Following a White House petition and various opinions asserting that the U.S. Department of Justice overreached in its prosecution of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, members of Congress are coming forward to call for answers (as well as get in a few jabs at the Obama administration).
Senator and Republican Minority Whip John Cornyn wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder submitting a variety of queries about the case, including the question of whether or not attorneys intended to "make an example" out of Swartz. Noting that the organization Swartz actually stole from, JSTOR, declined to press charges, Cornyn asked a number of pointed questions suggesting dubious motives for those helming the case.
"Was the prosecution of Mr. Swartz in any way retaliation for his exercise of his rights as a citizen under the Freedom of Information?" asked Cornyn.
"On what basis did the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts conclude that her office's conduct was 'appropriate?'
Despite JSTOR's lack of support for the case, lawyers charged Swartz with crimes that could've potentially led to 35 years in prison as well as a $1 million fine. On top of that, the Justice Department issued an indictment that raised the potential for even more time behind bars.
Cornyn is the first Senator to officially question the prosecution's intent, though another Republican in the House of Representatives began an investigation of the Justice Department on Jan. 15. Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said that although he did not condone Swartz' actions, "had he [Swartz] been a journalist and taken that same material that he gained from MIT, he would have been praised for it. It would have been like the Pentagon Papers."
Issa said he didn't know enough details to say whether or not the charges filed by U.S. attorneys went too far, but he sounded skeptical.
"I'll make a risky statement here: Overprosecution is a tool often used to get people to plead guilty rather than risk sentencing," he said. "It is a tool of question. If someone is genuinely guilty of something and you bring them up on charges, that's fine. But throw the book at them and find all kinds of charges and cobble them together so that they'll plea to a 'lesser included' is a technique that I think can sometimes be inappropriately used."
Under President Obama, the Justice Department has seen numerous attacks by both Cornyn and Issa. Cornyn voted against the confirmation of Eric Holder as attorney general and called for his resignation following the gun scandal dubbed Fast and Furious. Issa, meanwhile, initiated a congressional vote to hold Holder in contempt.
The Republican congressman has, however, been a strong supporter of Internet freedom, and spoke out to help defeat the passage of SOPA, the Stop Online Privacy Act that many, including Swartz, opposed.
It's not just Republicans speaking out against Holder, either, as a White House petition to remove lead prosecutor Carmen Ortiz for overreach has gained nearly 45,000 supporters.