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The U.S. is Going After Bradley Manning's Friends, So David House Trolled Them Back

The trial of U.S. Army private Bradley Manning doesn't begin until September. But since the former intelligence analyst was placed under military detention over 800 days ago, accused of prying thousands of secret diplomatic cables and one notorious...

Michael Arria

The trial of U.S. Army private Bradley Manning doesn’t begin until September. But since the former intelligence analyst was placed under military detention over 800 days ago, accused of prying thousands of secret diplomatic cables and one notorious video from military servers and feeding them to Julian Assange, Manning’s case has been mired in a terrible swamp of controversy and secrecy.

In March of 2011, Hilary Clinton’s spokesperson called the government’s treatment of Manning “ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid,” echoing the concerns of the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, before he was forced to step down. And the case has been cloaked in a kind of secrecy that’s been compared by some observers to that around the trial of Lt. William Calley for his role in the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam. Except for scant leaks from the trial itself, all motions, briefs and transcripts of the proceedings have been kept under tight lock and key, even as the government has released transcripts from the hearing of September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Manning’s not alone. The slew of constitutional crusaders, activists and hackers who have come publicly to Manning's defense and questioned his treatment have also found themselves in the government's crosshairs. And one of them is trying to fight back by hacking away at the proceedings’ unusual cloak of silence.

In early 2011, after the CEO of security firm HBGary Federal bragged that he had identified some of the leaders of Anonymous, its hacker wing shot back. Soon 40,000 of HBGary Federal’s emails were online, along with a PowerPoint presentation titled “The WikiLeaks Threat”. The confidential report, intended to take aim at WikiLeaks intellectual foundation, contained photographs of and information on a slew of activists, journalists and other Manning supporters whom, it said, should be targeted and discredited.

One of the people who appears in those photos is David House, a 25-year-old computer scientist, graduate of Boston University and co-founder of the non profit Bradley Manning Support Network. In November of 2010, during what at first seemed a routine security search at O’Hare International Airport, agents from Homeland Security detained House for 90 minutes, questioned him about his relationship with Manning, and confiscated his computer, camera and a thumb drive without a warrant. House did not cede his encryption keys; a month later, the items were shipped to him. (Another vocal Manning supporter, Nadim Kobeissi, says he has been detained and questioned numerous times at the border about his work on CryptoCat, an encrypted web chat client that cannot easily be surveilled.)

David House at a rally for Manning in March 2011 (Photo: Think Magazine)

While government lawyers claimed that searching House’s laptop was no more controversial than searching a suitcase for dangerous items, United States District Court Judge Denise Casper called into question the problematic nature of the search. The government cannot, she ruled, "target someone for their political association and seize his electronic devices and review the information pertinent to that association and its members and supporters simply because the initial search occurred at the border."

It was a rough lesson in constitutional rights, says House, and one that he took to the stand when called to testify in a pre-trial hearing for Manning, at an Alexandria courthouse in June.

When cross examined about his relationship with Manning, hacking, or where he was on what day, House didn’t just refuse to answer by repeatedly, comically, invoking the Fifth Amendment. He also carefully transcribed the prosecutor’s questions in his notebook, flaunting legal protocol and violating the government’s careful hold over the trial’s secrecy.

Patrick Murphy: Mr. House, are you involved with the Bradley Manning Support Network?
David House: I invoke.
PM: Did you respond in the affirmative when asked by the FBI if you had heard of known WikiLeaks associate Jacob Appelbaum?
PM: I would like to state for the record that Mr. House is not answering the question and is instead taking notes.
DH: I invoke.

House was advised not to release his transcript by his lawyer, who feared that it would prevent further note-taking in the hearing. But after a panel on whistleblowers at the Hackers on Planet Earth conference in July, House decided to release his notes. The transcript is the first written record from inside the Manning trial.

Patrick Murphy: Do you intend to answer any of my questions, aside from your date of birth and your name?
David House: I invoke.
PM: Is that because of the phalanx of attorneys present here today?
Court Stenographer: I'm sorry, the what of attorneys?
PM: Phalanx… the phalanx of attorneys.
DH: As to the phalanx of attorneys, I invoke.
PM: At this time, I will let Deborah Curtis ask a few questions.
DC: Mr. House, have you ever been to the Oxford Spa restaurant in Cambridge, MA?
DH: Allow me to consult with my attorney.
[House leaves the grand jury and returns one minute later.]
DH: As to the previous question, I invoke.
DC: You admitted to federal agents in Boston that you had met Bradley Manning in January 2010, is that correct?
DH: I invoke.
DC: Isn't it true that you spent the night of January 27 2010 with Daniel Clark and Bradley Manning?
DH: Can you repeat the question?
DC: Isn't it true that you spent the night of January 27 2010 with Daniel Clark and Bradley Manning?
DH: One more time.
DC: Isn't it true that you spent the night of January 27 2010 with Daniel Clark and Bradley Manning?
PM: He's writing it down.
DC: Are you getting this, are you writing it all down?
DH: Was the last question a question to be answered?
DC: Yes.
DH: I invoke.
DC: And the question before?
DH: I also invoke.

In fact, House first met Manning in January 2009. Manning was on a two-week holiday in the United States, and attended a party at BUILDS, the hackerspace House started as an undergraduate at Boston University. After Manning’s arrest, on May 26, 2010, House began corresponding with the soldier while he was in detention at Quantico. “There was something really piercing, genuine, worthwhile about the acts he was accused of,” House said. “Focusing on a campaign to protect him became more important to me, to a lot of people, than any other context in normal life. His actions were a lightning-rod.”

Since he became a leader of the Bradley Manning Support Group, House says he has found himself on the receiving end of the US government’s hunt for anyone with connections to the imprisoned Army Private – and anyone who can shed light on his ties to Julian Assange, who some US officials consider to be a terrorist.

Joe Biden has dubbed Assange a "high-tech terrorist"; Sarah Palin has called him "an anti-American operative with blood on his hands," and wants him to be hunted down in the same way the U.S. goes after Islamist militants. But a drone strike over Ecuador, where Assange has just been granted asylum, isn’t likely. Instead, the WikiLeaks leader fears rape charges in Sweden would get him extradited to the U.S., where, if tried for espionage, he could face the death penalty. "He's done an enormous damage to our country," Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell told NBC’s David Gregory a couple years ago, "and I think he needs to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. And if that becomes a problem, we need to change the law."

The Ecuadorian government has referred to the possibility of an Assange extradition as "evil." Spanish jurist Baltasar Garzon, best known for ordering the arrest of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, has lent his services to the Australian activist's legal team.

Bradley Manning at BUILDS, January 2010, seen in Frontline’s “WikiSecrets”

Meanwhile, new light is also being shone on Manning’s abuse in prison, which a recent court motion, filed by his lawyer, describes as a “flagrant violation” of his right not to be punished prior to trial. According to an Article 13 motion, published Friday on the website of Manning’s civilian lawyer David Coombs, Manning was held in solitary confinement, in a 6×8 ft cell for 23 to 24 hours a day for nine months while at Quantico. When not sleeping, Manning was allegedly prevented from lying down, or even using a wall to support him. The motion also claims that Manning was punished through “degradation and humiliation,” notably by forcing him to stand outside his cell naked during a morning inspection. This, Coombs claims, was “retaliatory punishment” for speaking out over his treatment.

In 2010, Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald detailed Manning’s day-to-day existence at Quantico, during which he was deprived of sheets and pillows. “For 23 out of 24 hours every day — for seven straight months and counting — he sits completely alone in his cell. Even inside his cell, his activities are heavily restricted; he's barred even from exercising and is under constant surveillance to enforce those restrictions.” Reports like this prompted the UN special rapporteur to launch a year-long investigation into Manning’s conditions. They found it to be “cruel and unusual.”

“When he was transferred from Kuwait to Virginia, I started taking time off from work to see him,” House said. “You should’ve seen the shithole they were keeping him in, what it was doing to him. That and the isolation.”

Manning

When he visited Manning in January of 2011, House says he encountered a man who was "undergoing a very obvious and very extreme decay from his former self. " Manning was fatigued and trembling, and at times appeared to be “almost catatonic and had very high difficulty carrying on day to day conversation.”

Later that month, House was denied a visit to Manning on the grounds that the car he was driving on base had expired registration tags. It was only one among many volleys by the government in what House says is a back-handed, yet effective, campaign of intimidation against Manning and his supporters.

“I started talking to people about my fear that the politicos were trying to break him down without trial. A journalist writes it up, the Pentagon responds, and we catch them in a lie about Brad’s harsh treatment. MSNBC gives it some light coverage, and the politicos act how you’d expect — they lose their heads, " explained House. “My computer is seized without warrant at an airport. Guys from the FBI start following Manning supporters around Boston. Brad starts looking worse. CNN, Al-Jazeera, and Fox start paying attention to how he’s being treated. Brad is sexually humiliated by his guards. Humans Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the UN start asking some tough questions. Military police arrest Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg at a big protest outside Brad’s jail.”

What had begun as a diplomatic disaster was transforming into a new global embarrassment. Members of the UK parliament began exerting public and diplomatic pressure on the US to treat Bradley with dignity. State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley referred to Manning’s treatment as “counterproductive and stupid”, resigning a couple days after he made the assertion. After weeks of what has been referred to as “no-touch torture”, The Pentagon moved Manning from Quantico to Leavenworth, Kansas, to live in an 80-square-foot cell in the same correctional facility that currently holds Robert Bales, the solider accused of indiscriminately murdering 16 Afghani civilians. All told, Manning has been in confinement for 802 days without a trial.

Last month, a military judge barred Army Col. Denise Lind from testifying at the trial. Lind would have argued that the security threats posed by Manning's alleged leaks were virtually nonexistent. It’s a position resonant with that of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has gone on record as saying that the consequences to US foreign policy of the WikiLeaks cables are "fairly modest" at best.

House told me that his unlawful detention in Chicago and the seizure of his laptop did not surprise him. By then, a climate of fear and paranoia had all but enveloped organizations that supported Manning or Assange. (The Bradley Manning Support Network has raised over $600,000 for Manning’s legal defense.) The mood has helped lead supporters of Manning, including House, to criticize WikiLeaks and Assange even as they support Manning. A year ago, he would have leaked his grand jury transcript to WikiLeaks, he says, but handing over whistle-blowing to a monolithic organization like WikiLeaks now worries him. The paranoia has also engendered distrust among activists, to the point that some of them have been accused of being federal informants – including House himself.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from House titled, "Hello from the VOID", with his own transcript of his federal grand jury testimony.

“I wish I could still visit him, but myself and a few others were removed from his visitor list right before his transfer out of Quantico,” he said of Manning. “Brad told his last visitor, my friend Danny, on his final visit that he didn’t want to see visitors anymore. From a legal perspective it’s probably a wise move; from a personal perspective I, and others who came to see him, really miss our talks.”


Record of proceedings
As recorded by David House
Grand Jury, Alexandria VA
15 June 2011, 4:10pm to 5pm

Inside the Grand Jury:

DOJ Counterespionage Section: Attorney Patrick Murphy *
DOJ Counterespionage Section: Attorney Deborah Curtis *
Eastern District of Virginia: AUSA Bob Wiechering
Eastern District of Virginia: AUSA Tracy McCormick
Eastern District of Virginia: AUSA Karen Dunn
Unspecified number of Grand Jurors
Court Steganographer
David House

Directly outside the Grand Jury:
Mike Condon, FBI Agent from Washington, D.C. field office
James Farmer, Chief of Anti-Terrorism and National Security Unit at the U.S. Attorney's Office in D. Mass
Peter Krupp, David House's attorney

Record begins: 4:10pm
[David House is sworn in and informed of his rights]

Patrick Murphy: Would you please state your full name for the record?
David House: My name is David House.
PM: Did you meet Bradley Manning in January 2010?
DH: On the advice of counsel, I invoke my right to remain silent under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. I am concerned that this grand jury is seeking information designed to infringe or chill my associational privacy, and that of others, guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and that it is using information obtained without a search warrant in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. I define the preceding statement as "invoke", and when I say "I invoke" in the future I am referring to this statement.
Deborah Curtis: Exhibit 1-A?
PM: Mr. House, please direct your attention to the screen behind you, exhibit 1-A.
DC: I can't make it bigger.
PM: Try… here, remove that bar on the side.
DC: That didn't work.
DH: Do you guys need help?
DC: We just need to make it bigger. Can everyone see this okay?
PM: Ok… we're going to continue.

[A still image from the Frontline PBS special is displayed on the screen. Four figures are standing in front of the BUILDS logo, one figure has her back turned.]

PM: Mr. House, can you identify the man on the right?
DH: I invoke.
PM: Can you identify the man standing second from right?
DH: I invoke.
PM: Ok, can you identify the person with bright-colored hair, standing here?
DH: I invoke.
PM: Are we to believe that identifying that individual would somehow incriminate you?
DH: On the advice of counsel, I invoke my right to remain silent under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. I am concerned that this grand jury is seeking information designed to infringe or chill my associational privacy, and that of others, guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and that it is using information obtained without a search warrant in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
PM: Ok, can you identify the man on the left?
PM: I would like to observe for the record that Mr. House is taking notes.
DH: As to the previous question, I invoke.
PM: Why are you taking notes?
DH: Invoke.
Bob Wiechering: I'd like to recommend, at this point, that we take a break and talk to your counsel.

[AUSAs and House leave the grand jury]
[Peter Krupp, House's attorney, asserts House's right to invoke]
[AUSAs and House return to the grand jury]

PM: What is your birthdate?
DH: March 14, 1987
PM: Where do you live?
DH: Can you restate the question?
PM: What is your address?
DH: I invoke.
PM: What is your current occupation?
DH: I invoke.
PM: Were you a senior in computer science at Boston University in January 2010?
DH: I invoke.
PM: Isn't it true that you told PBS Frontline that you were a senior at Boston University in January 2010?
DH: I invoke.
PM: Do you know what a hackerspace is?
DH: I invoke.
PM: Do you know what BUILDS is, the acronym?
DH: I invoke.
Bob Wiechering: Mr. House, I notice you are taking notes. Attempting to create your own transcript is a violation of rule 6(e) of this grand jury. We have brought this to the attention of your counsel, and although he feels differently on the matter, we assert that you must stop taking notes at this time.
DH: Let me consult with my attorney.
[House leaves the grand jury room and returns one minute later]
DH: My lawyer asks that you refer all questions about notes to him.
BW: Let's continue.
PM: Mr. House, are you involved with the Bradley Manning Support Network?
DH: I invoke.
PM: Did you respond in the affirmative when asked by the FBI if you had heard of known WikiLeaks associate Jacob Appelbaum?
PM: I would like to state for the record that Mr. House is not answering the question and is instead taking notes.
DH: I invoke.
PM: Do you intend to answer any of my questions, aside from your date of birth and your name?
DH: I invoke.
PM: Is that because of the phalanx of attorneys present here today?
Court Stenographer: I'm sorry, the what of attorneys?
PM: Phalanx… the phalanx of attorneys.
DH: As to the phalanx of attorneys, I invoke.
PM: At this time, I will let Deborah Curtis ask a few questions.
DC: Mr. House, have you ever been to the Oxford Spa restaurant in Cambridge, MA?
DH: Allow me to consult with my attorney.
[House leaves the grand jury and returns one minute later.]
DH: As to the previous question, I invoke.
DC: You admitted to federal agents in Boston that you had met Bradley Manning in January 2010, is that correct?
DH: I invoke.
DC: Isn't it true that you spent the night of January 27 2010 with Daniel Clark and Bradley Manning?
DH: Can you repeat the question?
DC: Isn't it true that you spent the night of January 27 2010 with Daniel Clark and Bradley Manning?
DH: One more time.
DC: Isn't it true that you spent the night of January 27 2010 with Daniel Clark and Bradley Manning?
PM: He's writing it down.
DC: Are you getting this, are you writing it all down?
DH: Was the last question a question to be answered?
DC: Yes.
DH: I invoke.
DC: And the question before?
DH: I also invoke.
DC: Where did Danny Clark have breakfast on the morning of January 28, 2010?
DH: Allow me to consult with my attorney.
[House leaves the grand jury and returns one minute later.]
DH: As to the previous question, I invoke.
DC: Do you intend to answer any questions about Daniel Clark?
DH: Invoke.
DC: Do you intend to answer any questions about Bradley Manning?
DH: [Writing] Could you please repeat the question?
DC: Do you intend to answer any questions about Jacob Appelbaum?
DH: I invoke.
DC: At this time, we'd like to stop the proceedings. You are free to leave.