When I heard the news of Aaron Swartz’s suicide I was deeply saddened or more accurately profoundly irritated. Why had the government – or should I say U.S Attorney Carmen Ortiz – wasted so much time and resources destroying someone over such an inconsequential act? Downloading too many free articles warranted this kind of crackdown? How out of control was the State these days?
Then I remembered a macabre fact – upon death every American’s FBI file becomes unclassified with certain exceptions. So I figured what the hell, I printed out a copy of Swartz’s New York Times obituary filled out a few forms and sent the documents to our friends at the bureau.
I was fully prepared to get a letter saying no such file existed, after all Swartz was not really a criminal. Instead I received 21 pages out of a 23 page file the FBI had put together on one Aaron H. Swartz.
Two of the 23 pages were not released, according to the FBI, due to; privacy (U.S.C Section 552 (b)(7)(C)), sources and methods (U.S.C Section 552 (b)(7)(E)) and, curiously, putting someone’s life in danger (U.S.C Section 552 (b)(7)(F)). Putting someone’s life in danger? Typically that refers to informants. Did someone close to Swartz provide information to the FBI on him or is the FBI just being really dramatic? Or is this standard justification for not releasing the Special Agent on the case’s name? I am honestly still confused by that box being checked off.
Exceptions aside, the records reveal that the FBI investigated Swartz for his role in the accessing the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) documents. Swartz himself was aware that he was being investigated and would later send a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for his own FBI file. Swartz’s request seems to be different than what I received at least in redactions for example the 4/16/2009 meeting was apparently with Swartz’s lawyer Andrew Good who refused to talk to the FBI unless an assurance was given that his client would not be hurt – no assurance would be given so no further conversation took place.
There is another odd redaction on 2/19/2009. The FBI agent writes a report that includes information from a New York Times article but redacts one of the names that is actually listed in the article – Carl Malamud. Malamud also seems to be the one referenced in the 4/15/2009 report in a conversation with the FBI claiming he did not know “how Aaron did it.”
Overall the files tell you more about the FBI than they do Swartz. They collected information from Linked In, followed his blog posts, and even thought his membership in the “Long-term Planning Committee for the Human Race” was worthy of note. There is also a Kafkaesque entry concerning Swartz’s blog post NYT Personals which includes the question “Want to have the F.B.I. open up a file on you as well?” – which I read for the first time in Swartz’s FBI file. One can only wonder what is in the two classified pages of Swartz’s FBI file.
The FBI concluded its investigation and the PACER case was closed. No crime had been committed so there was apparently no further need to investigate Swartz. If only U.S Attorney Ortiz had taken the same reasonable stance. Of course, the JSTOR case came after Swartz made a lot more powerful enemies.
* The files can be downloaded and printed from Scribd, any issues drop me an email. ds83wright [at] gmail.com