Matt DeHart: Hacker, Creeper, Soldier, Spy - National Post 2015

Matt DeHart, a former U.S. soldier seeking asylum in Canada, claims he’s wanted for working with Anonymous. The U.S. says he may be a spy — and more

Chapter 1 - "My family is military"

MILTON, ONT., APRIL 2014 Guards at the Maplehurst Correctional Complex, a maximum-security jail near Toronto known to inmates as the Milton Hilton, came to rouse their newest prisoner from a concrete bed in the intake holding cells. Pulling back the hoodie covering his face, they found his T-shirt had been yanked up and twisted around his throat as a ligature.

Matt DeHart, left, leaves the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada with his parents, Paul and Leann, for lunch on April 7, 2014.
Matt DeHart leaves the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada with his parents, Paul and Leann, after a hearing on April 7, 2014. (Matthew Sherwood for National Post)

The distraught prisoner was Matt DeHart, a 29-year-old American who had been brought to jail days earlier by a Canada Border Services Agency official and five police officers, who arrested him at the apartment he shares with his parents while fighting for refugee protection here.

Pulled from the cell and taken to hospital, he appeared to suffer no serious physical injury but underwent a mental health assessment. After returning to jail, Matt then dived headfirst from his bunk onto the concrete floor of his cell, requiring another urgent hospital visit. He told doctors he had crashed on purpose because he “had no hope.”

Days later, Matt appeared by video link at a detention review before a tribunal of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). It took half an hour for jail guards to retrieve him from a one-to-one suicide watch cell and sit him in front of the camera. Matt silently peered into the lens. He looked dreadful: unshaven and unkempt, his eyes red and swollen, his lids heavy from medication. He squinted and grimaced.

It’s not that I’m not patriotic — I am. I voted for Bush. My family is military, pretty gung ho. But everything has changed.
— Matt DeHart

Gone was his bravado and the wide, almost goofy smile he seemed shy about flashing during many meetings with the National Post over the past eight months, while he was on bail from immigration detention on strict conditions. His father, Paul DeHart, a retired U.S. Air Force major who worked for the powerful National Security Agency, sat grim-faced, watching his son on the video monitor.

“We’re here on a claim of torture,” Paul said, his voice straining as he stated Matt has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “To visit your son in a maximum-security prison in a suicide smock … more heavily medicated than he’s ever been … For anyone with PTSD to be treated that way, much less your own child … is very disturbing.”

Matt DeHart, left, under house arrest near Toronto, is banned from touching computers, leaving Scrabble with his parents the best option for the former online gaming addict. (Peter J. Thompson/National Post)

This is decidedly not how the DeHarts envisioned life in Canada as they drove across the border little more than a year earlier, on April 3, 2013, seeking refugee protection. They claim U.S. authorities tortured Matt during a national security investigation.

Everything about the case of Matthew Paul DeHart is unusual; much of it is also dramatic and perplexing. It is a story moving from his early involvement in Anonymous, the international hacktivist group, to his discovery of a sensitive national security document — perhaps destined for WikiLeaks, the whistleblowing organization — on a hidden computer server he hosted, back when he was a cocky Internet freedom fighter.

Mugshot of Matt DeHart from the U.S. authorities.

From there, it twists to being charged in the United States with soliciting the production of child pornography, something he and his parents claim is a cruel ruse by U.S. agents to help them attack Anonymous and WikiLeaks. And then, still another bombshell: claims made in classified documents Matt may have tried to help sell military secrets to the Russian government and had moved to Canada to facilitate contact with Russian agents through Moscow’s embassy in Ottawa.

It all might seem absurd. Hacker, creeper, soldier, spy? A months-long investigation by theNational Post reveals a case deserving close scrutiny, despite — perhaps because of — its layers of secrecy and occasional stumble into dark crevices of security, surveillance and spies, as well as questions of mental health, sexual deviancy and crime.

Documents confirm, for instance, that while Matt is charged in the U.S. only for child porn, he was actually arrested, imprisoned and interrogated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in an espionage probe; once in Canada, he was interviewed by Canada’s spy agency and his file assigned to Canada Border Services Agency’s security and war crimes unit. As for the porn charge, it, too, is “odd,” as described by a U.S. judge. A second U.S. judge, after hearing the government’s porn case, added: “The weight of the evidence is not as firm as I thought.”

The criminal case against Matt remains open in the U.S., where authorities consider him a fugitive from justice. Meanwhile, his asylum claim in Canada puts everyone in a tough spot. His only hope is for the IRB to accept that our closest neighbour, staunchest ally and largest trading partner breached international law and tortured its own citizen in zealous pursuit of a national security case. This is the in-depth story of these remarkable events.

NEWBURGH, IND., 2009 Matt DeHart was exactly where he liked to be, sitting at his Gateway FX gaming laptop logged into an Internet chat channel with a clutch of like-minded geeks. He easily spent 20 hours a week socializing online, usually on a private Internet Relay Chat channel masked by privacy software. This time, in mid-September 2009, Matt and his online clique, calling themselves Anonymous Anti-Security, chatted amiably through typed messages as they played computer games, but one of his friends was agitated.

It can be difficult, online, to discern jokes from angst, and it took a bit for Matt to realize this was a legitimate alarm. The fuss was about an unusual file recently uploaded onto The Shell, the computer server they jointly ran on the Tor network, the “hidden Internet,” where tracing location is extremely difficult. Matt hosted web access for The Shell on a computer inside his bedroom closet in his parents’ home in Newburgh, Ind.

In a modern variation of the old “dead drop” spy technique, secret documents could be placed on a hidden computer server and a recipient told where to download it, and the two parties would never have to meet. Matt found the alarming file. It wasn’t large, about four megabytes, he said. It had a seemingly meaningless name and a .7z file extension, meaning it was archived with 7-Zip software for a high compression ratio. Surprisingly, the file opened without a password. It was a folder with several more files inside.

The DeHarts at the IRB in April. (Matthew Sherwood for National Post)

“We were pretty much unanimous on agreeing this was pretty serious,” he recalled. “The contents of the file were very disconcerting to my entire group.” He doesn’t like talking about the file, seeing it as the source of all his tribulation.

“I hope you don’t mind if I don’t discuss what the file actually contained because that hasn’t been revealed yet,” Matt said. After prodding, he offered this summary: “It was an FBI investigation into the [Central Intelligence Agency’s] practices.”

Matt removed the file from his server. Not long after, he saw the same file — or at least one about the same size with the same name — on another hidden server, called sTORage. This version was encrypted, suggesting it had been a mistake to upload it to The Shell without password protection. Matt believes the file was meant for WikiLeaks.

“That was the first time we realized that people were uploading really sensitive stuff [to The Shell].” He could not have fully realized what that discovery meant, but he now faced an abrupt transition from lip-service Internet freedom fighter to the frontlines in the dawning battle over government mass surveillance and security. It was a tension that had chased him most of his life.

The National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland
The NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, where Matt’s father, Paul, worked as a major in the U.S. Air Force. Paul could never talk about his secret work, even with family. (NSA via Getty Images)

FORT MEADE, MD., 1985 The imposing, black buildings of the National Security Agency headquarters, surrounded by an ocean of 18,000 parking spaces, loomed in view almost every time the DeHart family left their home at the U.S. military base of Fort Meade, home to one of the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies. The NSA’s dark obelisks dazzled Matt at the age of eight as he stared at them from the back seat of the family car. He knew his father worked inside those black boxes, but his dad’s tight lips whenever he asked about it stoked his intrigue. “He couldn’t talk about it; I had no idea what he did,” Matt said, trying to pinpoint the start of his interest — his obsession — with security, secrecy and information technology.

Seeking asylum abroad is a bizarre place for the DeHart clan to find themselves, being a devoutly Christian, conservative, gun-owning, military family. “It’s not that I’m not patriotic — I am. I voted for Bush,” Matt said. “My family is military, pretty gung ho. But everything has changed.”

Paul DeHart in 1990.

The DeHarts are the sort of family that keeps armed forces alive: generation after generation of smart, working-class Americans enlisting for their country. Many relatives serve or have served in various branches of the military. Paul enlisted straight from high school and was trained to monitor East German broadcasts during the Cold War. Matt’s mother, Leann, also enlisted. She learned to monitor Polish broadcasts and was assigned to Fort Hood, a large base in Texas, where she spent more time changing oil than monitoring radios. The couple met on the base; she thinks it was in the motor pool, he thinks it was the barracks. They married in 1978.

Paul took the career track in the military, enrolling in college on a military scholarship and after graduation was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Air Force. After intelligence training and gaining Top Secret clearance, he did a stint at Field Station Augsburg in West Germany, a listening post for the NSA, the masters of interception. From there he was assigned to the agency’s enormous headquarters at Fort Meade. Paul still won’t say what he did there.

Leann, Paul and Matt DeHart in 1992.

It was when Paul and Leann were settling into their home at Fort Meade that Matt was born, on June 11, 1984, arriving prematurely as a high-risk birth at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington. Afterward, doctors said Leann could not bear any more children.

Matt grew up moving homes with his father’s postings, including to the NSA’s underground bunker in Hawaii. As a wide-eyed child, he visited the facility, which was replaced in 2012 by a new building nearby, where Edward Snowden worked before leaking scads of classified documents. After Hawaii, the DeHarts moved back to Fort Meade, with Paul again reporting for duty at NSA headquarters until he retired in 1994 with the rank of major. Paul then moved into Christian ministry, becoming a church pastor, prompting another family move, this time to New Jersey.

Matt did well in school. His reading comprehension was far-above grade level. In Grade 7 he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The first worrying sign of the trouble computers could play in his life came in Grade 9: After Christmas break he issued a bomb threat against his school as a prank, using AOL Instant Messenger. Someone saw it and called police. He was charged with causing public alarm.

In 2000, Matt started a group called KAOS, the “Kaos Anti-Security Operations Syndicate,” he said. The cluster of tech-savvy pals tapped into an arcane online movement concerned about the computer security industry. Matt still rails against anti-virus vendors who widely publicize obscure vulnerabilities, “just so they can sell more of their product. That’s kind of distasteful.” He still has copies of KAOS application forms he says were filled out by friends. The forms ask potential members to reveal their “political lean” on a scale of left to right, how many hours per week they were available and, also, this question: “Are you willing to stand up to authority for a just cause?” All three applicants answered yes. He has also kept a Jan. 15, 2001, copy of Newsweek — bearing the address label of Randolph High School, his New Jersey school — with the cover story “Beating Big Brother: How computer rebels kept the government from spying on you.” The article about digital cryptography calls online privacy “the first great war of the digital age.” Matt considered it an important piece.

A KAOS membership form
One of the application forms for KAOS

“The only thing I actually got in trouble for, back then, for computer hacking, was [when] we got into our school server,” he said. “We got a copy of our 10th grade science midterm which was on an encrypted server. My friends had the idea of selling that for $10 apiece. The school administration couldn’t prove it, but they knew I was responsible.”

In 2004, he discovered, a soon-to-be popular image and message board. It nudged his online shenanigans to a new level.

It was on 4chan, where posts by people not using a registered nickname were automatically listed as being by “Anonymous,” that the hacktivist group Anonymous was born. A repetitive joke by 4chan regulars, that they are all named Anonymous, would morph into one of the hacking group’s main mottos: “We are Anonymous.”

“In 2005, it was ‘Ha, we’re Anonymous’ and people were joking around on the message board, but I didn’t really consider myself a ‘member’ of Anonymous probably until 2006. You don’t sign a membership form, anybody can be Anonymous,” Matt said.

By 2007, his bedroom was decorated with Guy Fawkes masks, the stylized face coverings used as a meme on 4chan before becoming the symbol of Anonymous. At the time, the masks slung on the ends of Matt’s bedroom curtains held no meaning for his parents beyond décor. For Matt, though, they signalled a call to arms.

He renamed KAOS, with a nod to the emerging ethos, Anonymous Anti-Security. “You don’t write it anywhere but that is what we called ourselves, and we tried to revive the anti-security movement,” he said. (His group is distinct from the similarly named “Operation Anti-Security,” known as #AntiSec, a subsequent Anonymous campaign.)

“We tried to push anti-security as more of an opposition to private security contractors. The new anti-security,” Matt said. At the time, the use of private military contractors was a hot issue after Blackwater workers employed as security guards were involved in a Baghdad gun battle in which civilians were killed.

Anonymous has therefore decided that your organization should be destroyed.
— Anonymous video message

The emerging Anonymous network appealed to Matt’s interest in Internet freedom, government secrecy and his immature sense of pranksterism. “Part of my job with Anonymous was I helped people communicate securely. I would protect people from NSA spying,” he said. The irony of his specialty in light of his dad’s former job is not lost on him.

Using several aliases, often just the letter K, sometimes words beginning with K — including KMFDMK, Kaiser and Koenig — Matt became a specialist in encryption and protecting online privacy. He loved showing it, not only because of his information-freedom beliefs, but because he enjoyed his new status as a guru.

I hope, if he is innocent and his story checks out, that Canada is nice about it. And I hope, if he’s a child pornographer, he ends up dead in prison.
— Gregg Housh, Anonymous member who launched Project Chanology

Matt does not claim to have been a big wheel in Anonymous. But he does claim to have used his expertise for the group and to have helped in a landmark campaign that made Anonymous a household name.

In early 2008, the Church of Scientology had drawn online scorn when it forced YouTube to remove a leaked video of actor Tom Cruise enthusing about his beliefs. The backlash brewed on 4chan and evolved into Project Chanology, an Anonymous campaign against the church.

On Jan. 21, 2008, an eerie, engaging video was released online: “Hello, leaders of Scientology. We are Anonymous,” the computerized voice begins, accompanied by ambient music and moody video of passing clouds. “Over the years, we have been watching you. Your campaigns of misinformation; your suppression of dissent; your litigious nature; all of these things have caught our eye,” the message continues.

“Anonymous has therefore decided that your organization should be destroyed.” It was a defining moment for Anonymous. It received huge media coverage and was pushed into mainstream consciousness. The video went viral and the campaign blossomed into global, real-world protests and online attacks against the church.

I didn’t see a lot of conflict between me and the government back then, in 2008. I enlisted. I wasn’t anti-American.
— Matt DeHart

“Even today,” the Scientology campaign “is considered by Anonymous to be one of their most legendary raids,” said Gabriella Coleman, a McGill University professor who is a leading academic expert on Anonymous. It was Matt who helped register the YouTube account hosting that iconic video, using a series of dead-end online identities to avoid it being traced, he said. In those early days, a few motivated people pushed the strategy of Anonymous, steering the masses where they wanted. “You have your original people,” he said, “the movers and shakers. You have a lot of people who are there for the ride and you have a few people who push policy.” For Project Chanology, that push came from Gregg Housh, the acknowledged mastermind behind the campaign who was indicted for it, but against whom charges were later dropped.

Matt tried to prove his involvement in the Anonymous campaign, offering the Post details outsiders wouldn’t know. He said the video used a text-to-speech engine published by Cepstral, called the David voice; the music was by E.S. Posthumus; and the graphics and video were compiled in Britain.

True to its name, most members of Anonymous do not know the identities of those they work with online, so Mr. Housh can’t confirm Matt was helping him. But he confirmed a man in the United States registered the YouTube account. He confirmed the accuracy of Matt’s details about the video, music, graphics and narrative of its creation.

A KAOS application form

“All of that is true,” Mr. Housh said. Eight people did the heavy lifting on Project Chanology and they specifically chose a song that was not identifiable when run through identification software. “This guy knows stuff that I don’t know of anyone else who was uninvolved knowing,” said Mr. Housh. He then summed up Matt’s problem in the blunt rhetoric of chat boards: “I hope, if he is innocent and his story checks out, that Canada is nice about it. And I hope, if he’s a child pornographer, he ends up dead in prison.” Increasingly, even Matt himself sees these as his looming options.

Matt’s account of working in Anonymous has the ring of truth, said Prof. Coleman. He displays suitable “technical capacities and ideological commitments,” for it. “It does seem credible that he was involved, definitely in some capacity, with Anonymous in its early stages at least,” she said. At the same time the Scientology campaign was hatching, Matt used 4chan to recruit players of the online role-playing game World of Warcraft to his “guild” — a band of players acting as a team. The overlap between his guild and Anonymous became substantial. Of approximately 130 members of the guild, about 80% were involved in Anonymous.

In the midst of all this — and despite Matt’s opposition to military contractors and government surveillance — he maintained his family’s military tradition. “I didn’t see a lot of conflict between me and the government back then, in 2008. I enlisted. I wasn’t anti-American.” Plus, he said, there was a $20,000 enlistment bonus.

In March 2008, two months after Anonymous launched Project Chanology, Matt joined the U.S. Air National Guard. He was subjected to a security check and cleared for top secret training in the 181st Intelligence Wing. At Hulman Field, Ind., he was learning to work with MQ-1 Predators, RQ-4 Global Hawks and other drone aircraft.

These, then, were the converging influences as Matt lurched into adulthood: an abiding concern about secrecy, privacy and Internet freedom; nascent involvement in Anonymous, which would become one of the U.S. government’s top security concerns; immersive and addictive online gaming; and stepping into a new role as a U.S. military recruit in its secretive drone program. For a brief moment, the young man felt fulfilled. Any doubt of his ability to wear all these disparate masks was erased by bravado and blissful online reinforcement. “While you’re running it, it’s like ‘I’m a champion of free speech,’ and you feel good about it,” he said. “But then, when the whole law is suddenly attacking you, you realize how much power they have.” Soon after finding that sensitive, unencrypted file on his hidden server, Matt discovered the combination of his preferred activities was toxic.

Chapter 2 - "They think of Wikileaks like Al-Queda"

NEWBURGH, IND., 2010 On Monday, Jan. 25, 2010, after his parents left for work, Matt opened his laptop and started playing Soldiers: Heroes of World War Two, a strategy war game. The previous Friday, he had shut down his hidden computer server, The Shell, after he received “a pretty detailed tip” to pull the plug. The warning came in a protected online chat from a friend who told him the FBI had just approached him asking about the server. The apparent scrutiny seemed linked to the sensitive file found on The Shell a few months before. “I took the hard drives out of it, destroyed them. I took the platters out and took two pairs of pliers and bent them,” said Matt. “It’s not because you’re paranoid, it’s because you know what the United States government can do and having any affiliation, any peripheral involvement in WikiLeaks in any way, shape or form, makes you a target.”

At the same time Anonymous had been forming, Julian Assange founded WikiLeaks to publish secret material. The group released its first document in 2006. And just as the brash Scientology campaign made Anonymous a household name, WikiLeaks became famous in 2010 after U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning slipped Mr. Assange a trove of classified diplomatic cables and battlefield reports, including gunsight video of a U.S. Apache helicopter shooting a dozen people in Iraq, among them children and two Reuters war correspondents.

The damaging leaks brought intense scrutiny to WikiLeaks and Anonymous. The links between the two became clear in 2008, when Anonymous hacked the email account of Sarah Palin, then the Republican vice-presidential candidate, and its contents were released by WikiLeaks. If the Anonymous hacktivists were not already a target, teaming up with WikiLeaks put them directly in the U.S. Justice department’s sights. While the anti-Scientology campaign harnessed Anonymous’ digital activism, turning it from near-mindless trolling into political and social partisanship, the growing network of “Anons” then targeted PayPal, MasterCard and Visa in support of WikiLeaks, and protested copyright controls and piracy crackdowns.

Matt followed these events closely, not only as an Internet activist but because his fledgling military career had already been grounded. In June 2009, he received an honourable discharge from the Air National Guard; his diagnosis of depression was seen as incompatible with remotely flying drones.

All of this was conjugating in Matt’s mind even as he opted for the indolence of a computer game — until he heard pounding on his front door a little before 9 a.m. “I opened the door and it was the police task force,” he said. Five or six officers, some in uniform and some in civilian clothes, with badges slung around their neck, poured inside. “Your stomach drops and your heart beats like crazy. It takes you by surprise, even though I had nothing to hide once the server was destroyed.”

Matt was handcuffed as officers spread out through the house. After a while, the FBI agent in charge told a local police officer to remove the cuffs, pointing out they came with a search warrant not an arrest warrant, Matt said. He sat down at the kitchen table while officers continued their search. Joining Matt, the FBI agent asked him what online aliases he used. “I’m sorry, it’s none of your business, I don’t have a lawyer here,” Matt recalled replying. Matt heard the whirring of digital cameras as officers came and went, taking pictures and stuffing things in black plastic bags and taking them away.

“They went through everything; they took all my parents’ stuff. Anything that could store digital data in the house was taken. The Xbox was taken, the controllers for the Xbox were taken, the games for the Xbox were taken. But the only thing of value that would be interesting to the government, other than the server, were two IronKey [USB] thumb drives,” Matt said. Whenever he left his home he would take them with him, stuffed in his wallet; whenever he was at home he would tuck them behind the padding of his dad’s gun case that was kept locked and bolted to a wall. Apparently not knowing that, an officer asked the agent if they should force the gun case open. The agent said that wasn’t necessary and everyone left.

“I was shook up,” Matt said. “I don’t know everything they took, but I know they took everything. After they had left I looked at the search warrant which was left on the couch. It was a generic warrant from the Memphis FBI field office and it said they were searching for child pornography.” It is one of the harshest of accusations.

“Once you’re painted with that, you never get the stench of that off of you. It doesn’t matter if someone is guilty or not guilty,” said Matt. “I don’t have child pornography on my stuff. Didn’t have it at the time, never had it. I wasn’t concerned about that. I thought they were going to come back for my thumb drives. From that moment, I knew they wanted my server and they wanted information related to Anonymous.”

[H]ere’s the bottom line about all of this: Matt’s been with us all his life, except for when he came up here [to Canada] to go to college; we know he’s not a pedophile.
—Paul DeHart

Either way, it was distressing. “I got a call from Matt,” Paul, said. “He was real upset. I knew something was up, he didn’t tell me over the phone so I rushed home.” Matt told his dad about the police raid and what they said they were looking for. And then, sitting together amid the mess of the search, their floor littered with discarded latex gloves, Matt told his father for the first time about his involvement in Anonymous. “That was interesting,” Paul said. “We didn’t know anything about it.”

The child porn allegation is harder to digest. “It is hard to talk about this,” the father said. “But here’s the bottom line about all of this: Matt’s been with us all his life, except for when he came up here [to Canada] to go to college; we know he’s not a pedophile. He’s never had a proclivity for anything like that. All the time he’s been in youth groups he hasn’t tried to hang around with kids or anything like that.”

Added Leann, “I used to clean his room and look at his computers, you know? Nothing. Nothing.” Matt’s parents said the unanswered questions were traumatic.

“When we’re trying to process all of this, without exaggerating, for the first week we couldn’t get through an hour without breaking down and crying, not even an hour,” said Paul. “And sleeping at night? Forget about that.” In 2005, their house had been hit by an F4 tornado, the second-most powerful type on the tornado intensity scale, almost destroying it as they huddled together. “This was even scarier,” Paul said.

I used to fix people’s computers. That was my job. That was my livelihood. Now all of my equipment to do that was gone.
— Matt DeHart

Confused, worried, panicked, Matt took the family car and drove south to Mexico with his two encrypted thumb drives, which he said contained Anonymous contact information, server logs from The Shell and — “hypothetically” he said, trying to maintain some caution — documents from his military unit. He mailed one drive to a contact in Britain, the other to someone in the United States, with notes asking they be kept safe. Then, he came home. “I didn’t have to return to the United States. I had cash with me, I was right next to an airport, I could have flown anywhere. I had my passport. I had no criminal charges in the United States; they just executed a search warrant. But I crossed back into the United States.” Life has not been the same.

The DeHarts thought things would move quickly. They figured if any child pornography was found, police would come and arrest Matt. If nothing was found, as they said they expected, the investigation would be formally closed. As for Matt, he was fully expecting the FBI agents to return at any moment for the thumb drives they had missed. Instead, nothing seemed to happen and Matt found himself at loose ends. “I used to fix people’s computers. That was my job. That was my livelihood. Now all of my equipment to do that was gone,” he said. “They took all that stuff. I couldn’t work.” Waiting and wondering about his future was excruciating. Anxious to be proactive, Matt hatched a plan that, in hindsight, he admitted was crazy. He planned to defect to the enemy.

After the FBI raided the DeHart’s home, officially looking for child pornography but, Matt believed, really investigating his links to Anonymous, he no longer felt safe. So he decided to visit the Russian embassy.

Chapter 3 - "I was gone. I was broken"

WASHINGTON, D.C., 2010 Paul DeHart drove his son Matt in the family’s black Honda CRV through the snow-covered streets of Washington, toward Wisconsin Avenue, a major thoroughfare bisecting the capital from the Potomac River. Paul pulled to a stop near the U.S. Naval Observatory property, where the official residence of the Vice President sits.

It had been a sombre 1,100-kilometre drive through a late-winter storm from their home in Indiana and, if the DeHarts were aware of either of these D.C. landmarks, neither was on their minds that day. Their destination was a couple of blocks further along: 2650 Wisconsin Ave., home of the embassy of the Russian Federation. It is one of the largest and most distinctive embassies in the capital, partly because of its Soviet architecture but mostly for the Cold War-era security around it.

Father and son said emotional goodbyes.

“I have to leave, I’m sorry,” Matt recalled saying. “That shook up our whole family because we are very close.” After the FBI raid, he said, he no longer felt safe.

Matt had planned to take the bus to Washington, but the approaching storm and the possibility of not seeing each other again led his father to insist on driving him.

“I wanted to be able to spend some time together, if this was to be the last time I saw him,” said Paul. “I didn’t think I’d ever see him again, but is that better than him being killed? There are things worse than death. I’m having this thought of my son driven insane. I don’t think there was anything I could say to talk him out of it, anyways.”

Said Matt, “It was extremely sad. I believed that would be the last time I’d speak with my dad, that after I talked to the Russians they would take me out of the country.”

I believed that would be the last time I’d speak with my dad, that after I talked to the Russians they would take me out of the country.
— Matt DeHart

Matt went to the rear security gates off Tunlaw Road, rather than the grander front gates on Wisconsin Avenue. A woman behind thick glass asked him if he was applying for a travel visa.

“No,” he recalled saying. He held up his U.S. military identification card. “I’d like to talk to someone about employment.”

The woman looked at the card for a moment, looked back at him, and told him to go to the door reserved for embassy employees. At the second entrance, he passed through a metal detector and was buzzed through a secure door. She photocopied his I.D. card and returned it. Inside, Matt sat nervously in a waiting area until a man in a dark suit, dark tie and a white shirt greeted him.

The Russian introduced himself as Evgeny. Matt had been contemplating his opening line.

“I’m a member of the U.S. military. I’d like to work for your government,” he recalled saying. “I told him I was a former member of the Air National Guard, United States Air Force reserve component in drone operations. That was the buzzword — everyone wants information on [drones]. Any country that is potentially hostile to the United States wants to know more about that. So you are automatically important to them,” he said.

Evgeny asked him to return after lunch while he gathered the right people to talk to him.

Matt left a little deflated, walked five minutes down Wisconsin to a Starbucks, where he ordered a bagel with cream cheese. (He didn’t know it at the time, but someone was secretly watching; the Federal Bureau of Investigation later showed him high-resolution photographs of him at the coffee shop.)

Returning to the embassy, Matt was led by Evgeny to a conference room that appeared to be a signals-secure area. He saw what looked like copper mesh over the windows and noise-cancelling equipment to one side, along with electronic devices he assumed were cellphone signal jammers and recorders, Matt said.

Two casually dressed men, wearing shirts without ties under black leather jackets, joined them. Matt told them he worked in the drone program and with Anonymous. That second part seemed to interest the Russians more.

“They tried to shake me down for information; told me it wasn’t practical for them to get me out [of the country]. They said they’d pay me for this information. I wasn’t going to do that. Take me as an employee, but I’m not selling you information. I wasn’t in the military anymore so it was not like I had a ready supply of information, and, personally, I wouldn’t do that. I haven’t done that,” Matt said.

One of the Russians seemed to be a military official, asking technical questions about drones, questions Matt did not know detailed answers to, although he tried to fake it, he said. The other questioned him about Anonymous and WikiLeaks, and seemed most interested in how WikiLeaks received and shared its information.

They spoke for hours, with Matt playing a careful game of trying to whet their appetite without giving away too much, he said. His enthusiasm for the Russians waned as it became clear they weren’t going to smuggle him out of the U.S. By evening, they wrapped up.

“If you guys want to talk to me again, if you want my offer, you can contact me at this email address,” he recalls telling them, but he never checked the email account after that, he said.

The next day he tried again, this time at the Venezuelan embassy. If the Russian embassy visit was a letdown, his stop at the Venezuelan embassy was a fiasco.

“They are unprofessional. They are not organized. They didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know what questions to ask, really. They said I’d have to fly to their country if I wanted to work there and that wasn’t going to happen.”

Matt says he looks back at his attempted defection now, and is filled with regret and embarrassment.

“Why did I choose those countries? They are countries naturally opposed, hostile, to the United States,” he said. “It wasn’t to work against the United States government it’s just, I literally had nothing else to do. I didn’t sell secrets. I was just trying to leave.

“Was it distasteful? Yeah. Would I do it again? No. I was just kind of thumbing my nose at the United States because I was pissed off they did what they did to me.”

Was it distasteful? Yeah. Would I do it again? No. I was just kind of thumbing my nose at the United States because I was pissed off they did what they did to me.
— Matt DeHart

The FBI, however, had reason to believe something else might be behind his embassy visit, a scenario that would be revealed only later, through classified documents.

Although Matt’s interest in defecting dissipated, he said, his desire for a change of scenery and a new career did not. This time, though, his plan was more demure.

He looked north to Canada. Matt and his parents, Paul and Leann, had holidayed there before. When Matt was in the fifth grade, he had even written to the Canadian government and was sent a pile of travel brochures and information. Together, Matt and his parents researched language training and career college options with an eye on a legal move for Matt, and eventually citizenship in Canada, rather than clandestine flight.

“He’s prone to depression,” said Paul, recalling their thinking at the time. “We think he needs to get out of this environment or he is going to spiral down, anyone would.”

Coming to Canada was also seen as a test.

“Here’s our logic,” said Paul. “We’d apply for him to get an updated passport; if there is going to be any problem we’ll find out then. If there are any problems with him, they’re not going to give him a passport. We applied for that in March of 2010; they sent it to us in less than a month.”

Matt then enrolled in an eight–week French immersion course with ILSC-Montreal, starting in April 2010. He stayed with other international students at the home of a Montreal woman. He lamented he was too stressed out to pay close attention in class.

“Je ne parle pas français, désolé,” he said, grinning.

Then, he decided to study welding in Prince Edward Island.

“I figured I’d try something that had nothing to do with computers. I felt good going to Canada.”

After the server scare and police search, and seeing what was happening over the WikiLeaks revelations, it seemed a good time to step back from his online dissidence, he said.

“They think of WikiLeaks like Al-Qaeda,” he said of the U.S. government. “I needed to move away from it all. I [still] talked to a few people on the computer but I generally completely disassociated myself with anything to do with Anonymous.”

Matt’s parents drove him to Charlottetown, settling him into a studio apartment near Holland College campus. They paid his tuition in the welding program but, as a foreign national, to go to school in Canada he needed a student visa, which can only be processed from outside the country.

On Aug. 5, 2010, Matt took a bus to St. Stephen, N.B., a border town on the St. Croix River that separates it from Calais, Me. The next morning, the owner of the hotel where he spent the night called him a cab for the drive to the closest bridge to the U.S. He walked across and, inside the border patrol office, handed over his U.S. passport.

“One of the border guys scans it, looks at me, scans it again, looks at me again. He goes back into an office for 30-40 seconds and then the door opens, two guys run out — just sprint out of there. They block off the exit door,” Matt said.

He was told to drop his backpack. Handcuffed, he sat as the officers engaged in a flurry of phone calls and faxes. After a while, FBI agents arrived and took control of him. He was put in a U.S. border patrol vehicle, driven by an FBI agent, and taken to Calais’s large International Avenue Immigration & Customs Enforcement facility, where the border’s commercial traffic is processed.

I had my lawyer’s card in my wallet, sitting right in my wallet, which they took. They took my cellphone, wouldn’t let me talk to anyone.
— Matt DeHart

There, according both to Matt and official FBI records, he was placed in a detention cell for questioning. He grew increasingly frustrated and agitated.

“I’m having a fit because this whole time I must have asked 50, 100 times, to talk to my lawyer. I had my lawyer’s card in my wallet, sitting right in my wallet, which they took. They took my cellphone, wouldn’t let me talk to anyone.”

It is here his story became hardest for Matt to tell. His breathing grew heavy and his voice frequently broke. He paused often while he fought to regain composure. He then appeared embarrassed with his emotions, looking away or feigning to be intently reading something.

“It’s hard. Bear with me please,” he said.

He was looking for the words to express his allegations of torture.

CALAIS, MAINE, 2010 On Aug. 6, 2010, Matt DeHart was taken from a cell inside the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention centre in Calais, Maine, after crossing from Canada, and led to what looked like a medical office, he said. Steered past a bed covered by a long sheet of white paper, he was pushed into a seat resembling a dentist’s chair.

“Another guy comes in, in a lab coat,” Matt said, his words coming in short bursts between deep inhales of air. “They sat me down in this chair, forcibly took my arm and they gave me an IV. Seriously, they held my arm down and stuck me with an [intravenous needle].”

He thought they were just drawing blood until the man in the lab coat hooked up a drip bag, used for administering fluids, not drawing them out.

“Your mind is already blown from all the other stuff, but a forced IV?” he said. Matt believes he was drugged, although he doesn’t know with what. He was then taken to a private room to meet two agents from the FBI.

“They started asking me questions. They started with people in my military unit, what the connection was between them, me and the Russian embassy; and then started asking me about connections between people in my military unit and Anonymous.” They also asked about WikiLeaks, he said, fuelling Matt’s belief his link to the Internet’s most prominent hackers and whistleblowers was driving his predicament.

They started with people in my military unit, what the connection was between them, me and the Russian embassy.
— Matt DeHart

“This lasted a long time. They wouldn’t let me leave. I wasn’t charged with anything, they said, ‘We’re questioning you for national security.’ They didn’t ask me a single thing about child pornography. That was not even a peripheral concern of theirs,” Matt said.

“When you have rights that you know that you have from when you were a kid, and then you’re told they don’t exist because it is national security, that kind of changes things. Is this really happening? And you realize nobody is going to stop these guys.”

Matt DeHart, right, returns to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada with his parents, Paul and Leann DeHart, on April 7, 2014. (Matthew Sherwood for National Post)

That evening, an agent showed him a criminal complaint — drafted only that afternoon — accusing him of soliciting the production of child pornography back in 2008, according to both Matt and FBI records.

“I looked the guy in the eye and said, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and he said, ‘I know,’ ” Matt claimed.

“He said that to me. And I swear that to you. If they have the transcript produced, that would be the end of it, that would be the end of it right there. But it wasn’t the end of it.” Matt was then transferred to the Penobscot County jail in Bangor, Maine, but kept in segregation.

“The next thing I remember is I’m laying in an ambulance looking up at the ceiling of an ambulance. What happened is, at some period while I was at the jail, I don’t know what was going on, I had collapsed,” he said.

According to prison records, Matt was taken to Eastern Maine Medical Center on Aug. 7, 2010. Hospital records confirm jail guards brought him to the emergency room. The young man was suffering “eye discomfort, possible pesticide exposure” and “acute mental status change, psychosis,” hospital records say. He was restless, agitated, quivering and had a rapid heart rate, the doctor wrote after examining him.

“He appears to be paranoid and delusional with an idea of the FBI monitoring him and accusing him of espionage,” the doctor wrote, unaware the claims were real.

Diagnosis: acute psychosis, tachycardia and tremors, “most consistent with possible drug-induced psychosis such as secondary to amphetamines, cocaine, or other stimulant medication,” the physician wrote, at least 17 hours after his arrest.

He appears paranoid and delusional with an idea of the FBI monitoring him and accusing him of espionage.
— doctor at Eastern Maine Medical Center

The eye pain, the doctor surmised, was likely caused by Matt’s contact lenses being left in for 36 hours. The doctor’s notes say he discussed with jail officials “at length that the patient requires psychiatric evaluation while he is incarcerated.” There is no record of follow-up treatment by prison authorities, but there is a record of more interrogations.

“Something bad happened that day and they kept interrogating me,” Matt said. “I absolutely felt tortured. They aren’t attaching electrodes to you but it’s more insidious. It’s much more insidious.”

The FBI declined to comment on Matt’s allegations, saying the criminal charges remained unresolved and his case might lead to a U.S. request for Matt to be extradited from Canada. But in previously secret documents, the bureau revealed something else happened during these interrogations.

Two years after Matt’s arrest, the U.S. Department of Justice finally admitted there were classified reports on him. The documents confirm he was arrested after crossing the border from Canada “for questioning in an espionage matter.” Another document calls it a “national security investigation.” There is no mention of pornography.

The government’s documents say FBI agents interviewed Matt on Aug. 6, 7 and 20, 2010. They asked him about online aliases and email accounts; people in his World of Warcraft guild and in his military unit; the encryption software he used; and his cellphones.

After each interview, the agents typed out a summary, as is the FBI’s practice, on a form called an FD-302. Two of those FD-302 reports are so sensitive they could not be released, even in court. The summary of Matt’s first interview was, however, finally vetted, submitted in court and obtained by the National Post.

It adds another bizarre layer to the case.

The FBI document confirms that on the evening of Aug. 6, agents told Matt he would be charged with production of child pornography. It was then, the document says, he declared he “hasn’t been quite forthright” about his embassy visit, but would now come clean.

The FBI document recounts Matt’s new story, that when he was in the Air National Guard he met airmen interested in selling military secrets. One had remote access to a U.S. Department of Defense portal and another had a relative working with Air Force Special Operations, and Matt agreed to be their salesman.

He was told he would be paid approximately $100,000 per month if the intelligence he gave was good.
— FBI documents

That was what sparked his embassy visit, the document says, and Evgeny, the Russian, had told Matt he would have to contact the Russians from outside the United States if he wanted to close a deal.

“That is the reason DeHart moved to Canada,” the FBI’s summary says. Evgeny supposedly set up a Russian contact for Matt in Canada. “He was told he would be paid approximately $100,000 per month if the intelligence he gave was good” and was directed to send a secure data archive to a Russian contact in Canada. “He was supposed to meet his new contact in the Russian embassy in Ottawa on Saturday, Aug. 21, and they would give him a list of what they needed.”

By the end of that day’s questioning, Matt offered to co-operate with the FBI in a sting operation against the Russians and the airmen, the summary says.

Matt says the FBI account of his interrogation is “laughably inaccurate.” He has never been to Ottawa, is not a spy nor even a would-be spy, he said.

“I would have told them anything” because of the torture, he said. “Information that is derived from torture, to use it against somebody, is ridiculous. It’s garbage. I already said it’s not true.”

The FBI report brings new questions: Which version of Matt’s story of his embassy visit is true? What impact did his apparent psychotic breakdown and interrogation — if not torture — have on what he said? And if all these shocking revelations appear in the one report released to the court, what is in the two others deemed too sensitive to reveal?

Matt said the subsequent interviews were when he was grilled about Anonymous and WikiLeaks. His interrogations certainly came at an intense time in the United States, in the midst of the damaging leaks of military data and diplomatic cables through WikiLeaks and less than five weeks after Anna Chapman and nine others were arrested in New York as part of a Russian spy ring.

Former Russian spy Anna Chapman in Moscow, Russia, June 3, 2011. (Andrey Rudakov / Bloomberg)

One other thing happened while Matt was in custody, something both Matt and the FBI agree on: He relinquished control of his online accounts to the FBI.

The U.S. Department of Justice said in court it has no records of Matt being interviewed on Aug. 18, 2010, but it was on that date — 12 days after his arrest — that Matt signed consent forms, listing several email accounts and their passwords and authorizing agents to assume his online identity, U.S. government documents show. It allowed federal agents to pretend to be him in cyberspace.

Among the accounts — authorized in a separate document from the others — was a Hushmail account (an email service allowing authenticated, encrypted messages) in the name of “Fawkes,” the name of the inspiration behind the Anonymous mask.

They are becoming you on the Internet — specifically for the purpose of going after Anonymous.
— Matt DeHart

“They are becoming you on the Internet — specifically for the purpose of going after Anonymous. Fawkes has nothing to do with the Russian embassy, it was entirely [about] Anonymous. I don’t know what they did on my accounts but that was the thing they wanted to get the most,” Matt said.

He also signed permission for “any FBI agent” and “any Canadian law enforcement” to record his phone calls with his old military colleagues, according to the signed consent form.

There is precedent for the FBI turning nabbed hackers into informants.

In 2011, Hector Xavier Monsegur, a hacker known by the alias Sabu, was arrested and secretly used by the bureau to infiltrate Anonymous and offshoot hacking groups, Lulzsec and Antisec. Among those caught in the trap and arrested was Jeremy Hammond, accused of the 2011 email hacking of Strategic Forecasting Inc., a global intelligence company known as Stratfor. Matt believes the FBI used his online identity and his hidden server, The Shell, to enable Sabu or other informants to entrap targets — perhaps Hammond himself — by offering them a supposedly trusted place to upload hacked or leaked material.

Jeremy Hammond was sentenced to ten years for his involvement in cyber-attacks. (Cook County Sheriff’s Department / AP)

When the FBI goes after a typical criminal organization, like the Mafia, it drafts hierarchical charts to work its way to the top. In Anonymous, which has no real hierarchy, investigators instead work to connect real names to online aliases, find out what they do in the group and then track their links to other members. Since members of Anonymous usually deal with each other only in a virtual world, they take it on trust it is a colleague, not an FBI agent, at the other end of the transmission. Assuming an online identity is a uniquely powerful tool to attack Anonymous, turning its greatest strength into its biggest liability.

Matt said his consent for the FBI to assume his online identity, something he held dear, came only through coercion.

In between interrogations, he was kept in a dry cell — with no sink or toilet — and not allowed food or water. He was told to defecate in a drain on the floor, but when he did, guards yelled and poured bleach over him, he said. All he was offered was Kool-Aid, used to wash down pills. If he didn’t take the unknown pills, he didn’t get to drink. (He said he once saw a pill package, it was labelled Thorazine, an old anti-psychotic drug. Matt’s doctor later complained that Matt was cut off from his normal medication cold turkey, which can have discomforting and disorienting side effects, and given alternate medication he had never been prescribed before.)

In between interrogations, Matt DeHart says he was kept in a dry cell — with no sink or toilet — and not allowed food or water. (Peter J. Thompson/National Post)

Bright lights were always on and guards banged on his cell every 15 or 20 minutes, making sleep impossible. Once, they took him to a back room and strapped him naked into a “submission chair” with a bag over his head, he said. He later found burn marks on his arm, he assumes from a Taser but he isn’t sure.

Matt said two “serious guys” from Washington questioned him for hours and the only time he got to eat was during these interrogations.

“They brought a Coca-Cola one time, brought fruit, cold fruit, another time, and they brought a Baby Ruth candy bar a third — that’s how I remember that there were at least three times I was interviewed.

I was incommunicado. You look forward to talking to the FBI even though you know they are working against you.
— Matt DeHart

“I thought I was going to die that week when I was in there, that these people are going to leave me here. I couldn’t call any of my family members, I couldn’t call a lawyer. I was incommunicado. You look forward to talking to the FBI even though you know they are working against you.

“I was gone. I was broken. I can’t put it any other way.”

Meanwhile, his parents had not heard from him in several days and had no idea what was happening. Their son’s silence terrified them.

“We tried to call his phone and the voicemail message on his phone had been changed. It wasn’t his voice. And they pronounced his name wrong on the message,” said Paul. The new message said DAY-heart but Matt says it duh-HEART.

Their first news about their son came in the form of hospital bills that arrived after Matt’s treatment at the emergency room. They would finally talk to their son by telephone, but the frightful circumstances of the call only fuelled their sense of terror.

Chapter 4 - "No apparent danger"

BANGOR, MAINE, 2010 As his whirlwind first appearance in court drew to a close on Aug. 11, 2010, Matt DeHart started to stand so a U.S. marshal could handcuff him and return him to jail. He then abruptly slumped back down and slowly slid out of the chair and onto the courtroom floor.

He lay shaking and sobbing, not responding to questions from the federal marshal or the public defender assigned to his case. The lawyer phoned Matt’s dad in Indiana and held his cellphone to the young man’s ear to soothe him. “After making unintelligible responses” he gradually returned to some coherence, reported Judy Harrison, who was covering the litany of cases being heard that day for the Bangor Daily News.

Matt was eventually led out of court and returned to jail.

“Talking to him on the phone, he sounded like a zombie,” said Paul DeHart, Matt’s father.

Even before Matt’s brief hearing ended with such drama, Judge Margaret Kravchuk had already branded his court appearance that day as “odd.”

The court docket listed his arrest as taking place two days after it really had. After struggling to confirm the proper date — Aug. 6 — the judge wondered why Matt had not been brought to court before now. She also asked why the government had pulled out such seemingly stale pornography allegations — two years old — but was now arguing Matt posed a serious danger to the community. She even noted Matt’s computers had not even been analyzed for evidence of pornography seven months after they had been seized.

“Doesn’t it strike you as odd that a year goes by without anything happening in this case, and there’s no apparent danger to the community, and then the search warrant’s executed [on Matt’s home] six, seven, eight months ago now and nothing dangerous happens to the community?” And why was it, she continued, that it was not until after Matt’s arrest by immigration authorities in Maine that police drafted a criminal complaint based on the 2008 allegations in Tennessee?

They were good questions. The judge did not seem to know that Matt had actually been arrested at the border because of an espionage alert and was then held in custody while secretly questioned for days.

Even with her questions unanswered, however, the judge’s concerns did not mitigate the seriousness of the child pornography charges he faced. Matt was ordered detained and transferred to Tennessee for trial.

Over the next 21 months, with their son incarcerated, Paul and Leann went through several lawyers and drained their retirement funds on expensive computer experts, who were retained but were not granted access to much of the evidence, although Tennessee police would finally get around to examining the machines. The DeHarts sold their Indiana house to cover their mounting costs. What they wanted most was for the government to acknowledge Matt was actually arrested in a national security probe and the porn charge was merely an unfair means to an end.

In May 2012, hope appeared.

Tennessee Judge Aleta Trauger was considering a bail release motion for Matt. The U.S. Department of Justice allowed her to read classified government material about Matt behind closed doors. During the bail release hearing, she also heard the evidence for the porn charges.

There isn’t a huge gulf between what Matt says happened and what the detective investigating Matt for child pornography alleges happened — apart from the crucial element of the child pornography itself.

What eventually led to the porn charges started two years earlier, when two computer-savvy teenaged boys from Franklin, Tenn., joined Matt’s “guild” in the online role-playing game World of Warcraft. (Because their identities are protected by court order, this story will refer to them by the pseudonyms Carl and Sergei.) Although police refer to them both as “victims,” the charges relate only to one: Carl, who was age 14 at the time.

Doesn’t it strike you as odd that a year goes by without anything happening in this case, and there’s no apparent danger to the community, and then the search warrant’s executed.
— Judge Margaret Kravchuk

The teens became part of a virtual life of raids and guild chats where Matt, in the guise of a fierce dwarf named Kaiser, was somebody important. Sergei was also involved with Matt in Anonymous, the hacktivist group.

During a guild chat, Matt, who was then living in Indiana, and was a new recruit in the Air National Guard, announced he wouldn’t be online for a few days because he was visiting a female friend who was attending a Tennessee college. Sergei said he lived near the campus and asked if they could meet, Matt said, an account not contested by police.

They had lunch at a now-closed Wolfgang Puck Express. Police said Matt gave Sergei, then age 16, beer and Adderall, a drug Matt had been prescribed for his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and took him to a gun range. Matt said there was no beer or guns, but he did snap an Adderall capsule in two and gave Sergei half when he asked for some. Everyone agrees there was no sexual contact.

Sergei, who was in a feud with Carl at the time, asked Matt — because he had a car — if he would drive to buy rolls of toilet paper so he could later prank Carl by hurling them at Carl’s house. Matt agreed. Police, in court, confirmed the toilet paper prank, saying Carl had blamed it on Matt when his parents asked.

Police said Matt also met Carl in Tennessee, although Matt denies this and Carl could not identify Matt from a photo lineup shown to him by detectives. The toilet paper prank, nonetheless, was a catalyst for the parents of both youths to probe their sons’ online affairs.

In January 2009, Carl’s mother called police with various concerns about her son’s contact with a man he had met online, someone who went by the name Matthew DiMarco and who passed himself off as the son of a New York Mafia boss. Detective Brett Kniss, a decorated officer with the Franklin Police Department, was assigned to investigate. He told court he learned DiMarco was an alias used by Matt DeHart.

Det. Kniss alleged Matt also pretended to be a young female and tricked Carl into sending him nude pictures of himself.

The only child pornography police ultimately found — despite all the hardware seized from Matt in the U.S. and Canada — was on Carl’s computer. In a sworn affidavit filed in court, Det. Kniss says “short video clips” of Carl masturbating were found on Carl’s machine. Also found on Carl’s computer was a video of a teenage minor female “masturbating herself on a bed.” The detective also said Carl’s mother had found a photo of a nude female on her son’s cellphone, which sparked the police involvement.

There is no indication police made any moves to charge Carl with possession of child pornography; the discovery of child porn on one’s computer might, however, give someone powerful incentive to quickly point a panicky finger elsewhere.

Det. Kniss said a search of “various investigative databases” identified Matt as pretending to be teen girls interested in Carl. The Internet Protocol addresses of the “alleged teenage girls,” however, could not be traced because police did not look for them in time, suggesting the investigation had not been aggressively pursued at the time. The detective was asked if he ever proved there were not real teen girls sexting with Carl: “I have not been able to prove that they don’t exist,” Det. Kniss said, according to the court transcript.

The detective said he “recovered chat fragments” from Matt’s computers showing online text conversations between Matt and Carl. He included an excerpt of the chats in his affidavit, but instead of copying the actual scripts, police retyped them, inserting “Minor #1” and “Suspect” in place of the real chat names. The chat Det. Kniss reproduced is a highly sexual conversation.

In this, Matt thinks he has a smoking gun disproving the child porn allegation.

In a recent hearing in Toronto before the Immigration and Refugee Board, which theNational Post made formal motions to allow a reporter to attend, Matt presented what he and his lawyer claim is the real chat log — before police recreated it. Matt said he got the chat log from Sergei because Sergei was also involved in Anonymous and both feared Carl might reveal their hacker links. (In court, Det. Kniss confirmed Sergei was helping Matt behind the scenes.)

This version of Carl’s chat takes place at the exact same time and day — to the very second — as the one provided by police in its criminal complaint. While some introductory portions are almost identical, where Det. Kniss’s version turns smutty — “can u make urs more graphic” and “whens the last time you cummed” — Matt’s version reveals a conversation with a female Carl seems to be friends with in real life and features no sexual content at all. But there is a passing reference to Anonymous.

Which version of the chat is the real one? Did the detective incorrectly re-assemble the “recovered chat fragments”? Or, as Matt’s lawyer, Lily Tekle, told the IRB, was it “doctored” by police to aid the espionage probe against Matt?

Boosting Matt’s claim is an alibi: he could not have been on the other end of the keyboard during the chat, he testified at the IRB, because at the time — mid-afternoon on Sunday, May 18, 2008 — he was at drill on his military base doing his required reserve training.

Det. Kniss is no longer with the Franklin Police Department and could not be reached for this story. A spokesman for the force declined to comment on his investigation.

In Judge Trauger’s courtroom in Tennessee, during Matt’s 2012 bail hearing, court also heard directly from the mother of the alleged victim, Carl.

She said she became concerned when she heard Matt being “vile” and “domineering in his tone” over the voice chat feature of World of Warcraft, court transcripts show. After talking to Sergei’s mom and calling police with her concerns, Carl’s mom phoned Matt, with a detective secretly listening in.

I asked him how old he was. He was very giggly, and I even asked to speak to his mom.
— Carl’s mother

“[I was] asking him why he was, you know, contacting my son, and that we asked him not to continue to contact him. I asked him how old he was. He was very giggly, and I even asked to speak to his mom,” she testified. No mention was made during that call of inappropriate photos, according to her testimony. She spoke of him yelling during games and of the toilet paper prank but didn’t seem concerned about anything sexual.

“At one point my son was texted by what he thought was a female, but he did not respond. It was no one that he knew,” she told court.

In fact, she said she had no knowledge of a nude photo being on Carl’s phone, despite Det. Kniss saying her discovery of such a picture sparked his investigation. The court may never know what was on the phone as it was not retained as evidence.

There was one other thing collected as case evidence from Matt’s computer: screenshots of WikiLeak’s web page. Matt’s U.S. lawyer at the time, Mark Scruggs, pointed to that, arguing the case “was really and truly all about” Matt’s forays into hacktivism with Anonymous and his subsequent visit to the Russian embassy.

Referring to the secret material she had read, Judge Trauger agreed, saying, “I have had an opportunity to review in camera [confidential] documents that also reflect some of that.”

In rebuttal, U.S. prosecutor Carran Daughtrey described Matt as “your classic sexual child predator.” She disputed Matt’s connections to Anonymous, saying, “There’s no reports that I have seen, or that I’m aware of, that detail any information about that.”

Judge Trauger stopped her.

“Well, you know that there was such an investigation,” the judge said. “There was such an investigation.”

The judge had been involved with Matt’s case since 2010, when Matt was transferred to Tennessee after his arrest in Maine. She had previously ordered he remain in jail after the government said he was a danger and a flight risk. But on May 22, 2012, after hearing the porn evidence and reading classified reports, she decided it was safe to release him, with a curfew and monitoring bracelet, pending his trial.

“The other investigation, the national security investigation, the court has learned much more about,” Judge Trauger said in her ruling.

He thought that the search for child pornography was really a ruse to try to get the proof about his extracurricular national security issues. I found him very credible on that issue.
— Judge Aleta Trauger

“I can easily understand why this defendant was much more focused on that [national security] investigation, much more afraid of that investigation, which was propelling his actions at that time. He thought that the search for child pornography was really a ruse to try to get the proof about his extracurricular national security issues. I found him very credible on that issue.”

Judge Trauger also questioned the strength of the government’s porn evidence.

“Obviously, child pornography charges are serious offences,” she said. “I have learned several aspects of this case which, in the court’s mind, indicate the weight of the evidence is not as firm as I thought it was.”

Outside court, Paul and Leann DeHart saw their son in civilian clothes for the first time in two years. They hugged and cried. But their ordeal was not over.

Matt chose a specific day to personally file a motion with the Tennessee court to have his case dismissed: Nov. 5, 2012 — Guy Fawkes Day, the British holiday sharing a name with the mask that Anonymous adopted as its logo. That motion, however, would never be heard.

Chapter 5 - "Every minute is precious"

FORT FRANCES, ONT., 2013 Matt DeHart and his father, Paul, took turns driving a pick-up truck, borrowed from a church friend, during their 23-hour drive north from Indiana, with Paul making sure he was behind the wheel when they reached the border crossing from Minnesota to Fort Frances, Ont.

Paul paid the US$6 fee to cross the bridge and the family rolled to a stop at the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) post on the other side. Paul handed over his and his wife Leann’s passports and identity cards showing they are retired members of the U.S. military; because Matt’s passport had been confiscated by the Tennessee court when releasing him on bail, they turned in Matt’s birth certificate with his expired military ID. Paul then said they were U.S. citizens fleeing their country and making an asylum claim in accordance with the United Nations’ convention against torture.

The border guard stared at them wide-eyed.

That reaction made the DeHarts feel their choice of this remote border post was the right one. They had done their best to move covertly until they crossed the border: they had packed the few things they took with them into Leann’s car at night and then drove to the church where Paul was a pastor and swapped the car for their friend’s truck; Matt cut off his court-ordered monitoring bracelet and left it behind in a graveyard.

It was about 5 p.m. on April 3, 2013, when they entered Canada. Their reception was cordial. They spoke with CBSA officers for hours until, about midnight, they were told to drive to a nearby motel.

The next morning, the DeHarts presented hundreds of pages of documents to CBSA officers to support their asylum claim and two encrypted computer thumb drives of Matt’s. These were the thumb drives Matt had kept hidden for years after the FBI searched his house in 2010. The drives, he said, contain secrets on the hacktivist group Anonymous, his hidden server called The Shell, and his military unit. (Matt had mailed the drives to trusted contacts while he was in Mexico after the FBI raid on his house in 2010 and had since retrieved them, he said.)

The DeHarts then told border agents their story: about Anonymous, the secret document, the Russian embassy, his alleged torture; and about child porn charges against him in Tennessee.

“I don’t think they knew what to do,” said Matt. “They were getting lots of faxes.”

CBSA gave back all the documents, but kept the thumb drives. Matt was then arrested and jailed. Agents cited the unresolved porn charge but also declared him a foreign national “engaging in an act of espionage that is against Canada or that is contrary to Canada’s interests.”

This was their welcome to Canada.

Paul and Leann considered themselves American patriots; they love their country and had faith in their government. But their trust had evaporated.

I don’t think they knew what to do. They were getting lots of faxes.
— Matt DeHart

“We were fighting within the justice system of the United States and it just wasn’t working. I cannot describe to you what it feels like to have the weight of the most powerful nation in the world against you and you can do absolutely nothing about it,” Paul said. “We honestly believe this is what was happening: They were working to have him declared mentally incompetent so that his attorney could negotiate a deal with the prosecution without his participation and he would be put away without any recourse.”

There was a final trigger for their flight to Canada: The fate of Aaron Swartz.

Mr. Swartz was a geek hero who battled for Internet freedom, including making millions of public U.S. court documents available for free. In 2011, he was arrested for downloading academic journals, presumably with the same idealistic intent. Charged with hacking, he faced a draconian 50 years’ imprisonment and a US$1-million fine. After Washington rebuffed plea offers, he was found dead, hanged in his New York apartment in January 2013.

“Aaron Swartz had very similar psychological makeup, similar age, same circumstances as Matt,” said Paul.

“I do not want to wake up one day and find my son hanging from a rope in the garage of our house. And I have no place to go to bring this to anyone’s attention,” he said, breaking with emotion.

Leann, weeping, added, “Because the worst thing you could live with is not doing anything and let them get away with what they did.”

So the family decided to head north.

“Canada has the reputation of standing for humanitarian causes and human rights. At least you abide by international law, at least the convention against torture is something you signed off on and it’s not just lip service,” said Paul.

I do not want to wake up one day and find my son hanging from a rope in the garage of our house. And I have no place to go to bring this to anyone’s attention.
— Paul DeHart

Matt’s case in Canada was dealt with in secret for months. After his arrest by Canada’s border guards, agents with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service interviewed him and his case was assigned to CBSA’s security and war crimes unit, officials confirm. He had six private detention reviews by the Immigration and Refugee Board [IRB]; after each, he was ordered to remain in jail. CBSA argues he is not eligible to even claim asylum because of the porn charges and espionage allegations against him in the United States.

In August, the IRB released Matt on perhaps the strictest conditions it has ever imposed. He was under house arrest, allowed to leave his apartment only for medical and legal appointments. He had a GPS tracking device and a radio-frequency monitor locked to his ankle. He had to check in with CBSA every week. He could not use any computer or data device, not even a smartphone.

Still, Ottawa didn’t want him released and appealed the decision to the Federal Court of Canada, where a judge immediately slapped a confidentiality order on the hearing. The appeal was denied and the gag order then lifted.

On Sept. 5, 2013, Matt was released while his case works its way through the immigration and refugee tribunal.

BRAMPTON, ONT., 2014 Matt lifted a series of small, wooden tiles and placed them, one at a time, onto a board atop his parents’ bed, spelling the word ZINC for 15 points.

His gaming has changed since his arrival here, being banned in Canada from even touching an online device and with his laptop still in custody of U.S. authorities. His swashbuckling days of leading his World of Warcraft guild on raids are gone. So too, is any activism with Anonymous. His only raids now are on a pile of Scrabble tiles to replenish the letters in his rack.

The DeHarts share a small apartment in Brampton, west of Toronto. There is a bedroom for Matt, another for his parents, a bathroom and a tidy but cluttered kitchenette.

In Matt’s bedroom, a Bible sat near the bed, opened to the book of Psalms. A bookshelf was filled with science fiction. As if in homage to a hacker’s lifestyle, 30 empty cans of Monster energy drink were on his desk. For exercise he does pushups in his bedroom; he gets fresh air only through an open window. Among the few times he is allowed to leave is for counseling at the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture.

Ottawa does not dispute that Matt has post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition he said came from his suffering at the hands of his U.S. jailers. In a letter to the IRB, the CBSA wrote, “Mr. DeHart’s claim of PTSD and depression are not new diagnoses, they apparently existed prior to his arrival into Canada.”

Despite the severe restrictions, it was better than jail.

“For the last year, we’ve lived together as a family. We’ve been together,” said Leann. “Every minute is precious.”

While finding some measure of peace in Canada, the apparent use of child porn allegations to mask a national security probe have followed Matt to Canada.

Soon after his arrest by U.S. border guards, when he crossed into Maine so his student visa to attend college in Prince Edward Island could be processed, U.S. authorities contacted police in Charlottetown, PEI, where Matt was living at the time. They asked for his studio apartment to be searched as part of a child porn investigation. There, police seized a cellphone, a Toshiba laptop — found hidden in a microwave — and three hard drives, among other items, according to an inventory log, and turned them over as requested.

For the last year, we’ve lived together as a family. We’ve been together. Every minute is precious.
— Leann DeHart

At the time, Charlottetown police told local reporters they were helping U.S. authorities with a child porn probe and also making sure Matt hadn’t engaged in such activity while in town. Calls by the National Post to the Charlottetown detective on the case were not returned.

Strangely, the material seized from Matt’s Canadian apartment was not sent to Tennessee, where the porn allegations were being investigated, but rather to the FBI’s field office in Washington, D.C.. U.S. Department of Justice documents say the items were “provided by the Canadian government for [the] purpose of investigating the national security matter.” Two years after Matt was charged in the porn case, his computers had still not arrived in Tennessee.

Meanwhile, the DeHarts are battling for access to his encrypted thumb drives, which he gave the CBSA to support his refugee claim, mistakenly — perhaps naively — thinking they would be given to the tribunal deciding the family’s asylum claim instead of being seized by border agents. CBSA refuses to return them, but asked Matt to crack their encryption. It was Matt’s turn to refuse, fearing the contents will be given to U.S. authorities to be used against him in any national security probe.

The drives, he said, feature tamper-proof high security and will become useless if the wrong attempts are made to crack them. In April, IRB adjudicator Mary Heyes ruled that her board doesn’t have the power to force CBSA to return them to the DeHarts.

Matt’s case lumbered through the immigration and refugee process until last month, when his family life in Canada ended the same way it did in Indiana, with a knock at the door.

Over the Easter weekend, the DeHarts had been required by their Brampton landlord to move to another apartment within the same building. Paul informed the GPS monitoring company, Recovery Science Corp., which notified CBSA. On the day of the move, April 22, Stephen Tan, operations manager with Recovery Science, came to their new apartment to check on things. The monitoring was in place, Matt was secure, Mr. Tan confirmed. But there was an unnoticed snag.

The next morning, a CBSA officer and five police arrived at the DeHart’s door and arrested Matt for breaching his release terms, which required him to notify CBSA of any change of address in person. It was while in detention after that arrest that Matt apparently tried to harm himself twice, once using a T-shirt as a ligature and the other by smashing his head on the concrete floor of his cell.

On May 5, prison guards brought Matt to a videoconference room in the Central East Correctional Centre, near Peterborough, Ont., linked to an IRB hearing room in Toronto, for a mandatory detention review. Matt was barely recognizable — unkempt, his eyes red and swollen, his expression contorted. The IRB wanted to know if he was even well enough to proceed.

“I’m inhibited,” he said, referring to the sedatives he had been given in jail, “but I think I can understand.”

In the Toronto hearing room, his father, Paul, testified about the family’s efforts to comply with the strict conditions the IRB had imposed. As he spoke, behind him on the monitor, Matt’s face turned red, his mouth wrenched in a mournful, silent frown. Tears flowed. When the hearing adjourned for the day, a guard came to return him to his cell.

“See you later, dad. I love you,” Matt called out through the video link. Paul reached for a tissue and wiped his eyes.

By May 9, when the hearing resumed, Matt seemed more alert, less anguished. The suicide smock he had been forced to wear last time was gone; he was dressed in standard prison-orange. When a National Post reporter told him he looked better, he replied with a smile: “I’ve been upgraded. I get sheets and blankets now.”

I’m not suicidal. I’m distressed. I’m probably the most depressed I’ve ever been. But I have my parents, I’m thankful for that. And God.
— Matt DeHart

Matt told the IRB that jail guards had been calling him a child molester, a damning accusation anywhere but particularly dangerous in prison where inmates go to considerable lengths to hurt pedophiles.

“Did you diddle any more kids?” Matt said a guard asked him soon after he arrived. “I couldn’t take anymore. I had to put up with that in [prison in] the U.S. I put a T-shirt around my neck and I passed out.” Asked if he was suicidal, he replied, “I’m not suicidal. I’m distressed. I’m probably the most depressed I’ve ever been. But I have my parents, I’m thankful for that. And God.”

Matt begged for release, no matter the restrictions: “Chain me to a wall, I don’t care, I just want to be with my parents.”

But Andrew Laut, the IRB adjudicator, was troubled because Matt had fled from the U.S., and his parents, who would be supervising him in Canada, were the same people who had helped him get away. Mr. Laut deemed the risk of another desperate escape too great.

Matt testified that if Canada ordered him to return to the United States, he would comply — “I feel that would send a message, the same way Bradley Manning sent a message,” he said, referring to the U.S soldier imprisoned for giving classified military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks.

His release was denied.

It is difficult to know how much of Matt’s story is accurate. Anonymous, national security agencies, Russian spies and child pornographers all rely on secrecy and, when it suits them, the shadows. Matt’s mental health issues, after his diagnoses of a psychotic break and PTSD, further cloud the picture.

Neither should allegations of anyone tricking a young person into sending nude pictures be easily dismissed.

What appears certain, however, is Matt became a person of interest to U.S. federal authorities for other reasons — likely his hacktivism with Anonymous and his link to a classified document found on his hidden computer server, possibly meant for WikiLeaks; he was later detained and questioned because of a national security alert that was inevitably elevated by his foolhardy contact with the Russian embassy. Authorities, it seems, then scoured his past and found a moribund complaint in Tennessee, the original nature of which is in some dispute. Then — whether evidence supporting the child porn charge is accurate, sloppy or fabricated — it was used to great investigative effect in the national security probe, which always seemed the FBI’s pre-eminent concern. There is also sound evidence the original complaint, whether about porn or just parental concern over their teen son’s online contact with an adult male, had gone nowhere until Matt stumbled into national security intrigue.

“When you view some of the allegations that Matthew and his family are making, they kind of strike you as a little bit conspiratorial, a little bit crazy,” said Prof. Coleman, who researches Anonymous at McGill University.

“But in this post-WikiLeaks moment, where there have been many leaks that have shown how, under the mantle of security, law enforcement and intelligence organizations have really abused their power, I think we have to take these claims very seriously. This is something we can no longer ignore or brush under the rug as being a crazy conspiracy.

“This case is too important to ignore.”

If Matt is deemed inadmissible to Canada, his refugee asylum claim will never be heard. Pending the outcome of any appeal, he would be deported back to the United States.

If, however, he is allowed to have his claim heard, then, if history is a guide, his chances of being allowed to stay in Canada still remain slim. In 2013, only three of 221 claims for asylum from the United States were accepted, according to IRB figures; in the past 10 years, 64 of 4,543 claims from the U.S. were successful — just 1.4%.

That is not many, but it is some. And some is now what the DeHarts hang on to.

“We are at the mercy of whatever happens in the system,” said Paul. “We know it is likely not going to end up in our favour, we know that. But somebody will at least know what happened and that what happened to him is wrong.”

Matt’s case continues before the IRB.

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