When an institution as subversive as WikiLeaks has two of its three founding developers commit suicide in a roughly five-year span, it’s inevitable that the conspiracy theorist crowd will immediately assume the worst. However, both the case of Aaron Swartz and James Dolan, who was reported dead Tuesday, are deaths for which suicide are a plausible means. They are far from the most suspicious cases of alleged suicide that have ties to high-ranking American politics, even considering that WikiLeaks is perhaps the greatest threat to corrupt politicians and questionable government practices today.
Dolan’s death will gain more traction in the conspiracy theorist community because of Swartz’s own suicide on January 11, 2013. Swartz, the co-founder of Reddit who worked with Dolan in developing SecureDrop, ‘an open-source whistleblower submission system that media organizations can use to securely accept documents from and communicate with anonymous sources’ and the primary tool which allows WikiLeaks to exist, was an advocate for complete freedom of information on the internet. This advocacy inspired him to illegally download 4.8 million academic articles from JSTOR, a service for which access is paid for, typically by universities. Subsequent to being caught on camera retrieving and switching out the laptops onto which the JSTOR files were being downloaded in an MIT wiring closet, Swartz was arrested by MIT police and a Secret Service agent and eventually charged by federal prosecutors with thirteen felony counts for which maximum punishment would be 50 years imprisonment and up to $1 million in fines.
It is nearly impossible to ignore the obvious connection between this seemingly inordinate punishment and Swartz’s open rebellion against restricted internet access and the government itself. His story was told graphically in the documentary The Internet’s Own Boy, a format in which Swartz’s increasing and understandable despair and jadedness in the time leading up to his trial – a two-year period in which plea deal negotiations made clear he would not be receiving a slap on the wrist under any circumstance – becomes even more evident.
The prospect of imprisonment is daunting for anybody, but for a hyper-intelligent, wealthy, scrawny 26-year-old who had lived in comfort for his entire life, an inevitable future behind bars is a more than plausible explanation for suicide. The government’s zeal in making an example of one of the men who had allowed whistleblowers a safe forum to provide evidence of what they saw as abuses of power is what led Swartz’s father and girlfriend to conclude that the DOJ had an indirect hand in Swartz’s death. His father went so far as to assert that Swartz was “killed by the government”. The father of the internet, Tim Berners Lee, agreed that Swartz was being punished for actions aside from the downloading of JSTOR files, a service for which he had access through a Harvard account.
"We felt the indictment was nonsense and that he would be acquitted," Berners Lee told the Telegraph after speaking at Swartz’s funeral service.
Still, there was little of the ‘staged suicide’ talk that often comes with conspiracy theories. Swartz wrote a blog post that overtly hinted at his fate, and at least one person close to Swartz cites his ulcerative colitis as a potentially compounding reason for Swartz’s ultimate decision. Still, there was little to dig into when it comes to conspiracy theories, other than the exposure of how vehemently the federal government loathes whistleblowers, particularly those with the most power and reach and especially those with connections to WikiLeaks.
The government cites its own statutes in defending its actions, with a presidentially-appointed prosecutor who oversaw the case maintaining in the wake of Aaron Swartz’s suicide by hanging that the prosecution “was appropriate”, even “generous”, under the guidelines of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. In another clear message, the government refused to consider firing the prosecutors involved in the case nearly two years after petitions to do so garnered 61,000 signatures, an amount astronomically higher than the 25,000 needed to review petitions at the time.
"We will not address agency personnel matters in a petition response,"the White House wrote in its official response, "because we do not believe this is the appropriate forum in which to do so."
A later Atlantic report stated that lead prosecutor Stephen Haymann allegedly "failed to timely disclose exculpatory evidence relevant to Mr. Swartz's pending motion to suppress,” and "misrepresented to the Court the extent of the federal government's involvement in the investigation into Mr. Swartz's conduct prior to the application for certain search warrants," serious charges which make the prosecutors look even more villainous to those who saw the entire case as overzealous.
So, while nobody is credibly maintaining that anybody but Aaron Swartz had a direct hand in his suicide, the impression that the federal government would go to great lengths – potentially unethical lengths – to unduly punish those who blow the whistle on its activities – especially those which are meant to remain most secretive – has only been fortified in the years following Swartz’s death.
Which brings us to Wednesday’s announcement that James Dolan became the second of the StrongBox trio – which included Swartz and Wired editor Kevin Poulsen – to commit suicide. Dolan, a 36-year-old former Marine who was said to suffer symptoms related to PTSD, was portrayed in a 2013 New Yorker article as instrumental in the mainstream-ification of the StrongBox technology.
‘In New York, a computer-security expert named James Dolan persuaded a trio of his industry colleagues to meet with Aaron to review the architecture and, later, the code. We wanted to be reasonably confident that the system wouldn’t be compromised, and that sources would be able to submit documents anonymously—so that even the media outlets receiving the materials wouldn’t be able to tell the government where they came from. James wrote an obsessively detailed step-by-step security guide for organizations implementing the code. “He goes a little overboard,” Aaron said in an e-mail, “but maybe that’s not a bad thing.”’
Again, it cannot be overstated that this StrongBox, which served as the basis for SecureDrop, is what allows for WikiLeaks and countless anonymous articles published in major media outlets to be. After Swartz’s death Dolan was reportedly the only person who could allow the SecureDrop project to continue any evolution it may require.
“At that point, James was literally the only person in the world who knew all the ins and outs of the system, how to install it, and how to make it better.” (Freedom of the Press Foundation)
And, according to FPF, Dolan sacrificed a lucrative job and a far less taxing life to dedicate himself to SecureDrop’s evolution and proliferation.
‘He had a high-paying computer security job at a large company by then, but I asked him if he’d be willing to come work for us so we could try to get SecureDrop into more newsrooms. We had hardly any money at the time, yet he immediately agreed—even though it meant taking an 80% pay cut. (Later, he would even refuse to accept a raise, insisting that we use any new funding to hire additional people to work on the project instead.)’
His critical role in any potential further development of SecureDrop, even though he had left his job with the Freedom of the Press Foundation in August 2015, makes his death the ripe target for conspiracy theorists. But – and many would respond by saying “see, that’s exactly what they would want you to think – it’s true that there is much plausibility to Dolan’s suicide being precisely as it appears. With recent studies finding that 20 war veterans commit suicide per day, any choice a veteran makes to end their life should not be overthought. What war does to a person’s psyche is irreparable, and mere civilians are facile in attempting to understand post-war rationale.
‘We don’t know why James took his own life; we do know, however, he long suffered from PTSD from his time serving in the Marines during the Iraq War. It was an experience that affected him in multiple ways. He often cited the Iraq War as his inspiration for wanting to help journalists and whistleblowers; it made him realize governments needed to be much more transparent and accountable.’ (FPF)
On top of this, Dolan had chosen to take on a role in the technological realm that made him a prime target for those who he helped to expose, and certainly endured additional hardship that he didn’t need nor want, but felt an obligation to take on. Like a true soldier, he never once took credit nor acknowledged how critical to the mission of SecureDrop he truly was.
‘Beyond a couple references on our website, that New Yorker story is virtually all that is in the public domain about James’s involvement in the project—and that’s how he preferred it. James was an intensely private and modest person, and despite the fact the SecureDrop soon got a lot of attention when Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) took the project over, he constantly insisted that Aaron deserved all the credit.’ (FPF)
While it may be easy for some to draw conspiratorial lines between Swartz and Dolan’s suicides and the creation of StrongBox and SecureDrop, which have allowed for anonymous whistleblowing and the elevation of WikiLeaks into the public consciousness, at this point such conspiracies are unfounded. Indirectly, government pressure on whistleblowers and those who facilitate them certainly heightens the pressure and strain that could eventually lead to suicide, but to make any logical leap beyond external pressure is to make an unsubstantiated claim.
Fortunately for the public, SecureDrop does exist, though if it is somehow dismantled – a possibility which I lack the expertise to either confirm or deny the possibility of – then the world has perhaps lost the man intelligent and brave enough to resurrect it. Both the death and this loss of immense potential are tragedies of epic proportions.