What the FBI Doesn't Want You to See at RaisetheFist.com

What is this web site about? On January 24, 2002, the FBI raided the home of Sherman Martin Austin, the 18 year old owner/operator of the anarchist web site RaisetheFist.com, and carted away all his computers. (A detailed account of the government's pursuit of Austin was published in October 2003 by Merlin Chowkwanyun.) Mr. Austin was charged with publishing bomb-making information on the Internet with the knowledge or intent that it would be used to commit a federal crime of violence. On September 3, 2003, Mr. Austin, now 20, entered federal prison. He remained there until July 2004, when he was moved to a half-way house.

Did the amateurish bomb-making information, written by a minor, that Mr. Austin allowed to appear on his web site pose any signifcant threat to public safety? Did he personally intend to to promote crimes of violence? Because he was coerced (with the threat of a possible 20 year "terrorism enhancement") into signing a plea agreement, the government was spared the trouble of a public trial, and thus did not have to prove its case or enter its evidence against him into the public record. How then can we, the American people, judge whether our government acted reasonably in this matter? I have preserved the crucial evidence in this case: the Reclaim Guide that Austin was prosecuted for publishing. Read it and decide for yourself.

Why is this web site legal when Austin's wasn't? I don't share Sherman Austin's politics. I'm a registered Republican, a proud supporter of President Bush (despite the USA PATRIOT Act), and I have nothing but contempt for the mindless anarchism people like Austin mistake for political thought. My reason for republishing the Reclaim Guide is to facilitate public scrutiny of the law under which Austin was charged, and the government's application of the law in this particular case. In other words, I am acting in the public interest, and my speech is protected by the First Amendment. Austin's should be too; I don't believe he gave any thought to the consequences of his hosting the Reclaim Guide, which he didn't even write himself. But don't take my word for it: because this web site exists, you are free to examine the evidence and decide for yourself. Some people think that's a bad idea.

-- Professor David S. Touretzky, Computer Science Department, Carnegie Mellon University

Recent news reports about the raisethefist.com case:

Search Warrant and
Affidavit of Special Agent John I. Pi

This is the search warrant and affidavit filed by the FBI prior to the raid on Sherman Austin's home in Sherman Oaks, California. (Document provided by cryptome.org.)

Second Affidavit from John I. Pi

This second affidavit from FBI special agent John I. Pi, dated February 5, 2002, contains information from his interview of Sherman Austin during the January 24 raid. (Document provided by cryptome.org.)

Plea Agreement

Sherman Austin signed this plea agreement in preparation for his guilty plea on September 30, 2002. But the judge rejected the plea agreement.

On January 24, 2002, the FBI raided the home of Sherman Martin Austin, the 18 year old owner/operator of the anarchist web site RaisetheFist.com. A few days later, Mark Burdett published an email interview in which Austin stated:

"They [the FBI] told me the main reason for the raid was because of the content on the site, and they wanted to see who was looking at it. This was not the main reason. It was an excuse. The alledged content which they claim they were so concerned about is from the Reclaim Guide."

I have mirrored the Reclaim Guide at Carnegie Mellon. Austin didn't write it; he just provided hosting space for it.

The search warrant does refer to the file reclaim.html and several associated files. But it also cites evidence that Austin has hacked into computer systems, defaced web sites, launched denial-of-service attacks against other computer systems, and operated a web site for selling stolen stereos. A subsequent Newsbytes article revealed that Austin has admitted to defacing web sites in order to spread his political message. That alone seems adequate reason to arrest and charge him.

I'm a registered Republican, so needless to say, I don't agree with Sherman Austin's politics, much less his actions. But I'm curious why the FBI would include this Reclaim Guide as part of their justification for raiding a private citizen's home and carting off all his computers and political literature. Since when is it illegal to write about explosives? According to the search warrant, Austin was violating Title 18, United States Code, Section 842(p), which makes it unlawful to:

A well-written government report on the constitutionality of this statute has been made available by Cryptome, along with some background information on how Senators Feinstein and Biden got the statute passed back in 1997.

Since I personally do not advocate any type of violent behavior, and my intent in mirroring the Reclaim Guide is not to facilitate such behavior, but rather to encourage public scrutiny of the government's application of the statute, my mirror does not appear to violate the statute.

The public scrutiny I desire has in fact occurred, as can be seen in discussion board postings at Slashdot and Cryptome, for example.

Home Workshop Explosives Personally, I find the statute troubling. It cannot be an effective deterrent to dissemination of information about explosives, because one can purchase plenty of practical information at Amazon.com, such as Home Workshop Explosives (see image at left), or the Improvised Munitions Black Book.

And one mustn't forget William Powell's 30+ year old Anarchist Cookbook; be sure to read the this Salon article, the author's own comments posted on the Amazon page, and this cautionary book review.

For weapons of mass destruction (chemical and biological), Amazon offers Silent Death, Second Edition (right), the reference supposedly used by the Aum cult.

Silent Death, 2nd Edition

pipe bomb diagram Public libraries are also much better sources of explosives information than the pathetic Reclaim Guide. Even CNN is happy to share a pipe bomb recipe with curious readers, apparently without legal repercussions. And there is extensive information available under "explosives" at HowStuffWorks.com, including information on the construction of nuclear weapons. Again, perfectly legal. And the Wikipedia (an online encyclopedia) gives a much better recipe for a Molotov cocktail than the Reclaim Guide version.

But this does not mean that the statute mentioned above has no use. It can be used to pile additional charges on someone whom the government wants to prosecute for other reasons. Whether that is a legitimate purpose for a statute is, I think, worthy of public debate.

What distinguishes Sherman Austin's copy of the Reclaim Guide from my copy, or from material offered by Amazon.com or CNN or HowStuffWorks.com, or any good university library?

Austin's crucial mistake would seem to be allowing the explosives information to appear on the same web site as his anarchist protest rhetoric. (And the Reclaim Guide itself makes explicit reference to a IMF/World Bank meeting that was scheduled to take place in Washington, DC.) Hosting the bomb-making information on a separate web site, with no suggestion as to how it should be used, would probably have shielded him from prosecution.

See Leslie Kendrick's Virginia Law Review article on "criminally instructuctional speech", which includes discussion of the Austin case and the legality of mirrors.

An interesting feature of the seizure procedure described in the search warrant, pointed out by John Young at Cryptome, is this wording:

iii. Any data that is encrypted and unreadable will not be returned unless law enforcement personnel have determined that the data is not (1) an instrumentality of the offense, (2) a fruit of the criminal activity, (3) contraband, (4) otherwise unlawfully possessed, or (5) evidence of the offense specified above.
On what legal basis can the government refuse to return a private citizen's files merely because they are encrypted?

Court Stuff

Other Materials

Besides the Reclaim Guide, an additional file from the same exit directory on Sherman Austin's site can be found here. Some files that I was not able to find in Google's cache or at www.archive.org are www.raisethefist.com/exit/1.html through 7.html. If you have these files, I'd appreciate a copy. Email preferred, but hardcopy can be mailed to:

Dr. David S. Touretzky
Computer Science Department
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, PA 15213-3891

Visit my other free speech projects: Secrets of Scientology, Gallery of CSS Descramblers, Gallery of Adobe Remedies, and Amway/Alticor/Quixtar Sucks!

"Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people... Be not intimidated, therefore, by any terrors, from publishing with the utmost freedom...nor suffer yourselves to be wheedled out of your liberty by any pretenses of politeness, delicacy, or decency. These, as they are often used, are but three different names for hypocrisy, chicanery, and cowardice." -- John Adams, 2nd president of the United States

Dave Touretzky
Last modified: Sun Apr 5 19:30:44 EDT 2009