Get ready for the 16th Annual Muzzle Awards

When The Boston Phoenix ceased publication in March, I started casting about for a new home for the Muzzle Awards — an annual Fourth of July round-up of outrages against free speech in New England that I began writing in 1998.

On Tuesday we made it official — the 16th Annual Muzzle Awards will be published on Thursday by WGBH News. I talked about the Muzzles on “Boston Public Radio” with Jim Braude and Margery Eagan. We gave a sneak preview of some of the “winners,” including U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis and Maine Gov. Paul LePage.

The Muzzles will also be published in The Providence Phoenix and The Portland Phoenix, which are still alive and well.

I think WGBHNews.org will prove to be a good home base for the Muzzles. Boston civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate, who came up with the idea all those years ago, is continuing with his Campus Muzzles. Former Phoenix editor Peter Kadzis, who’s now at WGBH, was instrumental in bringing the Muzzles to the station and expertly edited them. Also playing key roles were Phil Redo, managing director of WGBH’s radio operations; Linda Polach, executive producer of “Greater Boston” and “Beat the Press”; and Abbie Ruzicka, an associate producer who handled Web production duties.

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes …

This one is on us

As we all express our outrage over the Verizon snooping, as we should, let’s remember: President Obama did this legally, following a provision of the Patriot Act that, as a senator, he voted for, and that Hillary Clinton, among others, opposed.

For years, politicians who voted against such things were demagogued as soft on terror. When The New York Times exposed George W. Bush’s illegal secret wiretapping, Bush called the story “shameful,” and some (including then-attorney general John Ashcroft) called for the Times to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act.

So, yes, we should express our outrage. At ourselves.

Misplaced priorities at the Boston Police Dept.

Howard Zinn
Howard Zinn

Last October the Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU revealed that the Boston Police Department had been spying on left-wing activists such as the late Howard Zinn.

The police were working with the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC), a so-called fusion center through which the authorities could coordinate with the FBI and other agencies to find out who might be plotting a terrorist attack. Zinn, a peace activist, an elderly professor and World War II hero, was clearly someone to keep a close eye on.

Of course, we now know that at the same time the police were wasting their resources on Zinn, they were ignorant of what the FBI knew about Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Among those putting two and two together in the last few weeks were Michael Isikoff of NBC News;  Boston journalist Chris Faraone, who produced this for DigBoston; and Jamaica Plain Gazette editor John Ruch, who wrote an analysis.

Although it would be a stretch well beyond the facts to suggest that if the police hadn’t been watching left-wing and Occupy protesters they might have caught Tsarnaev, the BPD was certainly looking in all the wrong places. The police did a good and courageous job of reacting to the Boston Marathon bombings. The issue is how they spent their time and resources in trying to prevent a terrorist attack.

Spying on the antiwar left makes no more sense today than it did in the 1960s and ’70s. Police Commissioner Ed Davis needs to take a break from giving commencement speeches in order to answer a few questions.

And while I’m on the subject of questionable law-enforcement practices, I sure hope we find out what actually happened in Florida last week. Don’t you?

The Russian government’s literally incredible behavior

News Dissector Danny Schechter retweeted this blog post by former British diplomat Craig Murray, who questions the notion that the Russian government warned the United States of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s radicalism in 2010.

I will confess that I know nothing about Murray. But what he writes is the simple truth about the official story: After raising a warning flag about Tsarnaev, Russia allowed him into the country in 2012 and let him stay for six months, then leave again. Murray’s gloss on those facts also seems worth thinking about:

In 2012 Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who is of such concern to Russian security, is able to fly to Russia and pass through the airport security checks of the world’s most thoroughly and brutally efficient security services without being picked up. He is then able to proceed to Dagestan — right at the heart of the world’s heaviest military occupation and the world’s most far reaching secret police surveillance — again without being intercepted, and he is able there to go through some form of terror training or further Islamist indoctrination. He then flies out again without any intervention by the Russian security services.

Murray adds: “That is the official story and I have no doubt it did not happen.”

The New York Times today reports on Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s time in Dagestan. This passage pretty much sums up the paper’s findings:

During his six months in Makhachkala [the Dagestan capital], according to relatives, neighbors and friends, he did not seem like a man on a mission, or training for one. Rather, they said, he was more like a recent graduate who could not quite decide what to do with himself. He slept late, hung around at home, visited family and helped his father renovate a storefront.

We are at the very beginning of what is likely to be a long investigation. But these reports are relevant at a moment when — as the Boston Globe reports — Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are despicably calling for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to be treated as an “enemy combatant,” and when Republicans are already describing the Boston Marathon bombings as a breakdown in intelligence.

Not only do we not know that, but early indications are that such irresponsible speculation is not in accord with the facts.

The Miranda exception and why I’m not concerned

I’ve been debating on Facebook with several people whose views I respect about the decision by law-enforcement officials to invoke the “public safety” exception and question Dzhokhar Tsarnaev without first reading him his Miranda rights.

I think it was the right call. The idea behind the public-safety exception is that the investigation must take precedence over the prosecution — that the paramount interest is to obtain any information that could protect the public. Consider:

  • There have been reports that the Tsarnaev brothers may have planted other bombs. Pete Williams of NBC News reported that police detonated an IED near the Berklee College of Music on Friday morning. Are there more? Where?
  • The Tsarnaev brothers may not have acted alone. Last night, police took into custody three people in New Bedford to question them about their possible ties to the surviving brother. Was the Boston Marathon bombing part of a larger plot?
  • We need to know what if any ties the Tsarnaevs might have had to foreign extremist organizations. We know that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had spent quite a bit of time overseas. The New Yorker’s David Remnick paints a chilling portrait of both brothers, and of Tamerlan in particular.

Despite all this, Emily Bazelon of Slate writes that even though she supports the public-safety exception, she opposes it in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Her argument is inconsistent and illogical. If it’s all right to use it in investigating a major terrorist attack, and we just experienced a major terrorist attack, then what is the issue exactly?

Now, I’m not going all Dick Cheney here. If Tsarnaev’s lawyer argues later that his client’s non-Miranda-ized statements shouldn’t be used against him at trial, I will probably find myself in agreement. In any case, Tsarnaev could likely be convicted solely on the basis of the physical evidence.

But the whole purpose of the public-safety exception is to keep Tsarnaev talking and not plant the idea in his head that he ought to shut up. Not while there are so many unanswered questions about dangers that may still be out there.

Aaron Swartz, Carmen Ortiz and the meaning of justice

Aaron Swartz in January 2012. Photo (cc) by Daniel J. Sieradski. For details, click on image.
Aaron Swartz in January 2012

An earlier version of this commentary was published on Sunday at The Huffington Post.

The suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz has prompted a wave of revulsion directed at U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who was seeking to put him in prison for 35 years on charges that he illegally downloaded millions of academic articles.

Swartz, 26, who helped develop the RSS standard and was a co-founder of Reddit, was “driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying,” wrote his friend and lawyer Lawrence Lessig. “I get wrong,” Lessig added. “But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.”

By Monday morning, more than 11,000 people had signed an online petition asking President Obama to remove Ortiz. Swartz’s family released a statement that said in part: “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.”

Ortiz’s vindictiveness toward Swartz may have seemed shocking given that even the victim of Swartz’s alleged offense — the academic publisher JSTOR — did not wish to press charges. But it was no surprise to those of us who have been observing Ortiz’s official conduct as the top federal prosecutor in Boston.

Last July I singled out Ortiz as the lead villain in the 2012 Muzzle Awards, an annual feature I’ve been writing for the Phoenix newspapers of Boston, Providence and Portland since 1998. The reason: her prosecution of Tarek Mehanna, a Boston-area pharmacist who had acted as a propagandist for Al Qaeda.

Mehanna was sentenced to prison for 17 years — not because of what he did, but because of what he said, wrote and translated. Though Mehanna had once unsuccessfully sought training at a jihadi terrorist camp in Yemen, the government’s case was based almost entirely on activities that were, or should have been, protected by the First Amendment.

Make no mistake: Mehanna’s propaganda was “brutal, disgusting and unambiguously supportive of Islamic insurgencies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia,” Yale political scientist Andrew March wrote in The New York Times. But as March, the ACLU and others pointed out in defense of Mehanna, the more loathsome the speech, the more it deserves protection under the Constitution.

In addition to the prosecution of Tarek Mehanna and the persecution of Aaron Swartz, there is the matter of Sal DiMasi, a former speaker of the Massachusetts House who is now serving time in federal prison on political corruption charges brought by Ortiz.

Last June DiMasi revealed he had advanced tongue cancer — and he accused federal prison authorities of ignoring his pleas for medical care while he was shuttled back and forth to Boston so that he could be questioned about a patronage scandal Ortiz’s office was investigating. It would be a stretch to connect Ortiz directly with DiMasi’s health woes. She is, nevertheless, a key player in a system that could transform DiMasi’s prison sentence into a death sentence.

Notwithstanding the anger that has been unleashed at Ortiz following Aaron Swartz’s death, she should not be regarded as an anomaly. As the noted civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate pointed out in his 2009 book, “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent,” federal prosecutors have been given vague, broad powers that have led to outrages against justice across the country.

“Wrongful prosecution of innocent conduct that is twisted into a felony charge has wrecked many an innocent life and career,” wrote Silverglate, a friend and occasional collaborator. “Whole families have been devastated, as have myriad relationships and entire companies.”

Ortiz may now find that her willingness to use those vast powers against Swartz could have a harmful effect on her future.

As a Latina and as a tough law-and-order Democrat, she has been seen as a hot political property in Massachusetts. In 2011 The Boston Globe Magazine named her its “Bostonian of the Year.” She recently told the Boston Herald she was not interested in running for either the U.S. Senate or governor. But that doesn’t mean she couldn’t be persuaded. Now, though, she may be regarded as damaged goods.

Those who are mourning the death of Aaron Swartz should keep in mind that he had long struggled with depression. Blaming his suicide on Carmen Ortiz is unfair.

Nevertheless, the case she was pursuing against Swartz was wildly disproportionate, and illustrated much that is wrong with our system of justice. Nothing good can come from his death. But at the very least it should prompt consideration of why such brutality has become a routine part of the American system of justice.

Update: MIT, where Swartz allegedly downloaded the JSTOR articles, has announced an internal investigation, reports Evan Allen of The Boston Globe. Lauren Landry of BostInno has statements from MIT president Rafael Reif and from JSTOR.

Photo (cc) by Daniel J. Sieradski via Wikimedia Commons and published here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Presenting the 15th Annual Muzzle Awards

The 15th Annual Muzzle Awards, published every Fourth of July (give or take) by the Phoenix newspapers of Boston, Providence and Portland, are now online and in print.

Inspired by my friend Harvey Silverglate, a prominent civil-liberties lawyer who wrote the sidebar on free speech in academia, the Muzzles highlight outrages against the First Amendment that took place in New England during the previous 12 months.

I’ll be talking about the Muzzles on Friday at 9 p.m. with Dan Rea on WBZ Radio (AM 1030). Hope you can tune in.

Obama’s secret war on civil liberties

Remember Section 215? It was a notorious provision of the USA Patriot Act, renewed on Thursday, that allowed the government to snoop on what library books you’d borrowed, what videos you’d rented, your medical records — anything, really, if investigators thought it might have something to do with terrorism, no matter how tangential.

I wrote about it for the Boston Phoenix in 2003 as an example of the then-budding excesses of the Bush-Cheney years.

Well, Section 215 is back — not that it ever went away. Charlie Savage reports in today’s New York Times that two Democratic senators, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, have accused the Obama administration of using Section 215 for purposes not intended by Congress. Then-senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, raised similar alarms in 2009.

The senators know what the White House is up to because they were privy to secret testimony. But, legally, under Senate rules, they can’t reveal what they learned. Thus they have demanded that the White House come clean with the public. “Americans would be alarmed if they knew how this law is being carried out,” Udall is quoted as saying.

Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute recently described Section 215 in an interview with Salon:

It allows investigators to get an order from the FISA court permitting them to compel the production of any tangible thing that is relevant to an investigation. It’s pretty unlimited in scope. Any record or other thing that pertains to a suspected agent of a foreign power or someone in contact with them is under the law considered to be “presumptively relevant.” That means the judge has no discretion to deny such requests. The records don’t have to belong to anyone who is thought to be guilty of anything.

“FISA,” you may recall, is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. At the height of the Bush years, the White House didn’t even bother with the niceties of going to a FISA court before ordering wiretaps. But as Sanchez notes, the FISA provision isn’t much more than a fig leaf anyway.

Which reminds me: The Obama Justice Department recently issued a subpoena ordering James Risen, one of the New York Times reporters who broke the story about the Bush administration’s secret wiretaps, to reveal his confidential sources.

President Obama’s approach to civil liberties has been similar to that of his predecessors: for them when convenient, against them when upholding our rights would interfere with his exercise of untrammeled executive power. Last year, ACLU executive director Anthony Romero pronounced himself to be “disgusted” with Obama’s civil-rights record.

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney remain outliers because of their embrace of torture, secret rendition and the like. But, otherwise, Obama fits into a long pattern of presidents whose actions on civil liberties are very different from their pious words.

I found the photo at a blog called the Bourgeois Librarian. I do not know its provenance.