Whosarat.com: Two views of outing witnesses

Read both of these stories before making up your mind about whosarat.com, a controversial Web site devoted to revealing the identities of informants and undercover agents. They'll demonstrate that the question of what, if anything, should be done about such sites ought to be a tough call for anyone interested in balancing the interests of law enforcement, witness protection and free speech.

The New York Times this morning has the straightforward academic examination of the issues involved: weighing the public value of an open and accessible judicial system - the records of which will be available online - versus legitimate concerns of authorities for the safety of individuals, as well as the effectiveness and integrity of criminal trials.

The government expresses grave and understandable objections:

"We are witnessing the rise of a new cottage industry engaged in republishing court filings about cooperators on Web sites such as www.whosarat.com for the clear purpose of witness intimidation, retaliation and harassment," a Justice Department official wrote in a December letter to the Judicial Conference of the United States, the administrative and policy-making body of the federal court system.

"The posting of sensitive witness information," the letter continued, "poses a grave risk of harm to cooperating witnesses and defendants."

Aside from the public's basic right to know what transpires within its judicial system, academics contend that online access to such records is an invaluable resource:

Most legal experts agreed that whosarat.com is protected by the First Amendment. In 2004, a federal judge in Alabama refused to block a similar site created by a criminal defendant, Leon Carmichael Sr., who has since been convicted of drug trafficking and money laundering.

"While the Web site certainly imposes discomfort on some individuals," Judge Myron H. Thompson wrote, "it is not a serious threat sufficient to warrant a prior restraint on Carmichael's speech or an imposition on his constitutional right to investigate his case."

And purveyors of the information, not exactly a sympathetic bunch, invoke their Constitutional rights:

"The reality is this," said a spokesman for the site, who identified himself as Anthony Capone. "Everybody has a choice in life about what they want to do for a living. Nobody likes a tattletale."

The Times story reads rather clinically. This piece from the Philadelphia News throws off a decidedly different vibe: fear.

This story features a man who the newspaper calls "the King of Witness Intimidators, Kaboni Savage," who is in prison on drug charges. He's also the primary suspect in an arson fire that killed six people. Prosecutors say they have Savage on tape:

In those tapes, Savage wanted to retaliate against cooperators' families: "blow off the head of a 5-year-old," pour barbecue sauce on a six-member family murdered by arson and "smack [another kid] in the head with a bat."

Savage's sister reportedly used whosasrat.com to post profiles about those who were cooperating with law enforcement officials trying to keep the man locked up.

Like I said at the top, the easy availability of justice-system information online is a complicated issue.

This much I know for certain, however: First Amendment absolutists generally sleep well at night because they don't live in the same neighborhoods as a Kaboni Savage.

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