The Making of a Cyber-Libertarian
Alum defends Bradley Manning, sues the government| From BU Today | By Rich Barlow
David House (CAS’10) wields his computer science skills for civil liberties, including advocacy for alleged WikiLeaks informant Bradley Manning. Photo by Cydney Scott
If you’re a graduating senior worrying whether there’s life after BU, David House can reassure you on that score. In just the two years since putting the Charles River in his rearview mirror, he has befriended an internationally famous prisoner, talked on TV about their meetings, been interrogated by federal agents, had his laptop seized by the U.S. government, and sued the government over said seizure.
Here’s the how-to manual for arranging this perils-of-Pauline existence: step one, major in computer science, as did House (CAS’10). Step two, cofound a website and name it the Bradley Manning Support Network. This is sure to get you noticed by the government when it’s in the process of prosecuting Manning, the Army private charged with giving classified government documents to WikiLeaks. Manning has been jailed since May 2010 and is being held at Fort Mead in Maryland.
House met Manning in January 2010, when the future WikiLeaks-ter, then on leave and not yet famous, attended an open house for BUILDS, the student-built computer research center that House helped start at BU. “We became friends, actually, while he was in prison,” says House, who first visited the incarcerated private with a mutual friend. “We really hit it off—talked for three hours straight.” He decided to help launch the online support network that posts news updates about the case, solicits donations for Manning’s defense (more than a half million dollars raised to date, though most of that has been spent, says House), and backgrounds readers about WikiLeaks’ disclosures. Its advisory board includes the documentarian Michael Moore, Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame, and former U.S. Senator Mike Gravel.
House’s access to the imprisoned cause celebre and his role in the support network brought invitations to appear on TV. In December 2010, House, described by MSNBC as “one of the few people” regularly visiting Manning, detailed on the cable network what he described as his friend’s deteriorating health.
Contrary to the military’s denial that Manning was in solitary confinement, House charged that the private was being kept in his cell for all but one hour daily, was allowed to walk only indoors in chains during that hour, was denied exercise, and was unable to focus sometimes in conversation. House and other critics moved institutional mountains: the United Nations, human rights groups, and some congressional members inquired about Manning’s care, and while the military denied wrongdoing, a State Department spokesman resigned to protest what he called blatant mistreatment.
Supporters of Bradley Manning erected this billboard on the route to downtown Washington, D.C., from Fort Meade. Photo courtesy of Bradley Manning Support Network
This have-keyboard-will-advocate life is a seamless continuum of House’s student days, when he was a precociously talented computer enthusiast who extolled the virtues of hackers (they’re “creative,” he told BU Today in 2010) while BUILDS pushed the boundaries with projects such as lock-picking (never someone else’s, the rules stressed). Gym-chiseled, with bleached-blond hair, House evokes a young Rutger Hauer, and his speaking style is not unlike the actor’s cinematic gunplay; words pour out in rapid rat-tat-tat, piling into each other in gradually accelerating sentences, as in this memory of first meeting with Manning in jail: “Bradley’s like ‘Willyoucomebackinandvisitsometime?’” At BU, House found “a culture of openness and creativity in the computer science department which was rare.” He played a pivotal part on Margrit Betke’s research team for a couple of years.
“It was very unusual that an undergrad could be the driving force of a very successful interdisciplinary research collaboration between computer scientists, biologists, and biomedical engineers,” says Betke, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of computer science. Yet “David’s energy and commitment led to a research paper on tracking living cells” in time-lapse microscopy video, a tool used in biomedical research.
“Everything we vote for comes with cost, and the American people need to know that,” says House. Photo by Cydney Scott
House is now a Boston-based freelance computer researcher for Fitzgibbon Media, a Washington, D.C., PR firm for progressive causes. His hard-won wisdom about activism earned him a speaking gig last month before the Massachusetts Pirate Party, which opposes legislated internet restraints. James O’Keefe (GRS’98), whose party title is “captain,” says House’s talk on protecting cyber-privacy was valuable because of his fellow Terrier’s “unique perspective on being a digital activist in the face of U.S. government opposition.”
House says his message to the Pirates boiled down to this: “When you’re involved in a political struggle of any kind, having control of your information network is very, very important.…You’re going to be warring necessarily with individuals who want to find out your strategy and shut you down”—i.e., the government. Indeed, he and the American Civil Liberties Union are suing Uncle Sam over a run-in that saw his computer seized and contributed, House says, to a break-up with his girlfriend.
Various officials—from the State Department, the FBI, and the Army—interviewed him after he launched the Manning website in 2010, he says. He trusted there’d be no fallout, as he hadn’t done anything wrong, but “that faith was kind of shattered in November 2010” when he was confronted by Homeland Security agents at O’Hare Airport as he was returning from a Mexican vacation. They requested the password to his laptop, he says, which he refused—“I’m an activist. I don’t want to have my list of supporters and donors and my public relations strategy and all this disclosed to the very organization which I’m trying to take on.” They seized his computer, returning it a month and a half later. House’s suit alleges the confiscation was an unconstitutionally unreasonable search, conducted because of his activism on behalf of Manning. The government sought to have the suit dismissed, arguing that the law doesn’t require reasonable suspicion and allows them to hold the computer as long as needed to inspect it, given House’s refusal to divulge his password. A U.S. District Court judge denied the government’s request.
The charges against Manning—that he treasonously divulged secrets that could have endangered his countrymen and others—are serious. Yet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton contended that the WikiLeaks didn’t hurt America’s foreign relations. Will Manning’s ultimate fate be irrelevance? No, says House, citing one serious revelation, a 2007 military helicopter attack in Baghdad in which American soldiers laughed at their dead targets, which inadvertently included a Reuters photographer and his driver.
Bradley Manning, charged with giving classified government documents to WikiLeaks, could face life in prison. Photo courtesy of Bradley Manning Support Network
“We have this notion in democracy that we can vote for something, and we can get it without any struggle or pain or sacrifice,” says House. “But everything we vote for comes with cost, and the American people need to know that.”
More broadly, he says that “it wasn’t until this stuff came out that people said, OK, yes, the government actually does deal in lies and deception on a regular basis—this is apparently how states function; we never knew this before.” Actually, anyone who lived through or has read about the Vietnam War and Watergate knew this before. But House wasn’t alive then. “So the youth of this country, I think, were very shocked by what they saw,” he says.
In fairness, youth’s historical blinders are matched by its passionate idealism. House currently is brainstorming a new political party, whose agenda would include punishing corrupt politicians commensurate with their political rank. (Under his scheme, he says, Richard Nixon, the highest official in the land, “would have died in prison.”) Socially liberal and economically procapitalist, he’s fundamentally interested in reforming how America treats people.
“The government we have now is very inelegant,” he says. “It uses brute force a lot to accomplish its goals, which is a sign of failure to me. And if you’re ever having to get someone to believe your country’s the best down the barrel of a gun, you’re not doing it the right way. I’m trying to accomplish reforms that will restore this country’s majesty in a democratic way and make us a world leader again.” The Manning website, which has been a priceless education in assembling and operating a far-flung activist network, House says, will continue temporarily, even if Manning is released, to help him touch down in life again, perhaps by paying for him to go to college.
Yet, at the end of the day, we’re still talking about a friend who may be sentenced to life in a cage. Asked for his personal reflections on the case, House’s words still come fast and assured, but the content changes: “With Bradley, yeah, everyone has been devastated that knows him in any way. You can imagine someone being plucked out of your life and taken and put in confinement and you’re watching them deteriorate over time.” Then he makes a rare pause to search for words. “I don’t think I have the luxury to sit down and be bereaved by Bradley. I mean, if I had that luxury, then I would have stopped going to see him in confinement, because that was hard emotionally to bear. I feel like I have a duty and a place in this, and I feel like I have to fulfill that duty and that place, and part of that is holding my chin up and keeping a stiff upper lip.
“But if you’re asking about what I do in private, I mean, yeah, I’ve cried more than once about Bradley. And the emotional trauma from that is something that I’ll carry for a very long time.”