Life Inside the Aaron Swartz Investigation

A reluctant witness's account of a Federal prosecution. If you haven't been following the case, start with the editor's note for context.

Quinn Norton's grand jury subpoena (Quinn Norton).

Once your life is inside a federal investigation, there is no space outside of it. The only private thing is your thoughts, and even they don't feel safe anymore. Every word you speak or write can be used, manipulated, or played like a card against your future and the future of those you love. There are no neutral parties, no sources of unimpeachable wisdom and trust.

The lawyers tell you: Take no notes.

The lawyers tell you: Talk to no one.

It is the loneliest of lonely things to be surrounded by your loved ones, in danger, and forced to be silent.

May you never experience a Federal investigation. I did, and it consumed me, and changed every day that will come after it for the rest of my life.

It all began with a call from Aaron Swartz on a jail-room phone. This essay is my attempt to explain what happened between that call and my friend's suicide. This will not be the final word on Aaron's story, nor is it intended to be.

Two years later, these are the events as I remember them, and the feelings as I knew them.

* * *

Aaron and I were best friends. We'd been the voice in each other's ears and silent textual companions online for more than four years. We were a daily presence for each other, no matter the number of miles that separated us.

Related Documentation


For the first year, we lived together. Being just roommates lasted less than a month, and we entered a powerful and sometimes difficult relationship which we decided would only last a year. We spent the next three years trying and failing to cleanly end our romance. He was an incredibly secretive person, private about our life together, his thoughts, and the events of his life. I was a nosy reporter, always trying to get things out of him. He would never tell me how much he was paid in the Reddit sale, and his reticence became a running joke between us: me prying, cajoling, pressuring, and Aaron, never giving in.

On January 6, 2011, I got a call on my mobile phone from a number I didn't recognize. Usually I don't answer unknown numbers. This time I did. I heard Aaron's voice: scratchy, distant, nearly inaudible. He'd been arrested. I didn't ask him what happened. I only asked him what he wanted me to do.

He needed bail. He had a lawyer, Andy Good, in Boston. I had to get a hold of this lawyer and find someone to bail him out. I found a local friend, who went and got out $1,000 to post Aaron's bail. I didn't ask any questions. Neither did my friend.

The rest of January went on in a strange haze. Neither of us seemed able to believe this was serious. Aaron eventually told me it was computer related, something about a wiring closet at MIT -- explaining only the contents of his arrest record.

I am a journalist of hackers. They are my beat and my friends, so I'd seen people harassed and persecuted. Some piece of research or conference presentation would suddenly become an investigation, phone calls and meetings with lawyers. We came to expect raids, surveillance, and threats from powerful men who couldn't tell the good guys from the bad in my world.

February brought the inevitable raid. The Secret Service came to his house and his office at the Harvard Ethics Center and took hard drives and computers. Aaron's phone was taken. He got an iPhone to replace it. I asked him if I could have his old phone when he got it back. He said, "Sure. It might be a while."

I knew that Law Enforcement could be terrible about getting things back in a timely manner. But I couldn't yet imagine it would be years, or that there might be a trial. Most of these cases, even the PACER affair that had interrupted life and scared us in 2009, resolved with the police simply going away.

In early March I was staying at a friend's loft in the Bay Area. Someone knocked at the door of the loft, and I ran downstairs, still dressed in my pajamas, and answered the door. It was a tall man and a short woman in blazers and unmatched trousers. They had the dowdy cleanliness of law enforcement. They said they were from the Secret Service and that they wanted to ask me a few questions. Shocked and unsure of myself, I let them in to talk to me. One should never, ever do this.

They asked about Aaron, I told them I didn't know anything. They pointed out that he'd called me, and asked what he told me. I told them I hadn't asked anything about his arrest, and they were incredulous.

Eventually I ran out of things to tell them, and they produced the real reason for their visit: a subpoena. The prosecution wanted my communications with Aaron, anything we'd shared, any time I'd talked about JSTOR or MIT or the case with anyone. It was pages of demands for my digital life with Aaron, the private world we'd shared. There was a grand jury date listed as well: "YOU ARE COMMANDED," it read.

I had to Google grand jury to find out what it was.

I did know I'd need a lawyer. I went to a lawyer friend and explained I was broke. She thought of someone she'd worked with once in Boston and gave him a call about helping with my case, pro bono. I didn't understand how any of this worked. In time, I would dub the case the "World of Shit I Don't Know."

A week before the Secret Service came to the door, my car was rear-ended by a school bus. The car itself was totaled, but I thought there'd been no injuries, just a little soreness in my neck. Within a few weeks the stress of the case and the neck pain would develop into a cycle of torturous daily migraines, a pain so rich it blotted out thought for hours a day. It was the second time this had happened to me, the first being in 2007. In both cases the standard complement of migraine medications weren't very effective: only opioids worked, and my doctor put me on Vicodin.

And so, scared, naive, and in pain, I met my lawyers Adam and Jose, from the firm Fish and Richardson in a beautiful and shiny building next door to and towering over the federal courthouse. The building looked like a modernist space station, the Jetsons with cleaner lines and an endless sense of power and money. I am a hackerspace girl who has grown up broke, sometimes too broke to eat, with a drug dealing Vietnam vet dad. I felt immediately and continually out of place. I met my lawyers many times, but I never felt comfortable.

In that first meeting, I told them I would be a good client and that I was deeply grateful for their help. I was. They told me not to talk to Aaron, that I shouldn't stay with him. I did anyway. Sometimes we just needed to hold each other. Sometimes we needed to say something. But we tried to and mostly obeyed the proscriptions on talking about the case.

As strange as it seems now, when I was first subpoenaed, Aaron was more worried about me than him, and both of us were worried about Ada, my seven-year-old daughter. She was the light of both of our lives, and we wanted to make sure none of this would touch her. The problem was my computer. It contained interviews and communications with confidential sources for stories going back five years. The subpoena didn't actually call for my computer, but materials on my computer. Jose and Adam implied that if the prosecutor didn't think I was being honest, he might move against me, seize things.

And if the prosecutor took my computer, I would have to go to jail rather than turn over my password. I had no choice. I'd been logging all of my communications for years, professional and personal. Aaron knew this, and he was furious at me for it when he read the subpoena. It was a kind of impersonal fury, not directed at me and my decisions, but the situation itself. "Why did you log?" he asked me repeatedly. I told him that it had kept me sane in my divorce. But he already knew that, he'd been there.

These days, I not only don't log, I refuse to talk to anyone who does. I often refuse to communicate without encryption. But I had to continue to log during the investigation. I was told that changing my behavior while being investigated could be held against me, because in an investigation it is suspicious to learn from your mistakes.

Aaron and I sat together in his place one night in March. He could see I was scared and he held me. He told me that Steve Heymann, the prosecutor, had offered a deal: three months in prison, three months in some sort of halfway house, and three months probation, and one felony count. He told me he would take it if I wanted him to.

We talked about it, about what a felony count would mean to him, to his life and his dreams in politics. I thought about my father, sent away to state penn when I was 17, and how it had crushed him. He'd not lasted long after prison.

To be a felon in this country is to be a pariah, to be unlistened to. Aaron wanted more than anything to speak to power, to make reforms in the very system that was attacking him now. In most states a felon can't even vote. The thought of him not voting was unfathomable.

But the truth is I wanted him to take the plea deal and end it. I wanted to not be scared anymore, to not deal with these people anymore. Nine months didn't seem so long, and I came very close to asking him to do it. But I looked at him, and I thought about PCCC (the first of his political action groups), Demand Progress, and Washington DC, and all the work he'd done. "If you want to fight it, you should fight it," I told him. I told him I would support him.

I've spent many nights this year, awake, wishing I'd been a little more selfish that day. We were at the mercy of a man we didn't know and who we'd never met. We were in his power, but we didn't know it yet.

Aaron said Steve had been furious when he turned down the plea. He sometimes screamed at my smiling and compliant lawyers over the phone until they visibly shrank in their seats, glancing uncomfortably at each other.

Despite this, my lawyers very much wanted to play nice. They explained there were two ways to approach a prosecutor, hostile and friendly. They told me they didn't know this prosecutor, but that they favored a cooperative approach.

I wanted to be friendly and cooperative -- it was how I got through life. I didn't know anything the prosecution cared about, and I thought that maybe I could talk Steve out of the prosecution, or at least into not being so harsh. This was so obviously a ridiculous application of justice, I thought. If I just had the chance to explain, maybe this would all go away. My lawyers told me this was possible. They nursed this idea. They told me Steve wanted to meet me, and they wanted me to meet him. They wanted to set up something called a proffer -- a kind of chat with the prosecution. Steve offered me a "Queen for a day" letter, granting me immunity so that the government couldn't use anything I said during the session against me in a criminal prosecution.

I went home and started researching what a proffer actually was, and how it might work. I learned that the "Queen for a day," or proffer, letter was often used by targets of the investigation to negotiate deals of lighter sentencing in exchange for information; in short, it was the mechanics of snitching. I was outraged and disturbed. I didn't want a deal, I didn't want immunity, I just wanted to sit down and talk about the whole terrible business, to tell them why this case wasn't worth their time, and Aaron didn't deserve their attention. I didn't need a deal, and in fact, given that I had nothing to offer the government's case, I didn't think I even qualified for it.

I asked my lawyers to refuse, and we fought about it, repeatedly. They brought up things from my past that could be used against me; not criminal behavior per se, even they admitted, but they wanted me to have immunity. I had a terrible headache, and eventually gave in.

Aaron was furious. He told me not to meet Steve. But no one, including Aaron, would tell me why. No one would tell me even how to get out of it. And still I had an unshakable belief that if I could just somehow explain all this it would go away. I delayed once, too sick to go. My lawyers told me Steve was furious at my medical delay. I might be arrested. I told Aaron, and others, that I wanted to talk to Steve human to human.

As I learned more and more about the proffer, I realized it wasn't the straightforward sit down and chat Adam and Jose had told me it was. There were different types -- some quite positive -- but there seemed to be no way to tell what I was walking into. Aaron told me his lawyer was angry too, that I was being an idiot. I began to wonder (stupidly, and to myself) if he thought my contempt arrest would help his case. He wondered, loudly, whose side I was on.

My lawyers were starting to get into fights with other lawyers, sometimes screaming fights, and the lawyers' stories weren't matching up. I was getting more ill, headaches everyday and unable to get properly treated due to insurance problems. My thoughts of talking the prosecutors out of this foolish attack on Aaron were fading, even as Jose and Adam still encouraged me to try.

Mid-April was our lowest moment together, but still Aaron would come to my place to read. This was so like him. He'd grab a book like we were touching Safe in an endless and bitterly exhausting game of tag, pull my arms around him, and read to me. Sometimes, we'd fall asleep like that. It felt as if these moments were what kept us both alive.

But other times, the case would come back, intruding on our touch, creating space between us and filling it.

I knew by the week of the proffer that it wasn't what I wanted, but I saw no choice. I thought that I would be raided or possibly arrested if I tried to back out, that my lawyers would terminate their relationship with me, that I would be out on my own. All the time I was trying to hold it together for the outside world.

Aaron was not just terrified for himself, he was terrified of something happening to me. We talked about how Ada would be if I went to jail. As the proffer approached, even he turned to helping me, trying to figure out how to make the best of it.

I insisted again to Aaron that I would be kept safe by my total ignorance on the matter. He was never comforted. We accused each other and forgave each other nearly daily. We were so angry: him at my proffer, the logs I'd kept, at the person closest to him being compromised. And me, I was terribly angry at the very thing I said would keep me safe: my ignorance of his JSTOR activities. Why hadn't he told me anything? Why had he let me get sideswiped by all of this? Why, above all and for the love of God, had he gotten caught?; It was always my first rule of doing anything that power might frown upon in any way: Don't get caught.

A friend in New York told me about an old Scandinavian word exported to Scotland -- fey -- that specifically referred to the sense of the doomed approaching their last battle, unable to do anything but go forward. I wandered around gently repeating it to myself. I would argue for Aaron with the prosecution, but I knew I was too weak and sick to make the showing I'd hoped for. I was fey.

* * *

On April 13th Jose and Adam and I went to the courthouse, finding our way to a small windowless fluorescent office stacked with disused file boxes in the corners. Our office chairs barely fit around a table. A friend had given me a tweed skirted woman's suit to wear for the day. It was slightly too big, and it made me feel small and awkward. We were trying to make me look respectable, non-threatening, like one of them. We were dressing me up to walk into the lion's den. (Apparently, lions call for tweed.)

We were six at the table: my two lawyers, Steve's two Secret Service men, me, and Steve. Everyone was in suits except for Steve, who kept us waiting for a few minutes, and came in dressed in fleece and plain pants, all casual power.

I made it clear to everyone before we started that I was on Vicodin, per my doctor's orders. I produced medical records, which everyone ignored. Steve said we could take breaks any time I needed to. One of the agents and Adam took out identical legal pads to take notes on at opposite ends of the table. I was given water, and we began.

At first they didn't ask me about Aaron. They were questioning me, trying to get me to admit I knew something. They made me retell everything Aaron had told me, but it was all taken directly from their own arrest record. The harsh questioning about me threw me off balance.

They leaned in and loomed over me physically, calling me a liar, scowling and pausing and narrowing their eyes at me. I was cowed. Much of the time I spent telling them the same things, that I didn't know what he'd been doing, that I never asked what the arrest was for when he called me. They told me that was unnatural; they didn't believe me. I wanted to say, "Of course I wouldn't ask! There was a chance I'd be dealing with you people."

They said I must have known something because I was connected with hackers. They knew this, they told me, because they'd read everything I'd ever written online. I bit my lip. I fought the urge to say "If I'd known, we wouldn't be here. There's no chance you would know a thing."

They said they knew we were close because they'd found a car seat in his apartment. I really did look at them like they were idiots at that point. We'd been together for years. A simple google query would show more than a car seat.

Steve asked if there was anything I knew of to suggest why Aaron would do this, or what he thought about academic journals. I cast around trying to think of something, something that made sense to them, when Aaron had just gathered these datasets for years, the way some people collect coins or cards or stamps.

I mentioned a blog post. It was a two-year-old public post on Raw Thought, Aaron's blog. It had been fairly widely picked up by other blogs. I couldn't imagine that these people who had just claimed to have read everything I'd ever written had never looked at their target's blog, which appeared in his FBI file, or searched for what he thought about "open access" They hadn't.

So this is where I was profoundly foolish. I told them about the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto. And in doing so, Aaron would explain to me later (and reporters would confirm), I made everything worse. This is what I must live with.

I opened up a new front for their cruelty. Four months into the investigation, they had finally found their reason to do it. The manifesto, the prosecutors claimed, showed Aaron's intent to distribute the JSTOR documents widely. And I had told them about it. It was beyond my understanding that these people could pick through his life, threaten his friends, tear through our digital history together, raid his house, surveil him, and never actually read his blog. But that seemed to be the fact of it.

It was also beyond my imagination that they could find something generous and good and think this made their case, that this was what made this case more important than all the ones they hadn't pursued. I told them academics hated the system as it existed -- everyone did, except Elsevier. I even talked about the US government mandating open access. They looked bored. The manifesto was their one happy moment in a session of frustration, anger, and veiled threats of prosecution for me. All of it -- what they cared about, what made them angry, what made them happy -- made no sense to me at all.

Steve asked if I had any last comments. I said yes. I told them I'd done this because I believed that people should be able talk plainly and be able to resolve things. I told them they were on the wrong side of this case, of history. I told them that I was trying to behave with honor, and that despite all the insults they'd thrown at me, I still believed that they could understand and see the right thing to do. I told them Aaron was an amazingly good person, that his work touched their lives everyday. I told them this case was ridiculous, I told Steve not to do this. They listened in silence. At the end of the proffer, Steve asked if I had any questions. I said yes, that I wanted to know why he was doing this. He told me that he couldn't tell me yet, but that he had good reasons. Steve told me he would tell me eventually.

I'm still waiting.

Several hours after the proffer, as Aaron and I sat in the Luna Cafe in Cambridge, it had not sunk in that I'd accidentally betrayed someone I loved. It was so mind-numbingly stupid on the part of these powerful men, these elites of law enforcement, that I couldn't conceive that I'd actually harmed Aaron.

Aaron was incredibly angry with me. I pointed out that any journalist worth a damn would have the manifesto in no time; he agreed, but said these guys weren't as smart as journalists. I said the press would uncover it when the case went public. He told me, as he had so many times before, that the press wouldn't be interested in the case. We were both wrong.

"I just went in there to tell them you were a good person, and to not do this," I told him.

"Why didn't you?" he asked me, still angry.

"I did." He looked away.

I told him I couldn't live with the thought I'd hurt him. And once again I pleaded with him. Why didn't you talk to me, let me help? I could have kept him safe. I could have at least tried. He got up and walked out, angry.

What was done was done, and we had to learn to live with it. We fought, and I apologized for the proffer. I'd done the wrong thing. I was sorry. I wanted him to apologize back, not for doing it, not for the nightmare we were living through now which I never accepted as his fault. I just wanted him to say sorry for getting caught.

Aaron told me that Steve had been viciously gleeful to Andy about the manifesto, that he'd said Aaron would never get as good a deal as he'd turned down now that they had that bit of evidence.

Later I listened to Aaron on the phone as he described to a journalist how he had downloaded 400,000 law journal articles to do text analysis, revealing what kind of legal research was being funded by what kind of companies in 2008, and publishing an academic paper at Stanford about it, all as explanation of why he might have downloaded the JSTOR articles. It was the best answer legally to the question I'd been asked in that small fluorescent room surrounded by big men. Listening to him say that I felt my insides collapse.

Why didn't he tell me? Things could have been different.

It was because we were told not to talk. Because in our darkest hour, we were cut off from each other.

* * *
Quinn Norton and Aaron Swartz highlighted among attendees of a July 2008 EIFL meeting at a monastery in Italy (Quinn Norton).

The date was coming up when I'd have to turn over the information the prosecutors had asked for. My lawyers asked me to come in and let their IT department copy my hard drive. I wasn't trying to be the perfect client anymore. No one, I reminded them, gets my computer. We fought again over it, things more tense than ever. Jose told me that if I didn't have a lawyer Steve might just arrest me when he called and said I'd fired them. With Aaron's help I got a new lawyer, and fired them.

With my new lawyer, I was much more comfortable. I began to research and learn useful things about my case I'd not heard before. I could work to narrow the subpoena, and force Steve to go in front of a judge if he wanted more. I found out it was DOJ policy to subpoena journalists last, yet I had been subpoenaed first. Jose didn't seem to know that the journalist rules might apply to my hard drive, despite being a former federal prosecutor. When I sought to get Fish and Richardson's written documentation about the proffer session, particularly the notes Adam had taken during the session, they didn't provide them. I was angry, but there was nothing I could do.

Even worse, I found out I had a grand jury date in a few days. I managed to get it delayed, but I was shocked. They hadn't told me that.

At the end of April, Aaron, Ada, and I went to DC, and took Ada to the museums. We walked along the sidewalk in front of the White House together. Aaron looked past the lawns at the grand doors and said quietly "They don't let felons work there." I replied it was ironic, given how many felonies were committed there. But Aaron didn't laugh.

I told Ada someday Aaron was likely to work there. She listened with the unimpressed way of children taking in the world, and didn't reply.

By mid-May Steve was acting weird. None of his raids seemed to have turned up what he wanted. Aaron's lawyer was talking to JSTOR, which had found him through Steve. We had contacted people to talk to JSTOR, eminent people, many of whom were shocked by what was happening. JSTOR was key to the prosecution, it was the victim, and we were winning them over. Steve had agents drop off a warrant made out to Aaron, rather than law enforcement. It demanded the JSTOR documents, with the location for serving the warrant left blank. Aaron showed it to me, and we tried to interpret it in bewilderment. Warrants are executed by officers, not suspects. Aaron then told me Steve had threatened to get him arrested for contempt of court if he didn't turn over JSTOR files. It was all tricks and lies, but it just seemed crazy at the time. But tricks and lies are part of prosecutions, allowed, and perhaps even encouraged, by prosecutorial immunity.

We did not know how to interpret Steve's behavior. I worried everyday about him getting a warrant to raid me. If I lost my laptop, I was not only going to have to fight a contempt of court charge, but it would destroy what was left of my work life just as I was barely making it hand to mouth.

It was all so strange. We lived in a state of paranoia. We wondered if we were followed, eavesdropped on. We'd only speak freely when we were walking down the street, and even then Aaron wouldn't talk plainly to me about the case.

Aaron began to sleep over with me at a friend's, afraid on weekday mornings that the Secret Service would knock at 5am, take him away, that he'd vanish. He never seemed to think of where he'd vanish to, just of what he'd vanish from, of his friends and his work and now Demand Progress. The other side of that was an unimaginable place we didn't or couldn't talk about.

One night he tried to set up his linux server at his house to record any sounds at the door so that he'd know if they came. I was tired and wanted to go. I kept saying, "This is silly." His lawyer would get a call if they didn't find him at his house.

He got angrier at me, sitting there configuring and coding, while I told him this was ridiculous and that I wanted to go to bed. He said I didn't know anything and turned back to the computer. I understood for the first time that the pressure had really gotten to him. I told him he was becoming unhinged, he yelled at me, turned away again and ignored me. Eventually he put the keyboard down and joined me to leave. We didn't say anything about the episode after that.

Aaron told me that the longer we delayed my grand jury testimony the better, but I just wanted it all to be done. I never told him I wanted to get it over with, and worked in all the delays I could, but I was exhausted. I was broke. I had little else left in my life.

By June he was at least as tired as I was. He just wanted to be indicted. "The worst will be over then," he told me many times. He and Andy were still trying to get enough pressure on Steve from the alleged victims to make him drop the case. Instead Steve doubled down and brought in another prosecutor, Scott Garland, to help. I met him while figuring out how to narrow the subpoena, and what exactly they wanted. He was younger, energetic and cheerful, but he seemed to think it was all a game. I disliked him at once.

I was told that both prosecutors would be in my grand jury session, and I studied how the grand jury worked. It was summer now, and my neck had finally healed. I felt supported by my new lawyer. I was exercising and working again. I was as ready for the grand jury as I would ever be.

* * *

It is a rare thing to get to turn the tables on powerful tormentors, but at least for a moment, I got to.

Shortly before my grand jury date, I decided I didn't just want to testify, I wanted to grandstand. I thought that now I could take Steve and Scott. I wanted permission from Aaron, and to my happy surprise, he gave it. I was myself again.

This was a Quinn Steve and Scott had never met, and I counted on them underestimating me. I spent the night before with Aaron, and woke up nervous and feeling like I hadn't prepared enough. Aaron told me I would be ok. We held each other, so damaged by this point, but still loving, too.

I didn't dress in a tweedy skirt suit this time, I went in as myself. There were three of us set to testify that day, and I was on first. The Secret Service agent and I exchanged pleasantries about his children while I waited. Then they called me to the grand jury room, and I was sworn in. I invoked the 5th, refusing to testify.

After a few questions Steve came over with a prepared grant of immunity, compelling me to testify or face jail on a contempt of court charge. This was in our calculations. As I had told Steve all along, I was protected by the fact that I didn't know anything about the JSTOR activities.

I had always believed that courtroom scenes couldn't possibly go in the common procedural drama lawyer-leading-you-along-a-narrative trope ("And then what happened, Miz Norton?") because all you'd have to do is go off script to foul up their plans.

But they did follow that trope, and going off script did foul up Scott and Steve's every point. In the process they became angrier and angrier, until they were red in the face and screaming at me, sending me out of the room twice.

But I was there, not just to throw off their points, but to tell the grand jury things we were afraid the prosecutors hadn't told them. I couldn't directly speak to the jury members, so I had to bait the prosecutors into asking questions that let me tell the jurors what I wanted to. And they took the bait every time.

When I admitted I wasn't surprised at all at these events, they asked me why. I told them because there was a trend towards overreaching police action plaguing the tech community and seeking to criminalize normal computer use and research. They cut me off quickly, both glancing furtively at the jurors.

They put the manifesto, the cause of so much grief, in front of me to read to the jury. I read what they directed me to and they asked me if Aaron was the author. I explained I didn't know, it had been authored by four people, not one. I'd edited it right after, still in Italy, but Aaron had brought it from the group and his name got attached to it. I told them there was no way to know if he'd written the part they were trying to use to prove his intent. Asked if it reflected his current thinking, I looked at the middle-aged audience and said, honestly, that he'd moderated many of his views in the last few years, I couldn't know. I referred to the drift of a young man's mind and said we shouldn't be held to everything we said in our early 20s. I caught one of the woman in the back nodding. The prosecutors were furious.

But I still had to find a way to tell the grand jury what I most of all came to tell them. I answered a question about Aaron's activities the year before by saying (roughly from memory), "I have no idea, he didn't tell me. But we talk about the case, we talked about it this morning."

Steve asked the question I'd hoped for. "What did he tell you?"

"He told me JSTOR had settled with him, that they hold him harmless, and that they don't want this prosecution to go forward," I said.

"And why would he tell you that, but nothing about last fall?" Steve asked, furiously straining and turning colors. I wasn't even pretending that I wasn't a ringer by this point.

"I think," I said, pointing to the jurors without looking away from Steve, "because he was afraid you hadn't told them."

Steve, by this point apoplectic, turned the questions over to Scott. Scott tried to claim JSTOR settled because they were afraid. I agreed, laughing, but said they weren't afraid of hacker retribution. JSTOR would be afraid to be seen as a party to the persecution of a data researcher and fellow at the Harvard Ethics Center in the course of his research. They would be afraid of a revolt from academia, of crucifixion in the media. "I know what story I'd be writing if I weren't in this chair," I told Scott. Within a few minutes he was also red, spitting when he spoke, glaring. He sent me out too.

I had a great time.

We expected it to go on for hours, but the prosecution said we were done in slightly less than an hour. I went as fast as possible to tell the lawyers everything I could about what happened while it was fresh in my mind. It seemed unlikely that I would be called by the government at the trial. No prosecutor would risk repeating that in front of a courtroom jury.

I hoped for a bit there was a chance that this could sink the indictment. But that was never possible. There is an old saying -- given time, a prosecutor could indict a ham sandwich. Steve had plenty of time. On the bright side, I never heard from Steve's office again.

Aaron and I celebrated this one small victory, but the space between us was broken and sour. We loved each other as much as we ever had, but we didn't trust each other anymore . Not merely in matters of grand betrayal, but in the tiny things. We didn't trust each other to forgive and understand. He wanted something untouched by all of this, and had met someone -- someone more like who he wanted to be. I hurt letting him go. We both cried when he told me our relationship had to stop. We both said sorry to each other for never managing to be the right person at the right time for each other.

I told Aaron not to speak to me for a while. He was angry about that, but I couldn't take it. I needed something new, too. I needed control of my life again. I wanted to not think about any of this. It was only a half year since the phone call, but so much had changed. We were different people, and our lives before had been destroyed. He found love again, and became happier. I went on to cover Anonymous and Occupy. I never knew who else they grabbed, what other ways his life was invaded during the last two years. He never told, and eventually, I stopped asking. I believe he took each injury on, each little piece of heavy darkness, always afraid that anyone he confided in would end up going through what I did. In the end, I got to walk away. He never did.

* * *

I believe my contribution to Steve's case was to give him the manifesto during the latter half of his initial investigation and then reducing, but not eliminating, its value as evidence. However that story reflects on me, it is important the people know that the prosecutors manipulated me and used my love against Aaron without me understanding what they were doing. This is their normal. They would do this to anyone. We should understand that any alleged crime can become life-ruining if it catches their eyes. Innocence and goodness are only factored in as risks to their case. This is the system that we, as citizens, have agreed to.

It's hard to even talk about those months, years later. I did the best I could. I spent so much time afraid, for myself, for Ada, of hurting Aaron. I can't say what I would have done for that man; in our time together I never found that limit. But betraying each other by accident was a daily peril, and neither of us knew how to manage it. I know how I would do it now, I understand them better now. I would not be such an easy target. But I am trapped in the future, not able to help that previous me, stuck in the shape these events gave my life.

The last day I saw Aaron was two weeks before he died. We spent the morning talking, catching up. We'd become friends again, though slowly and imperfectly, and painfully. We were just friends now, with separate lives. I was dropping my daughter off to spend her Christmas break with Aaron and his girlfriend while I went to cover a conference in Europe. I drove them to the train station, and he caught me while I was unloading their bags from the trunk. He held me for a long time, blocking traffic. He told me he loved me. Then he took my daughter's hand, and walked away forever.

Quinn Norton was never quite able to obey her lawyer's orders to not write about what was happening. She wrote these two pieces during the investigation. The first describes the connection she saw between how her father was treated and how Swartz was treated. The second, on the following page, is a letter she wrote to prosecutor Stephen Heymann, which, after being told she couldn't send it to him, she left for him on her Dropbox account in case it was ever subpoenaed.

Essay 4-5-11

Nearly a month into all this. I have downloaded Kafka's The Trial in my ongoing misguided attempt to get life advice from literature.

I am in New York. I am watching men in hardhats, lamps in hand, working on the MTA at 2am. Their lamplight is up against black of the tracks, no reflection. Just a feeble warm light eaten by the sooty black of the i-beams that make up so much of the subway that they are the mise-en-scène of getting around the city. I am walking around Manhattan on a perfect night, watching the bikes in Union Square. Clear, crisp, first day of the year in New York that didn't require a coat. Free.


I think a lot on how to explain incarceration to Ada. It's different than it was with my father, and like all parents, I'm determined not to make the same mistakes. If it's to come, she'll know what's coming. I'll help her think about it. She might still be scared and confused, god knows I am. But she won't be ashamed and disassociated. I will stop the terrible numbness that took me from taking her.

Dad wrote me letters from San Quentin, telling what he saw, how he survived. He described men moving from cells to the yard as a sea of soulless eyes. Until those letters, his grotesque and evocative descriptions of prison, I didn't know how poetic my father could be. I think SQ would have killed him if he'd had to stay there. He didn't want to be with the white supremacists, he had to fight to stay away from them. Until he found some Latino friends, my fat red headed dad lived in constant fear.

Aaron tells me Club Fed is nothing like that. I said good, I didn't know where jews end up in the prison hierarchy. My dad explained a lot of it, but he never mentioned jews. I don't think he encountered any in SQ or Chino. He wrote me and still, I feel like maybe I don't know the smallest part of what happened to him. I will never know what my dad hid from me about prison. I was 17 when he went in; he died when I was 23. I never got to a place where I could ask him. I never knew I had so little time to get there.

I sleep very badly most nights, dream fitfully, and argue with imaginary agents of criminal justice system through my days and nights. They take on monstrous proportions, the psychic size of my personal history, the size of my pain and my fears. In my dreams i'm arguing with a judge, with the prosecutor, agents, men of suits, dressed in formal darkness. Even my own lawyers-- all about the concepts that have haunted me since I opened the first of the little cards cut from a manilla folders that my father used to send me from prison. I am arguing about the monopoly on the use of force and the moral responsibility of it. I am explaining the nature of motivation and memory. I am arguing about the drug war. I am trying to explain to stone faced men the nature of addiction, and they are remaining thick and distant. I never talk about copyright.

Some days I feel I can barely breathe, that the weight of this system is compressing my lungs into a thin space where only short, shallow breathes can fit. Like my body is a cell for the air. Sometimes it is 1996, & I am at the Washington Monument, gasping, almost unable to physically cry for how hard the sobs are trying to break free of my lungs. I am kicking the monument, and I am trying to scream. Sometimes I manage to scream, sometimes the air and the tears and the terrible compressed emotion are trapped, too big to get out, too big to stay inside my little body. I am kicking and screaming and gasping. My friends are standing by me, taking care, bearing witness, reaching out to steady me and hold me as I need it. I am screaming at America. Beside me Amity says "America ain't shit" with such bitterness that I startle a little. Behind me is the Vietnam Memorial, where I have carefully spread a thin line of bone white grit along the top of the monument, just on the soil side. It is the second of four places I will eventually spread my father's ashes, until finally I will release him into his beloved Pacific 12 years after he died. I will do that 11 years after kicking the Washington Monument, after it occurs to me that the first tip in getting over the death of your dysfunctional dad is to not carry him around for 12 years. My father was thrown away after a war shattered him. The state that did this took no notice or care of him until they locked him up, sick, old, drug addicted, screaming in his sleep every night night because of the things that followed him back from Vietnam.


Aaron asked me if I could think of anything nice he'd done, someone that could give an affidavit about some orphans he'd adopted or something. Apparently, "That sort of thing helps," he said. The best thing I could think of off the top of my head was the crime they are accusing him of. That probably wouldn't help. Instead, I told him, "I'll think about it."

He is so delicate, so haunted by little things. He stays so far away most of the time. A sadness and a silence hang on him, and even people that don't know him well can feel it. He never wants to tell, which I guess is the part people find unimaginable. It's so strange that the world is prying in to discover that he never tells. Prying at the stretches of time when I would lie beside him, or hold him, or hug him goodbye and say "I love you," and he'd look at me with his mouth shut and his face tense, until I'd say, "You love me too." and he'd kiss my cheek. How could I testify to that? I told him not long ago, when all this is done, you have to finally tell me what you got for Reddit. He grinned and said "Nope!" How could anyone understand him and me? We are strange, even to ourselves. Neither of us fit well and comfortably in this world, like alien scouts doing a lifetime patrol. I used to tell people when we were together, "We're not from the same planet, but we're sure as hell neither of us from this one."

I am trying to imagine who he should make friends with if he goes to prison, who will protect him. I imagine writing him letters, sending him books, snatches of songs, bits and things, the poesis of everyday life. I imagine sending him a thousand little life preservers, and waiting for him to make his way back to me. I imagine that it could go horribly wrong, but I can't imagine who I would be if it did.

The letter to Stephen Heymann:


Dear Steve,

I can't stop thinking about the last moments of yesterday, when I asked you why and you said you couldn't give me the answer yet.

You are invested with the power to change everything about a person, to destroy lives, to inflict such harm as ripples through years, through people, through communities. Each time this power is used it leaves its small, but indelible, mark on history. I have this too, to a lessor degree. I also have the happy power to elevate, and leave ripples in history that way. This is as close as anything can come to sacred in a secular world. Using it should humble us both, which is something I try to keep in mind every time I write a story.

Over the last few years I've seen so many stories that gutted me. The loss of New Orleans, the oil spill, my own government openly admitting to torture, the erasure of nearly half of the world economy, taking countless quiet lives. All of these with their ripples, stories of lives destroyed that won't ever be told. I have what they used to call a melancholy temperament. Sometimes I just think of these things, and I rock and cry. The entire time I've been surrounded by lawyers. I've badgered them about why there have been so few or no cases related to the truly major crimes that have been tearing down society. I always get the same answer: that these things are simply too hard to prove, too politicly tainted, that law enforcement doesn't like to take cases they might lose.

I can't tell you how disappointing this answer is. It's too hard? You might lose? Then do hard things and risk failure. What else are we on this earth for?

I've been living through the collapse of my industry as well over the last few years. After so many barrels of ink have been wasted on media's navel gazing (and my god can we navel gaze) I have talked to may of my colleagues, and read much of the studies and analyses of the public consumption of media and news. For all of our gnashing teeth, it turns out either we're doing our job, or someone else is. The public is more well informed than any other time such things have been studied in history. Yet scandals don't carry the weight to reform they once did at anything but the most local level, and maybe even then only rural, where prosecutors still follow up. I have worried for some time that part of the public apathy we see is this: your profession has stopped taking the baton from mine.

Then there's the matter at hand; you have accused Aaron of downloading a million journal articles. You've said you can prove this. You've asked me to contextualize this, and I've given you the only context that I can imagine-- giving the global poor tools to better their state. I believe it's the only context you have. I am still wondering how, in all a sea of troubles, that can really be worth your time and energy, how that can be worth the awesome and sacred destructive power you've been given. If you can tell me how spending your precious time on that, time you will never get back, time that can never be given to so many unaddressed oppressions on the human spirit, makes the world a better place, I will rest. Even if I disagree with you, I can rest. But I think I will know if you're lying. If the actual answer is the other things are too hard, that you might fail, then you are already part of a grand failure. A failure so great and so close to us we can barely see it, mistaking it for the sky itself.