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Friday, 16 January 1998


A Nervous Pentagon Postpones 17-Year Veteran's Expulsion
Tim McVeigh Wins Round One after Promising to Wage Principled Battle

By Janet Kornblum


Navy sailor Timothy McVeigh won a delay in his military discharge today after he sued the United States Navy for obtaining his member profile from online service America Online.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, charges that Naval investigators violated the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) when they requested and received confidential subscriber information from AOL, the nation's largest online service, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

McVeigh had asked for a temporary restraining order against the Navy to prevent his discharge, slated for midnight tonight. Instead, the Navy agreed to delay the discharge until Wednesday, according to David Sobel, an attorney with EPIC.

The Navy had ordered the discharge of McVeigh, a 17-year veteran, for allegedly violating the Navy's "Don't ask, Don't tell" policy, which prohibits military personnel from declaring their homosexuality. Although McVeigh never said he was gay and has not publicly revealed his sexuality, he had written "gay" under "marital status" in an online user profile on AOL.

The Navy is basing the discharge on the online profile. Sobel said this case could set an important precedent when it comes to the enforcement of the ECPA.

"This case is extremely significant in that it is the first legal test of federal privacy law as it applies to the Internet," Sobel said. "The outcome will have a major impact on all subscribers of online services."

McVeigh is alleging that Navy investigator Joseph Kaiser broke the law when Kaiser asked for the information without identifying himself and without a court order or subpoena.

Navy officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Kaiser said in a sworn statement that an AOL customer service representative told him that McVeigh owned the account in question.

If the customer service representative, identified only as "Owen," did hand over the information as Kaiser alleges, he violated AOL's own rules and possibly violated the law. AOL is investigating the issue, but officials have repeatedly said they are confident that no one gave out confidential information.

Meanwhile, sources say "Owen" left AOL a few months ago.

"If McVeigh loses this case, in a way, what the court will be saying is it's OK for the government to access sensitive subscriber information from online services without complying with the law," Sobel said. "The intent of ECPA is to protect the privacy of subscriber information. This case is going to test the adequacy of that legal protection."

John Aravosis, an online consultant who helped bring the case to the press, called today's delay a victory.

"The Navy blinked in the face of the law," he said. "You do not offer to hold off unless you're going to lose. The Navy thought they were going to erase Tim McVeigh in another eight hours. Now they have to deal with us for another week and it's going to be one big week. They ain't seen nothing yet."

WHAT YOU CAN DO==Respond to the action alert below, written by Barbara Bode, a key member of the Tim McVeigh defense team, and contact the President, Vice President, Congress and AOL like your life depended on it. Because if the people who are trying to destroy Tim McVeigh's life get away with what they've done, none of us will be safe online ever again.


Written by Barbara Bode, a key member of the Tim McVeigh defense team.


"Don't Chat, Don't Tell?" asks the headline in the Wall Street Journal this morning. "Don't ask, don't tell, don't AOL," warns cyber-activist John Aravosis.

What's going on?

A highly decorated senior petty officer with 17 years in the service is to be discharged from the Navy tomorrow night, Thursday at midnight. The officer, Timothy R. McVeigh (no relation to the Oklahoma bomber), admits to using the word "gay" to describe his marital status in an electronic profile that he created on AOL but says that he never thought his name would be linked to that on-line identity.

Writing from Washington DC, Brock Meeks for MSNBC explains: "A series of events has burst onto the cyber landscape and left a Navy career ruined, privacy-rights advocates reeling, America Online scrambling to do damage control and the White House wringing its hands over just how far the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy toward gays in the military should be taken. It's a tale that justifies every paranoid statement you've ever heard about cyber-snooping by the feds and the dangers of data collection online. Welcome to the nightmare on AOL."

"AOL appears to have violated its much-touted privacy policy and destroyed a subscriber's life," said David Sobel, General Counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) . "Every AOL subscriber needs to be concerned..."

A letter from Sobel to the Secretary is posted on the EPIC site.

What you can do to help:


Contact the Vice President

Contact your Senators:

Ask them to call Navy Secretary Dalton to postpone the discharge and investigate the circumstances surrounding it. One website where you can find Senators phone and fax numbers and e-mail addresses is:

Note: calls or faxes still have a greater impact on the Hill than e-mail.

Also copy (and complain) to Steve Case, CEO of AOL, at: and copy Tim McVeigh at

"This is the Internet version of illegal search and seizure," said Bob Hattoy, gay Clinton appointee. "The evidence should be thrown out, this patriot should be set free, and AOL and the Navy should be investigatedbecause it's the fourth amendment that's being threatened, not nationalsecurity."

1998 BEI; All Rights Reserved.
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