Jim Cooper, Democrat from Tennessee’s 5th District, recently got his ears pinned back in a formal committee hearing. Cooper held up a sheaf of papers and went for the kill while questioning Glenn English, CEO of the NRECA, a national coalition of electricity providing cooperatives. Cooper stated the material he was talking about came from the NRECA’s private, password protected site which he had accessed. At that point, English said he regretted Cooper’s introduction of the topic and noted that NRECA counsel had advised him Cooper was under investigation for criminal violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
As expected, Cooper denies any wrongdoing. He first asked the NRECA for the information and was refused. He later obtained the username and password from an NRECA employee which he used to access the site and get the information he was previously denied access to. In a Clintonesque distortion of language, Cooper now equates using the login information of another with being personally authorized to view the site. Would Jim object if someone with a key to his office, say the cleaning woman, gave her key to someone who used it to enter his office and rifle his files? Exactly! But one man’s authorized entry is another man’s breaking and entering. Cooper further justified his actions by saying NRECA’s customers had the right to know what was going on.
While opinions vary as to the law in these cases, the statute mentioned seems pretty straightforward. It appears there are a couple of places which may provide Cooper some legal problems. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act states in part,
a) Whoever– …
(2) intentionally accesses a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access, and thereby obtains– …
(A) information contained in a financial record of a financial institution, …
C) information from any protected computer if the conduct involved an interstate or foreign communication;
a) Whoever– …
(6) knowingly and with intent to defraud traffics (as defined in section 1029) in any password or similar information through which a computer may be accessed without authorization, if–
(A) such trafficking affects interstate or foreign commerce;
have broken the law. The definitions of the terms “exceeds authorized access”, “financial record” and more are provided later in the document. They don’t help the Congressman’s cause.
Whether Jim Cooper’s actions were criminal would seem to boil down to: 1) Did Congressman Jim Cooper access the site in question? 2) Was he authorized to do so?; 3) Does the site contain any financial records?; 4) Do any site records pertain to either interstate communication, commerce or both?; 5) Did Cooper obtain the password via any means definable as “trafficking”?
#1 -The video records Cooper’s admission he was on the site. Check! #2 – Having been denied access to the information previously, Cooper knew he was not authorized. That he bypassed that denial in the way he did further demonstrates he knew he was not authorized. Check! #3 – Also per the video, Mr. English testified the site contained both 401K and retirement records for NRECA associates. It is not unreasonable to assume those records related to financial institutions as the NRECA is not itself a financial institution. Check! #4 – The NRECA is a national coop with 900 members in 47 states. That settles the question of do the affairs of the NRECA include interstate commerce and might their site contain interstate communication. Check! #5 – This would depend on the definition of the term “Traffic”. What did Cooper do to get the login information? Must money change hands? Could providing something non-monetary, but valuable, such as promising to take care of the leaker if discovered and find him work elsewhere be considered trafficking? If so, perhaps a final – Check! – is in order.
As mentioned, Cooper denies knowledge of any FBI investigation. Of course he does. The situation definitely could produce one. Is it happening? We’ll have to wait and see. Cooper gets cover from the FBI itself as they don’t comment on ongoing investigations. Cooper could be lying through his teeth and we wouldn’t know until the FBI goes on the record. Of course, the Congressman could always “authorize” the FBI to “release information we’ve been denied access to previously” on the premise that, especially in an election year “the citizens of Tennessee’s 5th District have the right to know if their Congressman engaged in illegal activities” punishable by either 5 or 10 years in the slammer for a first offense and possible fines on top of that. Those of you with some time on your hands, stop by and enjoy the shades of blue I can turn while holding my breath waiting.
Cooper, by any estimation, is not a powerful or influential member of Congress. He merely fills a seat and the “D” after his name provides power for those who are. Just another career politician who knows nothing of life outside the Beltway. Despite being a Rhodes Scholar, he isn’t even bright enough not to confess to a crime on video. Is this the sort of politician we want in Washington? Do we really want someone making laws for the rest of us who cannot be bothered to obey them himself? There’s an election coming where we can decide exactly that. See you at the polls.