Wired Strategies Article

Right Torpedoes Wrong
Email Article February 20, 1998  

CWD-Right Torpedoes Wrong
CyberWire Dispatch // Copyright (c) 1998 // February 1998
(originally published 2/20/98, updated 2/21/98)

Jacking in from "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't AOL" port:
by John Aravosis
CWD Special Correspondent

Washington--When Navy thugs bludgeoned Allen Schindler to death, a pathologist said his wounds were more consistent with a plane crash than a murder.  His shipmates suspected Schindler might be gay, so they beat him to a pulp -- literally.  But that was six years ago, and the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy changed everything.  Or did it?

In a landmark case that could well define the future of privacy on the Internet, a decorated submariner has charged the Navy with obtaining his confidential account information from America Online (AOL), in violation of federal wire-tap laws.  Until a federal judge's last-minute intervention, the Pentagon was using that information to discharge the sailor after 17 years of unblemished service.

This twisted tale began last Fall when Navy investigators wanted to determine if Senior Chief Timothy R. McVeigh (no relation to the Oklahoma City bomber) was the owner of an anonymous AOL member profile that they believed to be "gay."  Because the Navy could prove no connection between Senior Chief McVeigh and the unnamed profile, they called AOL.  Without a court order, search warrant, or the senior chief's consent -- and with more than a hint of subterfuge -- the Navy got AOL to easily cough up McVeigh's real name and address, linking him to the AOL profile.

The Navy thought they had the goods on McVeigh, but it was actually the other way around.  Federal Judge Stanley Sporkin intervened last month and blocked McVeigh's discharge, calling the Navy's actions a "search and destroy" mission against the sailor.  In a blistering opinion, Judge Sporkin took the Navy to task for violating "the very essence of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue."
Then he let the other shoe drop.  In using the Internet to snoop on McVeigh, the Navy had also violated electronic privacy laws.  "In these days of 'big brother,'" Sporkin wrote, "where through technology and otherwise the privacy interests of individuals from all walks of life are being ignored or marginalized, it is imperative that statutes explicitly protecting these rights be strictly observed....(t)his court finds that the Navy has gone too far."

Internal Damage Control
AOL's first response was to deny everything and kick McVeigh off the email account he was using as a lifeline to his attorneys and supporters.  After weeks of internal hand wringing and damage control strategizing, AOL finally copped to the fact that one of its employees had violated the company's own privacy guidelines.  "Human error," AOL called it. The phrase rings hollow considering the damage it has caused to a man's career.  That AOL has, to date, escaped serious repercussions is only due to the more nefarious actions of the Navy.  

Despite losing the court case, the Navy, through its Department of Justice lawyers, insists that it has a right to go on such fishing expeditions.  In court the Justice lawyer argued that because the Naval investigators did not compel AOL to divulge the information, they were absolved of any wrong-doing.  He also suggested that these criminals be forgiven because they were unfamiliar with the niceties of the law.  The Navy has no problem destroying a man's sterling career on an unfounded suspicion, but when confronted with convicted felons its heart warms over.   

Fortunately for McVeigh and for all those concerned with privacy rights on the Internet, Judge Sporkin wasn't buying the B.S. being dished out by the government's lawyers against a man whose record speaks for itself.
McVeigh was the top enlisted man on a nuclear attack sub.  He was in charge of a fighting machine and crew that could wipe out millions of lives in a flash.  A heady responsibility befitting a man called "an outstanding role model" in his latest performance review.  He is also a family man -- even made his mother move in so he could care for her after a heart attack four years ago. "He's a good kid," she says.  He is now her sole means of support.  
Then there's the Navy.  When the judge ruled this week that DOD broke the law in going after McVeigh, did the military apologize and give him his old job back?  Hardly.  Their lawyers told the judge that his ruling didn't preclude them from going after McVeigh again "if we were to get some completely separate evidence tomorrow."  Apology accepted.

McVeigh, a paragon of military efficiency and family values, has now been demoted to base librarian -- taking a $745 per month pay cut.  While a step up from last week's duty overseeing trash disposal, is this really the most efficient use of the taxpayer's 17-year investment in this man?  And more importantly, is it really fair?  
Worse yet, the air of hostility on base has become so thick that his military lawyer now accompanies McVeigh everywhere, fearing for his safety.  When the judge was informed of these concerns last week, McVeigh's superiors called the sailor in and ripped him for having the gall to suggest they were hostile.  The judge had to personally intervene with the Department of Justice to stop the hazing.

Of course, that's better than the Navy treated 22-year-old Allen Schindler.  His murderers said they were out to "have some fun" the night he died.  The Chicago Tribune described the scene: "Fun means different things to different people.  Schindler was beaten so severely he was unrecognizable.  He had no nose. His eyes were on the sides of his head. His liver looked like tomato pulp.  Other organs were bruised, torn, cut, ripped and lacerated. There were sneaker tread marks on his face and body."  Schindler's killers explained that hating gays "was bred into you as soon as you got to boot camp."

Perhaps the saddest irony is that the Navy has institutionalized hatred against a man who embodies their highest values.  He doesn't swear, quotes Mother Teresa, and got involved in this mess while organizing a toy drive for Christmas.  On his Web site he writes: "I have been trained to be a leader, fair and by the book.  And if the Navy wants to throw the book and fairness out, I will still go by the book and in human fairness lead the fight against them for the benefit of all."

Think about it.  The Navy came in, shafted this guy, and rather than make amends, now treats him like scum.  The only thing "queer" about Timothy McVeigh is his desire to go back there at all. -----------------------------------------------
John Aravosis < john@wiredstrategies.com > is a lawyer and Internet 
consultant in Washington, DC, and is working as an online adviser to Senior 
Chief McVeigh.


[Home] [Clients] [Services] [Our Qualifications] [International] [Cyber-Advocacy Tips] [Kudos] [Contact Us]