Crypto-Convict Won't Recant
by Declan McCullagh

3:00 a.m. Apr. 14, 2000 PDT
Before Jim Bell went to prison, he suspected that most government officials were corrupt. Three years behind bars later, the self-proclaimed Internet anarchist is sure of it.

After Bell, a cypherpunk who the United States government dubbed a techno-terrorist, is released Friday at 10 a.m. PDT, he plans to exact revenge on the system that imprisoned him.

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"If they continue to work for the government, they deserve it. My suggestion to these people is to quit now and hope for mercy," the 41-year-old Washington state native said in a telephone interview this week from the medium-security federal penitentiary in Phoenix. Bell pleaded guilty to tax evasion in 1997.

The retribution he has in mind? Well, it's decidedly not simple thuggery or wild-eyed ranting.

Before he was arrested, the MIT graduate even gave his scheme a catchy title: "Assassination Politics."

It's an unholy mix of encryption, anonymity, and digital cash to bring about the ultimate annihilation of all forms of government. The system, which Bell spent years talking up online, uses digital cash and anonymity to predict and confirm assassinations.

Darkly brooding during his stints in solitary confinement, Bell has honed his idea to a knife-sharp edge, and seems to have shed any remaining scruples in the process.

"I once believed it's too bad that there are a lot of people who work for government who are hard-working and honest people who will get hit (by Assassination Politics) and it's a shame," he says. "Well, I don't believe that any more. They are all either crooks or they tolerate crooks or they are aware of crooks among their numbers."

That kind of fervid rhetoric comes close to crossing the line, says one former prosecutor. "It's an oblique threat," says Mark Rasch, now a lawyer at Science Applications International Corporation. "Depending on how immediate the threat is or how immediate the incitement is, it could violate federal law."

And Assassination Politics? If Bell tries to set it up, will he end up back in Club Fed? "Now you're getting closer to the line that says, 'I will pay you to kill a federal agent.' Even though it's indirect, it has the same effect," Rasch says.

U.S. law punishes "any threat to injure the person of another" with a five-year prison sentence.

Robb London, the assistant United States Attorney for the Western District of Washington, did not immediately return phone calls.


It's easy enough to dismiss Assassination Politics as a loony idea invented by a Theodore Kaczynski wannabe and about as likely to occur as Dan Quayle winning a presidential primary.

But then why are the feds so worried? Call it sheer self-interest, but the original charges against Bell highlighted the scheme: The IRS accused him of "soliciting others to join in a scheme known as 'Assassination Politics' whereby those who killed IRS employees would be rewarded."

IRS inspector Jeff Gordon, who now regularly monitors the cypherpunks mailing list, took it personally, at one point likening Bell to convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Both, Gordon said in 1997, were making "plans to assassinate government employees."

Gordon found a second suspect a year later, when he came across an "AP robot" website that claimed to implement Bell's idea and pay winners in e-cash. "'Bot' is a slang term for an automated computer program. I also know that 'e$' and 'eCa$h' are slang terms for electronic or digital cash, which was a major component of Bell's Assassination Politics proposal," the IRS agent said in an affidavit.

The investigation eventually led to the conviction of fellow cypherpunk Carl Johnson in April 1999 for threatening federal officials.

Both cases have become something of a cause celebre among cypherpunks who are critical of government overreaching; the list, after all, became popular during the heyday of the intrusive White House-backed Clipper Chip.

Architect John Young in 1998 nominated Bell for a Chrysler design award for creating an "Information Design for Governmental Accountability."

The Laissez Faire City Times has published a copy of Bell's AP essay, calling it "a thought experiment on one of the consequences of the digital society."

Not everyone was quite so complimentary. U.S. News and World Report featured Bell as part of a cover story on terrorism.

The story said that when agents raided his home, they found "volatile solvents, explosives ingredients, sodium cyanide, nitric acid, and disopropyl fluorophosphate -- one of several ingredients that, if properly mixed, form nerve gas -- all in a residential neighborhood."

Bell seems eager to take advantage of his notoriety. He's planning a kind of crypto-convict U.S. tour that will take him through Seattle, New York, Washington, and to his MIT class reunion in Boston in early June.

Bell repeatedly claims that he won't break the law himself. "I'm not going to kill them off," he said. "Other people are going to do that. I'm going to promote a system.
"There are at least a couple of books I have to write, expounding on the AP concept to explain it to the masses," he says. "I have to update it to reflect that five years have passed and things look dramatically better for the overall concept.

"Five years ago, people were saying, 'Wouldn't the government just shut the Internet down if people used it for something like that?' Now people realize that isn't possible," Bell says.

For an admitted anti-government activist -- his plea bargain said he owned chemicals that could be used to produce Sarin gas and once stink-bombed the carpet outside an IRS office -- Bell is a remarkably affable one, and has been eager to proselytize even to intelligence community types.

Jessica Stern, a senior fellow at Harvard University and a former National Security Council aide, has taken a particular interest in the case.

"As a terrorism expert, I think he's a very important example of this new phenomenon of the virtual network. It really poses problems for the government, and he knows that. He's thrilled about it," says Stern, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow who has spent long hours interviewing Bell.

"He's really an irritant. He's teasing them, he's defying them. He's trying to get them to overreact. That is what we often see with terrorists. One of their aims is to destabilize regimes, but also to get governments to overreact so they lose credibility with the public," she says.

That's entirely plausible, and it makes for some fascinating speculation about what might happen when Bell's a free man. It's clear that the feds are monitoring those who sympathize with Bell: Fellow cypherpunk Tim May saw his address and Social Security Number appear in court documents after questioning the IRS' prosecution.

Might the IRS or the Secret Service, which aided an investigation in a related case, try to keep track of Bell? He certainly thinks so, and tells anyone who will listen that the feds have been illegally spying on him.

According to a court docket, Bell raised this point repeatedly during an August 1998 sentencing hearing for a probation violation -- to the point that even his attorney told Judge Franklin D. Burgess that a mental health evaluation might be appropriate. The judge agreed.

During a recent phone conversation, Bell added that he thought he had been denied "good conduct" time that would have allowed him to be released weeks earlier.

And when he is released? Bell plans to do the same thing anyone with a hot tech idea would do: Launch a website.

"I may end up starting a dot-com company to promote the idea of an AP-type system," he says. "I think the public wants to be able to buy freedom and liberty over the Internet."


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