The Justice Department filed a notice of appeal March 31 on behalf of the US Navy, indicating it would appeal the cyber-snooping case of decorated sailor Timothy R. McVeigh, according to press sources. Advocates fear the government's move to be part of a concerted strategy to enshrine its ability to spy on American citizens using the Internet.
McVeigh's plight gained international attention earlier this year after the Navy announced its intentions to discharge the 17-year veteran based on illegally-obtained evidence suggesting he might be gay. Federal Judge Stanley Sporkin, a Reagan appointee, ruled against the Navy on January 29th, 1998, finding that DOD investigators violated federal wire-tap law (the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, or ECPA) and the President's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in seeking and obtaining Mr. McVeigh's confidential email account information from America Online by subterfuge, and without a court order.
Online advocates said the Navy appeal was off-base. "The Navy got caught red-handed, and rather than make amends, continues to attack," said John Aravosis, a lawyer and online political consultant advising Senior Chief McVeigh on his case. "This guy is a decorated American sailor, and they're treating him like Saddam Hussein." Senior Chief McVeigh was the top enlisted man on the nuclear attack submarine USS Chicago, but as a result of the case has been relegated to odd-jobs such as trash disposal and librarian duties, while facing a $450 per month cut in pay.
McVeigh's defenders are growing increasingly surprised by the ill-will shown by the Clinton Administration in this battle. In court last week, David Glass, the Department of Justice attorney representing the Clinton Administration, said the Navy had no intent to return the Senior Chief to his former submarine job due to concerns about "the notoriety of the case" and "the confined conditions aboard a submarine."
Aravosis commented on the Navy's latest arguments concerning the notoriety of McVeigh's case. "The public was justifiably outraged that the Navy broke the law, and now the military is using that outrage as an excuse to punish McVeigh. Senior Chief McVeigh has spent his entire adult life in the Navy, and this is the thanks he gets. There is no honor in trying to gratuitously destroy the career of a decorated American."
"As for the 'confined conditions on a submarine,' I would hope the Clinton Administration would think twice before making such blatantly homophobic arguments in federal court," Aravosis continued. "The simple fact is that the Navy broke the law, and Senior Chief McVeigh has been exonerated. He has served his country honorably for 17 years and deserves an apology not an appeal."
Advocates also expressed concern that the Navy appeal could signal an Administration desire to preserve its options to use new technology to eavesdrop on US citizens. "The government wants to use the Internet, computers, telephones and other new technology to spy on American citizens," said Aravosis. "McVeigh's case is a threat to that effort, and the Administration is going to silence him any way they can. This case is a terrible precedent for the civil liberties of all Americans."
Today's move in court could spell trouble for the Administration's credibility in the upcoming encryption battle. "The Administration can't say 'trust us, we won't use computers to spy on Americans,' and then go to court and defend such spying. That kind of hypocrisy may work in Washington, but it doesn't fly in Peoria," said Aravosis. "The simple truth is that this Administration can't be trusted with our cyber-liberties."