The co-founder of a group supporting an Army private accused of leaking classified information to WikiLeaks filed a federal lawsuit today accusing the Department of Homeland Security of violating his civil rights by seizing his laptop without a warrant when he passed through security at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.
David House, 24, a former MIT researcher from Cambridge, alleges in the suit filed in US District Court in Boston that federal agents seized his laptop, USB storage device, video camera, and cellphone when he arrived at the airport on Nov. 3 after a vacation in Mexico, then kept him from catching a connecting flight to Boston while they interrogated him about his association with Private First Class Bradley Manning.
The suit, filed on House's behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union, says House "was asked no questions relating to border control, customs, trade, immigration, or terrorism,'' yet agents kept his laptop, USB device, and camera for 49 days while they reviewed personal and private information as part of an investigation into his work for the Bradley Manning Support Network. The electronics were returned to him Dec. 22, a day after the ACLU faxed a letter to government officials demanding their immediate return.
"If the government had legitimate reason for wanting to seize my laptop ... they could obtain a warrant,'' House said during a telephone interview. "Instead they wait for me to cross the border so they can claim this nebulous authority.''
He accused the government of launching a "fishing expedition'' in an effort to find out who was supporting Manning and said it has had a chilling impact on his group's legal efforts to raise money for Manning because supporters fear they will also be targeted by the government. Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst, has been imprisoned by the military for a year on charges of leaking classified information about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that were posted on WilkiLeaks
Matthew Chandler, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, declined to comment on the suit, saying, "As a matter of policy, we do not comment on pending litigation."
Federal agents routinely search laptops of travelers entering and leaving the country at airports and other border crossings. The government maintains it's the same as searching suitcases and is done to protect national security.
The suit alleges that House was targeted by the government solely because of his association with the Bradley Manning Support Network, which raises funds for Manning's legal defense.
"Targeting people for searches and seizures based on their lawful associations is unconstitutional,'' said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.
The suit alleges that the government violated House's First Amendment right to freedom of association and Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. It seeks the return or destruction of any of House's personal data that is still being held by the government and urges the court to order the Department of Homeland Security to disclose whether it has shared the information with other agencies.
Read House's lawsuit here.
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