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Seattle IMC Wins Gag order battle with FBI

Seattle IMC Wins Gag order battle with FBI/Secret Service


Date: 4/27/01 3:28:00 PM Eastern Daylight Time




CONTACT: Seattle Independent Media Center 206.262.0721

On the evening of Saturday, April 21, a day during which tens of thousands demonstrated against the FTAA in the streets of Quebec City, the Independent Media Center in Seattle was served with a sealed court order by two FBI agents and an agent of the US Secret Service. The terms of the sealed order prevented IMC volunteers from publicizing its terms; volunteers immediately began discussions with legal counsel to amend the order. This morning, April 27, Magistrate Judge Monica Benton issued an amended order, freeing us to discuss the situation without the threat of being held in contempt.

The original order, also issued by Judge Benton, directed the IMC to supply the FBI with "all user connection logs" for April 20 and 21st from a web server occupying an IP address which the Secret Service believed belonged to the IMC. The order stated that this was part of an "ongoing criminal investigation" into acts that could constitute violations of Canadian law, specifically theft and mischief. IMC legal counsel David Sobel, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, comments: "As the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized, the First Amendment protects the right to communicate anonymously with the press and for political purposes. An order compelling the disclosure of information identifying an indiscriminately large number of users of a website devoted to political discourse raises very serious constitutional issues. To provide the same protection to the press and anonymous sources in the Internet world as with more traditional media, the Government must be severely limited in its ability to demand their Internet identity--their "Internet Protocol addresses." A federal statute already requires that such efforts against the press be approved by the Attorney General, and only where essential and after alternatives have been exhausted. There is no suggestion that these standards were met here.

The sealed court order also directed the IMC not to disclose "the existence of this Application or Order, or the existence of this investigation, unless or until ordered by this court." Such a prior restraint on a media organization goes to the heart of the First Amendment. Ironically, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer learned about the existence of the order from "federal sources," suggesting that the purpose of the gag order was simply to allow the government to spin the issue its way.

The order did not specify what acts were being investigated, and the Secret Service agent acknowledged that the IMC itself was not suspected of criminal activity. No violation of US law was alleged. It is not clear whether federal law allows the Attorney General ever to approve such an investigation of US press entities to facilitate a foreign investigation. According to IMC counsel Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, "This kind of fishing expedition is another in a long line of overbroad and onerous attempts to chill political speech and activism. Back in 1956, Alabama tried to force the NAACP to give up its membership lists -- but the Supreme Court stopped them. This order to IMC, even without the 'gag,' is a threat to free speech, free association, and privacy."

Responding to questions from IMC volunteers, the agents claimed that their investigation concerned the source of either one or two postings which, they said, had been posted to an IMC newswire early Saturday morning. These posts, according to the agents, contained documents stolen from a Canadian government agency, including classified information related to the travel itinerary of George W. Bush (who was at that time in Quebec City, participating in Summit of the Americas meetings). Agents claimed that the Secret Service was notified of the existence of such posts by a tip from an (unnamed) major commercial news network.

The agents were unable to provide URL addresses or titles for the postings they described. Additionally, the court order contained a non-working IP address, rather than an address assigned to any of the IMC sites. IMC volunteers nevertheless were able to identify two articles posted to the Montreal IMC which partially matched the agents' incomplete description. These articles, posted first in French and then in English translations (, 514 and 515), contain sections of documents purportedly stolen from a Quebec City police car during Friday night anti-FTAA demonstrations; the documents detail police strategies for hindering protesters' mass action. It does not appear that any materials were posted to any IMC site containing Bush¹s travel plans.

Although the agents were concerned with only two posts, the court order demands "all user connections logs" for a 48-hour period, which would include individual IP addresses for every person who posted materials to or visited the IMC site during the FTAA protests. IMC legal counsel Nancy Chang, of the Center for Constitutional Rights, comments that "the overbroad sweep of the information demanded by the FBI raises the disturbing question of whether the order is calculated to discourage association with the IMC."

The agents arrived at the IMC around 7pm. Seattle IMC volunteers had been busy all afternoon gathering regional IMC coverage of FTAA protests underway in Seattle and in Blaine, Washington, and coordinating coverage with other sites on the IMC network. Several visitors were also in the IMC at the time, using public computers.. While agents were speaking with one staff volunteer, another began making telephone calls in an effort to contact legal counsel. After the agents left, volunteers discussed the court order's gag provision, and began recontacting the handful of people who had already been called, in order to make sure that the terms of the court order would not be violated before legal counsel had time to appraise the situation.

Initial attempts were made to contain news of the FBI/Secret Service visit; however, a few details of the story were soon leaked via a partially accurate report broadcast on the Vermont IMC internet radio stream. Soon the Seattle IMC was flooded with phone calls requesting information about what quickly began to be described as an "FBI raid," and speculations began to spread rapidly across the open-publishing newswires of various IMCs.

For about three hours, a network of IMC technology volunteers attempted to comply with the court order by removing such posts from the Seattle IMC and other major IMC sites as they appeared. This had the unfortunate effect of seemingly confirming the worst suspicions of independent journalists who posted brief articles announcing or speculating about mysterious and terrible things going on at the Seattle IMC, then finding their posts removed from view minutes later. Volunteers called off this clumsy attempt at rumor control around midnight, when it became clear that removing of posts was only serving to fan the flames of rumor, and that in any case the story had already spread beyond the confines of the IMC network. In acting to remove these posts, IMC volunteers were motivated by fear of violating the court order's gag provision even before legal counsel had had a chance to review the document. We regret the feelings of confusion and disempowerment which many users of the IMC sites experienced due to Saturday night's blackout of postings on this topic, and the general frustration caused by the gag order.

Since the incident occurred, several persistent, yet false, rumors have taken shape; some of these found their way into coverage published in Monday's Seattle Post-Intelligencer and other commercial media. We can now dispel some of the more common of these: No search warrant was served on IMC in connection with the court order, and nobody connected to the Seattle IMC has been arrested. No equipment or logs have been seized; the agents' visit was not a "raid."

Now, free from restrictive court orders, the Seattle IMC will be able to cover this important story as it continues to unfold.

The Seattle Independent Media Center was launched in Fall 1999 to provide immediate, authentic, grassroots coverage of protests against the WTO. Just a year and a half later, the IMC network has reached around the world, with dozens of sites scattered across six continents. IMCs are autonomously organized and administered, but share collective organizational principles and certain technological resources. Each IMC's news coverage centers upon its open-publishing newswire, an innovative and democratizing system allowing anyone with access to an Internet connection to become a journalist, reporting on events from his or her own perspective rather than being forced to rely on the narrow range of views presented by corporate-owned mainstream media sources.

During last weekend's widespread protests against a proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, many IMC sites collaborated to produce comprehensive coverage of demonstrations taking place in Quebec City and Sao Paulo, as well as solidarity protests in cities across the U.S. and along the Mexican and Canadian borders. The breadth and depth of coverage produced by the IMC's global network eclipsed that of many corporate media outlets.

The Seattle IMC remains committed to its mission: "The Independent Media Center is a grassroots organization committed to using media production and distribution as a tool for promoting social and economic justice. It is our goal to further the self-determination of people under-represented in media production and content, and to illuminate and analyze local and global issues that impact ecosystems, communities and individuals. We seek to generate alternatives to the biases inherent in the corporate media controlled by profit, and to identify and create positive models for a sustainable and equitable society."


Seattle Independent Media Center 1415 3rd Ave. Seattle, WA, 98101 206.262.0721 206.262.9905 fax

David Burman, IMC counsel Perkins Coie LLP 1201 Third Ave., 40th Floor Seattle, WA 98101 206.583.8888

Alan Korn, Attorney with the National Lawyers Guild Center on Democratic Communication 415.362.5700

David Sobel, General Counsel Electronic Privacy Information Center Suite 200, 1718 Connecticut Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20009 202.483.1140

Nancy Chang, Senior Litigation Attorney Center for Constitutional Rights 666 Broadway, 7th Floor New York, NY 10012 212.614.6420

Lee Tien, Senior Staff Attorney Electronic Frontier Foundation 454 Shotwell Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415.436.9333

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