1997-07-21 - Jim Bell: “IRS Inspection” mail confirmed, IU article

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From: Declan McCullagh <declan@well.com>
To: Alan <alano@teleport.com>
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Message ID: <v03007801aff94d1165ce@[]>
Reply To: <Pine.GSO.3.96.970718155454.22939J-100000@linda.teleport.com>
UTC Datetime: 1997-07-21 17:47:45 UTC
Raw Date: Tue, 22 Jul 1997 01:47:45 +0800

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From: Declan McCullagh <declan@well.com>
Date: Tue, 22 Jul 1997 01:47:45 +0800
To: Alan <alano@teleport.com>
Subject: Jim Bell: "IRS Inspection" mail confirmed, IU article
In-Reply-To: <Pine.GSO.3.96.970718155454.22939J-100000@linda.teleport.com>
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I just spoke with Peter Avenia, a Federal public defender representing Jim
Bell. He said that Bell did indeed plead guilty last Friday to two felony
counts and sentencing is set for October. Apparently at least the thrust of
this "IRS Inspection" press release is accurate.

Avenia knew nothing about it, though.


PS: I'm attaching an excerpt from my IU article in this month's issue.



Internet Underground
July 1997

Assassination Politics

Jim Bell wants to overthrow the government. He'll
have to get out of jail first.

By Declan McCullagh (declan@well.com)


IRS agents arrested Bell on May 16 and charged
him with obstructing government employees and
using false Social Security numbers. Now, this is
hardly attempting "to overthrow the government."
But government agents insist Bell is far more
dangerous than the charges suggest. (The judge
seemed to agree: at the time of this writing,
Bell is being held without bail.)

The latest IRS documents filed with the court
label Bell a terrorist. They claim he talked
about sabotaging the computers in Portland,
Oregon's 911 center, contaminating a local water
supply with a botulism toxin, extracting a poison
called Ricin from castor beans, and manufacturing
Sarin nerve gas. He allegedly bought and tested
some of the chemicals. "Bell has taken overt
steps to implement his overall plan by devising,
obtaining, and testing the materials needed to
carry out attacks against the United States,
including chemicals, nerve agents, destructive
carbon fibers, firearms, and explosives," the
complaint says.

But what really got the IRS in a stink was what
happened a month after they seized Bell's car.
The complaint says: "On March 16, 1997, a Sunday,
an IRS employee noted a strong odor in the
Federal building. On March 17, 1997, several IRS
employees had to be placed on leave due to the
odor, and another employee reported other ill
effects. The odor was traced to a mat and
carpeting... just outside the IRS office
entrance." The chemical proved to be "mercaptan,"
with which Bell's friends say he doused
an adversary's law office in the early 1980s.

Yet if Bell was a crypto-terrorist, he was a
singularly idle one. This is a problem with the
IRS' accusations: if true, they prove too much.
If Bell was bent on toppling the government, and
his exploits date back from the early 1980s, why
are they such laughably juvenile and ineffectual
ones? Stink-bombing offices isn't a Federal
felony, nor should it be.

"I would've thought this would be 'malicious
mischief,' at most," Tim May, one of the founders
of the cypherpunks, writes. "People who've done
far, far, far worse are left unprosecuted in
every major jurisdiction in this country. The
meat thrown to the media -- the usual AP stuff,
mixed in with 'radical libertarian' descriptions
-- is just to make the case more
media-interesting... It sure looks like they're
trying to throw a bunch of charges against the
wall and hope that some of them stick -- or scare
Bell into pleading to a lesser charge."

Since his arrest, the denizens of the cypherpunks
list, where Bell introduced and refined his
ideas, have become generally sympathetic. Gone is
the snarling derision, the attacks on his ideas
as too extreme. Now a sense of solidarity has
emerged. One 'punk wrote: "I have decided that I
cannot in good conscience allow Jim Bell's
persecution for exercising his basic human right
to free speech to pass by without taking personal
action to support him."


When I talked to Bell a few days before his
arrest, he spoke calmly and with little rancor
about the pending investigation. I couldn't tell
how he felt after being raided and interrogated
by his arch-enemy, the IRS. But imagine
continuously railing on the Net against
jackbooted thugs, then having real ones bash down
your front door.

Bell was most interested in talking up
Assassination Politics and predicting how it
would eventually blossom. He had just published
an op-ed in a local newspaper saying "the whole
corrupt system" could be stopped. "Whatever my
idea is, it's not silly. There are a lot of
adjectives you can use, but not silly," he told
me. "I feel that the mere fact of having such a
debate will cause people to realize that they no
longer have to tolerate the governments they
previously had to tolerate. At that point I think
politicians will slink away like they did in
eastern Europe in 1989. They'll have lost the

He told me why he became convinced that the
government needed to be lopped off at the knees.
Bell's epiphany came after he ordered a chemical
from a supply firm and was arrested when he
failed to follow EPA regulations. "That
radicalized me," he said. "That pissed me off. I
figured I'd get back at them by taking down their
entire system. That's how I'd do it."'

Moral issues aside, one of the problems plaguing
Bell's scheme is that it's not limited to
eliminating "government thugs who violate your
rights," as he likes to describe it. If it
existed, anyone with some spare change could wipe
out a nosy neighbor or even an irritating grocery
store clerk. After I pointed this out to Bell on
the phone, he fired email back a few days later
saying, "Assuming a functioning Assassination
Politics system, nothing stops you from
contributing to my death." He suggested that
maybe assassins would develop scruples: "You'd
be able to purchase deaths of unworthy people,
but it might be only at a dramatically higher
price. Doable but not particularly economical."


Consider the case of Jake Baker, the University
of Michigan student who was arrested after
posting fantasies to Usenet about raping and
killing a classmate. A Federal judge eventually
threw out the charges, ruling Baker never
intended to act and the tale was "only a rather
savage and tasteless piece of fiction."

The government argues Bell intends to act. Their
court documents sketch a dark outline of a
computer geek increasingly distressed by and
disillusioned with society. He becomes
rebellious, anarchistic. But being an anarchist
isn't a crime; I've even dated one. Nor is it
against the law to bash the IRS. Some Republican
legislators make a career out of it. Even
collecting the home numbers of Federal employees
isn't a crime. What is against the law is when
speech becomes action, when online bravado
crosses the line and becomes direct threats -- or
a vial of botulism, on its way to a nearby

Which is the real question: Did Bell step beyond
mailing list posturing? Is he just fantasizing?
Did he intend to take real-world steps to erase
some Feds, or were his posts just megabytes of
bone-chilling blather? The IRS says it has
evidence of Bell's lethal intent but many
netizens who know Bell believe he's only a
harmless loon.

The Supreme Court has ruled that speech can be
suppressed only if it is intended, and is likely
to produce, "imminent lawless action." Since
Bell's manuscripts have drifted around the dusty
corners of cyberspace for years -- to no
discernible effect -- a prosecutor will be
hard-pressed to argue they're dangerous. Eric
Freedman, a constitutional law professor at
Hofstra Law School, says that Bell's writings are
protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme
Court's legal test "is not going to be met where
someone writes a speculative essay about what the
world would be like if such a system were in
place," he says.

Bell now faces a Federal grand jury and a
possible trial. "There are a lot of insinuations
and innuendo in the complaint but not a whole lot
of hard core criminal activity," says Peter
Avenia, a Federal public defender representing
Bell. "If you read the complaint and listen to
the testimony at the hearing, the government's
clearly concerned that Jim Bell may have been
planning to do any number of things. But when it
came down to showing any clear danger, the most
they could come up with is that they think he
might be involved in planning a stink bomb. It's
difficult to untangle the fear and hype from
what's going on."

Declan McCullagh
Time Inc.
The Netly News Network
Washington Correspondent