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The Making of a Cyber-Libertarian

Alum defends Bradley Manning, sues the government


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. A military hearing beginning tomorrow will weigh a recommendation that Manning, jailed since May 2010 and currently held at Fort Meade in Maryland, be court-martialed; he could face life in prison.

House, who plans to attend tomorrow’s hearing, 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. House last saw Manning in March 2011.

Free Bradley Manning Billboard, Bradley Manning Support Network

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.

David House, Bradley Manning Support Network, WikiLeaks

"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 last month.

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, WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning Support Network

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.”

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

17 Comments on The Making of a Cyber-Libertarian

  • Chris on 04.23.2012 at 5:28 am

    I am very glad this kid has the luxury to sit behind his computer and not fear for being shot at like the real heroes of America. This article is a slap in the face to my father and his friends (all veterans). Poor baby you’re girlfriend broke up with you. Are you serious? If that is the worst of your problems, consider yourself blessed. BU should be ashamed of this article.

    I think this kid should enlist in the Army and see first hand how Manning affected the troops. But maybe he will be afraid that someone will bruise his “gym-chiseled” body.

    • Aaron L'Heureux on 04.23.2012 at 2:54 pm

      I’m sure you have all the details and that Clinton stating that America’s foreign relations were not impacted is all a lie. I guess his actions mean nothing because they haven’t involved him carrying a gun.

      But yeah, let’s just continue to live in a world that is full of cloak and dagger atrocities, ignorance is bliss, amirite?

    • Anonymous on 04.25.2012 at 3:47 pm

      Did your father fight in a war? Because I’m sure they committed war crimes (even ones they didn’t even know about).

    • Brian on 04.26.2012 at 12:23 pm

      he’s angry because his laptop was taken solely because he criticized the government’s actions in the Manning case, a right your father and his friends fought for and continue to fight for. Stop playing the patriotism card, the government exists for the people not the other way around.

  • Sam Stone on 04.23.2012 at 7:34 am

    “House last saw Manning in March 2011.” Doesn’t sound like much of a friend to me. Rather, it appears that House has used Manning, and their casual meeting at a BUILDS open-house, to market himself. Frankly, House comes off as bright, but self-serving, oh-so-young, and certainly misguided.

    Manning is accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of U.S. Government documents and turning them over to WikiLeaks. Among other charges, Manning is specifically charged with aiding the enemy and theft of public property. The documents include diplomatic cables detailing critical infrastructure and installations (blueprints for terrorists) and technical information about radio frequency-jammers used by U.S. soldiers to cut off signals to remotely detonated explosives and roadside bombs (the single greatest cause of U.S. military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan). Sounds like treason to me.

    I would like to see an accounting of where the half million dollars House has helped raised went.

    • Adrian on 04.23.2012 at 4:01 pm

      On the note of “doesn’t sound like much of a friend to me”, it is worth noting that of the true friends of Bradley, who knew and cared about him before the media circus was invited to the party, most distanced themselves from David as soon as it became apparent that his main goal was to appear on television as many times as possible to promote himself before the media stopped covering the story.

      As others have also noted, Bradley is still in jail, and yet it seems like David has moved on to doing bigger and better things; his name is listed nowhere as being involved currently in the Bradley Manning Support Network, only as a co-founder.

      As for his political party, not much is known yet, as it exists nowhere on the internet besides maybe House’s private twitter feed “House off the record”, a “selective feed for private audiences”. The feed for the “political party”, on the other hand, (http://twitter.com/#!/PaxCultura/), seems to only be following Andy Warhol? Oddly fitting, if one believes that House is only concerned with the pop-art analogue of politics.

      Furthermore, I think alleging that the United States government contributed significantly to your girlfriend leaving you may be one of the most egregious cases of blame-shifting ever seen in print.

      • David House on 04.23.2012 at 9:58 pm

        @Adrian: I’m actually on an Amtrak train to Washington, D.C. right now in order to support Bradley at his upcoming hearing, April 24 – 26. You can find out more about Bradley’s upcoming pre-trial hearing, and the government’s refusal to allow the defense access to necessary evidence, at http://www.bradleymanning.org

        I appreciate Rich’s portrayal of my life in activism over the past few years, and I would say it’s important to view me as an extremely minor subject in this new age of activism: the true earthshakers of our generation are imprisoned at Leavenworth or, in the case of Julian Assange, under house arrest outside London. I’m a follower, and like many Boston-area activists I support causes far, far greater than myself.

        So if you’re looking for an icon (Warhol?) you will not find it in me, and if you’re searching for an imperfect activist you will find no shortage of material with me; my only pledge is to fight tooth and nail for what I believe in.

        • Griffin on 04.27.2012 at 4:29 am

          @David: Fire your stylist. Visually, you have an edge that honey-blonde hair softens, and platinum hair emphasizes.

          Recognizing that everyone has flaws is a great first step, but it cannot be the only step. Something to meditate on the next time you’re at the gym.

      • Griffin on 04.27.2012 at 4:32 am

        Adrian. I wonder what you’d say about a man who shops someone to the feds, then tells military intelligence to target their friends. Someone who THEN uses Google Alerts to keep track of the discussion so he can insert himself into every conversation (however tangential) about the person he’s testifying against.

        Yes, I can only imagine what you’d say about a man like that.

    • Librarian on 04.23.2012 at 11:02 pm

      It only took me one click to see that Manning was moved to Kansas in April 2011. And Sam, I first thought you came off as whiney or jealous. But P2 makes you sound like a military plant. Or horribly misinformed.
      This article is a testimony to the freedom of expression that BU allows within the institution. Mr. House may have started out as the ‘accidental activist’, but he wasn’t afraid to pick up the ball and run with it.

  • Anthony Priestas (Liberty at BU) on 04.23.2012 at 9:00 am

    “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.”

    This is one of the many problems in this country. Our citizens often petition the government to use force on their behalf, often with disastrous consequences to civil liberties. The government is too big, too powerful, too intrusive, and too corrupt. The only way to save this country is to reduce the size and scope of government, and the only way to do that is remove their incentive – funding.

    Supporters of big government should be wary that one day their civil liberties will also be violated, or worse, become a victim of abusive conduct; would they support such a government then?

  • Valerie on 04.23.2012 at 2:37 pm

    Thank goodness someone has the courage to say what needs to be said. It’s refreshing to know that BU is still churning out socially responsible activists with both brains and backbone.

    And to Chris and Sam: wow, way to live up to the stereotype of negative and petty commenters. Are you going to make fun of his hair next? Please. You should both take a play from Mr. House and try to adopt a positive agenda instead of thumping your chests.

    • Sam Stone on 04.24.2012 at 9:23 am

      Valerie… by commenting: “are you going to make fun of his hair next?”, you inadvertently did.

      Read my post to Librarian above. I wasn’t “chest-thumping”, I was fact-stating. What you characterize as socially-responsible, I feel is misinformed, or very possibly, uninformed.

  • Libertarians are not progressives on 04.23.2012 at 3:02 pm

    There seems to be a complete lack of understanding of the terms libertarian and progressive going on here. So why use these two distinction terms to describe this “computer enthusiast who extolled the virtues of hackers” and now works at a PR firm for “progressive” causes? This guy is “trying to accomplish reforms that will restore this country’s majesty in a “democratic way” and make us a world leader again.” Progressives may seek to make more progress by assembling and operating a far-flung activist networks, but libertarians do not see the US as a “democracy” but rather as a Republic.

    So why does the author do this, unless of course he wants to legitimize bad behavior in some way? Or conversely, he wants to link libertarians with progressives in the eyes of those who do not fully understand the distinctions between the two political ideologies.

  • Lauren on 04.23.2012 at 3:13 pm

    I’m really glad there are people like Mr. House devoting so much time and energy to focusing on these issues, which seem to go underreported. David House is one of the people I feel really needs to be alive and working right now, and BU should be proud to count someone like him in their alumnus.

    He gave an excellent talk full of actionable advice at the Mass Pirate Party conference and is one of the smartest and most driven people I’ve met. I was in awe of him when I saw him speaking there and I hope he brings more and more people into his projects so they can grow.

    I’m not sure I’d use the word “libertarian” to describe him. While some of his principles might align with libertarian ideals, it doesn’t seem they all do. It’s a bit misleading, really.

    Today marks the 700th day Bradley Manning has been held without court marshall. David House has been one of the most influential people in bringing awareness and correct information about his case to the public. I wish them both all the best.

  • Librarian on 04.23.2012 at 11:45 pm

    Thank you Mr. Barlow. BU Today and Bostonia are the class of the field.

  • Sam Stone on 04.24.2012 at 9:18 am

    Librarian, I can’t speak for “Chris” but what post of mine did you read? I simply noted that in April 2012, having last visited your “friend” in prison over a year ago (March 2011) didn’t fit with the article’s characterization of House as a enthusiastic friend and supporter of Manning. In the article, as written, House comes off as self-serving, immature, and misguided.

    Frankly, one needs to separate WikiLeaks’ publication of the Manning documents from Manning’s actions. Manning released classified material to those not authorized to view it. That is against the law. Period.

    As to your “military plant” comment, I simply took the official government charges against Manning and related their seriousness in terms all could understand (except perhaps you?). Where you got “whiney or jealous” from, I have no idea.

    As to my being “horribly misinformed”, could you elaborate? Exactly what did I state (that wasn’t couched as opinion) that was not correct?

    Finally, how was this article a “testimony to the freedom of expression that BU allows”? House’s activities post-date his graduation. It was then that he “picked up the ball and ran with it”… just in the wrong direction.

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