WASHINGTON -- The top Republican and top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee sent a joint letter late Monday to Attorney General Eric Holder posing pointed questions about the prosecution of Internet pioneer and political activist Aaron Swartz.
Swartz committed suicide this month after fighting federal hacking charges for two years. The letter from Issa and Cummings is the first clear bipartisan response to Swartz's prosecution, heavily criticized by computer and criminal justice experts as unwarranted and excessive. Swartz would have faced up to 35 years in prison if convicted of hacking charges stemming from mass downloads of academic journal articles from the online database JSTOR. Although Swartz had legal access to all of the articles, he was accused of violating the database terms of service by downloading so many at once. JSTOR had opposed his prosecution.
Issa has championed Internet freedom causes in recent years, and was one of the first Republican lawmakers to speak out against the Stop Online Piracy Act. Swartz was a leading opponent of SOPA. But Issa also has a reputation as a hard-nosed political partisan, who made few friends with Democratic members of his committee during his "Fast and Furious" gun investigation, which devolved into a conspiracy-theory circus.
Issa began an investigation into the Swartz case earlier this month. But the joint letter from Issa and Cummings suggests a more collaborative approach to an inquiry into the Justice Department's handling of the Swartz case. The two lawmakers ask for a briefing to be scheduled with Justice Department staff within a week. The letter also raises Holder's profile in the case and is the first sign of an effort to inspect procedural standards at Justice along with any specific failures in the Swartz case.
The letter from Issa and Cummings asks Holder about factors that led to the decision to prosecute Swartz, along with key decisions after the case began. The letter also asks if Swartz's political advocacy, including his anti-SOPA work, were factors that DOJ considered relevant.
Issa told HuffPost he had a staffer looking into the Swartz prosecution earlier this month, calling overprosecution “a tool often used to get people to plead guilty rather than risk sentencing.”
The Justice Department has already agreed to brief the two lawmakers, Cummings told HuffPost. "I expect that we'll be meeting with them next week," he said. "We expect to have a candid and open discussion with the U.S. Attorney's Office and then we'll take it from there, but I promise you we will not leave one stone unturned.
"I'm pleased that it's a joint effort, by the way," said Cummings, whose signature on the letter raises the pressure on the Justice Department. "There's more than one issue here. Is the law too vague? Why was he being charged the way he was when the university decided they were not going to prosecute? Did that have any bearing?"
Holder, who has been silent on the Swartz case, also text received a letter from Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) last week, asking some of the same questions posed in the Issa-Cummings letter. U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, whose office was prosecuting Swartz, insisted that all of her office's actions were "appropriate," emphasizing that prosecutors did not seek the maximum 35 years in prison permissible under sentencing guidelines.
Internet freedom activists and progressive political groups are pressing for legislative reforms in the aftermath of Swartz's suicide, and the House Oversight Committee's investigation will likely be used to generate specific policy recommendations and political pressure for action.
A proposal to upgrade the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act from Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) has garnered attention from Internet advocacy groups, which are hammering out language for a more substantive reform. The Justice Department, however, has been fighting these efforts on Capitol Hill, according to a congressional staffer familiar with legislative discussions.
A Department of Justice spokesman wasn't available to comment.
The questions from the letter read:
1. What factors influenced the decision to prosecute Mr. Swartz for the crimes alleged in the indictment, including the decisions regarding what crimes to charge and the filing of the superseding indictment?
2. Was Mr. Swartz's opposition to SOPA or his association with any advocacy groups considered?
3. What specific plea offers were made to Mr. Swartz, and what factors influenced the decisions by prosecutors regarding plea offers made to Mr. Swartz?
4. How did the criminal charges, penalties sought, and plea offers in this case compare to those of other cases that have been prosecuted or considered for prosecution under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act?
5. Did the federal investigation of Mr. Swartz reveal evidence that he had committed other hacking violations?
6. What factors influences the Department's decisions regarding sentencing proposals?
7. Why was a superseding indictment necessary?
A host of Internet freedom activists and progressive political groups are pressing for legislative reforms in the aftermath of Swartz's suicide, and the House Oversight Committee's investigation will likely be used to generate specific policy recommendations and political pressure for action.
This article has been updated to note that the Justice Department is opposing efforts to reform the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
Also on HuffPost:
Sir Tim Berners Lee, Founder Of The World Wide Web
He <a href="https://twitter.com/timberners_lee/status/290140454211698689">tweeted</a>: “Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.”
Quinn Norton, Freelance Journalist And Swartz's Close Friend
"We used to have a fight about how much the internet would grieve if he died. I was right, but the last word you get in as the still living is a hollow thing, trailing off, as it does, into oblivion." Read more <a href="http://www.quinnnorton.com/said/?p=644">here</a>.
Danah Boyd, Social Media Researcher And Swartz's Friend
"What I feel right now is anger. I'm angry at Aaron, angry at the state, angry at MIT, angry at anti-hactivist sentiment & angry at myself." Read Boyd's full statement on Swartz's death <a href="http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2013/01/13/aaron-swartz.html">here</a>.
Cory Doctorow, Science Fiction Author And Swartz's Friend
"Whatever problems Aaron was facing, killing himself didn't solve them. Whatever problems Aaron was facing, they will go unsolved forever. If he was lonely, he will never again be embraced by his friends. If he was despairing of the fight, he will never again rally his comrades with brilliant strategies and leadership. If he was sorrowing, he will never again be lifted from it." Read more <a href="http://boingboing.net/2013/01/12/rip-aaron-swartz.html">here</a>.
Swartz Family Statement
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.” Read more <a href="http://rememberaaronsw.tumblr.com/post/40372208044/official-statement-from-the-family-and-partner-of-aaron">here</a>.
Lawrence Lessig, Director Of The Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics At Harvard University
"The question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a 'felon.' For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million-dollar trial in April -- his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it." Read more <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lawrence-lessig/aaron-swartz-suicide_b_2467079.html">here</a>.
JSTOR, Academic Archive
"We are deeply saddened to hear the news about Aaron Swartz. We extend our heartfelt condolences to Aaron’s family, friends, and everyone who loved, knew, and admired him. He was a truly gifted person who made important contributions to the development of the internet and the web from which we all benefit." Read more <a href="http://about.jstor.org/statement-swartz">here</a>.
L. Rafael Reif, MIT President
"I have asked professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT's involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in Fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took. I will share the report with the MIT community when I receive it." Read more <a href="http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2013/letter-on-death-of-aaron-swartz.html">here</a>.
Anonymous, Hacktivist Collective
On Sunday night, one day after Swartz's death, Anonymous knocked out Internet access at MIT, <a href="http://tech.mit.edu/V132/N61/anonymous.html" target="_hplink">according to The Tech</a>, a campus newspaper. Two MIT-affiliated websites were rewritten with the following message from the hacktivist group: "Whether or not the government contributed to his suicide, the government's prosecution of Swartz was a grotesque miscarriage of justice, a distorted and perverse shadow of the justice that Aaron died fighting for - freeing the publicly-funded scientific literature from a publishing system that makes it inaccessible to most of those who paid for it - enabling the collective betterment of the world through the facilitation of sharing - an ideal that we should all support." Read the full text of the hack <a href="http://gizmodo.com/5975646/anonymous-hacks-mit-in-aaron-swartzs-name">here</a>.
Danny O'Brien, Journalist And Swartz's Friend
"Ada [O'Brien's daughter] cried, then we hugged, then Ada suggested we have a goodbye party, with ice-cream and sprinkles and a movie, and make a board where we could pin all our memories. We laughed at how funny he was. Aaron taught her so well." Read more <a href="http://www.oblomovka.com/wp/2013/01/12/he-was-funny/">here</a>. <strong>Correction:</strong> This slide originally reported that Ada was Aaron Swartz's daughter, not Danny O'Brien's. The Huffington Post regrets this error.