The Netly News
Wednesday, September 9, 1998

The Arrest of the Nutly Bomber

Part 1 of a Series: For two years a pair of anonymous Net crackpots have been posting angry tirades to a cryptography discussion list, in the form of a takeoff of Netly called "Nutly News". Now the FBI and Royal Canadian Mounted Police say that a digital signature connects them to a bomb discovered last June in a Canadian courthouse.

by Declan McCullagh, thenetlynews@pathfinder.com

It was about 5 p.m. on August 18. Carl Johnson, 49, was beating the heat inside the Rialto Theater in what passes for downtown Tucson, Arizona. That morning a friend had tipped off Johnson that the police were trying to find him, but for now he had something else on his mind: his music. The itinerant musician and writer had spent the last month furiously scribbling lyrics, friends say, and he wanted a loan from someone he knew who worked at the theater. It was for some recording work, Johnson explained. This was going be his third album, after "My Way or the Highway" and "Please! Stop Me Before I Sing Again".

But when Johnson left the Rialto, his musical career was cut short by two federal agents from the IRS's internal security division. They arrested him on charges of Internet threats against federal judges and police. The Canadians wanted Johnson, too, on charges of planting a bomb in a Saskatchewan courthouse.

The way federal agents tell it, Johnson spent much of the past two years railing against the police, the feds, Bill Gates, and just about anyone else who crossed his path. His favorite online soapbox was the Internet mailing list called cypherpunks, a kind of intellectual mosh pit that was originally devoted to encryption and anonymity, but which has over the years become far more wide-ranging. Many contributors to the cypherpunk list favor pseudonyms, and the government has linked Johnson with two widely used ones: Toto and TruthMonger.

To call their posts odd would be to pass up a perfect opportunity to use the word "deranged". For two years Toto and TruthMonger mocked, flamed, and entertained the rest of the cypherpunks with screeds headed "Nutly News" -- a reference to this publication -- and incoherent essays with titles such as "Space Aliens Hide My Drugs". A sample: "The blatantly subliminal messages being ceaselessly spammed into the Author's MeatSpace environment, via the TV cable originating at an underground Reptilian Nazi resort and spa deep beneath LizardMoor Labs and Gold Retrievers." This guy would make even Robert Anton Wilson seem paranoid.

It was never clear why Toto spent so much time typing so many bytes of blather. It was never even clear how many people wrote under the Toto and TruthMonger pseuds. Perhaps he (or they) enjoyed the banter. Maybe he (or they) found it cathartic. "I advise people who are afflicted with such medical conditions as Tourette syndrome and [obsessive compulsive disorder] to use anonymous remailers" to shield their identity, Toto wrote in August 1997. Friends say that Johnson also has Tourette's syndrome, and that he concocted a cocktail of Prozac and three other drugs to keep his symptoms in check.

It wasn't until Toto started talking about bombs and death that the feds decided to take action -- or, perhaps, found the excuse they were waiting for. IRS agent Jeffrey Gordon began monitoring the discussion group in early 1997 while investigating another cypherpunk named Jim Bell for tax crimes. Bell had published an essay called "Assassination Politics" that described how disgruntled citizens could participate in the bounty-driven murder of "government slimeballs". He outlined a scheme of anonymous betting pools and digital cash that he claimed would be a workable way to overthrow the federal government. The plan was simple and, Bell claimed, legal. In it, anyone interested in seeing a "government miscreant" dead (IRS officials were oft-mentioned targets) would contribute anonymously to a betting pool. The more people who bet, the bigger the pot, and the greater incentive for someone to turn assassin. The person, presumably the killer, who correctly guessed the victim's time of death would win the pool of digital cash.

The IRS was not amused. When a team of agents raided Bell's home and seized his computers in April 1997, they checked to see who he'd been e-mailing. One frequent correspondent was -- you guessed it -- Toto. "During the investigation of Bell I noted that Bell had exchanged both private and public e-mail messages with an unidentified person using the name 'Toto'", Gordon writes in an eight-page complaint against Johnson dated August 5, 1998. Toto himself echoed this point on the cypherpunks list, writing that "Jim Bell was taken down a few hours after I had sent him a copy of [an essay] chapter describing 'Assassination Politics', and asking his opinion on certain things."

For his part, Bell says he doesn't remember chatting with either Johnson or Toto, though he was clearly tickled at the idea that his case had sparked this latest controversy. "I do recall the name Toto as a regular poster on cypherpunks", he said last Thursday in a phone call from the Sea-Tac federal detention center. "I wish I could read the Internet to keep up with all the news." Bell pleaded guilty to trying to impede IRS officials and to using false Social Security numbers to hide assets. He was sentenced to 11 months in prison (including time served), was released, and was re-arrested in June 1998 on charges of violating his relatively strict probation conditions.

Not long after Bell's initial arrest in May 1997, an anonymous message appeared in cypherpunks promising retribution. It claimed to be the output of an Assassination Politics software robot (or bot) "operated in response to the illegal and unconstitutional imprisonment of an American citizen". It set a price of $1,500 for the death of Gordon, $2,610 for the federal magistrate judge who signed a search warrant for Bell, and various amounts for other IRS agents. The cypherpunks dismissed it as an obvious spoof, and an inelegant one at that. But not Agent Gordon, who kept watching.

In December 1997 another anonymous message showed up, called "Encrypted InterNet DEATH THREAT!!!" It was a rambling, Toto-esque warning addressed to Bell's appeals court judges and other federal officials. ("I will share the same 'DEATH THREAT!!!' with Judges Fletch, Nelson, and Bright that I have shared with the President and a host of Congressional and Senatorial representatives... Am I going to whack you out? Maybe...")

The message included a challenge. "Feel free to have the Federales break down my door and imprison me for pointing out the obvious. After all, I fit the profile of a domestic terrorist -- I quote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and I speak out against increasingly big government", it said. "This alone ought to be enough for some aggressive young LEA and/or federal prosecutor to earn themself some brownie-points, since I am a sorry enough son-of-a-bitch that they would not have much trouble convicting me in front of a jury of 'their' peers."

The message was digitally signed with Pretty Good Privacy software, and according to the IRS, it would soon be matched to Johnson's personal PGP key.

In the next installment: Unexploded bombs turn up north of the border when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is investigating a web prototype of the "Assassination Politics Bot". (Go to Part 2)

Copyright © 1998 by TIME Digital. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.