A year or so ago, a reporter asked me for a comment on what I expected from the Trump administration vis-a-vis the treatment of whistleblowers. I was so down on the recently-departed Obama administration at the time that I said I expected Trump would see whistleblowers differently from Obama, who saw them as leakers and malcontents. I said nobody could be as bad as Obama was on whistleblowing and that I thought Trump and his administration might be easier to deal with.
That response was naive and just plain wrong. So far, the Trump Justice Department has been even tougher on whistleblowers, sentencing NSA whistleblower Reality Winner to an unprecedented five years and three months in a federal prison for having contact with the media. And former FBI agent Terry Albury was sentenced to a harsh four years in prison for sending a document related to racial discrimination in the FBI to The Intercept. Meanwhile, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has told the press that it is his department's "priority" to arrest and prosecute Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange.
It's easy to focus on national security whistleblowers, because they are generally the ones who get the most media attention. But there's another whistleblower who is being ignored by the press, one who blew the whistle for altruistic purposes, who may have saved a child's life, and who is looking at a decade behind bars. That whistleblower is Marty Gottesfeld.
I'll bet that you've never heard of Marty. He is a computer programmer and self-described member of Anonymous, the hacktivist group that tries to right wrongs the only way they know how -- via the internet. Marty intervened to help a young child being abused, quite literally, by the medical establishment. And he has paid for that with his freedom.
The story is a long one, but here are the basic details. Justina Pelletier was a young teenager in West Hartford, Connecticut. At the age of 14, she developed searing stomach pain and inexplicable digestive problems. Her parents took her to a series of doctors until a metabolic geneticist at Tufts Medical Center diagnosed her with mitochondrial disease, a genetic malady that can lead to weakened muscles, neurological problems, and dementia. (Justina's older sister was later diagnosed with the same disease.)
Her symptoms worsened over the course of the next 18 months until the pain was too much to bear. And to make matters worse, she caught the flu. That caused her to begin slurring her speech and made her unable to stand up. Finally, her parents took her to Boston Children's Hospital, a leading institution affiliated with Harvard University. It was there that doctors said Justina didn't have mitochondrial disease at all. They said she had mental illness and her symptoms were psychosomatic. They took her off her medications, but her parents refused to comply. When they went to take Justina home, they were blocked by hospital guards. The hospital took Justina into "state custody" and reported her parents to state officials for "medical child abuse." It was then that the case went off the rails. (Justina's parents complained that the doctors at Children's were far junior to her doctor at Tufts and were not specialized in genetic diseases.)
Justina was immediately transferred to the hospital's child psychiatric ward, where her condition worsened even more. She could no longer stand or walk and her hair fell out. Her toenails were actually ripped out when hospital staff dragged her, accusing her of refusing to walk. Justina was allowed one 20-minute call per week with her parents, but that call was monitored by staff, and they were forbidden from discussing her care. She resorted to making crafts out of paper in which she embedded messages and sent them to her parents. One said simply, "I'm being tortured."
Justina's parents sued Children's Hospital with the full support of the original doctor from Tufts. But the doctors at Children's argued that the only danger to Justina's health was her parents. They said that Justina had been over-medicated and that her parents had ignored her mental illness. A judge agreed, at least for the time being. That was until the Boston Globe did a study saying that Children's Hospital had done this before, to other parents. Indeed, in the previous 18 months, the hospital had removed at least five other children from their parents for "medical child abuse," something that hospital staffers called a "parentectomy."
When the Pelletiers failed to get Justina back, they turned to the same evangelical group that worked to keep Terry Schiavo alive during her controversial "right-to-die" case. Reverend Patrick Mahoney became the family spokesman, took to the internet, and attracted the attention of Marty Gottesfeld. (A federal court issued a gag order preventing Justina and her parents from speaking to the media.)
Marty was a computer security expert who was appalled at the treatment to which Justina and her family were subjected. He decided to act. Marty allegedly initiated a denial of service attack against the Children's Hospital computer system and against the Wayside Youth and Family Support Network, where Justina was later moved.
Children's complained that the attack cost the institution $300,000 to mitigate and $300,000 in lost donations because it took place during the annual pledge drive. But that attack also served to raise public awareness of Justina's plight and may have been the reason that Justina was finally moved to a facility nearer her family in Connecticut.
As I said, this story is a long one. Marty and others, particularly Justina's parents, kept up the pressure on the hospital, the state, and the judge overseeing the case. Justina and her sister were able to smuggle out a 45-second video in which she implored the judge to let her go home to her family. It was clear that after 16 months in a psychiatric ward her problems were not "in her head." They were in her genes. The original Tufts doctor was right. Justina had mitochondrial disease. The judge finally reversed his decision and sent her home, where she now lives with her family and is undergoing the proper medical treatment.
But in the meantime, a federal investigation zeroed in on Marty and he was arrested. To make matters worse, his case was assigned to Judge Nathaniel Gorton, the brother of longtime Republican senator Slade Gorton and the judge who presided over the case of privacy pioneer Aaron Schwartz who, when charged with felony theft for downloading scholarly journal articles and facing 35 years in prison, committed suicide. Gorton's reputation as a hanging judge is well-deserved.
Marty decided to go to trial. His wife Dana complained (correctly and unsurprisingly) that the public defenders assigned to the case were overworked, under-informed, and not of much use. In August, Marty was found guilty on all counts of damaging protected computers and conspiring to damage protected computers. (The jury also found that nothing he did impacted any patients.) Marty is scheduled to be sentenced on November 14. Dana tells me that prosecutors are asking that he be incarcerated for 10-12 years.