No place for a paranoid: RIPA, Abbie Hoffman, and other books of bomb-making

It’s a story you’ll struggle to find on any mainstream news service, so thank goodness that technologists tend to be generally liberal and sane as well as technologically knowledgeable and proficient.

The Register has a long report on ‘JFL’, the first person jailed under draconian UK police powers that Ministers said were vital to battle terrorism and serious crime. And he’s a schizophrenic science hobbyist with no previous criminal record.

There are a number of complications, and while it’s possible to read the entire history of the case (which you should) as the hounding of one man by security forces bent on conviction, whose prosecution finally succeeded only on the basis of the accused trying to avoid such harassment, we’re aware that the police are unlikely to simply walk away from a man behaving shiftily while bearing traces of high explosive; to do nothing was never going to be an option.

It’s the methods used, and the inferences drawn, that concern us. JFL was allegedly told, pursuant to demands that he hand over the keys to encrypted computer files, that: “There could be child pornography, there could be bomb-making recipes… Unless you tell us we’re never gonna know… What is anybody gonna think?” The presumption of innocence was a long way off.

The fact is, there were bomb-making recipes, and not in the computer files: the judgement also took into account a number of books in JFL’s possession: “on gun manufacture, a book on methamphetamine production and an encryption textbook” – all, apparently, available from Amazon. (We don’t know what they are, but this, this and this would all fit the bill – covers below.)

The Uncle Fester books in particular (Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture, above centre) have a long and dodgy history. A pseudonym of Steve Preisler, whose other publications include Silent Death (describing routes for manufacturing nerve gases) and Bloody Brazilian Knife Fightin’ Techniques – Fester and his publisher, the much-missed Loompanics, faced many legal challenges over the years, frequently cited in court cases. In 2007, a Denver bookstore successfully fought a court order to turn over purchaser details for one of Loompanic’s Fester titles.

The other book quoted in the Register article is Abbie Hoffman’s seminal Steal This Book, which the judge in JFL’s case described as “a book that detailed how to make a pipe bomb”. It does indeed – as you can see from this online version (Steal This eBook?) – although it also includes advice on starting a pirate radio station, living in a commune, preparing a legal defense, and obtaining a free buffalo from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Hoffman’s work too has a long history of controversy – not least frequent wrangling with bookstores unhappy that their copies kept going missing.

In the Legal Advice section of Steal This Book, Hoffman gives the following advice to those who find themselves in custody:

Any discussion about what to do while waiting for the lawyer has to be qualified by pointing out that from the moment of arrest through the court appearances, cops tend to disregard a defendant’s rights. Nonetheless, you should play it according to the book whenever possible as you might get your case bounced out on a technicality. When you get busted, rule number one is that you have the right to remain silent. We advise that you give only your name and address. There is a legal dispute about whether or not you are obligated under the law to do even that, but most lawyers feel you should.

It’s a shame to see that a book derided in JFL’s court has as much relevance today as it did in 1971. The defendant’s right to silence was the core liberty overridden by Part III of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) which came into force at the beginning of October 2007, nominally aimed – of course – at terrorism, but employed in this case despite the fact that all suspicion of terrorism was dropped long before trial and JFL was sentenced under RIPA Part III “as a general criminal rather than a threat to national security”. Furthermore, the judge diverted from normal court procedures because, he said, “I was satisfied you would not tell the Probation Service anything significant further that I saw no purpose in obtaining a pre-sentence report which is normally a prerequisite for someone of no previous convictions who has not previously received a prison sentence.” Such reports would have done much to explain JFL’s behaviour.

Hoffman would be unsurprised.

Posted November 24, 2009 by James Bridle. Comments (1)

1 Comment

  1. CTC, Counter Terrorism Command (SO-15) of New Scotland Yard, IMHO extremely underworked Jack Bauer wannabes, stole the book ‘Steal This Book’. They also stole *_every_item_* that I had in my home and office. From my kitchen scales to my bathroom scales and even the ($600) shirt from my back. Eight months later they provided a receipt and they are due to give most of them back next week, supposedly.

    Good guess on the books. They were the Uncle Fester, the how to make a gun / how the most powerful historical tool of man works book and AES by Daemen & Rijmen. Also not mentioned were a copy of the Wilhelm & Baynes I Ching (Yi Jing), an Usbourne book on trees and others.

    If I may, I’d say the Right to be Silent and the Fifth Ammendment to the US Constitution did simply explain my choices.

    Another way to describe myself is as a computer scientist, my small business is in Sunnyvale in Silicon Valley, with a clear, sane mind, if a litte frayed after my nine months of imprisonment.

    My book about my experience entitled ‘Bit’ is in the writing now.

    # by JFL, November 27, 2009

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