Back in 2010, MIT researcher David House was working to raise legal funds for WikiLeaks suspect Bradley Manning. For his efforts, it seems that House’s name was placed on a watch list database alongside suspected terrorists and criminals.
After returning from a vacation in Mexico in late 2010, House arrived at a Chicago airport to board a flight back to Boston. But the then 23-year-old activist, who helped set up the Bradley Manning Support Network, was detained by Homeland Security officials who, without a warrant, confiscated his laptop, video camera, cellphone, and USB drive. House was interrogated about whether he had any connection to WikiLeaks and quizzed about his relationship with Manning, the Army private accused of leaking thousands of classified government documents.
The incident prompted House to launch legal action in the district court against the government for violations of his constitutional rights. He alleged that he had been specifically targeted for his political beliefs and activism, accusing the DHS of violating both the First and Fourth Amendments by confiscating his laptop and other devices, which were held by the authorities for 49 days before they were returned by mail. The government countered in a motion to dismiss that there were no “factual allegations” showing that House had been targeted because of his work with the Manning support group. Furthermore, the government said, performing a “routine search” of his electronic devices without a warrant should not be a problem because doing so wouldn’t “impede the future activities” of the Bradley Manning Support Network.
Last week, however, House won a significant victory in the case. With the help of the ACLU, he reached a settlement with the government, which agreed to destroy all of the data it obtained from his laptop and other devices when they were first confiscated. Notably, the government also acknowledged as part of the settlement that House was on a Homeland Security watch list database called “TECS Lookout.” According to government guidance, the lookout system is supposed to flag people who enter the United States who are deemed of law enforcement interest. It features the names of drug smugglers, criminals, and suspected terrorists—reportedly among them until recently was Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the deceased Boston Marathon bombings suspect.
That House’s name appeared on this database, in all likelihood as a direct result of his lawful political activism, is a stark illustration of the extreme nature of the U.S. government’s aggressive pursuit of anyone remotely associated to WikiLeaks—and comes at a time when even President Obama has expressed concern about the potential “over reach” of leak investigations. House’s appearance on the TECS list also discredits the government’s previous attempts to play down and dismiss the suggestion that he was specifically targeted for his politics and role with the Manning support group. If there were any other, legitimate reason for monitoring him, the government would almost certainly have disclosed it during the case.
As part of the settlement, the government agreed that it would make sure House’s name would no longer be “routinely accessible to customs officers" on the watch list. But it also made sure to inform him that he “may continue to be subject to lawful searches and inspections” and said that the settlement was not “an admission or presumption of wrongdoing.” House, of course, doesn’t agree—and he’s celebrating a triumph.
“The government's surrender of this data is a victory through vital action not only for the citizens put at risk,” he said in a statement, “but also for anyone who believes that Americans should be free to support political causes without fearing retaliation from Washington.”