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Wired chief Washington correspondent Declan McCullagh isn't merely covering the criminal trial of cypherpunk Jim Bell (who's in the dock accused of stalking federal agents); he's also been made a reluctant participant.

McCullagh had sought to quash a subpoena requiring him to testify on concerns that he might be forced to disclose information related to Bell's case given to him in confidence, but his motion was denied.

The Feds offered assurance that they would question him only on the accuracy of reports he'd already published so that they could be entered into evidence, which would of course be fair; but once a witness is on the stand, there's nothing to prevent a prosecutor asking whatever he or she might please.

In that case, it's up to the judge to decide whether a question is out of bounds, and whether a reluctant witness is in contempt of court or not.

The core issue here is similar to that which caused Forbes reporter Adam Pennenberg to resign his post, after the US Department of Justice (DoJ) subpoenaed him to testify in connection with a story he wrote on the kiddiot crew which defaced the New York Times Web site back in 1998.

As it turned out, McCullagh got away with saying only that he was the author of the reports in question. Not that he wasn't asked more; but the judge in this case didn't force him to answer any off-topic questions.

"The questions I refused to answer included whether I subscribed to the cypherpunks list, whether I interviewed government agents while writing my articles, what else defendant Jim Bell told me in other conversations, and whether I knew cypherpunks co-founder Eric Hughes," McCullagh reported via e-mail.

The defendant, Bell, is facing charges of stalking two US Treasury Department agents. He maintains that his 'surveillance' was perfectly legal, being confined to publicly-available material; but because he's also the author of a book called Assasination Politics, which appears to advocate using digital cash to reward people who kill undesirable members of the government, Bell's interest in these agents has taken on a sinister cast in the eyes of the Feds.

"...an organization could be set up to legally announce that it would be awarding a cash prize to somebody who correctly 'predicted' the death of one of a list of violators of rights, usually either government employees, officeholders, or appointees. It could ask for anonymous contributions from the public, and individuals would be able send those contributions using digital cash," Bell wrote.

The government is arguing that Bell's book establishes the context in which his surveillance of the two agents amounts to stalking with intent to do harm, which, obviously, is a serious crime.

McCullagh's unique perspective on the first day of Bell's trial is posted here, and well worth a read. ®

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