(CN) - A co-founder of the Bradley Manning Support Network can sue federal officials for holding his computer and other electronics for 49 days after interrogating him, a federal judge ruled.
David House claims he has been routinely surveilled and harassed by federal officials ever since he helped form the legal defense fund supporting Pfc. Bradley Manning, the soldier suspected of leaking more than 700,000 files to WikiLeaks.
House claims in Boston Federal Court that investigators for the Departments of Defense and State and the FBI have questioned him at his home and workplace, kept him under surveillance and put him on a government watch list.
House says he has been detained every time he has crossed the border since September 2010, and grilled about his political beliefs and work for the Bradley Manning Support Network.
On Nov. 3, 2010, House returned from a vacation in Mexico and his plane landed at O'Hare International Airport, where he planned to catch a connecting flight to Boston. As he entered the terminal to walk to his gate, he says, Department of Homeland Security agents Darin Louck and Marcial Santiago detained him and told him he would miss his connecting flight.
They ordered him to turn over any electronic devices he was carrying, including his computer, USB storage device, video camera and cell phone, House says.
He claims the devices had several years of personal data, including the Bradley Manning Support Network's mailing list, fund-raising activities and donor lists.
House says he refused to give the agents the password for his computer, which would have given them unauthorized access to his employer's server.
After an "extended period" of questioning, House says, he was allowed to leave with his cell phone, but the agents kept his other devices and promised to return them by FedEx within a week.
Forty-eight days later, House says, he hired a lawyer who faxed the government a demand to return the devices.
One day later, on Dec. 22, 2010, the government returned House's equipment, according to the complaint.
Months later, House filed a civil rights lawsuit, claiming that the searches violated his First Amendment right to free association and Fourth Amendment prohibitions against unreasonable search and seizure.
U.S. District Judge Denise J. Casper last week allowed both claims to proceed.
"When the agents questioned House, they did not ask him any questions related to border control, customs, trade, immigration, or terrorism and did not suggest that House had broken the law or that his computer may contain illegal material or contraband," Casper wrote in a 27-page Memorandum and Order. "Rather, their questions focused solely on his association with Manning, his work for the Support Network, whether he had any connections to WikiLeaks, and whether he had contact with anyone from WikiLeaks during his trip to Mexico. ... Thus, the complaint alleges that House was not randomly stopped at the border; it alleges that he was stopped and questioned solely to examine the contents of his laptop that contained expressive material and investigate his association with the Support Network and Manning." (Citations omitted.)
Casper found it credible that the search could have interfered with the work of the Bradley Manning Support Network, if it revealed the identities of donors and supporters who wished to remain anonymous.
"The complaint also alleges that the information was copied and retained by ICE and that it has been disseminated to other government agencies," Casper wrote. "And, as House has alleged, because there are supporters and donors to Manning's defense who wish to remain anonymous, the seizure of House's records by defendants and the access to that information by other government agencies will deter support for the organization in the future and chill the associational rights of the Support Network and its supporters."
Casper declined, for now, to rule on whether to grant an injunction ordering the agencies to reveal the information they captured from House's devices, and destroy the data.
House can seek that relief on summary judgment or at trial, Casper said.
The day that Casper's order was filed, House's detention was cited as an example of government chilling of activists' free speech, during a Manhattan Federal Court proceeding at which seven activists sought an injunction against the so-called Homeland Battlefield law.
That law, the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), allows the U.S. military to indefinitely hold anyone it suspects of "substantially supporting" terrorists or "associated forces."
The journalists and activists suing the U.S. government in Manhattan say the law's language is so broad it could be used to sweep up political dissidents.
Though House is not a plaintiff in that lawsuit, his detention at O'Hare came up during testimony about the repression of political activists in the name of national security.
House is represented by Alexia R. De Vincentis of the American Civil Liberties Union.
He sued Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton.