Couple's computer seized in probe of Pitt case
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A Cambria County couple under scrutiny in the University of Pittsburgh bomb threat investigation said FBI agents served them with a search warrant Wednesday night and seized a personal computer, laptop, cell phone, computer router and some CDs from their apartment.
Also Wednesday, FBI agents in New York City seized a server used by an Internet service provider in Europe through which at least three of the anonymous emailed bomb threats passed.
The couple, Seamus Johnston, 22, and Katherine Anne McCloskey, 56, said about eight agents arrived at their Jackson Township apartment about 7:30 p.m. The agents had a search warrant, but Mr. Johnston said he asked for an affidavit of probable cause linking the couple to the bomb threats.
He said he was told he could not see it. The document is usually public once the search warrant has been served, but in this case it is under court-ordered seal.
"Until I can look at the affidavit of probable cause and see for myself what evidence they have against us, I consider what happened simply an armed break-in," he said. "I have no idea when we'll get the stuff back and no idea why they took it."
Both Mr. Johnston and Ms. McCloskey deny any involvement in the bomb threats.
The search warrant, signed at 5:40 p.m. Wednesday by U.S. Magistrate Judge Maureen P. Kelly, indicated agents were looking for the following "evidence or instrumentalities" of violating federal laws of communicating threats and conspiracy:
• Computer hardware, CDs and communication devices such as cables and connections, among other items.
• "All files and documents ... containing any reference to bomb threats, animus or motive to threaten the University of Pittsburgh, or any individuals, including those associated with [Pitt]."
• Computer or electronic records, documents or materials regarding the use of anonymous remailers to send communications, including bomb threats to anyone, including Pitt; electronic communications between individuals discussing bomb threats to Pitt; Internet browsing activity about remailers; or text of bomb threats.
Mr. Johnston said among those who executed the search warrant were the two agents who last week interviewed the transgender couple, subsequently subpoenaed them to a federal grand jury and indicated they were persons of interest because of run-ins Mr. Johnston had with the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown.
Mr. Johnston, who was born a woman but identifies as a man, was expelled from the university in January after being arrested for repeatedly using the men's locker room at Pitt's Johnstown campus despite being told not to do so.
Pitt had offered the junior computer science major use of a private locker room, which Mr. Johnston used for a time before telling the school he would resume using the men's facilities.
Mr. Johnston is awaiting trial May 31 for three misdemeanor charges of indecent exposure, defiant trespass and disorderly conduct that were filed by Pitt police in the incident.
This week, he filed a discrimination suit against Pitt with the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations.
He and Ms. McCloskey, who was born a male but identifies as a female, appeared Tuesday at the federal building in Pittsburgh for their grand jury appearance. After refusing to provide fingerprints and writing examples unless presented with a warrant, being threatened with contempt of court and demanding to testify before the grand jury for longer than their brief separate appearances, the couple was ordered to appear for a hearing next Friday before U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer.
Mr. Johnston said the couple had brought their computers to Pittsburgh for that hearing because the FBI agents told them they would have a warrant for them. But no warrant was produced and the couple took their computer equipment home before it was seized Wednesday night.
In New York, the Internet hosting service May First/People Link said threats were sent through one of its servers used by the European Counter Network, or ECN, an Italian Internet provider that allows users to send anonymous emails. The organization's leaders have said they believe ECN was hacked for criminal purposes.
Jamie McClelland, director of May First/People Link, said Thursday that removing the server from its New York facility disrupted service for hundreds of people and organizations.
"We sympathize with the University of Pittsburgh community who have had to deal with this frightening disruption for weeks. We oppose such threatening actions," said Devin Theriot-Orr of Riseup Networks, which shares the New York City office where the server was located.
"However, taking this server won't stop these bomb threats. The only effect it has is to also disrupt email and websites for thousands of unrelated people."
Anonymous remailers, such as the one offered by ECN, make it challenging to trace emails, so it is unlikely the FBI will find information of value, Mr. Theriot-Orr said. Some anonymous remailers do not record logs of connections, details of who sent emails or how they were routed.
"In the absence of any other leads, the FBI needs to show that they are making progress in this case, and this has meant seizing a server so they can proudly demonstrate they are taking some action," Mr. McClelland said in a news release. "What this incident shows is they are grasping at straws and are willing to destroy innocent bystanders for the sake of protecting their careers."
Many of the people and organizations who use the seized server are academics, gay rights groups, feminists, documentation and software archives, community centers and free-speech groups, the news release said. They rely on the anonymous remailing service Mixmaster for privacy. Many such services were developed to protect the identities of human rights activists in other countries, whistleblowers and others who could face harm if they are revealed.
Mr. Theriot-Orr said many other remailing services are available for a criminal to use if the individual does not have access to Mixmaster.
"The network of anonymous remailers that exists is not harmed by taking this machine," he said.
The bomb threats continued Thursday with four more causing the evacuations of numerous buildings on Pitt's campus. Since Feb. 13, dozens of threats have been made, causing scores of building evacuations.
Other than the first half-dozen or so, which were scrawled in women's and men's restrooms, most have been emailed to Post-Gazette reporters covering the case.
In addition to trying to trace the emails' origin, investigators are sifting through Web logs of millions of IP, or Internet protocol, addresses of those who accessed the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website between March 10 and last Friday.
Post-Gazette attorney Fritz Byers said the newspaper adhered to its internal policies in turning over the information Monday to the U.S. attorney's office when presented with a subpoena.
"The Post-Gazette responded to the federal government's request for information in accordance with the paper's long-standing policy not to voluntarily provide information to third parties involved in legal matters and to resist efforts to obtain privileged and confidential information or otherwise to invade our constitutional, statutory and common law rights," Mr. Byers said.
"But in response to the government's subpoena and consistent with the Post-Gazette's community values, we provided certain non-privileged, non-confidential information that the government legitimately sought, which did not involve identifying any individuals or their interactions with the Post-Gazette."
First Published April 20, 2012 7:06 am