(photo: David House)

The American Civil Liberties Union, which pursued a lawsuit alleging Bradley Manning Support Network (now Private Manning Support Network) co-founder David House had his rights violated when he had his electronic devices, including a laptop, searched and seized at O’Hare International Airport, has posted documents providing more details on why House was targeted. They suggest authorities may have been interested in whether he had knowledge or possessed “Afghanistan War Logs” documents that had not been published by WikiLeaks.

On November 3, 2010, when House was returning from a vacation in Mexico, he was detained by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents and missed a connecting flight to Boston. He was forced to hand over his laptop, a USB storage device, a video camera and a cellular phone. The agents did not ask if House consented to a search nor did they present House with a search warrant.

The ACLU sent a letter on December 21, 2010, to DHS, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) urging the agencies to return his electronic devices. His devices were returned the day after and on May 13, 2011, the ACLU filed a lawsuit alleging the government had “targeted House solely on the basis of his lawful association with the Bradley Manning Support Network” and violated his First and Fourth Amendment rights.

A US district court judge refused to dismiss the lawsuit in March 2012 and, in May 2013, the government settled with House. It agreed to “destroy all remaining data copied from House’s devices” and also to “hand over numerous documents, including reports describing Army CID’s inspection of House’s data as well as the DHS ‘Lookout’ telling agents to stop House as he entered the country.” And the government, according to the ACLU, “agreed to release reports on DHS agents’ questioning of House, which included inquiries about whether he knew anything about Manning giving classified information to WikiLeaks.”

The released documents show that as early as July 8, 2010, an agent with Homeland Security Investigations entered a “Lookout” into what is known as the TECS database alerting agents that House was “wanted for questioning re leak of classified material.” They were to conduct a full secondary search of the subject and his bags and secure any digital media. They were to ask all companions for their identification as well.

The report on the secondary inspection of House indicates that the office of the Special Agent in Charge  (SAC) in Chicago received a “collateral request” from SAC New York on November 2, 2010, to conduct the inspection. SAC New York requested all digital media in House’s possession be “imaged.”

Agents asked House for password information but he refused, according to a “Report of Investigation.” He told the agents that he was “currently employed as a computer programmer at MIT. He said that his primary task was to “write programs for Middle Eastern customers to access the internet where the government has their access blocked.”

Significantly, House was “asked if he had any knowledge of the classified information that was given to WikiLeaks by Bradley Manning (who now goes by Chelsea Manning). He said that he was aware that Manning was serving prison time for that offense but did not know anything about how that transpired. House indicated that he was visiting Manning in prison “a couple of times a month.”

A “Report of Investigation” dated November 12, 2010, intended to document the “collateral request to ICE, HSI and SAC Chicago to conduct a border search, summarized that House was “wanted for questioning by the US Army Criminal Investigative Division (Army CID) and the US Department of State Diplomatic Security Service (USDOS DSS) regarding the presentation of classified material on the WikiLeaks.org website allegedly provided by US Army Pfc. Bradley Manning.”

“Manning was charged in US military court on 7/06/2010 with leaking classified material to WikiLeaks.org,” the report further noted in the synopsis. “WikiLeaks.org has released over 70,000 classified documents through their website to date. It is reported that WikiLeaks.org has held back approximately 15,000 documents they deem sensitive but may yet release.”  (That is actually incorrect. Over 390,000 military incident reports from Iraq, which WikiLeaks published as the “Iraq War Logs,” had been released by October 22.)

The “approximately 15,000 documents” being referred to were from a set of documents from a database containing military incident reports from the war in Afghanistan. WikiLeaks released around 77,000 reports on July 25, 2010, but withheld around 15,000 “until its technicians could redact names of individuals in the reports whose safety could be jeopardized.”

On August 5, 2010, the Pentagon demanded that WikiLeaks return the 15,000 unpublished documents. “Returning the unpublished documents would be the right thing for WikiLeaks to do as what’s already been made available has created heightened risks around the world, particularly for Afghans who’ve been helping US forces fight terrorists in Afghanistan,” Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell said.

WikiLeaks never published the 15,000 documents.

The government knew by November 12 that Manning had compromised the database containing US State Embassy cables on the secret government network, SIPRNet, which Manning had access to as a junior intelligence analyst.

When the “Lookout” alert was submitted, it had only been less than a week since Manning was officially charged. Manning was not in the United States yet and was in confinement at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. That Manning had been arrested and was suspected of releasing a video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack that WikiLeaks published as “Collateral Murder” was known to the public, but the Bradley Manning Support Network would have just been getting off the ground. Therefore, the interest investigators had in House likely had more to do with his history of interacting with Manning at MIT than his role in launching the Support Network.

As Denver Nicks highlighted in his book, Private: Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks and the Biggest Exposure of Official Secrets in American History, Danny Clark, a friend he met through boyfriend Tyler Watkins, introduced Manning to House on January 27, 2010, at the opening of a hackers club, which House started at Boston University.

Manning communicated with Clark while she was deployed in Baghdad, Iraq, and evidence of communications was cited by military prosecutors during her trial.

A federal grand jury empaneled to investigate WikiLeaks subpoenaed House to testify and, according to House’s notes, he was asked questions about “the night of January 27, 2010 with Daniel Clark and Bradley Manning.”

In January 2010, Manning was on rest and recuperation. It was during this time that Manning submitted Afghanistan and Iraq military incident reports to WikiLeaks after unsuccessfully attempting to pass the documents on to the Washington Post or The New York Times. Manning could have passed a CD-R containing the military incident reports that were provided to WikiLeaks to House if Manning wanted House to be in on what had been done.

Whether Manning passed copies of documents to people, like Clark or House, would have been of interest to Army CID and USDOS DSS. And what is written in the documents from the investigation suggests the agencies either had House detained and his devices seized because they believed he may have possessed copies of unpublished “Afghanistan War Logs” or because he had knowledge of the information WikiLeaks had yet to publish.

In fact, while it is not made explicit in the documents, Manning had already been charged with compromising the database of US State Embassy cables. USDOS DSS’s interest in detaining House would have been to figure out if House possessed any diplomatic cables or knew anything about WikiLeaks’ efforts to publish the cables.

None of the above makes the search and seizure of House’s electronic devices any less of a violation of his civil liberties. From July 8 to November 2, an investigator could have gone to interrogate House to obtain information that may have been critical to prosecuting and convicting Manning or any other individuals involved in the leaks. The agencies involved in targeting House waited until he left he was reentering the country to explicitly get around his Fourth Amendment right to not be subject to an unreasonable search or seizure.

What is additionally remarkable, given what the documents from the investigation show, is that the case is comparable to the detention of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, at Heathrow Airport by British authorities under a terrorism law. Miranda had all electronics equipment he was carrying seized. He was targeted because authorities hoped to gain access to copies of documents from former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Similarly, House was detained under powers that are given to agents to conduct border searches, which were granted after the September 11th terrorist attacks. As indicated during the lawsuit, its powers are for “detecting information [relating to] terrorism, narcotics smuggling, and other national security matters; alien admissibility; contraband including child pornography; laundering monetary instruments; violations of copyright or trademark laws; and evidence of embargo violations or other import or export control laws.”

A government official might claim the search fell under “other national security matters,” but that does not make the search any more justifiable. If the agencies believed House had documents that could fall into the hands of terrorists (as was suggested by British authorities recently), they should have obtained a warrant authorizing the search and seizure of his devices to prevent material from winding up in the possession of terrorists and executed it well before November 3.

What if House was going to publish classified information? A Congressional Research Service report from June 24 of this year states, “CRS is aware of no case in which a publisher of information obtained through unauthorized disclosure by a government employee has been prosecuted for publishing it. There may be First Amendment implications that would make such a prosecution difficult, not to mention political ramifications based on concerns about government censorship.”

It is fairly unprecedented to target US citizens for possibly having classified information let alone knowledge about the future publication of classified information.

“House’s case is not an isolated incident,” as the ACLU indicates. “The government’s own records indicate that 4,957 passengers had their electronic devices searched between October 1, 2012 and August 31, 2013, and an additional 4,898 individuals were subject to electronic device searches the previous year.”

The search and seizure of House’s electronic devices shows the government has no problem with abusing its counterterrorism powers to not only obtain information that can be used to prosecute individuals in high-profile cases but also to gain control over copies of government information it wishes to keep secret. It will target individuals the government suspects may have mere knowledge of plans by a media organization, which plans to publish classified information. And they will target the individuals without being forthright about what they suspect the individuals of doing because the powers grant the authority to be unspecific about the reason for the detention, questioning and search and seizure of a person’s property.