works? A. Yes, I do. I've written, oh, dozens of articles on -- particularly on media and intelligence. I've edited about seven or eight books on the subject. I've contributed sections to a number of other books and had -- I've -- many of my articles, of course, have appeared in my own -- our own publications, but I've also had articles appear around the world including New York Times, Washington Post and major media like -- like those. I've appeared a lot on radio and television as an expert on intelligence and the media. I'm slowing down a bit now because I'm getting older. But I used to do a lot of speaking at universities and colleges around the country and debating government officials and people connected to organizations that supported the CIA and the other -- FBI and the other intelligence agencies. Q. Have you ever testified as an expert witness in the area of governmental use of media for disinformation and propaganda? A. Yes, I have. I've -- I've testified as an expert in that field in both state and federal courts in this country. I've testified in foreign courts. I testified once before the United Nations on that subject and once before the U.S. Congress. Q. Mr. Schaap, I'm going to show you a copy of a -- of your own CV. It's a summary of your professional qualifications. I want you to confirm its accuracy. A. Yes, that's -- that's my CV that I prepared. MR. PEPPER: Your Honor, we move admission of Mr. Schaap's CV and move that he be accepted as an expert witness in the matter at hand for the issues of government use of media or disinformation and propaganda purposes. THE COURT: Objections? MR. GARRISON: I have no objection. THE COURT: All right. (Whereupon said document was marked as Trial Exhibit Number 28.) Q. (BY MR. PEPPER) Mr. Schaap, in the course of your research, have you had occasion to study the use of the media by government agencies? A. Yes, I have. I've studied many government reports on the subject. Many, many books have been written about it and articles. In fact, I've written many of those articles. Q. Can you give the Court and the Jury a brief summary of the subject indicating the extent to which this type of activity by government still takes place? A. Yes, I can. I -- I won't go into ancient history, but it should be noted that -- that governments around the world have secretly used the media for their purposes for many hundreds of years, probably thousands. But certainly from the 16th and 17th century in England on there has been a great deal of research about the use by governments -- a secret use of the media. For our purposes though, the -- particularly relating to the U.S., the most significant and the first major deliberate program in this country was during World War I when President Wilson set up an organization called the Committee For Public Information under a public relations executive -- a man named George Creole. The purpose of this committee was to propagandize the war effort against Germany. This was created immediately after the U.S. entered World War I in 1917. And in propagandizing the war effort and war news, it was the policy of this committee to have no compunctions about falsifying the news whenever it was felt that that was necessary to help the war effort. Q. Can you give us an example of the type of falsification of the news that you're talking about. A. Yes. They -- the Committee For Public Information purported very often to release documents, supposedly genuine documents, to the press in order to substantiate whatever particular position the -- the Wilson government might have been taking at the time. And one of the most famous that happened early in its creation in 1917 was a disinformation campaign to suggest that the Russian revolutionaries, Lenin in particular and Trotsky, were actually German agents being paid by the Kaiser. The Government and Creole's committee made up the story. They made up -- created phony documents. They passed it all to friends in the major newspapers. And almost immediately this was front page news around the United States and around the world. Q. I'm going to show you a New York Times headline of that era and see if that's the kind of falsification you're talking about. A. Yes, this is -- the rest of the text is from an article where that headline appeared. But that was on the front page of the New York Times in 1917. And later it transpired that the documents were -- were forgeries that had been created by Mr. Creole. And, of course, it was obvious by the current course of history, the Russian revolutionaries were hardly friends of the Kaiser. Q. Yes, indeed. A. Much less employees. Q. Can you continue with your summary, please. A. Yes. After World War I, the U.S. continued to be the -- or actually became the world's leader in the control of information. Britain had been more pre-eminent before World War I. But at the end of the war, the U.S. was really in control of all the world communication media. And disinformation was used by the government sporadically during the inter-war years. It was particularly used in the red scares of the 1920's and the creation of disinformation suggesting various opponents of the government were communists. But it wasn't a major aspect of government policy until the advent of World War II. And that was when deliberate disinformation or a structure for emitting deliberate disinformation became very, very important. Q. What happened at that point in history to bring about that resurgence? A. Well, at the very beginning of World War II there were really two schools of thought competing, both of which had government agencies. One that was set up was called the Office of War Information which was a civilian organization although it worked closely with the War Department, as it was then called. And it was headed by a man named Elmer Davis who was a very famous reporter -- journalist. His philosophy was that the agency should tell the American people exactly what was happening -- tell them the truth. If we lost a battle somewhere in Europe or the Pacific, we should tell the people we lost that battle. If we won a battle, we'd tell them we won it. But he believed that in the long run we would do best by reporting the truth. But at the same time another key organization that developed during World War II was the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS, which was headed by a military man, William Donovan, who was known as Wild Bill Donovan, who believed the saying that George Creole had -- his philosophy from World War I, which was that you should lie to the people whenever it's necessary, whenever you think lying will help maintain morale and win the war. This struggle was taking place, of course, in the context of World War II. And Donovan won both with President Roosevelt and afterward with President Truman. His philosophy that disinformation was a powerful -- a valuable weapon for a country to have, and that the disadvantages of lying to the American people were outweighed by the advantages of being able to manipulate the media. So when the war was over, the Office of War Information was dissolved. The OSS was transformed into the CIA. And the CIA was now existing in peace time, mind you. World War II is over, and now the CIA is set up with this information as a major part of its work and, in fact, as most of the reports later pointed out, the largest single part of the CIA's operations. The -- within the government at least, the acceptability of lying to the public became very widespread and acceptable even in time of peace. There had been people who felt, well, it's one thing when you're at war. But even in time of peace it became acceptable, and it spread from other agencies, including the -- the FBI which also began to engage in media manipulation in a very, very large way. Q. So in addition to being a war time strategy with respect to the security of the nation and the -- the promulgation of -- of falsehoods in times of war, this tactic started to be used in peace time. A. Exactly. That was the major difference. Certain things were -- were much more acceptable or expected over the course of history in time of war and were generally supposed to stop when the war was over. Now, there were people who argued in the late 40's that the Cold War was a war just like a hot war, and that was the war that was on, and that was why we had to do this. But what really happened is there were not battles being waged between soldiers. There was not a hot war going on anywhere, and yet the -- the infrastructure that had been set up to spread disinformation to be able to lie became institutionalized and became operating at a greater and greater level. Q. Mr. Schaap, how is it that some individuals like yourself have become more aware of these kinds of practices in our lifetimes while the mass of the population has not? A. Well, it's mostly because -- by coincidence there were a number of factors that came together, mostly in the 1970's, leading to major congressional investigations of these activities leading some newspapers to fund serious in-depth investigative reports. And in the middle and late 70's there were a series -- a huge series of congressional reports on intelligence activities, a whole section of which was devoted to media activities. And then there were major exposes in the New York Times and the Washington Post. It was sort of the Watergate mentality, I guess, that allowed this to happen. There was a window of a few years when exposing government misconduct, particularly past government misconduct -- and as far as the government was concerned, the older the better. But at least there was a window of opportunity where this was acceptable even within the mainstream, the establishment press. It was not frowned upon as much as it might have been at other times both before and since. Q. Before we go into some specific instances of this and details, can you explain to the Court and Jury really how does disinformation work? And why is it so -- why is it so successful? A. Well, you have to understand first the target of propaganda -- of disinformation. The consumer of the false news so to speak is -- in what we're talking about is the American public in general and sometimes the public overseas. Disinformation is almost always by -- by definition, about things that the average person has no separate personal knowledge of, otherwise it couldn't really work. I mean, you can't fool the people you're talking about. You can fool the other people who don't know about it. You're not trying to fool the people you're talking about. The simplest example is during the Vietnam War when there was a massive bombing campaign and the U.S. was bombing Cambodia. President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger repeatedly made public statements that we were not dropping bombs in Cambodia. Well, you couldn't fool the Cambodians who looked up and saw the bombs falling in their back yard. They knew you were bombing Cambodia. But the American people by and large accepted these statements as truth, and in fact that was a disinformation campaign that was later admitted. You're -- really we're talking about things that the public has no separate knowledge of. And it's also reinforced by the fact that Americans generally tend to believe what their government tells them, to believe that government officials on all levels generally tell the truth. And that -- if you have that, that absence of skepticism, it's a major plus for the disinformationists. And, also, it's very, very unusual around the world other than in the United States. In most other countries, particularly in Europe, it's much more the opposite. People tend on average to be very skeptical of their government. If the Italian government issues a statement, the average Italian on the street will say it's probably a lie until you can prove to me otherwise that it's not a lie. Because governments lie. That's what they -- you know, they sort of expect them to do that whereas Americans don't expect that. The average American would hear something from the government or hear the news on television and assumes that what they're hearing is the truth unless they're shown otherwise. They assume that almost nothing is ever a conspiracy. In Europe it's very much the opposite. Anything happens. They tend to think it's a conspiracy unless you show them that it wasn't a conspiracy. I mean, after all, "conspiracy" just means, you know, more than one person being involved in something. And if you stop and think about it, almost everything significant that happens anywhere involves more than one person. Yet here there is a -- not a myth really, but there's just an underlying assumption that most things are not conspiracies. And when you have that, it enables a government which has a propaganda program, has a disinformation program, to be relatively successful in -- in having its disinformation accepted. The other reason why it -- why it works even though as we -- as we know, somewhere there are people who know it's not true. Somewhere they know you're lying about something. But another reason it works is that disinformation is very, very effective over time. The longer that you, whoever you are, can control the spin on a story, the more that spin becomes accepted as the absolute truth. And in this country the government has a great deal of power and influence over that spin. Q. Why is it so effective over time? A. Well, this is an area where I had to consult with other experts because it turns out really to be a neurological function. And that was first explained to me by a -- a professor at Harvard Medical School. And it has to do with the way the human brain remembers things, the way we learn things, the way we create patterns and associations and reinforce -- well, I don't know how you -- it sort of like channels in the brain when certain things trigger certain collateral thoughts. And when you associate one thing with another over time, just the mention of the one brings the association of the other. What this will sometimes mean is that even when something is later exposed as a lie, if it was accepted as a truth for a long time, the exposure of it as a lie is not believed. It's in one ear and out the other. The best example that we know in my field is one that John Stockwell reported on. He was a CIA officer in Angola -- for Angola. But they were based -- the CIA station was based in the Congo. And when the Cuban troops were sent in to help the Angolans fight the South Africans during the early and mid 70's, the CIA's task was to try to discredit the Cubans and do whatever it could to make people around the world think it was a terrible thing that the Cubans were helping the Angolans. So Stockwell's group in Congo sat down, and one guy says to the other guy, let's think of something terrible to say that the Cubans did. And another guy says, hey, why don't we say they're raping Angolan women. That would be a great thing to say. The other guy says, terrific. And they call in their media experts, and they start sitting there at their desk at the CIA office and they start typing out these news stories about how a group of Cuban soldiers raped a bunch of Angolan women in some operation. And then they write Story Number 2 which is that the villagers got incensed and decided they didn't want the Cubans anymore, and they were going to find the fellows who did it and arrest them. And in Story Number 3 the villagers captured the Cubans. In Story Number 4 they were tried by a jury of the women victims and they were later executed with their own weapons. And they made a series of about 12 newspaper stories in a row. And with one phone call and one visit, it went over the wire services, it went into Europe, it went into the United States, it went around the world. And for about a six-month period there were all these stories about the horrible Cuban rapes in Angola. And what that does is when you hear -- the average person hears Angola or Cuban, they'll think rape of the women. And if they hear rape of the women, they will think Angola or Cubans. And if you get Angola, they'll think Cubans and rape of the women. And these patterns build up so that that becomes the truth embedded in your mind. Four years later John Stockwell quit the CIA and wrote a book exposing it. Wrote a big piece for the New York Times about how the entire Cuban/Angola story was a fabrication. And he sat there at the desk typing it. And the day after that story appeared, there was still 900 million people around the world who thought the phony story was true. Because when year, after year, after year you hear that something was the case, one story -- one day saying, hey, the whole thing was a lie, and it doesn't register on their brain. It can't beat those -- those patterns that have been built up. Q. Let's go back now taking an example -- let's go back now to the general area of intelligence because all of this activity is useless unless there's a structure into which it fits and into which it can be put out. Can you deal with the kind of structure of media operations that puts out this kind of disinformation. How extensive is it? A. Yes. We can be -- we have a lot of information about the CIA. We have a certain amount of information about the FBI, a certain amount about military intelligence. And the reason for this is because there were those congressional investigations that I mentioned before. There have been reports published, particularly from the Church Committee in the late 70's, where they published volume after volume describing the extent of media operations by the CIA and -- and other agencies. They -- the exact amounts of money that were being spent were -- were not divulged by those initial reports because that was considered to be classified. The intelligence budgets are always classified except at the same time every few weeks you'll read something in the newspaper where they say, the classified budget, which is approximately 25 billion dollars, and so on and so on and so forth. So what we -- what we have learned from these reports is that -- the first thing was that about a third of the whole CIA budget went to media propaganda operations. Q. Well, if a third of the CIA's budget went to media propaganda operations, how much would that be approximately? A. We're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars a year just for that. I mean, the intelligence budget -- now everything together is according to these -- all these reports that say it's secret, but it's about 25 to 30 billion dollars a year. Now, a lot of that is high-tech stuff. It has nothing to do with what we're talking about -- satellites and so on. But the stuff that goes to the CIA is several billion. And when you factor out overhead and things like that, you have got your operational amount. Most of the estimates suggest that -- that hundreds of billion -- hundreds of millions of dollars -- close to a billion dollars are being spent every year by the United States on secret propaganda. Again, we have fairly good figures for the CIA because it at least has been admitted in the past that they did do this stuff. They admit they do it now except they say they don't do it within the United States. But they admit that that's part of what they do. The FBI is much harder to -- to get figures for because they don't generally admit to conducting media operations. And unless and until something gets exposed and they have to admit that particular operation, they -- they deny to an extent where it's really hard to try and estimate how much money is being used by the FBI and by the military intelligence agencies. But it's sort of clear that hundreds of millions of dollars a year are being spent by various aspects of the government on deliberately creating and spreading lies. Q. Before we get into the specifics of media operations related to the Martin Luther King case and James Earl Ray, can you give us -- just to finish the background, can you give us some idea of the influence that the CIA and the FBI have had over the media. A. Yes. Again, this was something that very specific figures came out in the 70's and 80's, and we don't know the precise figures. Today we have no reason to think that they are significantly less than when they came out. But when the Church Committee reported on the CIA media operations, for example, beyond friends in the press, beyond having people who were just generally -- thought along similar lines, it turned out that they had thousands of journalists in their employ. Not merely friendly, not merely agents, not merely someone you could pass a story to, but people who might have appeared to the outside world to be a reporter for CBS was in fact a CIA employee getting a salary from the CIA. And that was repeated thousands of times all around the world. They also owned outright, the CIA -- about that time 250 or more media organizations. That's wire services, newspapers, magazines, radio, TV stations -- all around the world that they owned outright. The actual shareholder of the company turned out to be some CIA front. The Church Committee, unfortunately, did not name very many of these organizations because those that got named, of course, had to close down immediately. But it was learned that -- even things like the Rome Daily American, which was a major English language newspaper in Rome, for 20 or 30 years had been owned by the CIA. This was published and, of course, the paper closed the next day. But most people didn't realize the extent of the intelligence media organization. It's fairly incredible. They sort of brag about it. When you read the books about the history of the CIA, one of the heroes was the first man in charge of media operations, a man named Frank Wisner. And they referred to his organization as the Mighty Wurlitzer. And there's this image of this guy sitting at one of those giant organs, you know, with seventeen keyboards and you're playing this -- sort of like The Phantom of the Opera in that scene, and there was the guy running the CIA media operations all around the world. And he really was because every single city of any size on earth, he had some employee who was -- supposedly worked for a newspaper or a magazine or a radio station or a wire service, and they could get stories anywhere. Q. Can you give just one or two more specific examples. A. Yes. There was one -- actually in an article that was published written by a former CIA officer named James Willcot, who was not in the propaganda division, he was in finance. But he was so amazed he wrote a little article about this. And he was stationed in Japan one time when there was a big debate raging there over whether nuclear power ships should be able to dock in Japanese ports. It's been a very touchy issue -- at least since Hiroshima it's been a very touchy issue in Japan -- even peaceful uses of nuclear power. And the U.S. line was to promote the docking of nuclear power ships because the U.S. had more and more of them. So they wanted the Japanese papers to editorialize in favor of this in the debate that was going on. And Jim said he looked and he saw this guy at a nearby desk sit down and type -- this is a CIA officer, an employee of the U.S. Government -- type an editorial and then wave goodbye to everybody, left the office. The next morning that appeared as the editorial -- the lead editorial in the largest newspaper in Japan. Now, that level -- they didn't go to a friendly publisher and say, gee, we would sort of like it if you could maybe do something a little bit favorable to this issue. They wrote the editorial, they handed it to the guy. And the next day in Japanese it appears in the paper. Another thing showing the influence here in this country was during the Vietnam War. I don't know if -- well, some people might. People my age will remember it. There was -- Life magazine that had a cover picture of a North Vietnamese stamp that showed the Vietnamese shooting down American planes. And it showed U.S. planes with U.S. markings being burst into flames and crashing and U.S. pilots being killed. And it was a pretty bizarre and gruesome set of postage stamps. And there was a whole story in there basically trying to give the line that the Vietnamese were glorifying the killing of Americans. And they thought it was so great to kill Americans that they were putting it on their postage stamps. The only thing that was later learned is that these were not North Vietnamese stamps. They were CIA forgeries. Had never been real stamps. And the CIA was able to have them appear on the cover of Life magazine as if they were the real thing. That level of influence is something that many people don't realize. And when you read the congressional reports, page after page after page, it's absolutely astonishing how, given the urgency and given that they have hundreds of millions of dollars at their command, they could get almost anything to appear almost anywhere. Q. What about the FBI and domestic propaganda? A. Well, the FBI, there's much less documentation, again, because the official position is that the FBI doesn't do this. Whereas the official position is the CIA does do it although they tried not to talk about it. But what did come out in the congressional reports primarily is that a major FBI division that was called the crime reporting division was theoretically supposed to keep track of how federal crimes were being reported. Why that was their business, I don't know. But that's what its theory was. But in fact what it was doing was a whole division set up to keep track of journalists and reporters and magazines and newspapers to decide who could be counted on to write stories that the FBI wanted written, who would slant stories the way they wanted it. The question of whether these particular reporters were actually FBI employees, like so many were CIA employees, is unclear. That's never been admitted by the government that the FBI actually took its own employees and had them get a job as a correspondent on the newspaper, whereas we know the CIA did that in many, many places. There's no reason to think they couldn't have done it other than the fact that it hasn't yet been -- been exposed. But in any event, there were significant pressures available to the FBI to -- to use their friends. And the Church Committee report gives -- gives many, many examples -- copies of memos from Hoover on down where there would be a thing attached and say, get this information to our friends at the Copely News Service, get this information to our friends at Reader's Digest, get this to our friendly AP reporter and so on. And then, of course, they would show the clipping indicating that in fact someone had gotten it to their friends, and it would then go over the wires or appear in stories. Q. Let's turn now to the use of the media in this type of campaign against Martin Luther King, Jr. But before you do that, could you tell the Court and the Jury, what are the sources of -- underlying your testimony -- this aspect of it. A. Yes. I did a goodly amount of additional research and preparation and contemplation of appearing here. And there really are two main sources. The first, of course, is the various congressional reports that we have talked about. In addition to reports about the general operations or misconduct of the CIA or the FBI, there have been specific studies -- I don't know if they have been mentioned in this case, but there have been specific studies relating to Martin Luther King, Jr., both with respect to attacks on him while he was alive and also specific reports with respect to his murder. There was an entire volume published from one of the Senate investigations on the FBI media campaign against Dr. King. [See Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities of the United States Senate, 94th Congress, 2nd Session, 1976, Book III, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Case Study --ratitor] And there was a House Committee that published a volume investigating his assassination. And these, of course, are the -- the most important sources for what I'm talking about and what other people have written about because they have a great deal of government documentation in them which no private journalist could ever get their hands on. There are things in there that even the best of research wouldn't be able to obtain. But the congressional committees had subpoena powers and were able to amass thousands of documents, most of which were photocopied and attached to their reports. Q. For our purposes here, as well as those sources, what other sources have you used? A. Well, I've also, of course, reviewed many books that have been written on the subject -- hundreds of articles. And I've -- I've done briefcases full of clippings that were major stories written about Dr. King, particularly in the last few years of his life. And then the -- most of the coverage in the first few years of the James Earl Ray case. Both before and after his guilty plea there was intensive coverage, as you can imagine. And throughout the 60's and into the early 70's, there was quite a bit of coverage, and those clippings that I've been able to find I've reviewed. Some of the sporadic coverage in the 80's and 90's I've also been able to assemble and review, although the level of that coverage has decreased very much over the last decade or so. Q. What do the congressional reports -- if you can summarize them, give some instances, what do the congressional reports tell us about the FBI's use of the media in general but then particularly as it relates to Dr. King? A. Well, in general, the first thing they show is that throughout its history, the FBI has made relations with the media a key area. Not so much infiltrating employees as the CIA did, but cultivating very, very deep connections throughout the American media. They had the entire division of the FBI -- the crime reporting division was dealing solely with developing friendly journalists, developing ways in which you could get what you wanted to appear in the papers to be there and what you didn't want not to be there on a level that was -- nobody realized until these -- these reports came out. The crime reporting division was keeping track of virtually every journalist in America that wrote anything that had to do with the FBI. And whether everything was being classified as friendly or unfriendly, it -- of course, it was somewhat complicated because it generally meant: Did J. Edgar Hoover like what they wrote or not like what they wrote? And practically -- the opinion of nobody else at the FBI mattered while Hoover was alive. But he kept charts on every significant journalist as to who was helpful. And when you look through the reports and the documents that have come out, you will see statements by Hoover and his immediate subordinates get this information to friendly journalists. Get this to our friend at U.S. News and World Report. Get this to some friendly reporters in Memphis. And you just see all that sort of stuff. Interestingly though, this information -- it never mattered whether the information was true or false. That was not what it was about. You find FBI planting information that's true, you find them planting information that's false. The critical thing was if they had the friend at that media place, that friend was going to run what they wanted without investigating it. Q. Could you just cut through -- tell us what the Church Committee said about CoIntellPro reports and explain to the Court and the Jury what were the CoIntellPro activities. A. CoIntellPro was Counter Intelligence Program, and that was the -- the major FBI program to counter what it conceived to be threats to American democracy. And it was, at least in my opinion, rather paranoid in what it considered threats. It had divisions trying to operate against communists, against socialists, against the New Left, against the Old Left, against what they referred to as Black Nationalists, what they referred to as hate groups. They had a separate section just on the Nation of Islam. They had a separate section on the Civil Rights Movement. They had a hybrid program on CommInfil which was to deal with the possibility that communists were infiltrating non-communist groups. So they had one section trying to disrupt groups they felt were communist influence or dangerous, and another one trying to infiltrate groups or find out about groups that they thought other people were infiltrating. Basically they -- and, of course, you have to understand, "counter intelligence program" was really a misnomer. Because counter intelligence normally means you're trying to find things out. Counter intelligence officers in war time and in espionage are supposed to be finding out information. But these were active committees, not passive. And what counter intelligence programs were, were overt attempts -- sometimes very, very complicated operations to disrupt organizations which they felt were a threat regardless of whether the organizations were committing any crimes. I mean, the irony of this is that while the FBI theoretically was supposed to limit itself to investigating crimes, and federal crimes at that, it basically took the position that, you know, thinking bad thoughts was a crime. Or if you didn't like the current government of that day, that was a crime. And if J. Edgar Hoover decided the group should be disrupted, then CoIntellPro would sit down and figure out how to disrupt it. Q. Where was Dr. King in this constellation? Where did they -- how did they regard him? How was he targeted? A. Well, he was just about the top of the list in terms of J. Edgar Hoover for reasons that are still unclear. Many books have been written about J. Edgar Hoover, and I don't think anybody quite understands what made him tick. He hated Dr. King. He made no bones about it. I mean, he would -- he would send letters using -- referring to him as garbage, referring to him as slime. When Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he wrote a long diatribe about how that was the most ridiculous thing he ever heard of in his life, and in fact started a whole thing to disrupt the Nobel Peace Prize program. But he and the SCLC, as Dr. King's organization, were by themselves a major target of the FBI from early on. He certainly was being investigated in the 50's. It wasn't until the early 60's that it really intensified. But Hoover was much more public about Dr. King than almost any other individual. He would be public about "the communists" or "the terrorists" or whatever. But Martin Luther King he specifically used -- used the most horrendous language to describe him. And once went on a -- the only time he ever gave a press interview called him -- called Martin Luther King the most notorious liar in the history of the United States. Q. Okay. A. And he was saying that because King had had the temerity to say that the FBI agents in the south weren't being terribly helpful to blacks who were having problems with the racism there. Q. Can you give an example of some of the media operations that the FBI and Hoover mounted against Dr. King's organization. A. Sure. The first really significant ones were -- were to -- to suggest that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was communist infiltrated and communist dominated. They -- the FBI had prepared dossiers on King and on everybody who was working with him and had two people who were close to Dr. King who had at some time in the past had some affiliations with communists. You should understand, because this came out later, they had no evidence whatsoever that either of these two people was at that time a communists or that either of these two people was trying to impose some communist line on Dr. King, but they decided to say that anyway. And they prepared dossiers on these two -- one was a white lawyer, Stanley Levinson, the other was a black organizer named Jack O'Dell. And what they did is they -- the same way, get us a friend at this paper, get us a friend there. They started planting stories. And I think I've -- Q. Let me -- let me -- A. -- given you one of the key ones. Q. Yes, let's pull up on the stand one of the stories -- screen one of the stories that they planted. A. That's the second page. I think the headline is -- right. This was a major story about -- about Jack O'Dell and an attempt to -- I mean, they were attempting to discredit Dr. King and the organization. They were not -- they were not trying to just get rid of O'Dell because that would be better for the organization. But they spread this -- this particular clipping, I believe, is from The Atlanta Constitution. But it says in it that -- it makes reference to prior articles in the St. Louis Globe Democrat, in the New Orleans Times Picayune. The story which was essentially based on the FBI spreading this -- this information appeared all over the country. Q. Other than a general attack, is there anything -- anything else significant about this -- this article? A. Well, actually, this is a good one because it demonstrates some of the techniques they used. The most significant one is being fuzzy whenever you can. It has -- in there it talks -- it refers to O'Dell and says: "Has been identified as a member of the National Committee of the Communist Party." And that -- this is sort of the passive tense to avoid saying what -- what you know. When you say someone has been -- you don't say who identified him. You don't even say whether this identification has been confirmed. You don't say whether it's true or false. I mean, you know, one person anywhere can say something about anybody, and then you say he has been identified as a such and such. That's very important, particularly because we -- that's in the present tense. It says: "Has been identified as a member of the communist party." We know now that at the time, when the FBI gave this information to its friend, they knew that was untrue. Because they knew -- whatever might have been ten years before, they knew at that time that he was not a member of the Communist Party and yet they sent out this information saying he has been identified as a member of the Communist Party. Q. Was this a part of a broader effort on the part of the FBI to discredit the Black Movement and to tie the Civil Rights Movement to communists generally and communist infiltration? A. Very much so. It was one of the -- the few instances where -- where Hoover actually testified before Congress and allowed the testimony to be public. He -- the line was that the -- the Black Movement -- the Civil Rights Movement was being exploited by communists. And this particular clipping is another example -- again, this is from the New York Times -- of this program. These are all -- despite the fact that many of them have bylines, although this one does not have a byline, these are all based on material packets -- press packets almost that were prepared by the FBI and given to their -- to their friends in these -- in these stories. And in this case, it's even more significant because this was part of a campaign that was so organized that Hoover got his friends to write stories about it before his testimony became public so that when the testimony then became public, as it did for this one, people would know about it. One of his very, very close friends was Stewart -- Joseph Alsop, who was a syndicated national columnist back then. And this was Alsop's column about the terribly sad fact that the Civil Rights Movement in America was totally being run by the communists. This, again, was based on whatever the FBI handed him and asked him to publish. This was just one week before the other story where the -- where the testimony became public. Q. There was an escalating battle between Hoover's FBI and Martin Luther King's SCLC and the Civil Rights and then anti-war activities. What -- how did it intensify from the standpoint of media operations against Dr. King? A. Well, the first real escalation was in sixty -- in late '64 when I mentioned before that Hoover gave a press conference and called King the most notorious liar in the country. This was sort of a -- it was shocking that he said it, it was shocking that he said it in the context of a public meeting with journalists. And it appeared all over the country. And the whole conference was reprinted in U.S. News and World Report with a short response from -- from Dr. King. That was the start of -- of a campaign which continued right up until -- until King's death. I mentioned before that during the Nobel Peace Prize period of time this was in -- the nomination was in late '64, and he received it in January of '65. Hoover had the FBI do everything they could to minimize -- he couldn't stop the Swedish and Norwegian governments from giving him the prize. But he did everything that he could to try to stop it from being honored here. There was a major banquet in Dr. King's honor in Atlanta when he came back from receiving the prize. Hoover got the editor of the Atlanta Constitution personally to go around and try and persuade various people not to attend the banquet. There were also a series of articles around this time trying to show that -- that King was being influenced by communists which were being -- again, we learned this from reports. The FBI, as the CIA, was actually writing the articles anonymously and then trying to get their friends in papers to print the article under somebody else's name. And there were a whole series, some of which actually did get printed, some of which didn't. There were also -- I won't go -- I mean, there are big -- hundreds and hundreds of pages of reports detailing all the things that the FBI did. They -- one of the most outrageous was a doctored tape recording that was prepared that purported to -- to be a recording of Dr. King engaging in raucous and possibly sexual activities with various people. It turned out to be -- most of it was totally fraudulent. And what wasn't fraudulent did not have to do with anything torrid going on. It was all put together. And the tape -- in fact, the tape was originally used -- and this is one of the things that the House Committee found the most outrageous -- in an attempt to try and drive Dr. King to commit suicide. Shortly before he went to get the Nobel Prize, the tape was mailed to him with a long letter basically saying, if you don't kill yourself, we're going to make this public. Nothing ever happened because he was getting so much mail that this thing that somebody thought was -- somebody made a tape of one of his speeches. And they put it in the back room, and they didn't get to look at it until about nine months later, long after he had come back. And then they saw the note trying to get him to commit suicide. And then, ten years later, we discover that it was the FBI who wrote that note and made that tape and mailed it to Dr. King. THE COURT: Let's take a few seconds and stretch. (Brief break taken.) THE COURT: Bring in the Jury. (Jury In.) Q. (BY MR. PEPPER) Mr. Schaap, you've described an awesome power that exists in government influenced and controlled, sometimes owned, media -- print, audio, visual media entities -- and how that infrastructure gets focused on opponents of the United States such as Martin Luther King. Do you see how this incredible power was brought against Dr. King and intensified against him during the last year of his life? A. Yes. I think the -- the main reason for that was very, very specific. There was one speech that Dr. King gave in April of 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City where he came out against the war in Vietnam. And if you remember back to that period of time, this was a fundamental debate gripping every aspect of this country, the pros and cons of the involvement in Vietnam. And when Dr. King came out against the U.S. involvement there, this was immediately accepted by J. Edgar Hoover as proof that he was a communist, proof that he was a terrible person. Q. But didn't this have the effect of unifying all the forces -- all of the intelligence forces of the United States, and so now just -- it was not just an FBI matter, but it -- it seemed to spread to military intelligence, central intelligence and other areas too, didn't it? A. Absolutely. Once Dr. King made that statement, the CIA in particular considered him and his movement fair game. Even to the extent that their operations were limited to foreign policy, the -- again, because of the congressional investigations, we know that the CIA, which people thought did not operate domestically within the U.S., had a huge domestic program called Operation Chaos which was designed to counter opposition to the Vietnam War. And even though they later admitted it was illegal and later admitted they shouldn't have been doing it, there have been whole books of congressional reports about all the Operation Chaos activity in the United States, and what they called Black Nationalists were a specific target of that -- that campaign. Q. Did this continue into 1968 in his activities with the Sanitation Workers' Strike in Memphis and planning for the Poor People's Campaign in Washington? A. Absolutely. The campaign against Dr. King's activities went up to the very last day of his life. In particular, on the -- his involvement with the strike in Memphis, the FBI decided at that point to try to spread stories that he was encouraging violence. One of the -- the key articles was in the Christian Science Monitor at the end of March of '68 and, again, gives all of the -- the themes that the FBI wanted -- wanted planted, particularly about violence. The article uses bizarre language for something about a small strike in a medium-sized town that, you know, was something but was not like an earth-shaking event. This was the Sanitation Workers' Strike. And this story refers to it as a potentially cataclysmic racial confrontation. Not quite World War III, but along that kind of language. And stories that began to appear -- and this was just before Dr. King was killed -- were -- were suggesting that he was closely allied with violent forces. Q. Mr. Schaap, this Court and Jury has heard testimony from a former New York Times reporter who was told by his national editor -- Times reporters in this courtroom notwithstanding -- told by his national editor, Claude Sitton, to go to Memphis and nail Dr. King. Those were the words Earl Caldwell used in his testimony here. Is that the kind of thing you're talking about? A. Oh, absolutely. Hoover was -- you see from the memos in the report -- and Lord knows what we don't know and haven't seen -- was sending people out everywhere to talk to all of their friendly media contacts to get King. And they would usually deliver packets of information, much of it false, to be used as part of the -- of the campaign. They also were -- used a lot of interesting tactics. And you see in these stories a lot of fuzzy -- I mean, the story that's on the screen, for example, has a sentence in it near the end where it says: "Many blacks have mixed feelings about Dr. King." I mean, this is a -- they teach you in Journalism 101 not to use sentences like that. What does it mean "many blacks"? Many -- everybody had mixed feelings about everything. If you want to do it, you say who has what feelings. But the whole thing was to try to say he's violent, he's hanging around with violent people, and basically the blacks in this country shouldn't support him. Q. What was this operation like -- this media blitz, this media disinformation campaign? What was it like after Dr. King was killed? A. Well, for one thing, the attempts to discredit Dr. King -- particularly the FBI attempts -- did not stop after his death. They continued to send out their little dossiers and reports and phony information to try and discredit his memory. They also -- in the beginning when, of course, the assassin had not yet been caught or, rather, no one yet had been caught and charged with the assassination, had to give the impression that the FBI was doing a great job. I mean, one of the criticisms that was unavoidable is when Hoover had already publicly attacked Dr. King in all these magazines and said he thought he was a liar and thought he was the worst problem facing the United States and so on, it became a problem for the FBI then to try and convince America that they were doing everything in their power to apprehend his killer. And to do that, they had to pull out all the stops and get all their friendly columnists writing story after story that they were doing everything they could. And also subsequently to try and add to the stories that they were convinced that James Earl Ray was the lone assassin. Q. Let me put up this article. This story relates to a Jack Anderson column. A. Yes. This is interesting for what it reveals later. This was a story that came out in 1975. That's actually an interesting example of Jack Anderson criticizing a group of people, of whom he fails to mention he was one at the time. It's something that happens often when columnists decide to clear the -- clear the slate. But he was reporting at this time about how the FBI had waged the campaign against Dr. King, how he knew about it, how he knew about all these gross accusations that were being -- being handed out. It's -- I mean, the story is only interesting because why didn't he say it at the time is one's first thought. But at least he stayed abreast of some of it. He also was able to -- to explain that a number of rumors about Dr. King had been proven to be not true. What he didn't know at the time because the Congressional Report came out a little bit later -- what he didn't know is that even the FBI at the time they were spreading the stories when Dr. King was alive knew that the stories were not true. Q. Now, at the same time they were trying to discredit Dr. King and continued to discredit his name after he was killed, they were trying to enhance the -- the manhunt and the law enforcement work during that time. A. Yes. Not only enhance, but use hyperbole that was pretty bizarre. Although, of course, you can understand the pressures that were on them when no one had been caught. Drew Pearson, who was a very close friend of Hoover's, had a nationally syndicated column and wrote one basically designed to try and kill the rumors that Hoover wasn't trying hard because he didn't like King. And in it Pearson says he is convinced that the FBI is conducting perhaps the most painstaking exhaustive manhunt ever before undertaken in the United States. Why -- how he would know is beyond us, but that's clearly what Hoover told him to say. They also -- I don't have the clipping here. But they also had another one of their very close operatives, Jeremiah O'Leary, who was then with the Washington Star, did an article for the Reader's Digest. And he went one beyond Pearson and said it was the greatest manhunt in law enforcement history in the world. So he was now saying this wasn't only the greatest manhunt in America, it was the greatest manhunt ever, anywhere. There were -- there are a whole -- and, of course, when Ray was arrested, then there was a state of sort of self-congratulatory columns done by the same friends of the FBI showing what a wonderful job they had done. Q. Are there any other aspects of this coverage after Dr. King's death that were clearly media operations? A. Well, there certainly are in my opinion. At this point, once we get beyond the things that have been admitted in the Congressional Reports, I'm drawing my conclusions based on my own experience and expertise. But it certainly seems clear that there were media operations around -- not only that the FBI had done a wonderful job, but also on the -- the campaign to demonstrate that -- not only that James Earl Ray had done it, but that he had acted alone. Q. What are the possible operations that you actually see? A. Well, there -- you see in stories, again by friends of the FBI, statements like: It looks like the theory that there was a conspiracy is untrue. The FBI has exploded the theory that there was a conspiracy. The -- even people who had -- see, they -- they got caught a little bit because in the beginning they were planting stories that had conspiracy -- I mean, there was a story that the FBI planted at the very beginning saying that Dr. King had been killed by the husband -- by an irate husband of a lover of his. Now, later -- ten years later we saw that this was invented and that they had made up this story. But then they were sort of stuck. Because if you're saying that Ray was hired by somebody else to do it, that's a conspiracy. So then they had to drop that story because now the line was there was no conspiracy. Now they're saying -- and the same people. Pearson mentioned that story and then later on denounced the generally prevalent theory that the murder involved a conspiracy without pointing out that he was one of the people who were part of the original prevalent theory. Even -- particularly, actually, after the guilty plea, when it got -- there was no longer a judicial proceeding going on about which they could feed the stories they wanted to, they still felt a compulsion to periodically come up with stories that there was no conspiracy, there was no plot. This one on the screen being another one of these -- these examples. Q. This is the continuation of the lone killer, lone nut gunman that was -- had to be perpetuated throughout the period of James Earl Ray's incarceration? A. Absolutely. It never -- because Ray insisted virtually from the day of the plea that there was a conspiracy, they felt compelled to -- to continue to plant these -- these stories. They -- they went on for a number of years at a very intense level, and then it sort of petered off. But in the first year after the plea of guilty, Anderson wrote a number of columns saying there just wasn't any conspiracy. Max Lerner wrote columns saying Ray was the killer, there's nothing to the conspiracy theory. And when -- another example of how they -- they fuzzied it was even at the time of the plea, there was a story on the -- in the Washington Post, which I think I've given you a copy of, where they said: No evidence of any plot, Jury is told. Now that isn't really what the Jury was told. But if you read the story, it was that the prosecution was not presenting any evidence of a plot, which is very different from saying -- of course, they didn't present any evidence that there wasn't a plot either. Yet if you look at that headline, it looks like something has been said and done in court showing a jury there was no -- no plot. And that's not what happened. It wasn't -- it wasn't discussed either way. And they -- they -- there was a story I believe the next week in the Washington Post where the title of the story was: "Ray Alone Still Talks of a Plot." Which, again, journalistically was ridiculous. Because there were millions upon millions of Americans talking about whether there was a plot. And a story which, you know, tries to create the impression that James Earl Ray was stark raving mad and was the only person in America who thought there might have been a plot. That campaign went -- and, in fact, they then said, well, what we really meant was that he's the only person who is officially involved in the proceedings and thinks there's a plot, everyone else doesn't. And even that wasn't true because the next day there was a story in the papers that the -- the judge here -- the judge at the time, Judge Battle, wasn't sure and thought maybe there had been a plot and certainly made it clear that under Tennessee law if further -- if co-conspirators came up or were arrested or indicted, they would be subject to -- to trial. Q. Let me pass this article to you and ask you to look at that, Mr. Schaap. That's an article that appeared in the New York Times, Column 1 on the 17th of November, 1978, right at the time when the -- both Ray brothers were being questioned and examined in public before the House Select Committee on Assassination. And that article speaks of an independent investigation by the New York Times and the FBI and the Select Committee, into an Alton, Illinois, bank robbery -- an investigation which never took place because it's now been established. Is that an example of the type of disinformation that one finds in an attempt to train the public minds? A. Oh, absolutely. Given the fact that subsequently it was shown that they were not suspects in that robbery, it -- the first thing it means is that the -- the reporter is saying some things which had to have been simply fed to him and not checked. Because if you're saying something happened, which in fact very, very basic journalism would have proven didn't happen, you are either doing it on your own to spread some disinformation, which is extremely unlikely, or you're being asked to put a spin on something that you know is going to -- to be coming out. The -- again, I'm -- I don't know what happened in Alton, Illinois. But if, as I understand there's been testimony, it is clear that the Ray brothers were not suspects in that case, this story is clearly disinformation because it's designed to make it appear not only that they were suspects in that case but that they did it, and to make it appear that two investigations confirmed that whereas, since we know it wasn't true, it's impossible that either investigation could have confirmed it. Q. Let me ask you finally -- this has been a long road -- how you regard -- what is your explanation for the fact that there has been such little national media coverage of these -- of this trial and this evidence and this event here in this Memphis courtroom, which is the first trial ever to be able to produce evidence on this assassination -- what has happened here that Mighty Wurlitzer is not sounding but is in fact totally silent -- almost totally silent? A. Oh, but -- as we know, silence can be deafening. Disinformation is not only getting certain things to appear in print, it's also getting certain things not to appear in print. I mean, the first -- the first thing I would say as a way of explanation is the incredibly powerful effect of disinformation over a long period of time that I mentioned before. For 30 years the official line has been that James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King and he did it all by himself. That's 30 years, not -- nothing like the short period when the line was that the Cubans raped the Angolan women. But for 30 years it's James Earl Ray killed Dr. King, did it all by himself. And when that is imprinted in the minds of the general public for 30 years, if somebody stood up and confessed and said: I did it. Ray didn't do it, I did it. Here's a movie. Here's a video showing me do it. 99 percent of the people wouldn't believe him because it just -- it just wouldn't click in the mind. It would just go right to -- it couldn't be. It's just a powerful psychological effect over 30 years of disinformation that's been imprinted on the brains of the -- the public. Something to the country couldn't -- couldn't be. Q. Not only -- excuse me. Not only psychological, but weren't you also saying neurological? A. Yes. I'm not a doctor. But what I understood is that these -- the brain's patterns of thinking are a physical aspect of the human brain. That's how we develop patterns of thought, how we develop associations. And then, of course, the Mighty Wurlitzer we talked about is still there, it's still playing its tune. And even though you might think 30 years is a long time, that almost everybody who might get in trouble is probably dead by now, that's -- that's how it works. People obtain influence, people make vast sums of money through this propaganda. Those people pass that influence on to others, they pass the money down the line, and all of that can be at risk for a very, very long time. There are documents from the investigation of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln that are still classified. Don't ask me why, but they were originally sealed for 100 years. And then in 1965 President Linden Johnson said, well, it's so close to the Kennedy assassination, if people read the Lincoln documents, it might make them think funny things about Kennedy, so he classified them for another 50 years. So now the grand children of anybody around Lincoln was around are long dead, and these documents are still -- still classified. And we're talking today about a case that's 100 years more immediate than Lincoln. And the establishment is still the establishment. Q. Mr. Schaap, thank you very much for joining us this afternoon. A. Thank you. MR. PEPPER: Nothing further, Your Honor. THE COURT: Just a moment. Mr. Garrison? MR. GARRISON: Your Honor, I have no questions of this witness. THE COURT: You have nothing. Very well. Sir, you may stand down. Thank you very much. THE WITNESS: Thank you, Your Honor. (Witness excused.) (Court adjourned until December 1, 1999, at 10:00 a.m.) http://www.ratical.org/ratville/JFK/MLKv9Schaap.html (hypertext) http://www.ratical.org/ratville/JFK/MLKv9Schaap.txt (text only) http://www.ratical.org/ratville/JFK/MLKv9Schaap.pdf (print ready)
Eric McDavid was branded an eco-terrorist and thrown in prison. Then the government's case against him fell apart
In 2007, then 26-year-old Eric McDavid was sentenced to over 19 years in prison on charges of conspiring to commit environmental terrorism. Nine years into his sentence, on Jan. 8, 2015, he walked free, it having emerged that federal authorities withheld information pertinent to his case.
Just as improbable-seeming as McDavid’s release, 10 years ahead of schedule, are the circumstances that he and his lawyers say led to his conviction in the first place: His romantic feelings for a pink-haired, 18-year-old activist, “Anna,” who spent months encouraging him and two others to join her in committing acts of eco-terrorism — and who also happened to be a paid FBI informant.
To understand how this all could have happened, you have to go back a decade, to when the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and other environmental and animal rights extremist groups were considered the nation’s No. 1 domestic terror threat. (These days, the honor is held by the sovereign citizen movement.) According to the FBI, McDavid was the ringleader of an ELF plot to blow up California’s Nimbus Dam and other targets. According to McDavid, all the incriminating things he was caught saying on tape amounted to mere talk — and it was all instigated by Anna.
Anna told the jury in the McDavid case that she was recruited by the FBI in 2003 after infiltrating a group of anti-free trade activists for a college paper. She met Zach Jenson, one of McDavid’s co-defendants, at a G-8 summit, and, through him, connected with McDavid and Lauren Weiner, his other co-defendant. (Both Jenson and Weiner pleaded guilty and testified against McDavid in exchange for lesser sentences.) Anna spent extensive time and money bringing the trio together, at one point assembling them at a cabin, wired for surveillance, that had been paid for by the FBI. Once there, it was she who gave the group a book of (fake) recipes for firebombs, also provided by the FBI. The group did experiment with building a bomb, but maintains that they never made solid plans to blow anything up. Each time they showed signs of balking, recordings played at the trial showed, it was Anna who urged them to keep going.
All the while, McDavid argued, Anna strung him along like a lovesick puppy. His defense argued that he was a victim of entrapment: that she acted on behalf of the FBI to induce him into conspiratorial behavior that he wouldn’t have engaged in otherwise. And his lawyers maintain that new documents — which the U.S. attorney’s office in eastern California says it “inadvertently” failed to disclose — strengthen his case. Among other things, they include letters in which Anna responds to McDavid’s declarations of love (“I hope that my forwardness w/expressing all this doesn’t scare the shit out of u,” he wrote) by hinting at the potential for a future relationship between the two of them.
“I think you and I could be great, but we have LOTS of little kinks to work out,” she wrote.
The attorney’s office maintains that “none of the omitted items were even remotely exculpatory.” But regardless of their content, the fact that they were withheld was enough to get McDavid a settlement. He pleaded guilty to general conspiracy, which carries a maximum five-year sentence, and, having already served nearly twice that, walked. In exchange, he promised not to appeal or sue the government. The ordeal, for McDavid, is mostly over.
But that’s no reason to put the matter to rest. “This is huge,” is how U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr. put it when he signed off on the plea deal. “This is something that needs to be dealt with, and I want to know what happened.”
Mark Reichel, who served as McDavid’s trial attorney, agrees. The FBI’s actions, he told Salon, were improper and at times illegal; that evidence to this effect didn’t come out in the original trial is extremely suspicious, he suggests. Salon spoke with Reichel about his perspective on the case and its broader implications for the way federal investigators and prosecutors go after suspected terrorists. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Could you describe for me the role you played in McDavid’s case?
I was Eric’s attorney from the day of his arrest all throughout the pretrial motions — and there were a lot of them — and through the trial, on appeal, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Then when it came time to file the habeas motion, which is basically taking one last gasp for newfound evidence, I was substituted out and he gave it to Mark Vermeulen and the wonderful Ben Rosenfeld, who came in to save the day when the new stuff came out.
The news of Eric’s release seemed very sudden, but this was obviously something you’ve been working on for years. What finally brought it together?
November of 2014 was when prosecutors at the FBI turned over all sorts of documents I had been seeking since 2006. They turned over the documents in 2014, eight years later.
The process of getting those documents must have been extremely frustrating for you.
Yeah, because we went through the lawful means. We asked for it under the law and they’re obligated to give it to me. They said they didn’t exist, so we filed a completely separate request through the Freedom of Information Act and the FBI, on their official letterhead, said it didn’t exist. So I filed a motion with the federal court. The federal judge ordered them to look into the files and see if they existed; they reported back that they did look and they don’t exist.
In the trial, I did everything I could to argue with what I had that there was an improper relationship by this Anna with Mr. McDavid and that she had not rebuffed his romantic advances but had, in fact, encouraged them and that he had expressed reluctance to commit the crime. But the jury was mis-instructed by the judge on the issue of her role as an informant.
That was found to be a “harmless error” on appeal because there wasn’t sufficient evidence in the trial of the romance between Eric and Anna and of his reluctance and questions of her credibility. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said, there’s not strong evidence of the romance, there’s not strong evidence that he was reluctant, there’s not strong evidence questioning her credibility, so the conviction stands. Well, if I’d had this evidence the conviction wouldn’t have stood.
Can you talk to me a little bit more about the significance of this new evidence? Is it enough to establish beyond doubt that McDavid was entrapped?
In the criminal case, he doesn’t have to prove anything. The government has to prove that he’s guilty and they have to prove that he wasn’t entrapped. We basically prevailed on that anyway, without this evidence, but with this evidence it’s ludicrous. The appeal would not have been denied, they might have even acquitted him even though the judge instructed them wrongly. The jurors walked out after the verdict, walked right up to the camera and spoke to local news agencies, and said they were embarrassed by the FBI’s conduct in the case and that they found that Anna was very incredible to believe, and they said based on the instruction they’d been given by the judge, they had no other choice but to follow the instructions, which was that she wasn’t an informant.
The new information is a series of letters back and forth between her and Mr. McDavid, which were completely inappropriate for an undercover agent to do. But she had had no training or instruction whatsoever on how to operate appropriately. She’s 18, and she’s doing what she thinks she can do. She engaged in illegal conduct, she encouraged a romance with Mr. McDavid. It took them 16 months to get to the point where they could even make an arrest, and the reason was because they really didn’t want to. They were tumbleweeds, she was herding tumbleweeds. She was herding cats, and one of the ways to keep McDavid tightly affixed to her hip was to keep him in love with her. So the letters are from him to her and her back to him. In fact, in some of them he expressed reluctance about committing this. He wanted to do things outside of activism with her and build a life outside of activism with her.
Because Eric did plead guilty, does that mean you won’t be able to address why the documents were withheld?
Yes. He was required to plead guilty to a lesser crime and required to agree not to sue over what happened to him. What does that say about our justice system? It speaks volumes, and it needs to be fixed because if you were Eric, you would do the same thing. The goal is to win, not to win and look good. If you wanted to continue to press this case, he would clearly spend another three years in prison, I’m sure, and he’s already served nine. If they say, “We’ll let you out, but you have to sign something,” that’s not of his making and that’s not something that he should feel unethical or morally responsible about. He did what he had to do, which is to admit that he engaged in a conspiracy, which has a maximum of five years. He served nine. If you sign on the dotted line, you walk out the door. He’d never been in jail before, let alone in prison federally as a convicted domestic terrorist. He did exactly what he had to do and what he should have done.
What we need to do is put an apparatus in place to check federal law enforcement and the awesome, unbridled power of federal prosecution in cases of national importance like terrorism, to hold them accountable if they don’t play fair. Because otherwise, this will happen over and over and there will be no normative deterrent effect. When the law enforcers don’t follow the law, don’t expect anyone else to.
There needs to be accountability in this case, and it’s not that hard to do that. I know that the local prosecutors and federal prosecutors nationwide would be very unhappy if a defense attorney had been asked for documents that he has to give up, he was then in court told by a judge that he has to give them up, and in both instances he said they don’t exist. And then at trial, he made fun of the prosecution and said, “they refer to these documents that we all know don’t exist” and then the guy gets acquitted and seven years later I just publicly hand out those documents and said I had this the whole time. Well, they’d be screaming that I’d be disbarred. They’d be screaming that that lawyer should be sanctioned. They’d be screaming that justice had been corrupted. That’s exactly what happened in this case, except it was just on the other side of the aisle. It doesn’t mean justice was less corrupted.
I’m wondering why Eric was caught up in this to begin with. Was there ever any indication that he was capable of committing an act of terrorism or any radical act before Anna came into the picture?
There had been none. In fact, she testified in court, and the documents show, that when she met him in August of 2004, she said that he was harmless, he was a college student and he posed no threat in any way. Those were her words and those are the things she testified to about him.
So one of the other things that turned up in the new documents was the fact that the FBI had formally requested that Anna undergo a lie detector test and then canceled that request. What would that have added to the case?
First of all, there’s a lot we don’t know because they’ve held back 900 pages. The results of a polygraph test are not admissible in court, usually. But in large cases, especially a case like this, before the expenditure of funds, the vetting of an informant is extremely important. In 2005, the Office of the Inspector General had issued a very large report to Congress about the FBI and the use of undercover informants. It was highly critical. It found, I believe, in almost 80 percent of cases that serious violations had occurred. That compromises national security in a variety of ways and there had been cases that had compromised national security.
The FBI constantly polygraphs their own employees, they polygraph their receptionists, their security guards who watch outside the building. They constantly polygraph when they have questions. I’m positive it is routine that informants are put on polygraphs in situations like this, and obviously it was scheduled in this case and then for some reason there was an urgency to cancel it. Who knows why.
What’s really important in the case is Anna testified about three different occasions that were really significant. These are things she testified to that the prosecutor used in their closing arguments and zeroed in on. There were statements that Eric supposedly made to Anna when the tape wasn’t running and no one else was around to witness it. So her credibility became paramount. The prosecutor in closing arguments, one of the things they said was, “this case is solely about her credibility.” The FBI had doubts about her credibility, I believe. The jury would then acquit someone at that point, so that’s why it’s really important that that stuff gets to the defense attorney for the trial.
In a 2008 Elle article about the case, you’re quoted as saying, “If this case teaches one lesson, it’s that we are at the point where the government can say whatever the fuck they want. Do whatever the fuck they want. Whatever the fuck they want.” Do you still feel that this shows to be the case?
Yes. Why not? For whatever reason, the smoking gun was delivered and they say, “Well, here’s a smoking gun and it gets you out of prison, no more questions please.” I still think they can say whatever the fuck they want, they can do whatever the fuck they want, whatever they want, because they did. It may not even be the prosecutors in the case, it may be the FBI agents or a federal agency that was involved that did this. That doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be an examination of what happened. The truth will always make us stronger, always.
We’re now at a slightly different point in history, and eco-activists aren’t seen as as large of a threat as they were in the early 2000s. Is there any reason to believe the FBI is still doing this sort of thing to activists?
I would hope not. But if they do, this case tells them that it’s perfectly OK to do it. So we need a result that tells them it’s not OK to do this and there will be serious consequences.
And is there going to be any way to get that? Or because of the plea agreement are we kind of stuck?
No. Eric personally couldn’t ask for a new trial or do something as a litigant himself in federal court, I don’t think. He might be able to, but I don’t think so right now. The courts, other lawyers, the media, Congress, and the Justice Department, FBI directors — nothing is preventing them, anyone, from asking for accountability and asking for a change.
I want you to know and understand that the way it works in the federal system is that the FBI and the other federal agencies — not the federal prosecutors, but the federal agencies — are very, very well trained and they make the case. They are out in the field, they collect the evidence, then they bring it to the federal prosecutors and say, “Here is what we have, and we ask you to indict this case.” The prosecutor reviews the evidence and then files the indictment and takes over the case. But usually all the evidence is maintained by the case agent, who often has a law degree, who’s been very well-trained on how to present a case for court. The federal agents also are allowed to sit at counsel table with the federal prosecutors. That’s unique. Normally, witnesses are required to be excluded from the court proceedings, so they can’t watch it and shape their testimony if they’re called later on. The rule we’ve developed is that we let the federal agents come to all the court proceedings, and stay in the court proceedings when they’re closed to the public. We allow them to maintain and hold secure the evidence.
So the FBI in this case was present in court when I asked about these exact items, was present in court when the judge ordered they be produced, was present in court when we argued about them in front of the jury, was present in court when the prosecutors mocked me in front of the jury. Think about that. These are writings from the main defendant, the main focus of this million dollar investigation, writings by him on the subject of the crime, sent directly to the FBI. How on earth did they sit through the trial, the pre-trial motions, and were these not turned over? We need to set something up so this doesn’t happen anymore.
The Strange Case of Barrett Brown
Barrett Brown. (Photo courtesy of Barrett Brown’s YouTube channel.)
In early 2010, journalist and satirist Barrett Brown was working on a book on political pundits, when the hacktivist collective Anonymous caught his attention. He soon began writing about its activities and potential. In a defense of the group’s anti-censorship operations in Australia published on February 10, Brown declared, “I am now certain that this phenomenon is among the most important and under-reported social developments to have occurred in decades, and that the development in question promises to threaten the institution of the nation-state and perhaps even someday replace it as the world’s most fundamental and relevant method of human organization.”
By then, Brown was already considered by his fans to be the Hunter S. Thompson of his generation. In point of fact he wasn’t like Hunter S. Thompson, but was more of a throwback—a sharp-witted, irreverent journalist and satirist in the mold of Ambrose Bierce or Dorothy Parker. His acid tongue was on display in his co-authored 2007 book, Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design and the Easter Bunny, in which he declared: “This will not be a polite book. Politeness is wasted on the dishonest, who will always take advantage of any well-intended concession.”
But it wasn’t Brown’s acid tongue so much as his love of minutiae (and ability to organize and explain minutiae) that would ultimately land him in trouble. Abandoning his book on pundits in favor of a book on Anonymous, he could not have known that delving into the territory of hackers and leaks would ultimately lead to his facing the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison. In light of the bombshell revelations published by Glenn Greenwald and Barton Gellman about government and corporate spying, Brown’s case is a good—and underreported—reminder of the considerable risk faced by reporters who report on leaks.
In February 2011, a year after Brown penned his defense of Anonymous, and against the background of its actions during the Arab Spring, Aaron Barr, CEO of the private intelligence company HBGary, claimed to have identified the leadership of the hacktivist collective. (In fact, he only had screen names of a few members). Barr’s boasting provoked a brutal hack of HBGary by a related group called Internet Feds (it would soon change its name to “LulzSec”). Splashy enough to attract the attention of The Colbert Report, the hack defaced and destroyed servers and websites belonging to HBGary. Some 70,000 company e-mails were downloaded and posted online. As a final insult to injury, even the contents of Aaron Barr’s iPad were remotely wiped.
The HBGary hack may have been designed to humiliate the company, but it had the collateral effect of dropping a gold mine of information into Brown’s lap. One of the first things he discovered was a plan to neutralize Glenn Greenwald’s defense of Wikileaks by undermining them both. (“Without the support of people like Glenn, wikileaks would fold,” read one slide.) The plan called for “disinformation,” exploiting strife within the organization and fomenting external rivalries—“creating messages around actions to sabotage or discredit the opposing organization,” as well as a plan to submit fake documents and then call out the error.” Greenwald, it was argued, “if pushed,” would “choose professional preservation over cause.”
Other plans targeted social organizations and advocacy groups. Separate from the plan to target Greenwald and WikiLeaks, HBGary was part of a consortia that submitted a proposal to develop a “persona management” system for the United States Air Force, that would allow one user to control multiple online identities for commenting in social media spaces, thus giving the appearance of grassroots support or opposition to certain policies.
The data dump from the HBGary hack was so vast that no one person could sort through it alone. So Brown decided to crowdsource the effort. He created a wiki page, called it ProjectPM, and invited other investigative journalists to join in. Under Brown’s leadership, the initiative began to slowly untangle a web of connections between the US government, corporations, lobbyists and a shadowy group of private military and information security consultants.
One connection was between Bank of America and the Chamber of Commerce. WikiLeaks had claimed to possess a large cache of documents belonging to Bank of America. Concerned about this, Bank of America approached the United States Department of Justice. The DOJ directed it to the law and lobbying firm Hunton and Williams, which does legal work for Wells Fargo and General Dynamics and also lobbies for Koch Industries, Americans for Affordable Climate Policy, Gas Processors Association, Entergy among many other firms. The DoJ recommended that Bank of America hire Hunton and Williams, explicitly suggesting Richard Wyatt as the person to work with. Wyatt, famously, was the lead attorney in the Chamber of Commerce’s lawsuit against the Yes Men.
In November 2010, Hunton and Williams organized a number of private intelligence, technology development and security contractors—HBGary, plus Palantir Technologies, Berico Technologies and, according to Brown, a secretive corporation with the ominous name Endgame Systems—to form “Team Themis”—‘themis’ being a Greek word meaning “divine law.” Its main objective was to discredit critics of the Chamber of Commerce, like Chamber Watch, using such tactics as creating a “false document, perhaps highlighting periodical financial information,” giving it to a progressive group opposing the Chamber, and then subsequently exposing the document as a fake to “prove that US Chamber Watch cannot be trusted with information and/or tell the truth.” In addition, the group proposed creating a “fake insider persona” to infiltrate Chamber Watch. They would “create two fake insider personas, using one as leverage to discredit the other while confirming the legitimacy of the second.” The leaked e-mails showed that similar disinformation campaigns were being planned against WikiLeaks and Glenn Greenwald.
It was clear to Brown that these were actions of questionable legality, but beyond that, government contractors were attempting to undermine Americans’ free speech—with the apparent blessing of the DOJ. A group of Democratic congressmen asked for an investigation into this arrangement, to no avail.
By June 2011, the plot had thickened further. The FBI had the goods on the leader of LulzSec, one Hector Xavier Monsegur, who went under the nom de guerre Sabu. The FBI arrested him on June 7, 2011, and (according to court documents) turned him into an informant the following day. Just three days before his arrest, Sabu had been central to the formation of a new group called AntiSec, which comprised his former LulzSec crew members, as well as members as Anonymous. In early December AntiSec hacked the website of a private security company called Stratfor Global Intelligence. On Christmas Eve, it released a trove of some 5 million internal company e-mails. AntiSec member and Chicago activist Jeremy Hammond has pled guilty to the attack and is currently facing ten years in prison for it.
The contents of the Stratfor leak were even more outrageous than those of the HBGary hack. They included discussion of opportunities for renditions and assassinations. For example, in one video, Statfor’s vice president of intelligence, Fred Burton, suggested taking advantage of the chaos in Libya to render Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who had been released from prison on compassionate grounds due to his terminal illness. Burton said that the case “was personal.” When someone pointed out in an e-mail that such a move would almost certainly be illegal—“This man has already been tried, found guilty, sentenced…and served time”—another Stratfor employee responded that this was just an argument for a more efficient solution: “One more reason to just bugzap him with a hellfire. :-)”
(Stratfor employees also seemed to take a keen interest in Jeremy Scahill’s writings about Blackwater in The Nation, copying and circulating entire articles, with comments suggesting a principle interest was in the question of whether Blackwater was setting up a competing intelligence operation. E-mails also showed grudging respect for Scahill: “Like or dislike Scahill’s position (or what comes of his work), he does an amazing job outing [Blackwater].”)
When the contents of the Stratfor leak became available, Brown decided to put ProjectPM on it. A link to the Stratfor dump appeared in an Anonymous chat channel; Brown copied it and pasted it into the private chat channel for ProjectPM, bringing the dump to the attention of the editors.
Brown began looking into Endgame Systems, an information security firm that seemed particularly concerned about staying in the shadows. “Please let HBGary know we don’t ever want to see our name in a press release,” one leaked e-mail read. One of its products, available for a $2.5 million annual subscription, gave customers access to “zero-day exploits”—security vulnerabilities unknown to software companies—for computer systems all over the world. Business Week published a story on Endgame in 2011, reporting that “Endgame executives will bring up maps of airports, parliament buildings, and corporate offices. The executives then create a list of the computers running inside the facilities, including what software the computers run, and a menu of attacks that could work against those particular systems.” For Brown, this raised the question of whether Endgame was selling these exploits to foreign actors and whether they would be used against computer systems in the United States. Shortly thereafter, the hammer came down.
The FBI acquired a warrant for Brown’s laptop, gaining the authority to seize any information related to HBGary, Endgame Systems, Anonymous and, most ominously, “email, email contacts, ‘chat’, instant messaging logs, photographs, and correspondence.” In other words, the FBI wanted his sources.
When the FBI went to serve Brown, he was at his mother’s house. Agents returned with a warrant to search his mother’s house, retrieving his laptop. To turn up the heat on Brown, the FBI initiated charges against his mother for obstruction of justice for concealing his laptop computer in her house. (Facing criminal charges, on March 22, 2013, his mother, Karen McCutchin, pled guilty to one count of obstructing the execution of a search warrant. She faces up to twelve months in jail. Brown maintains that she did not know the laptop was in her home.)
By his own admission, the FBI’s targeting of his mother made Brown snap. In September 2012, he uploaded an incoherent YouTube video, in which he explained that he had been in treatment for an addiction to heroin, taking the medication Suboxone, but had gone off his meds and now was in withdrawal. He threatened the FBI agent that was harassing his mother, by name, warning:
“I know what’s legal, I know what’s been done to me.… And if it’s legal when it’s done to me, it’s going to be legal when it’s done to FBI Agent Robert Smith—who is a criminal.”
“That’s why [FBI special agent] Robert Smith’s life is over. And when I say his life is over, I’m not saying I’m going to kill him, but I am going to ruin his life and look into his fucking kids…. How do you like them apples?”
The media narrative was immediately derailed. No longer would this be a story about the secretive information-military-industrial complex; now it was the sordid tale of a crazy drug addict threatening an FBI agent and his (grown) children. Actual death threats against agents are often punishable by a few years in jail. But Brown’s actions made it easier for the FBI to sell some other pretext to put him away for life.
The Stratfor data included a number of unencrypted credit card numbers and validation codes. On this basis, the DOJ accused Brown of credit card fraud for having shared that link with the editorial board of ProjectPM. Specifically, the FBI charged him with traffic in stolen authentication features, access device fraud and aggravated identity theft, as well as an obstruction of justice charge (for being at his mother’s when the initial warrant was served) and charges stemming from his threats against the FBI agent. All told, Brown is looking at century of jail time: 105 years in federal prison if served sequentially. He has been denied bail.
Considering that the person who carried out the actual Stratfor hack had several priors and is facing a maximum of ten years, the inescapable conclusion is that the problem is not with the hack itself but with Brown’s journalism. As Glenn Greenwald remarked inThe Guardian: “It is virtually impossible to conclude that the obscenely excessive prosecution he now faces is unrelated to that journalism and his related activism.”
Today, Brown is in prison and ProjectPM is under increased scrutiny by the DOJ, even as its work has ground to a halt. In March, the DOJ served the domain hosting service CloudFlare with a subpoena for all records on the ProjectPM website, and in particular asked for the IP addresses of everyone who had accessed and contributed to ProjectPM, describing it as a “forum” through which Brown and others would “engage in, encourage, or facilitate the commission of criminal conduct online.” The message was clear: Anyone else who looks into this matter does so at their grave peril.
Some journalists are now understandably afraid to go near the Stratfor files. The broader implications of this go beyond Brown; one might think that what we are looking at is Cointelpro 2.0—an outsourced surveillance state—but in fact it’s worse. One can’t help but infer that the US Department of Justice has become just another security contractor, working alongside the HBGarys and Stratfors on behalf of corporate bidders, with no sense at all for the justness of their actions; they are working to protect corporations and private security contractors and give them license to engage in disinformation campaigns against ordinary citizens and their advocacy groups. The mere fact that the FBI’s senior cybersecurity advisor has recently moved to Hunton and Williams shows just how incestuous this relationship has become. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice is also using its power and force to trample on the rights of citizens like Barrett Brown who are trying to shed light on these nefarious relationships. In order to neutralize those who question or investigate the system, laws are being reinterpreted or extended or otherwise misappropriated in ways that are laughable—or would be if the consequences weren’t so dire.
While the media and much of the world have been understandably outraged by the revelation of the NSA’s spying programs, Barrett Brown’s work was pointing to a much deeper problem. It isn’t the sort of problem that can be fixed by trying to tweak a few laws or by removing a few prosecutors. The problem is not with bad laws or bad prosecutors. What the case of Barrett Brown has exposed is that we confronting a different problem altogether. It is a systemic problem. It is the failure of the rule of law.
Journalist Michael Hastings, 33, died in a car crash yesterday. Read Greg Mitchell’s obituary here.
Your Crack Is in the Mail
Why did it take the FBI so long to shut down Silk Road?
On the Silk Road website, every drug you can think of — and a dizzying number of others, too — have been on open sale for years, from crack, heroin, and LSD, to a new generation of “research chemicals” that exist just outside the reach of the law.
Activists, dealers and users have effectively used the site to declare an independent state online where all commerce, within certain boundaries, is permitted, and all under the auspices of the site’s owner, who was — until this week — known as The Dread Pirate Roberts. The FBI allege that his true identity is that of Ross Ulbricht, the 29-year-old who was arrested in a raid on a public library in San Francisco on October 2.Ulbricht, originally from Austin, Texas, had been living in San Francisco under a fake name, say officials.
Until it was shut down by law enforcement, Silk Road had everything: Norwegians selling Cambodian mushrooms, Canadians selling Afghan heroin, and Brits selling concentrated cannabis tinctures from ancient Nepalese cannabis landraces. Most of the products there were illegal, but whether you wanted a quarter gram of heroin or a gram of glittering Peruvian escama de pescado cocaine, you were in the right place. Buying was as simple as Amazon or eBay: a simple matter of adding the goods to your shopping cart, and paying for them. The money was held in an escrow account hosted at the site, and although you had to supply a delivery address, this could be encrypted, and then deleted as soon as the goods turned up.
Silk Road’s turnover reached $22 million a year within its first year of operation, according to security researcher Nicolas Christin, and the site’s owners took a commission on each sale of around six per cent — or $143,000 per month. In its indictment, the FBI says that Ulbricht pulled in $80 million during his time at the helm.
The site was not just popular for buying and selling, either. Its forum was busy too, with over 100,000 posts, 9,000 topics, and 11,000 users in the bustling community pages. The conversations there would weave around the site’s holy trinity: drugs, smuggling and cryptography. All this had made it the most popular among a growing, hidden network of drug dealers whose activities were hosted online. So how come these services continued to exist, even though they are breaking the law in such a flagrant manner?
Life on the Dark Web
In order for its customers to be completely untraceable, and therefore invulnerable to legal prosecution, the Silk Road was hosted on a hidden service, buried away on the Dark Web, far from the reach of Google. Their home is Tor, an alternative web-like space that swarms with users who travel through virtual tunnels that exist beneath the everyday web. Users — both dealers and their customers — have complete anonymity, and until it was revealed that he had made a series of calamitous errors, so did its owner.
Tor was created in 2001 by two computer science graduates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They took a piece of undeployed software that had been written by the American Navy in 1995 to enable simple, anonymous internet use, and released their own version of it online, with the Navy’s permission.
“The navy had this project called Onion Routing, and it’s still going today,” explains information activist Andrew Lewman, who is the mouthpiece of the Tor organization.
“Its goal is to defeat network traffic analysis, which is the ability to know who you are, who you’re talking to, and how much data you send and receive. If you think of envelope data from your postal system, that’s the basis of intelligence gathering: For whatever reason, the Navy wanted this technology — they started the project but they didn’t have any intention of releasing it publicly. So Paul Syverson, a mathematician who’s still the core researcher for onion routing for the Navy, met grad student Roger Dingledine at a conference.”
“Roger said, ‘Have you ever thought of putting this on the internet?’ At the time the Navy had no plans for deployment. But Paul said sure.”
The original aim of the MIT grad students, Roger Dingledine and Nick Mathewson, was to give users control over their data when they went online. This was during the first dotcom boom, and many companies were giving away services for free — or rather, in exchange for your data and your browsing habits, which they would then sell on to third parties. Information activists rejected that business model and wanted to offer an alternative: so Dingeldine and Mathewson created Tor.
The vast majority of Tor users are simply people who want privacy when they go online, as the information gathered on us by search engines and social media grows daily. When researching sensitive or medical matters, some users don’t want Facebook or Google searches sending unsettlingly accurate adverts back at them. There were 36 million downloads of the software last year, and around one million daily users. In repressive regimes such as Iran, Tor users can access sites that are blocked by the government. But others, as The Dread Pirate Roberts knew, would use it to flout the law.
Inside the system
Like any other successful online retailer, Silk Road had its own reputation system. The forums at the site offered crowdsourced proof of the site’s best vendors and its worst scammers. In June 2012, when I was researching my book Drugs 2.0, reviews for the best LSD vendor ran to 81 pages, and had racked up 50,000 views; reviews of heroin dealers, meanwhile, ran to 22 pages with 8,000 views. Cocaine vendors were highly scrutinized — reviewed in a 292-page behemoth of a thread with over 90,000 views — while MDMA ran in at 129 pages with over 60,000 views.
The vendors themselves were often involved, and some have been happy to talk to me about their involvement with the site. One told me, for example, how dealing drugs on the site came with its own set of moral problems.
“The prospect of a twelve-year-old loaded to the gills on my MDMA is not a pleasant one,” he explained. “Enabling self-destructive/addictive behaviour is also upsetting to me. Dealing IRL, you can recognize abuse and let customers know you’re concerned, but online, there’s no way to tell.”
He admitted, though, that vending on the site was financially much more lucrative than selling in real life.
“IRL, you’re limited by your social circles, but here it’s only a question of supply, capital and hours in the day.”
“Packaging straight-up sucks to do,” he continued. “It’s extremely monotonous and requires a good degree of concentration to avoid making any mistakes that might endanger the customer receiving. Sometimes during especially busy periods, I spend 70, 80, 90 hours a week packaging, all of it extremely dull. Apart from the risk of being locked up for the next decade, it’s definitely the worst part. Dealing in real life is much more pleasant.”
Greater paranoia about the authorities is another downside: “Public drug markets are a giant middle finger to many powerful interests and so the political motivation to shut them down and lock up the people participating is out of proportion to the actual volume of illicit trade taking place. Last summer I was the ‘number one’ (basically highest-volume) vendor on the site for a while, and the fear really crept up on me. I’d lie awake at night thinking about it, worrying I was going to have my door kicked down and be dragged away at any moment. I’m much more comfortable with it now, but if I had known from the start how much mental torment and stress were involved with vending, I probably wouldn’t have started.”
However, there are upsides, he says: “I find the day-to-day grind of vending online worse than dealing IRL, but the human interaction online is often a lot more uplifting in some ways. Most people I sell to IRL are club kids/raver types so they’re more predisposed towards hedonism (which I of course have nothing against!) than using for more spiritual/emotional reasons so the feedback is less touching, which is a definite negative for me. I get emails from Silk Road customers telling me how the drugs I sell have helped them with emotional or spiritual or sexual problems, people mending broken relationships, rekindling intimacy.”
The motivation for people to use the Silk Road was high, given the prevailing legal climate. Mail is a vast trade, and small envelopes and packages are seldom opened, much less X-rayed or sniffed by dogs. That means capture, prosecution, and imprisonment look unlikely.
But if you were worried, one vendor on the site even offered a fake package service for the super-cautious: he’d deliver you an empty box or envelope for a small charge, just to get the mailman used to delivering packages from overseas.
Packaging by many vendors on the site was said to be exceptionally ingenious, and the protocol on the forums and in feedback forms below purchases was that these should never be discussed publicly, even on the Dark Web. What’s more, there are vendors in many countries so there’s no need to worry about international postal or customs issues: users in the US or UK or the Netherlands — or indeed, in dozens of countries worldwide — can buy drugs from dealers in their own countries, removing the danger of border staff targeting your package.
In just under two years, the Silk Road administrators used technology and ingenuity, along with innovative crowdsourcing solutions to internal and external threats, to achieve what thousands of campaigners had toiled since the 1960s to achieve: the right for people to buy and sell natural and artificial chemicals that affect their consciousness in ways they choose without interference from the state. It is a paradigm shift that cannot easily be reversed.
And even though the FBI believes it has arrested the site’s owner, the Silk Road’s payment and communication systems remain essentially impenetrable. It’s here that the early net evangelists’ vision of a world where information flows freely, where no central hierarchy rules, and where the network takes precedence over the individual has finally been realized. Whether you celebrate or lament the fact that drugs such as cocaine, heroin, LSD are now available online with just a little effort and very little likelihood of legal consequences, it is undeniable that we are at a turning point in legal history.
Through a decades-long process of chemical and technical innovation, human ingenuity has beaten the laws made by a political system that has responded to increased drug use by insisting on a harmful, expensive and counterproductive and ultimately failed strategy of criminalization.
Over the course of the century or so that drug laws have existed in any meaningful form, a clear pattern has emerged. As each law to prevent drug consumption is made, a means to circumvent it is sought, and found. Those means can be chemical, legal, social or technological. We stand today at a crossroads formed by those four elements, with the web making possible communication between distant strangers, facilitating the sharing of limitless quantities of information, and enabling the distribution of drugs anywhere in the world. Where do we go next?
The US government should get its own operation... operational.
...before they go shutting down operations that actually deliver.
How the infamous underground online drug marketplace the Silk Road
was more reliable, trustworthy and dependable than the US government.