FBI Targets Indymedia

Revolutionary Worker #1259, November 21, 2004, posted at http://rwor.org

Somewhere in England, in early October, the electronic humming of two computer servers went silent.

Seconds later 20 Independent Media websites—spanning the continent of Europe and across the ocean to western Massachusetts —went off line. Indymedia, which is volunteer run, has a network of websites from all over the world that carry news, articles and other postings about anti-globalization struggles, anti-war protests, exposure of the system and many other issues. In the flash of a second, thousands of people who rely on Indymedia websites for crucial information were left in the dark.

The reaction by those maintaining the sites was one of shock and surprise. They soon learned their Internet Service Provider, a company called Rackspace based in San Antonio, Texas (with a unit in Uxbridge, England), had been hit with a subpoena demanding they turn over their servers to authorities (a server is a computer that stores files for people to share). To their discredit, the company quickly complied, shutting down multiple websites.


As word of the shutdown got out, the French news agency Agence Press Francaise reported the servers had been seized by British authorities with a subpoena supplied by the U.S. FBI.

The FBI quickly sought to minimize their role. A spokesman, Joe Parris, said it was not an FBI operation and that the subpoena was issued at the request of Italian and Swiss authorities.

The company, Rackspace, issued a brief statement saying they were "acting as a good corporate citizen and [are] cooperating with international law enforcement authorities." Their statement noted they were "acting in compliance with a court order pursuant to a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT), which establishes procedures for countries to assist each other in investigations such as international terrorism, kidnapping and money laundering." They also said that the court "prohibits Rackspace from commenting further on this matter." In other words, they were put under a gag order.

While there was wide speculation about why this was done, the BBC—citing Agence Press Francaise—reported, "The federal prosecutor of Bologna, Marina Plazzi, has stated that she is investigating Indymedia because `it may support terrorism’; while the Swiss investigation dates back to the 2003 G8 summit in Evian, where the organization posted photographs where Swiss intelligence agents could be identified."

This later claim could be traced back to the FBI—who despite claims that "it’s not our operation" were snooping around the U.S. on just such a matter.

Apparently the FBI approached the Indymedia center in Seattle on October 1—a week before the UK seizure. Devin Theriot-Orr, an attorney and volunteer with the Indymedia center in Seattle, told The Hartford Courant , that two FBI agents questioned him. "They indicated that they were there on a courtesy visit—that’s what they called it—and that they were there on behalf of the Swiss government." According to The Courant , "The agents asked him to request that a French Indymedia center take down posts that they said exposed the identity of undercover Swiss police officers." He told them, "I had no power or authority over that center," and the agents left.

When the computers were seized in England six days later, the French Indymedia site that posted the photographs of the Swiss police was one of the websites that went down.

Attacks on Indymedia

Whatever the underlying justification for this attack, it is clear that Indymedia is becoming a larger target for political police throughout the world. This action marks a significant escalation.

Little more than two months before the October seizure (and ten days before the Republican National Convention) the New York City Indymedia Center’s service provider was hit with a subpoena by the Secret Service.

The Secret Service wanted records that would lead them to who posted information about delegates attending the convention. The provider—represented by the American Civil Liberties Union—refused.

And month earlier, according to the Financial Times, "the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency directed the U.S. Embassy in Cyprus to instruct the Criminal Investigation Division of Cypriot police to investigate a local Indymedia journalist."

A Dangerous Precedent

Though the servers were returned after a week—after who knows what had been done, or extracted from them—Indymedia was forced to use various backup systems and rerouting to try and keep the network on line. The whole incident was extremely disruptive.

This attack leveled at the web capacity of an important political force comes on the heels of a different, but in certain ways similar, case from earlier in the year. That case, brought by the U.S. Department of Justice in Idaho, also targeted websites under the justification of fighting "terrorism."

In that case a Saudi Arabian doctoral student studying at the University of Idaho, who maintained a number of websites, was put on trial after the government claimed his sites "supported jihad." The jury ultimately acquitted the man. But the government made a concerted effort to make an example, and set a precedent in silencing websites they deem "dangerous."

This points to the mounting stakes in such cases. As Kurt Opsahl, an attorney for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation which is representing Indymedia, told The Hartford Courant , "I see no principal distinction between taking these news media outlets offline and taking The New York Times offline."

And this gets at something important. If a chunk of the Indymedia network can be brought down under the pretext of a "secret" and "criminal" investigation, the government is setting up the ability to cast this net of suppression far and wide.

These attacks must be exposed and opposed. This is happening in a situation in which more and more information is being posted and connections are being made using the web; particularly among those standing against this system, and those struggling for a different world. In these days of endless war and police-state repression, those links, and that network, needs to be strengthened and broadened.