President Obama had a press conference yesterday, billed as the last one of his first term. He was asked the predictable questions, mainly about the debt-and-spending battle with Congress, with one off-speed pitch, a query about a lack of White House diversity and also why he doesn't socialize with Congress more. No one asked the president about Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old Internet-freedom activist who, facing controversial federal criminal charges, committed suicide last week. That's not a surprise -- honestly, what might Obama say about the specifics, to the extent he may or may not have even followed the story. But what happened to this young crusader raises much deeper questions about our government, about transparency, secrecy, people's right to know and the abuse of power. Questions that need to be answered for the American people.
Full disclosure: I'm not going to pretend that before this week that I know much about Swartz, a computer prodigy who created a website that evolved into the popular Reddit site at age 14, and then campaigned for freedom of information over the Internet, fighting against the Internet-copyright bill known as SOPA through a group called Demand Progress. He was well-known to the community of activists seeking to reduce government restrictions on the flow of information, if not to the broader public. But the broader battles that he devoted his all-too-brief life to fighting -- against a government that is way too invested in conducting its business in secret and in limiting information to the select few -- are familiar to most of us.
Outside of the activisit community, there really wasn't much publicity about the 2011 federal charges lodged against Swartz -- the case that threatened to send him to prison and which family and friends say was closely linked to his death, by hanging himself in his Brooklyn apartment on Friday. It's a complicated case, but essentially the activist had used the computers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, to download millions of documents -- academic and scholarly papers -- that were behind the wall for paying subscribers at the site JSTOR. There's no evidence that Swartz intended to enrich himself or others, but the act instead appears by all accounts to be a manifestation of his belief that knowledge -- especially research that in many cases is underwritten by our federal or state tax dollars -- is for the public.
When someone breaks a law not for personal gain but because he or she thinks the law is wrong, that's called civil disobedience -- the tactic used by famous people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, whom the nation pauses to honor on Monday, and by millions of people who are not famous but are very brave. They are brave because they know they may and quite likely will be punished for what they do -- but Aaron Swartz had the misfortune of taking his civl action in a nation that seems to treat crimes committed with a computer more harshly than crimes committed with a gun.
Swartz was arrested on 13 federal felony charges that carried the possibility of millions of dollars in fines and a prison sentence of 35 years, and the U.S. Justice Department (encouraged, reportedly by MIT) did not back away from its over-the-top prosecution of Swartz -- even though JSTOR, the supposed aggrieved party, didn't want to press charges and in fact announced just days ago that 4.5 million documents would be made available for free (with some limits).
Just last week, prosecutors offered Swartz a "deal" that still would have mandated at least six months in prison. A short time later. his body was found. Of course, it's impossible to know everything that's on a person's mind, and while family members say he had his struggles with depression, there is little doubt that the prosecution is what was weighing most on Swartz in his final hours. His family released a statement that was unambiguous: "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 M.I.T. contributed to his death."
As news and shock over Swartz' passing spread on the Internet this weekend, much of the focus of anger has been at MIT -- which is now conducting an internal investigation -- and at Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz. Her ouster has been called for though an ever-growing online petition while Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig has called for an investigation of the federal prosecutor. Those responses are all appropriate -- but people should use this occasion to look even deeper.
On one level, this might be a time for Americans to ask ourselves why the full hammer of the government was coming down on this brilliant young activist whose alleged crime was so dubious, when the same Justice Department has all but ignored the double dealing and financial chicanery that crashed the world economy that erased billions of dollars in 2008, and it has completely looked the other way when it comes to the torture practices that reversed decades of established law and which have been so harmful to America's reputation.
But let's look even beyond that. The persecution of Aaron Swartz can't be passed off as an isolated incident. Instead, with Swartz' suicide, it feels more like the exclamation point on an administration whose commitment to maintaining secrecy, blocking transparency, limiting the flow of information and squelching dissent has been both unexpected and rather shocking.
After all, it was four years this week that Barack Obama became the 44th president, bringing hopes not just that he would stem the economic bleeding and end two seemingly endless wars -- but that he would undo the broader expansion of power and secrecy that took place during the Bush-Cheney years. President Obama has proved -- for reasons that are in many cases not his doing -- to be a remarkably polarizing figure, still seen after four years as a savior by some, while to his enemies he is somewhere on the spectrum between a socialist and the Antichrist. The reality is that while he's a necessary counterweight to the radical extremism of ther Tea Party and has soke praiseworthy accomplishments on issues from health care to gays in the military, he's also expanded the power of the presidency at the expense of the public, just like every other modern chief executive before him. Sometimes alarmingly so.
The reality of the Obama administration so far is that the folks who promised in 2009 "most transparent administration in history" have instead turned down Freedom of Information requests at a much higher rate than the oft-criticized Bush administration, have continued to classify documents at an alarming level, and even made unsuccessful attempts to water down a key FOIA provision and to keep White House visitor logs a secret.
The administration that pledged to undo the excessive secrecy of the Bush years has seen its Justice Department prosecute six people under the Espionage Act who've tried to blow the whistle on government corruption, including unlawful torture -- which is double the number prosecuted under all past presidents put together. The presidency that surged into office four years ago promising to wipe away the moral stain of the Iraq War years has instead chosen to conduct the cornerstone of its anti-terrorism -- drone strikes against purported terrorists on a "kill list" -- in utter secrecy; it imposes a death penalty, even against an American citizen, in a program with zero oversight, whose very existence it refuses to confirm to the citizenry. And a relatively tame form of legal public dissent -- the Occupy Wall Street movement, which dared to ask some of these questions -- became the target of surveillance by the FBI and an umbrella of other federal agencies.
Taken together, this is the great failure of the Obama legacy, and the Aaron Swartz case is just one thread of this much, much larger and deeply troubling canvass. But if there is one thing to take from this tragedy, it is the knowledge that the current president has shown he can change course when the public outcry becomes great enough. Before Newtown, the Obama administration had an abysmal record on gun violence -- given an "F," in fact, by the Brady campaign, but the horrific events of Sandy Hook have forced the White House to focus on an issue it spent four years working to ignore.
Now, will the tragic death of Aaron Swartz, and the backwards-looking policies that surrounded his case, cause the president to re-examine his broken promises on transparency and openness? It's the question that should have been asked today at the president's press conference -- but wasn't. As with gun sanity (and also climate change, which is forcing the hand of policy makers), this weekend's second inauguration gives Obama a four-year do-over to finally keep his promises on transparency and the free flow of information. But it will never happen if no one asks the right questions.