One day after being detained at the Canadian border trying to enter Washington State, Jacob Appelbaum jokes about writing the first Yelp reviews of all of our nation's airport detention areas. "Two thumbs up my ass," he quips, referring to the invasive welcome he gets every time he reenters the country.
But Appelbaum's bravado belies an angst that might seem paranoid if it weren't justified. The 28-year-old University of Washington researcher recently earned notoriety as the American face of WikiLeaks, and with it the ire of US government officials eager to punish somebody—anybody—for last year's leak of embarrassing helicopter footage and massive dump of diplomatic cables. The harassment is beginning to take its intended toll.
"In the middle of the night, when I hear a noise, I have to ask myself, 'Is this it? Do they have guns? Do I accidentally get shot?'" Only this time, Appelbaum's not joking.
One of only five persons named in a controversial Department of Justice subpoena and national security letter demanding that Twitter provide identifying information on more than 600,000 followers of WikiLeaks, Appelbaum has every reason to fear the worst. WikiLeaks editor in chief Julian Assange is already under house arrest in Britain, awaiting extradition to Sweden, while accused whistle-blower Bradley Manning is being held in solitary confinement at the Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Virginia. "You don't look like you're going to do so well in prison," Appelbaum says a US Army interrogator taunted him during his first detainment, implying that he would soon meet a similar fate.
"To me, they are a clear and present danger to America," Representative Peter King (R-NY), chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said of WikiLeaks members on WNIS radio in November. King urged the State Department to declare WikiLeaks a "foreign terrorist organization... By doing that, we will be able to seize their funds and go after anyone who provides them with any help or contributions or assistance whatsoever."
Although he volunteered for WikiLeaks for a couple of years as a data-security and anonymity expert, Appelbaum's troubles began only last August, shortly after delivering a keynote address on Assange's behalf at the Hackers on Planet Earth conference in New York. Two weeks later, when he was flying into Newark from a conference in Berlin, customs agents met him at the plane and detained him for "random" screening. Appelbaum was thoroughly frisked ("They actually put on the gloves and felt my testicles," he says) and his belongings were searched, his receipts photocopied, and his laptop and three cell phones seized. Then he was handed over to a US Army official for further questioning. It's a cliché to describe a run-in with government bureaucrats as "Kafkaesque," but when people from the government tell you that they're handing you over to agents they describe as "people from the government," that qualifies.
Four hours later, after being questioned about everything from Assange's whereabouts to his own opinions on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—and after being denied access to a lawyer, a phone call, and a restroom—Appelbaum was finally released. But like the army official promised, this is now his life, and the same routine of humiliation and intimidation is repeated every time he crosses the border, something Appelbaum does frequently in his part-time job as a developer and evangelist for the Tor Project, an open-source routing network used by dissidents worldwide to shield their online identity from oppressive regimes. (In one of the many ironies surrounding Appelbaum's predicament, Tor—which brought him to WikiLeaks, and which preserves the anonymity of WikiLeaks contributors—was originally funded by US government research grants.)
The latest incident occurred on March 30, when Appelbaum was detained for hours by US customs officials in the prescreening area of the Toronto airport as he attempted to catch a flight back to Seattle. Nobody would tell him why he was being held. Nobody seemed interested in letting him catch his flight. He missed it. Appelbaum eventually booked a flight to Vancouver, BC, rented a car, and attempted to drive across the border. Not surprisingly, he was again detained, again denied a phone call, and again denied the use of a restroom.
"It's total fucking bullshit," Appelbaum vents. "They can make you miss your flight and piss your pants, and treat you like a criminal."
As for what's next, Appelbaum can only speculate. The Twitter subpoena is secret, so he has no idea what, if any, crimes have been alleged, and the border agents consistently refuse to explain why he's being detained, though they assure him it's serious.
What he does know is that his life is not going to get easier anytime soon. Once you fall into the system—the system he's spent his career helping others avoid—there's no recourse, he laments.
"You always lose."