20 May 1997: Add link to May 20 news story.
3 April 1997
IRS raids a cypherpunk
by Declan McCullagh April 3, 1997
Jim Bell's first mistake was publishing an essay describing how disgruntled citizens could kill off Federal government agents by using anonymous betting pools and digital cash. His second mistake was informing the IRS that the agency had no legal authority to tax him.
About twenty armed IRS agents and other Federal police swarmed into Bell's home in Washington state on Tuesday morning, hunting for evidence that Bell's "Assassination Politics" essay had come to fruition. They expropriated Bell's three computer systems, two guns and even a solitary mouse cable. The Feds were taking no chances: Since Bell's voluminous Net postings mentioned tax collectors, agents from the BATF, FBI, DEA, and local police forces joined the raid.
The case is another like that of Jake Baker, the University of Michigan student who posted fantasies about raping and killing a classmate. A Federal judge eventually threw out the charges, ruling Baker never intended to act and the tale was "only a rather savage and tasteless piece of fiction." But was Jim Bell just fantasizing, or inciting violence? Did he intend to take real-world steps to erase some Feds, or were his posts just megabytes of bone-chilling blather? The IRS says it has evidence of Bell's lethal intent, but some netizens who know Bell say he's just a harmless loon. (EFF's Stanton McCandlish adds that the agents should have copied Bell's files instead of grabbing the computers: "If the seized party happens to be a publisher of any sort, seizing the machine might be a violation of the law.")
The raid stemmed from a six-month tussle between Bell and the IRS, which began in November 1996 when the 38-year old computer engineer demanded a hefty tax refund and threatened to convene his own "common-law court" if it was refused. That grabbed the Feds' attention. (So did the actions of the "Multnomah County Common Law Court," which apparently met in January to convict IRS agents and Attorney General Janet Reno of "theft by deception.") In February, IRS agents seized Bell's 1986 Honda as payment for back taxes -- and found inside it a printout of his "Assassination Politics" essay. "I think they overreacted. I think they got a copy of the essay without knowing what it meant," Bell says. "They have inadvertently given my idea a lot more publicity than it would have received otherwise. The only silver lining I can see is the publicity -- I couldn't purchase it if I tried."
His scheme was simple and, Bell claimed, legal. In it, anyone interested in seeing a "government miscreant" dead (IRS agents were oft-mentioned targets) would contribute anonymously to a betting pool. The person, presumably the assassin, who correctly guessed the victim's time of death wins the pool of digital cash. Bell writes: "An organization could quite legally operate, assisted by encryption, international data networking, and untraceable digital cash, in a way that would (indirectly) hasten the death of named people, for instance hated government employees and officeholders."
Bell has spent nearly two years attempting to promote his screeds on Usenet newsgroups and mailing lists including libernet and cypherpunks. Christmas Eve last year found Bell once again in front of his computer in his parents' Vancouver, Washington home, railing against lawyers, police -- and most of all, the IRS. Responding to a post about IRS agents seizing $27,000 from a man who won it in a football pool, Bell typed: "This kind of stunt fully justifies whatever level of lethal punishment that the public will one day direct at these thugs."
I remember the reaction on the cypherpunks list to Bell's writings: swift, critical, angry. Even the cypherpunk founders who popularized anonymous remailers and clandestine markets in digital information were appalled. One veteran 'punk told me that "Bell crossed the line. It crossed over into the realm where the courts can go."
And it was, ultimately, a Federal magistrate who signed the search warrant on 9:02 am on March 28 at the request of the IRS. Jeffrey Gordon, an inspector in the IRS' Internal Security Division, details in an 10-page affidavit how he traced Bell's use of allegedly fraudulent Social Security Numbers, how he learned that Bell had been arrested in 1989 for "manufacturing a controlled substance," how he found out that Bell possessed the home addresses of a handful of IRS agents. Gordon's conclusion: Bell planned "to overthrow the government." The IRS investigator says in his affidavit that Bell's "essay details an illegal scheme by Bell which involves plans to assassinate IRS and other government officals... I believe that Bell has begun taking steps to carry out his Assassination Politics plan."
Indeed, that's the real question: Did Bell step beyond mailing list posturing to actual planning? The Supreme Court has ruled that speech can be suppressed only if it is intended, and is likely to produce, "imminent lawless action." Since Bell's manuscripts have drifted around the dusty corners of cyberspace for years -- to no discernible effect -- a prosecutor might be hard-pressed to prove they're dangerous. Eric Freedman, a constitutional law professor at Hofstra Law School, says that Bell's writings are protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court's legal test "is not going to be met where someone writes a speculative essay about what the world would be like if such a system were in place," he says.
No charges have been filed. "That's still in the investigative stages. I can't comment on anything when an investigation is in progress," said Kate Greenquist, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office.
Thanks to Declan McCullagh and Netley News.