Jacking in from the "Cough It Up" Port:
Washington, DC -- A recent ruling in federal district court here could hold the key that finally unlocks a bizarre, two-year-old mystery that blends a questionable search and seizure incident, a group of young hackers, the Secret Service, a public mall, Santa Claus and cheese fries with all the subtlety of an industrial grade blender.
On July 1, U.S. District Judge Louis Oberdorfer kicked the slats out of a year old attempt by the Secret Service to keep secret documents that detail its involvement in the November 1992 "Pentagon City Mall Raid," an incident in which about 30 young hackers were rounded up, detained and their person's searched with no explanation or purpose.
The judge ordered the documents turned over to the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), which brought suit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) under its former affiliation, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.
This quiet court drama hinges on something called the "Johnson Factor," which has all the elements of a spy novel: Cunning, intrigue, and the fate of a community hanging in the balance.
The "Johnson Factor" is so-named for then mall security director, Al Johnson. The day after the incident took place, Communications Daily, an industry trade publication, broke the story of the Secret Service involvement after interviewing Johnson -- on tape -- in which he admitted that the Secret Service "ramrodded this whole thing."
The Secret Service, then and now, continues to deny any involvement in the incident. The EPIC suit and Judge Oberdorfer's ruling combine to turn over the rock under which the agency has been stashing its thinly veiled deception.
The Judge writes in his memorandum ordering the Secret Service to cough up the documents that the agency "has failed to demonstrate that the release of each of the documents it has withheld would interfere with the ongoing investigation" in any way.
The Secret Service has steadfastly refused to discuss the issue of whether or not an investigation of any kind involving one of the 2600 members was underway at the time the incident occurred.
The judge's memo continues: The Secret Service's "public filings state that the investigation involves allegations made by a private corporation of telephone fraud... Thus, [the agency] cannot fear the possibility that release of the withheld documents might reveal [its] involvement in this type of investigation."
The judge made these decisions after reviewing some 50-plus pages of "in camera" documents submitted by the Secret Service. These are documents that can only be viewed by the judge because they reportedly hold damaging information.
"Usually these in camera documents are filled with horror stories about the damage that could be done if the documents they protect are released," said David Sobel, EPIC's legal bulldog. Sobel filed papers asking the judge to let him see the in camera documents. "No chance," was essentially the judge's decision on that request. Still, Sobel says the overall order is a very good sign.
"I think it's significant that the judge didn't buy it... the argument that no documents could be released," Sobel said. Usually, such secret background papers equal a cakewalk for the government bluebloods, with judges ruling overwhelmingly in their favor, Sobel said.
Another section of the judge's memo on his ruling opens up yet another gaping wound in the Secret Service claim that they weren't involved: "[T]he fact that the documents at issue are responsive to [EPIC's] FOIA request indicates that those documents concern the breakup of the November 6, 1992 meeting at Pentagon City. Thus, [the agency] cannot claim... to withhold documents based on the possibility that the documents would reveal that investigators were interested in that meeting."
Those pale faces you see are from the Secret Service as they watch their denial being chewed away in great hunks like so many wounded tuna in the middle of shark feeding frenzy.
Although the Secret Service claims to be withholding some eight documents because their release could compromise "confidential sources," in reality, they may be jealously trying to guard themselves from a civil lawsuit.
This two-year old incident turns on the events surrounding an evening "raid" on a monthly "2600 Meeting." Such meetings -- held every month throughout the U.S. ---bring together young hackers, which are loosely identified under the banner of the 2600 moniker, the name of a hacker's magazine. Activities at these meetings include such hijinks as swapping hacking stories, insults and swiping each other's cheese fries. You see, the Pentagon City 2600 meeting isn't held in the bleak bowels of the mall's concrete infrastructure. Rather, it's held in the most open, public space available: The food court.
Shortly after 6 p.m. when the meeting started that November, the mall security guards closed in on the group from all sides, segregating them from other mall patrons with all the deftness of novice cowpokes cutting "little dawgies" from a herd. The kids were told "don't move" as their names were taken, packages, backpacks and other personal belongings were searched. No authorization nor explanation for the detention and search was given by the security guards. They refused to answer any of the kid's questions.
According the "Johnson Factor," the Secret Service pressed the mall security guards into action to do their bidding, a move that contains its own legal tumbleweed. The unwarranted search and seizure of property raises the specter of civil rights violations under the 4th amendment.
A month after the original incident, a reporter attended the December 2600 meeting at Pentagon City. The reporter repeatedly questioned a man associated with the mall about the incident. The man, who at several different intervals identified himself as "a store employee"; "the person responsible for the food court"; a person "who just wants to make sure the shoppers have a good time"; and finally "Santa Claus" eventually had the reporter physically removed from the mall under threat of arrest. The man was later identified as the mall's operation's manager.
The mall management to this day refuses to discuss the raid.
EPIC's Sobel declined to speculate what the Secret Service's next move would be. However, by law they have 60 days to file an appeal. The clock's ticking.