When is a “cyber attack” on a children’s hospital a good and necessary thing? How about when it isn’t what’s normally referred to by the politically charged term ‘cyber attack’ at all, when it leaves the critical components typically expected to be priority targets of such a frightful offensive— medical devices, electrical systems, telephone lines, etc. untouched and instead exacts a financial toll in order to protect a young girl from potentially deadly malpractice, negligence, and cruelty? How about when the hacker isn’t the bad guy one expects, and not one patient was intended nor suffered any harm? Does all this sounds like it qualifies as a “cyber attack on a children’s hospital,” or does it sound like something else?
It’s easy and convenient for a hospital facing online actions over its maiming of a child to distract from its culpability by taking advantage of the public’s deep seated fears and labeling itself the victim of a “cyber attack.” It’s also dishonest and inflationary. This disingenuous tactic exploits the understandable tendency for people who hear “cyber attack” and “hospital” in the same sentence to immediately assume the worst. Ironically, it takes advantage of society’s collective decency to mask the truly obscene and is disrespectful to the victims of actual hospital attacks, like those against Doctors Without Borders not too long ago, in which children did actually die. It’s also easy, dishonest, and disrespectful for a notorious federal prosecutor who failed to lift a finger when a young girl’s life was at stake, to follow suit and attempt to indemnify her political allies from the financial impact of their deplorable actions.
The hospital in question is Boston Children’s, the infamous prosecutor is Carmen Ortiz, and the girl who lost all feeling below her hips and whose name Ortiz doesn’t dare utter is Justina Pelletier. A longer more detailed first-person account is available in a previous HuffPost exclusive, an in-depth human rights analysis of Justina’s suffering has been submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice as well as the United Nations, and, following her despicable treatment of prominent internet activist and pioneer Aaron Swartz, culminating in his 2013 suicide, Carmen Ortiz’s disgraceful conduct has been memorialized forever by no less than 61,000 concerned citizens.
Justina’s mistreatment at Boston Children’s and the simultaneous marked decline in her health began when an unlicensed resident, seven months out of medical school, and a non-MD psychologist challenged her mitochondrial disease diagnosis and therapies. These practitioners, who had only just met Justina and her family, preferred a mental health theory under which her symptoms were psychosomatic and had no physical causes. In contrast, Justina’s mitochondrial disease, or “mito,” diagnosis had been carefully arrived at by a leading medical expert following relevant biopsies. For over a year, this renowned professional had been successfully treating both Justina and her older sister for this usually genetic condition known to run in families.
When the new and comparatively inexperienced staff asked Justina’s parents for approval to stop various essential mito therapies, they fearfully refused and tried to bring her to her normal specialist at a competing hospital across the city. However, Boston Children’s wouldn’t take no for an answer and reported Justina’s family to state authorities for “medical child abuse,” starting a controversial legal process some of the hospital staff refer to as a “parentectomy.” They told the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which is accustomed to deferring to world renowned Boston Children’s Hospital on medical matters, that Justina’s mito treatments were unnecessary, invasive, harmful, and therefore abusive. Even though they spoke to her diagnosing physician across town, Boston Children’s doctors were quoted on a sworn affidavit saying they, “do not know where the parents picked up the [mito] diagnosis...” They also expressed concerns about Justina’s feeding tube and cecostomy button, but almost immediately after the courts stripped her parents of custody based on this misleading information, the hospital determined both to be medically necessary.
From there, Justina’s painkillers, heart medications, even prescriptions for her brain and multi-vitamins were stopped, she was left in agony, locked in an allegedly abusive psych ward, and only allowed brief, supervised, and censored contact with her family. Without her vital therapies, her condition declined over the next sixteen months; her gums receded, her hair fell out, her legs swelled, and she lost all feeling below her hips. As the normal judicial and political processes failed to protect her, many people began to fear for her life. Now more than two years later, she is still in a wheelchair, and her family has filed a lengthy civil suit for malpractice, gross negligence, and civil rights violations.
Returning to the so-called “cyber attack” though, here is what actually happened, directly from the mouth of the alleged coordinator of the “massive” hack as well as the sworn testimony of FBI special agent Jeffrey Williams, and Chief of the Boston U.S. Attorney’s Office Cybercrime division, Adam J. Bookbinder, who succeeded Steve Heyman following the Aaron Swartz case.
Alleged Anonymous hacker/activist, or “hacktivist,” Martin “Marty” Gottesfeld learned of Justina’s situation online. At first, he was unaware of the deeper human rights issues, and viewed the situation as it was widely reported at the time, as a medical/custody dispute. He trusted his local courts and hospitals to resolve the situation, but as months passed, and word of Justina’s suffering spread, he grew increasingly concerned. He read a scathing letter written by a former federal prosecutor and then-longest tenured board member of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children saying the hospital’s psych ward “appears virtually synonymous with abuse for many children.” Weary of federal prosecutors though, it was a similar letter, written by a former Boston Children’s Hospital psychiatric nurse, stating, “It would be far more accurate to call the ‘treatment’ forced upon Justina by its more proper term, ‘torture,’” that finally, along with other information, exceeded the threshold of evidence he felt necessary for intervention.
“It would be far more accurate to call the ‘treatment’ forced on Justina by its more proper term, ‘torture.’”—Katie Higgins, RN
At first, Gottesfeld was hopeful public pressure and the specter of Anonymous action would lead to an expedited resolution. Without bothering to hide his identity, he uploaded a video to YouTube demanding the hospital return Justina to her family and terminate the now controversial doctor who filed a complaint against her parents. “We demand that you terminate Alice W. Newton from her employment or you too shall feel the full unbridled wrath of Anonymous.”
The text accompanying the video contains the home address and phone number of the juvenile court judge overseeing Justina's case and urged viewers to mail letters to his house and call him at home. It admonished him, "To Judge Joseph F. Johnston, you think you can abduct children away from their families because you are a judge? Wrong. Anonymous and the American people are here to remind you who’s really in charge of this country."
It implored the public to, "Stand up for a child in her darkest hour," as it displayed before and after photos of Justina, as well as a picture of her sister desperately hugging her crying mother as Justina was separated from her family following a hearing. It declared that "Anonymous will punish all those responsible and will not relent until Justina is free." Ominously it warned Boston Children's, "Test us and you shall fail." However, contrary to the Boston FBI's later claim in sworn paperwork, it did not call for attacks against the hospital’s network. Directly after the video was played into evidence in open court, Special Agent Jeffrey Williams admitted during cross examination, "from my recollection [the video] did not specifically call for [an attack.]"
“Stand up for a child in her darkest hour.” — OpJustina video
The apparent involvement of Anonymous increased the visibility of the case as Gottesfeld had hoped. The judge received letters and calls, many of them threatening, from across the country. National Anonymous accounts tweeted at the hospital, rattling the group’s internationally feared saber. After he saw a national Anon account tweet the picture below at Boston Children's, Gottesfeld uttered one of the many permutations of the group's motto to himself, "We are Anonymous. We give a voice to the voiceless."
“We give a voice to the voiceless.” —Martin Gottesfeld quoting the hacktivist collective Anonymous
Still, the idea of action against a children's hospital was controversial inside Anonymous and many members were more trusting of Justina's new doctors and the state of Massachusetts than her previously unknown family. Fueling the controversy, Anonymous had clashed with some of the groups supporting the Pelletiers, like the Church of Scientology, whose anti-psychiatry Citizen's Commission on Human Rights was already speaking out. Additionally, while there are politically conservative Anons, many members were dubious of the religious and right wing associations and outlets that helped break the story, such as The Christian Defense Coalition, Glenn Beck's "TheBlaze," and Liberty Counsel. Gottesfeld says from prison, "Justina's safety and well-being were paramount to everyone, and while I was cognizant of the challenges posed by the simultaneous involvement of these otherwise dispirit groups, I hoped we would all stay focused on her and her family. Human rights work often makes for strange bedfellows."
Gottesfeld also hoped that Anonymous would help round out support for Pelletier across the political aisle. He writes in one of his books, "In Boston, the simple reality is that Michael Moore receives far more support than Rush Limbaugh." As days passed though, the most influential Anonymous accounts, concerned with the optics of "OpJustina," withdrew their support and even became openly critical of actions against Boston Children's. He didn't know it, but there would soon be an internally high-profile controversy regarding control of those accounts within Anonymous, and a subsequent change in leadership. At the time though, OpJustina had to make do without the group's most powerful press and technical connections.
Largely on his own, Gottesfeld started organizing a grand gesture. He knew that a large fundraising effort for the hospital was a few weeks away and that most donations would occur online. “All of the judicial, political, and medical oversight processes that could and should have saved Justina were failing. She was suffering unconscionable human rights violations, and I didn’t know how long she would survive,” Gottesfeld said from prison. “It’s unfortunate, but sometimes the only thing that motivates large, unfeeling bureaucracies is money. I didn’t care about ‘the optics,’ I cared about Justina. Many Anonymous actions are commonly misunderstood and misreported. If OpJustina turned out to be another one, then so be it. I wasn’t going to just let her suffer and die.”
“I wasn’t going to just let her suffer and die.” —Martin Gottesfeld
Complicating matters, Boston Children’s keeps its donation page, main website, and other technical infrastructure all on the same network. “This all eggs in one basket approach is a really bad idea and they should know better,” Gottesfeld says. “However I also knew from my career experience that an internet outage would not harm patients. Would you bring your child to a hospital where the internet going down would affect their safety?”
He points out that federal law and accreditation standards require hospitals to be able to function during online outages, and emphasizes, “I think when most people hear of a ‘cyber attack’ on a hospital they picture a situation much different than then internet going down for a few hours, which obviously can and does happen occasionally anyway.”
On the afternoon of the donation drive, a “massive” flood of traffic came down the hospital’s internet lines, overwhelming them for hours. The hospital claims hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses. Gottesfeld points to estimates that Boston Children’s grossed in excess of one million dollars for its controversial care of Pelletier and claims “They still made hundreds of thousands for nearly killing Justina.” On the witness stand the FBI acknowledged that the telephone system was unaffected, doctors and patients could call each other, and no medical records were hacked or destroyed. The prosecutor stipulated, “This was not a cyber 9/11,” and there have been no allegations any patients were harmed.
“The hospital lost some of its profits. Justina lost the use of her legs,” Gottesfeld said from prison. “Under international convention, not even war, the threat of war, or the preservation of human life, can justify the torture she endured at Boston Children’s. Ortiz knows this.”
“The hospital lost some of its profits, Justina lost the use of her legs.” —Martin Gottesfeld
The Boston FBI proudly stated they immediately began investigating the Internet outage after it happened. On cross examination Special Agent Williams confirmed they bureau was aware of allegations Justina had been abused at Boston Children’s, but there had been no FBI investigation of those allegations.
“It’s really sad that the Boston FBI and Carmen Ortiz’s office couldn’t care less about Justina’s suffering, but will spend millions investigating an internet outage. They have their agenda, and it certainly isn’t justice for kids like Justina.” Gottesfeld said from the prison where he’s been held since March. He is currently on the second month of a hunger strike demanding a presidential pledge for actions to protect institutionalized children like Justina and to curtail political prosecutions in Boston. He has lost over 30 pounds.
Justina’s eventual release is attributed to a variety of mounting pressures. There were large protests at the Massachusetts State House as well as elsewhere, #FreeJustina repeatedly trended on Twitter, national media outlets ran successive stories, and eventually legislators at both the state and federal levels, as well as top Commonwealth public health officials got involved. OpJustina was covered by a variety of media outlets that hadn’t previously appeared interested in the story. “It reminded Boston Children’s in a very public way that they aren’t invincible or infallible. I’m told by a reliable inside source that the fundraising incident caused a considerable shakeup at the hospital, and these practitioners, who had a long history of questionable so-called ‘parentectomies’ were reigned in as a result of what happened,” Gottesfeld claims.
Martin Gottesfeld contributed to this article during his hunger strike. Dana Gottesfeld is his wife.