The Justice Department has agreed to brief a House committee on its decision to prosecute Aaron Swartz, an Internet activist who committed suicide Jan. 11, on computer hacking charges, the panel’s chairman said.
Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said yesterday the Justice Department had pledged to give the panel’s members a closed briefing on the case against Swartz.
At the time of his death, Swartz was facing an April trial in Boston federal court on 13 felony charges. He is alleged to have hacked into a Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer and downloaded millions of files from JSTOR, an online library of scientific and scholarly articles, according to a Jan. 28 committee letter to Attorney General Eric Holder requesting the briefing.
“It will be a closed briefing,” said Issa, a California Republican. “Obviously there are some potential sensitivities they are concerned about.”
The Justice Department hasn’t set a date for the briefing, Issa said in an interview. “I am expecting to get line prosecutors” to brief members because “we want the technical-team details” including comparable penalties in other cases. Issa said he would await the results of the briefing to determine whether a public hearing is needed.
In a letter to Holder, Issa and Maryland Representative Elijah Cummings, the panel’s top Democrat, asked the Justice Department to explain the factors that figured in the decision by the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston to charge Swartz.
The lawmakers also asked whether Swartz’s opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act “or his association with any advocacy groups among the factors considered” in deciding to bring the case. The legislation was shelved last year after a global online protest led by Google Inc. eroded congressional support.
Swartz, 26, co-founded the news and information site Reddit, as well as Demand Progress, a group that advocated against Internet piracy bills.
Issa said he is considering “possible legislation to divine the difference between the person who steals our Social Security numbers” and “the person who simply finds out they can get information in excess of what they were authorized to in a college system.”
Swartz, Issa said, “appears to fit that last category at least in some part.”
In a statement following Swartz’s death, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz defended the case, saying prosecutors’ “conduct was appropriate in bringing and handling this case.”
“The prosecutors recognized that there was no evidence against Mr. Swartz indicating that he committed his acts for personal financial gain” so that it didn’t “warrant the severe punishments authorized by Congress” for such offenses, Ortiz said.
Ortiz disclosed that prosecutors had offered to recommend a six-month sentence as part of plea negotiations.