Note: This article was first published by Revolution News on February 23, 2016 but disappeared from that site (along with other stories) in the course of their overhaul. The Fifth Column is republishing the piece to make the reporting more easily accessible and to call attention to Matt DeHart’s case.
Yesterday in Nashville, Judge Aleta Trauger of United States District Court sentenced 31-year-old Anonymous activist Matt DeHart—called a courier for WikiLeaks by his best-known advocates, the Courage Foundation—to seven and a half years behind bars followed by thirteen years of supervised release, despite being one of multiple judicial authorities who have expressed doubts about the case against him.
His punishment is the result of a deal he struck with the Department of Justice to avoid trial in federal court, where conviction rates top ninety percent, and a maximum possible prison term of a staggering seven decades in exchange for pleading guilty to two counts of receipt of child pornography and one count of failure to appear. The last charge refers to his forgoing an April 2013 hearing in an attempt to gain asylum in Canada based on the stunning claim that his own government tortured him over his access to secret documents.
The complex backstory of the case was only briefly mentioned in court Monday morning; the judge concentrated on approving the plea agreement quickly and, in contrast to a previous hearing, did not raise questions about the Department of Justice’s rendering of events. Defense lawyer Tor Ekeland told Revolution News—the single media organization in attendance—that the day’s proceedings were “the non-event we had hoped for.”
Sitting relaxed behind the defense table, the defendant looked tired yet focused, and not unlike the youthful gamer he was when his ordeal started in his early twenties. His Kafkaesque story, detailed by Buzzfeed and the National Post, eludes easy summary, but the following overview explains why so many are concerned about his struggle.
Matt’s story: his version
As a teenager, DeHart developed an interest in computers that would soon make him perfectly suited for the hacktivist collective Anonymous. He hacked his school and started a syndicate to oppose profiteering by cybersecurity firms. The budding hacker also became a guildmaster in the popular online game World of Warcraft, running a league of about 150 members—many part of Anonymous—where he virtually met the two boys who would later accuse him of manipulating them into sending him pornographic selfies.
Fighting with depression, DeHart decided to follow the footsteps of his father—an Air Force captain who afterward worked for the National Security Agency—and enlist in the Air National Guard in 2008, all while continuing his alternative digital life, which included working on Anonymous’ protests against Scientology earlier that same year. He says that as an all-source intelligence analyst in the 181st Intelligence Wing in Indiana, he knew CIA liaisons were on the base picking targets for drone strikes. He and other airmen were upset about cooperating with them, possibly because of the agency’s frequent targeting of civilians. To cope, DeHart launched a password-protected server called The Shell where he and fellow soldiers could electronically meet in secret to share frustrations in chat and swap files.
More than halfway through his short military career, DeHart, then 23, told his guild he was planning a trip to Tennessee to visit a female friend; one of his future accusers responded by asking to hang out, and DeHart made the fateful decision to agree. On the vacation, the sixteen-year-old boy and the soldier met, and when the minor asked for some of DeHart’s prescription Adderall, he gave him half of one. The boy suggested toilet-papering the home of the other future accuser, a fourteen year old who had been kicked out of their guild for trolling. The airman assisted with the prank. No one alleges there was inappropriate sexual contact during this trip, but the mild vandalism spurred the parents of both youths to check up on their sons’ online affairs—which led to Detective Brett Kniss of the Franklin police department interviewing the two boys in January 2009.
Months passed with no consequences for DeHart until he came into possession of a troubling folder of documents. After honorable discharge from the National Guard in June 2009—no reason given on his papers, but he says he was told his depression, a common problem on drone bases, was re-evaluated—the young man strived to turn The Shell into a transit point or drop-box for WikiLeaks. “We were looking for people to upload files to show malfeasance on behalf of the government and corporations,” he later told Buzzfeed. In the second half of 2009, he insists, just such information appeared on The Shell. Since the server was password-protected and some of the new data related to CIA target selection, it seemed an individual at the base had uploaded it. The material also apparently contained internal documents from an agrochemical company expressing fault for more than 13,000 GMO-related deaths and, most shockingly, an FBI investigation into the CIA showing the intelligence agency’s role in the post-9/11 anthrax attacks that killed five, sickened others, and contributed to the climate of fear that encouraged the War on Terror. DeHart copied the information onto two IronKey thumbdrives, hid them in a gun case, and then, after receiving a tip from a friend the FBI had visited, shut down The Shell in January 2010—the same month another intelligence analyst, Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning was first making contact with WikiLeaks. Two weeks after the end of The Shell, the FBI raided DeHart’s home, executing a search warrant for the investigation of “possession of child pornography and child solicitation.” They took his family’s electronics, but neglected to look in the gun case. Judge Trauger, who eventually sentenced him, would say in open court in May 2012 that the young veteran “thought that the search for child pornography was really a ruse to try to get the proof about his extracurricular national security issues,” and that she “found him very credible on that issue.”
DeHart next made dramatic efforts to restart his life. He applied to the Russian and Venezuelan embassies in DC forpolitical protection, but was turned down. He finally enrolled in French and welding classes in Canada.
All seemed well until the morning of August 6, 2010, when the veteran, needing to process his student visa, crossed backinto the United States. He handed over his passport at the border patrol office at the Calais, Maine port of entry and,according to an FBI report, was detained by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement for “questioning in an espionage matter.” That very day—timing too exact to be coincidental—Detective Kniss filed a criminal complaint against DeHart in Tennessee for the child porn investigation, nearly two whole years after the alleged conduct. FBI agents took DeHart from the border station to a windowless examination room. According to the veteran, he was pushed into what looked like a dentist’s chair and administered a forced IV that made him feel drugged—an interrogation technique practiced at Guantanamo. About 20 minutes later, he was taken to a conference area and interrogated by the FBI, his requests for a lawyer denied. Using the new child porn filing as leverage—DeHart says an agent told him the bureau knew he was not guilty in that matter—the FBI extracted a forced confession that interpreted the embassy visits as attempts to sell military secrets in an arrangement involving other soldiers from the Indiana base. In DeHart’s telling, he was also questioned about Anonymous and WikiLeaks. The agents ultimately arrested him on the child porn charges and deposited him in a Bangor jail, where he collapsed. An ambulance took him to Eastern Maine Medical Center; there a medical report was made that called him “paranoid and delusional with an idea of the FBI monitoring him and accusing him of espionage.”The ER personnel released DeHart into the FBI’s hands. Agents then interrogated him for two weeks without counsel present, interviews the FBI acknowledges but the reports for which remain classified. At one point, DeHart claims, he was hooded and tasered. The bureau also acquired his “consent” to take over his online aliases; the defendant would later warn through the National Post that “They are becoming you on the Internet—specifically for the purpose of going after Anonymous.” During one of his court appearances in this time frame, Judge Margaret Kravchuk raised questions about the case, calling it “odd,” but nevertheless ordered DeHart sent to Nashville for pre-trial detention.
After almost two years awaiting trial following the border torture, the defendant had a detention review hearing in May 2012 before Judge Trauger, who reviewed the classified reports and the child porn charges—and said “the weight of the evidence” in the Tennessee case was “not as firm as I thought it was.” She released DeHart to his parents on bond. For the next year, he stayed with his family under curfew, with a security bracelet for monitoring his movements.
Feeling pressured toward a plea deal by repeated delays in his case, and mindful that in light of his mental health difficulties the suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz might foreshadow his own fate—both faced decades of prison time—DeHart chose in April 2013 to cut off his GPS anklet and cross the border into Canada to ask for political asylum under the United Nations Convention Against Torture. The Canadian authorities received two encrypted thumb drives and hundreds of pages of documents from him in support of his claim. He spent part of his time in Canada under house arrest and part of it in prison on a reporting technicality. Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board found no “credible or trustworthy evidence” for the child porn charges and concluded there were “significant differences” in the chat log evidence provided by Detective Kniss and those obtained by DeHart from AOL. However, the panel stated that the United States “has a fair and independent judicial process,” so DeHart was deported back to his home country for pre-trial detention, which concluded with yesterday’s hearing.
Matt’s story: the authorities’ version
Much of Monday’s proceedings consisted of the prosecution presenting three victim impact statements, which accused DeHart of orchestrating a hoax in the media and in court to avoid taking responsibility for damaging lives. It is true that in several instances, journalists have been unable to confirm details of the defendant’s account. For example, the spokesperson for DeHart’s National Guard unit told Buzzfeed that the new soldier would not have been able to witness CIA liaisons selecting targets for drone strikes, and denied his alibi of being at a drill on May 18, 2008, when according to Detective Kniss DeHart was soliciting porn from one of the boys.
The initial two statements were delivered by parents of the minors, oddly without much display of emotion, and the last was read by Detective Kniss himself. The first statement called the defendant an “Internet predator” and “pathological liar” who created an “elaborate pack of lies.” The second blamed DeHart for making threatening phone calls to try to “intimidate” the family and advised him to heed Luke 17:2: “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.” The final statement, which one of the minors wrote, said “What you have done to me cannot be undone” and “the root of your problem is you are unhappy with yourself.” The defendant looked away during the three recitations, his brow heavily creased; the judge did not comment.
DeHart declined to give an allocution—“I have nothing to say, Your Honor”—and turned down Judge Trauger‘s offer of mental health treatment. Then, smiling at his family, he was led away in handcuffs. He now faces about four and a half years in prison, with time served in the U.S. knocking about three years off his sentence. It is not yet determined whether he will receive credit for time served while in Canada.
DeHarts say Matt is innocent
Outside the courtroom, the defendant’s parents described the victim impact statements as “coached” and “very scripted.”
Paul DeHart, now a church pastor, told Revolution News he questioned a culture of “disposable people” when his son is both a human being and a citizen, attributes the father said disappeared in the eyes of the prosecution. People in the United States “don’t care about waterboarding or drone strikes” and seek “the purposeful infliction of suffering,” and nothing seems to change as a result of political protests anymore.
But Leann DeHart, once a linguist for the U.S. military, said supporting her son was “the right thing to do. Even though the outcome in my opinion was totally unfair, it could have been a lot worse if we hadn’t stood up for him.”
The story may not be over yet: copies of the secret documents DeHart claims to have seen may be in the hands of his allies, or they may be on two thumbdrives he tried to show the Canadian authorities for his asylum bid—thumbdrives that somehow wound up in the possession of his prosecutors. “We will take steps to retrieve Mr. DeHart’s property that was not in the asset forfeiture order,” defense attorney Tor Ekeland told Revolution News. That should include the two encrypted IronKey thumbdrives—and quite possibly, ultimate answers to the mystery of DeHart’s case.