On the evening of April 3, 2013, a battered blue pickup truck slowly crossed a bridge from International Falls, Minnesota, to the border station at Fort Frances, Ontario. The family inside — a clean-cut middle-aged couple and their dark-haired 28-year-old son — looked like any other vacationers heading north. The father handed over their IDs to the border guards. “We need the protection of the Canadian government under the U.N. convention against torture,” he said. “Because our son was tortured by the FBI.”
It sounded like something out of a Soviet-era spy thriller. Yet the family making the request couldn’t have been more all-American. Paul DeHart, a church pastor, was a retired Air Force intelligence analyst whose work was overseen by the National Security Agency. His wife, Leann, was a former Army voice interceptor. Paul explained that Matthew, their only child, had followed in their footsteps, poring over spy data gathered by drones in the Middle East for the Indiana Air National Guard. They had just driven through the night from their home in Indiana, Paul said, because they were fleeing the country they had once pledged to serve.
Matt, he explained, was a member of the hacktivist collective Anonymous and had created a repository on the Dark Web for leaked government files. After stumbling on a file that he believed detailed an FBI investigation into the CIA, Matt, the family was convinced, was subject to what Paul described as an elaborate and increasingly frightening ruse: raided and tortured by the FBI, hit with bogus child porn charges, shuttled between prisons for nearly two years.
Paul told the agents that his family had evidence to back up their account: court documents, medical records, and affidavits — along with the leaked FBI document Matt had found that exposed an explosive secret. It was all on two encrypted thumb drives, which Matt later pulled off a lanyard around his neck and handed to the guards.
But Matt, as one federal prosecutor had put it, was “your classic child predator.” In order to flee the country and avoid charges, Matt — a seasoned hacker with military ties — had, according to the FBI, tried to become a spy for the Russians.
Today, Matt sits in a prison in Oklahoma after being deported from Canada earlier this month, waiting to face the child porn charges. But he has a high-profile team of believers and backers behind him, including Tor Ekeland, an attorney famous for representing hacktivists, and Jesselyn Radack, the former ethics adviser to the Justice Department who exposed the FBI’s interrogation of John Walker Lindh, the American sentenced to 20 years for joining the Taliban. On March 2, he was named the third beneficiary of the Courage Foundation, an international organization that defends whistleblowers, whose advisers include Daniel Ellsberg, the former United States military analyst who released the Pentagon Papers, and former NSA executive Thomas Drake, who revealed post-9/11 mass surveillance. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange recently said, “The abuse of the law in DeHart’s case is obvious, shocking, and wrong. Matt DeHart and his family have suffered enough.”
If Matt is, in fact, wrongly accused, answers could be on the thumb drives taken by the Canada Border Services Agency, which have yet to be returned to the DeHarts. But without access to the leaked files Matt claims to have seen, there is no way to verify whether he was actually in possession of them, and, if he was, whether they’re authentic. If Matt DeHart is a government whistleblower, he has yet to produce the whistle, let alone blow it.
Back at the Canadian border, as the processing dragged on into the next day, the guards had the DeHarts each write a statement explaining their request for political asylum. “I have loved the United States of America since I was old enough to understand what it meant to be a citizen,” Paul wrote with a shaky hand. By the time he finished the story 11 pages later, he could barely read his words through the tears in his eyes. “What happened to my country?” he concluded. “I plead for your help and protection of our lives. Please help us!!!!”
Matt DeHart’s earliest childhood memory is walking underground. He’s around 5. The long, dark tunnel spans two mountains. Deep inside there are red flashing lights, and men with briefcases. When he reaches daylight, there’s a little bird outside the entrance. If the carbon monoxide in the tunnel gets too high, his father explains, the bird dies.
The tunnel was part of a bunker at Wheeler Air Force Base in Oahu, Hawaii, where Paul had been stationed by the Air Force in 1986. As a signal intelligence lieutenant who oversaw five other analysts, he was responsible for intercepting radio and telephone transmissions that made their way back to the NSA. Paul’s security clearance prevented him from telling Matt what he did for a living, so the boy was left to his own imagination.
“I thought it was cool,” Matt tells me one morning last June at the Central East Correctional Centre, the maximum security prison in Lindsay, Ontario. Matt has been here since April, following several months of house arrest at his parents’ apartment in Canada. “It was like my dad was a secret agent,” he says.
The past four years have taken a toll: His unkempt black hair droops low over his eyes. This conversation, like each we have in person or on the phone over the course of months, is being monitored. As Matt takes a seat behind the glass and picks up a phone to speak, he apologizes for being sluggish. “I’m groggy all the time from the meds,” he says, referring to a prescription for Seroquel, prescribed for his mood disorder. On a few occasions, Matt has tried to harm himself — pounding his head against the ground, tying his shirt around his neck to choke himself. He insists that his actions weren’t suicide attempts, but his way of calling attention to his case. “There are not many ways to protest if I'm locked up in jail,” he says.
Born at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, not far from where his parents worked at Fort Meade, Matt came from a long military line. Paul, whose parents and grandparents had been in the service, and Leann, whose father and brothers served, were conservative, religious, and patriotic. Leann had left her position as a voice interceptor in the Army six years before Matt was born. Paul prided himself on working to protect American citizens without invading their privacy. “You do not intercept anything on Americans, ever,” Paul, a 57-year-old with short gray hair, a goatee, and glasses, recalls being trained. He tells me this one morning last summer over coffee in Ontario, where he and Leann were living at the time.
After retiring as an Air Force captain in 1994, Paul became a pastor in Randolph, New Jersey, where the family lived in the parsonage. Matt was a bright, loquacious kid who played soccer and joined the school’s snowboarding club. But he found his true rebel mojo online, where he played first-person shooters and taught himself to code. He was soon listening to Rammstein and showing up to school sporting a trench coat and a giant Afro. “I wanted to get attention,” Matt tells me with a sheepish grin. “I wanted to be a badass.”
Though Matt shared his parents’ religious beliefs, his teenage rebellion had a darker side. One night, he joked to a friend about bombing his junior high, which earned him an appearance in juvenile court. Paul and Leann chalked it up to the youthful indiscretion of a gifted but harmless boy. Eventually, Matt was diagnosed with ADHD and depression and was prescribed Adderall and Zoloft.
“He was a quirky guy, brilliant, very extroverted,” recalls Josh Weinstein, a classmate of Matt's. “He walked around school like he owned it.”
He also was becoming a hacktivist. Online, Matt identified with the so-called “anti-sec movement,” which opposed the computer security industry profiting from fearmongering. He soon started his own Robin Hood-style hacker crew, nicknamed KAOS (for Kaos Anti-security Operations Syndicate), to crack commercial security software and distribute it online for free. During his senior year, after Matt had another run-in with the school administration, his parents agreed to let him be homeschooled. “He was frustrated because he didn’t fit in the mold,” Leann, a no-nonsense woman with wavy blonde hair and rectangular glasses, tells me.
The next few years were tough for Matt. The family had moved to Indiana, where Paul continued his work as a church pastor. But Matt floundered, dropping out of community college and sinking further into depression. To shake himself out his rut, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. In 2008, at age 23, he joined the Air National Guard. “I respect the military a lot,” he says, “and I wanted to impress my dad.”
With Matt’s high test scores and computer skills, the Air National Guard assigned him to the 181st Intelligence Wing in Terre Haute, Indiana, a military unit that has been reported to collect and analyze data from drones flying over Afghanistan and Pakistan, though they would not officially confirm this. Matt was in training to become an all-source intelligence analyst — the same job held by Pvt. Chelsea Manning (then known as Bradley Manning), who would later use her high-level access to leak classified government videos and logs about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Once complete, he would receive a top-secret security clearance from the Department of Defense.
The kid who dreamed his dad was James Bond felt like he was becoming a secret agent himself: He couldn’t discuss his job with his family, his friends, even the others on base. “You’re trusted with something and you have this access,” Matt says. “It’s very rewarding.”
In early 2009, Matt claims, he was in the unit’s Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility when some new colleagues showed up: a half dozen or so liaisons from the Central Intelligence Agency. At the time, the Obama administration was rapidly expanding the CIA's secret drone war. “They were doing the target selection,” says Matt, who at the time didn’t know that the nonmilitary agency was assuming such a role.
But this is one of the many points where Matt’s account diverges from the U.S. government's: Lt. Col. Francis Howard, spokesperson for the unit, tells me that Matt would not have been around this sort of thing during training. “He would not have access to classified information nor would he have been allowed into where missions are conducted,” Howard says.
Matt insists that he had been ordered to analyze images to identify enemy military installations; he says he was told to scrutinize photos of drone strikes and determine how many people had died by counting the number of shoes on the ground. According to a 2014 study by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 61% of all drone strikes during the CIA covert war in Pakistan “targeted domestic buildings, with at least 132 houses destroyed, in more than 380 strikes.”
Matt says he was forced to confront the human toll of his work as well as questions about how many innocent civilians were being killed. Like other military people exposed to the trauma of war, he needed somewhere to share his feelings. So he turned to the only real community he had: Since 2004, he had frequented 4chan, the underground image board that gave rise to Anonymous, the global subculture of hackers, activists, and geeks. Matt shares the group’s ideology of what he calls “fighting for information freedom.” The worldview of Anonymous, as he sees it, is as simple as it is uncompromising: “Anybody who hides information is an enemy.”
Concerned about his privacy on base, Matt wanted to create a safe, secure place online where he and his fellow anons and disgruntled airmen could organize and vent. And he had just the solution: the massively multiplayer online game World of Warcraft. In his spare time, Matt would cruise 4chan, quietly recruiting members of Anonymous and other disgruntled airmen to join his Warcraft guild, Viral. To facilitate their communications and maintain privacy, Matt created a secret server using Tor, the online privacy software, and called it the Shell. Using the Shell, Matt and his recruits could freely and securely chat with one another and store sensitive files.
Matt had formed close, intense relationships through the game. Among them, he claims, was Allen Jaycob Deal, a friend and fellow airman at the Indiana Air National Guard. Matt says he was immediately drawn to Deal, who had long hair and seemed to share his concerns about government secrecy. Matt says Deal was a Warcraft gamer who frequented 4chan. “He was a lot like me,” Matt recalls.
In addition to seeking the solace of these others, Matt also sought medical help for his mounting anxiety. That spring, according to the DeHarts, the base doctor found him to be suffering from depression. (Lt. Col. Howard tells me he cannot release the reason for Matt’s discharge due to confidentiality laws.) According to the DeHarts, Matt had disclosed his history with depression from the time he enlisted and the Air National Guard had waived it. However, they say, the extensive background check required for his security clearance raised questions regarding whether his depression was sporadic or chronic. On June 5, 2009, the military honorably discharged him.
Matt was devastated. When Paul recalls hearing the news from his son, as he and I drive back to his apartment in his blue pickup, he chokes back tears. “It’s hard not to get emotional about it,” he says. “Matt was driving back from Terre Haute, and he’s on the phone and he’s crying.”
After leaving the 181st, Matt moved back in with his parents. He volunteered at his father’s church and got a job driving a FedEx truck. He also immersed himself even further into his online underworld. His ambition was to turn the Shell into a kind of drop box for WikiLeaks, the nascent antisecrecy site. “We were looking for people to upload files to show malfeasance on behalf of the government and corporations,” Matt tells me during one of our many calls over the past nine months.
Of all the strange turns of Matt’s story, what he claims to have seen on the Shell is the most problematic — as even the DeHarts well know. As of this writing, no copies of the files have been produced to verify their existence or credibility. This raises obvious questions: Did they ever exist at all? Was Matt lying about them? Had he seen them but not known they were fabricated by someone else? Or, as the DeHarts insist, could they be real?
According to Matt, he was sitting at his computer at home in September 2009 when he received an urgent message from a friend. A suspicious unencrypted folder of files had just been uploaded anonymously to the Shell. When Matt opened the folder, he was startled to find documents detailing the CIA’s role in assigning strike targets for drones at the 181st.
Matt says he thought of his fellow airmen, some of whom knew about the Shell. “I’m not going to say who I think it was, but there was a lot of dissatisfaction in my unit about cooperating with the CIA,” he says. Intelligence analysts with the proper clearance (such as Manning and others) had access to a deep trove of sensitive data on the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, or SIPRNet, the classified computer network used by both the Defense and State departments.
As Matt read through the file, he says, he discovered even more incendiary material among the 300-odd pages of slides, documents, and handwritten notes. One folder contained what appeared to be internal documents from an agrochemical company expressing culpability for more than 13,000 deaths related to genetically modified organisms. There was also what appeared to be internal documents from the FBI, field notes on the bureau’s investigation into the worst biological attack in U.S. history: the anthrax-laced letters that killed five Americans and sickened 17 others shortly after Sept. 11.
Though the attacks were officially blamed on a government scientist who committed suicide after he was identified as a suspect, Matt says the documents on the Shell tell a far different story. It had already been revealed that the U.S. Army produced the Ames strain of anthrax — the same strain used in the Amerithrax attacks — at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. But the report built the case that the CIA was behind the attacks as part of an operation to fuel public terror and build support for the Iraq War.
Despite his intelligence training, Matt was no expert in government files, but this one, he insists, featured all the hallmarks of a legitimate document: the ponderous length, the bureaucratic nomenclature, the monotonous accumulation of detail. If it wasn’t the real thing, Matt thought, it was a remarkably sophisticated hoax. (The FBI declined requests for comment.)
Afraid of the repercussions of having seen the folder of files, Matt panicked, he claims, and deleted it from the server. But he says he kept screenshots of the dozen or so pages of the document that specifically related to the FBI investigation and the agrochemical matter, along with chat logs and passwords for the Shell, on two IronKey thumb drives, which he hid inside his gun case for safekeeping.
Matt didn’t share any of this with his parents for fear of implicating himself or them. But over the next few months, Leann recalls Matt having frequent nightmares. “He’d wake up,” she says, “and you’d hear him yelling.”
The following January, shortly after arriving for work at his church on a Monday morning, Paul got a call from Matt. “Dad,” Matt told him, sounding rattled, “you really need to come home.”
Paul arrived to find the family’s belongings, along with discarded latex gloves, scattered across the floor. Matt handed him some papers: a search warrant in Matt’s name, on suspicion of child pornography.
“This is bullshit,” Matt told his parents. “This is crazy.”
At 9:15 that morning, Matt went on, he had been playing Soldiers: Heroes of World War II when he heard a knock on the front door. He opened it to find a half dozen officers, who stormed into the house and presented him with the search warrant. A detective from the local sheriff’s department handcuffed Matt and told him to sit at the kitchen table. While the officers proceeded to search the house, the detective asked Matt about his online aliases and friends. Matt told the detective he wouldn’t talk without a lawyer. The two spent the next hour and a half in silence as the officers confiscated the family’s computers and other electronics — including cameras and Matt’s Xbox controllers. Then they left without arresting Matt.
Paul skimmed the documents, trying to make sense of what had happened. He thought that the fact that Matt had not been arrested suggested the FBI lacked probable cause to charge him. For the first time, Matt told his parents a bit about his world online — Anonymous, the Shell — but he didn’t mention the thumb drive full of classified documents, which he says was still hidden in his gun case. “I might have some sensitive files,” he told them.
Paul and Leann’s heads spun. Matt had been in trouble before, but they had always chalked it up to his inability to fit in and his bouts of depression. Now, under suspicion for child pornography, he seemed to be hinting that he was being framed by the government for harboring state secrets. But, they told themselves, there was no way he was a pedophile. This isn’t our son, Paul thought.
Without telling his parents, Matt says he retrieved the thumb drives from his gun case. It felt like the files were putting him in serious jeopardy — but they also seemed like his only protection. “I didn’t want to destroy them,” he says. “I have evidence against the U.S. government on them.”
After a sleepless night, Matt told his parents that he was going to Mexico. As rash as it seemed, Paul and Leann didn’t question him. “I knew he wasn’t telling me what it was that got him spooked,” Leann says. “But he said he just needed to go and clear his head and think about things.” They gave him keys to their 1997 blue Saturn. His grandmother, who lived nearby, gave him $3,000 for the road.
Matt switched license plates and got a burner phone for the trip. Two days later, he crossed the border without incident, despite the fact that the DeHarts say his passport was expired at the time. Inside a hotel room in Monterrey, Mexico, Matt says he copied the Shell files onto a handful of thumb drives. He mailed one to a friend outside London, and several others to locations he refuses to disclose. He also says he sent one to himself in care of his grandmother, which he later retrieved for himself. When the subject of the drives comes up, Matt acts circumspect because, he says, he knows that our communications are being monitored.
That night he Skyped with his parents, who had had a change of heart and, fearing for his well-being, begged him to return home. “You’ve got to come back,” Paul told him. “We’ll face this together.”
Matt came home, but not for long. One day in late February 2010, Leann awoke to find Paul and her son were gone. They were heading to the Russian Embassy in Washington.
It was Matt’s idea. He still hadn’t told Paul and Leann about the thumb drives. He and his parents had sought counsel from a local attorney in Indiana, but that attorney wasn’t familiar with federal law and told them, according to Paul, “not to stir the pot and wait and see what happened.” Matt wanted political protection, fast, and needed to find a country that would be sympathetic to helping him get out of the U.S. It was a naive and earnest plan, the way Matt put it: He didn’t want to be a spy; he wanted to go work in Russia in some civilian capacity, as an IT guy even. He figured he’d be safer there than waiting to see what the feds would do to him. “My government betrayed me,” Matt told his father. “[They] trusted me with their secrets, and now [they] betrayed me.”
Did Matt want to go be a spy for the Russians? According to Paul, there was no way. His son was a patriot like him, and he’d never do such a thing. Still, the thought of Matt going to the Russians didn’t go over well with Paul, who had, after all, worked for the military during the height of the Cold War. But the panic of the moment and Paul’s deep paternal instincts overrode any reservations. Family came before country and Matt only wanted protection, he told himself. Paul also says that, considering Matt’s history of depression, he feared for his son’s life. Is this it? he thought. Is this either he’s going to end his life or he’s going to get out of the country? Paul decided he would take Matt wherever he wanted to go. “It’s almost like you’ve got your head in the guillotine and you’re just watching to see what’s going to happen,” he says.
On Feb. 22, after driving 700 miles to Washington, Paul and Matt sat in their parked car a block from the Russian Embassy. They lowered their heads in prayer. “God protect him,” Paul said, “whatever happens.” Several hours later, Matt called Paul to pick him up at the embassy. For fear of being called to testify against Matt, Paul told his son he didn’t want to know the details of what happened.
But, as Matt tells me, the meeting had not gone well. The Russians had questioned him about his military knowledge: whether the U.S. was operating drones over Georgia, technical details on Predator drones and U.S. satellites. They also wanted to know about Anonymous and WikiLeaks. “I’m not interested in being a spy,” Matt says he told them. “I just want political protection.” But the Russians declined and sent him on his way. Matt later tried the Venezuelan Embassy, he says, but was once again rebuffed. (Officials from both embassies did not respond to requests for comment.)
The DeHarts agreed on a new plan: Get Matt safely to Canada. When he applied for and received a new U.S. passport, his parents were relieved — if Matt were really suspected of child pornography, they thought, surely he wouldn’t be allowed to leave the country, as he had already done when he went to Mexico. For the first time in ages, they breathed a sigh of relief. “We were thinking, That’s it,” Matt recalls. “This is done.”
At the end of April, three months after the raid on his home, Matt moved to Montreal, where he had enrolled in an eight-week French language school. Soon after, he enrolled at Holland College, where he was to study welding starting in the fall. Back in Indiana, Paul and Leann resumed their lives at the church, and prayed with Matt every night over Skype.
A few months later, on Aug. 6, 2010, Matt needed to cross over the border into the U.S. to get his student visa stamped. As part of the standard bureaucracy, he had to re-enter the U.S. and then cross back into Canada to have the paperwork processed. He didn’t think twice about any risk — he’d already been allowed to leave the U.S. to Canada, and was given a new passport. But that night, when Paul and Leann checked in with him, the call went straight to voicemail: “This is Matt DeHart. Please leave a message.”
But the voice wasn’t Matt’s. It was an unknown man who didn’t pronounce their last name correctly (“Day-Hart” rather than “Deh-Hart”). “We got really scared,” Leann recalls. They had no idea who would have taken his phone, and why that person would have changed his answering message. She and Paul urgently called Border Patrol, and were only told that Matt had been taken to the Penobscot County Jail in Bangor, Maine. When they called the jail, they were given no information. A call to the FBI in Boston bore no results either.
Four days later, Paul and Leann received a call from Virginia Villa, who introduced herself as Matt’s court-appointed attorney. She told them that Matt had been arrested on charges of child pornography. The details of the charges against Matt came from an affidavit by Brett Kniss, a detective with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force of the police department in Franklin, Tennessee. The affidavit had been submitted on the same day Matt was detained at the border, over six months after the FBI raid at the DeHarts’ home.
The case stemmed from Matt’s relationship with two teenage boys from Franklin, Tennessee, and had begun after one of their mothers notified the police with her concerns. Matt had met them online when they joined his World of Warcraft guild in 2008, around the time Matt enlisted in the Air National Guard. At the time, one, whom I’ll call Troy, was 14; the other, whom I’ll call William, was 12. In the affidavit, Detective Kniss said that Matt had hidden his real identity from the boys in their online chats, leading them to believe he was a 16-year-old boy in New York. (The boys, who are now adults, did not reply to repeated requests for comment. One of their fathers responded by saying they had no comment.)
In the ensuing months, Kniss said, Matt also posed as teenage girls online, chatting the boys up and enticing them into swapping videos and photos of one another masturbating. Kniss said that he examined William’s computer and found an AOL Instant Messenger log of William and Matt, in the guise of a girl, negotiating their exchange.
“You can make a vid,” the “girl” wrote in the log, “and in return u get a vid of us 69ing.”
William responded by offering up a 10-minute cell phone video of “just me jerking off, simple.”
“Details please ... how much cum?” The “girl” responded, urging William to send the video along.
Kniss found the masturbation videos William sent on the boy’s computer, as well as a video of a teenage girl masturbating that William received in return.
Kniss said that the boys told him that Matt had driven down to see them in Franklin. Matt, Kniss said, had gone “on several occasions to bring them gifts,” which were later specified as a video and what he claimed were uncut diamonds. One of the boys claimed Matt had given him Adderall and beer and taken him shooting at a gun range. There were no allegations of Matt being sexually inappropriate in person.
Kniss said he found the incriminating chat logs when he conducted forensic analysis on Matt’s computers seized during the FBI-ordered raid. He also claimed to have found other chats in which Matt posed as a girl to entice “several unknown males to send videos of themselves masturbating.” If convicted on the child pornography charges, Matt faced a minimum of 15 years in prison.
Whether or not they are true, the charges of child porn aren’t all that raise questions about Matt’s behavior. Why would a 24-year-old man be hanging out with a 14-year-old boy in the first place? Why split all the way to Mexico to copy and distribute the files when it could so easily be interpreted as fleeing the child porn charges?
Although Matt insists he never posed as a girl online to solicit porn from the boys, he has seen the version of the logs that Kniss produced in the affidavit and insists they were edited by Kniss. “The chat came off his computer,” Matt tells me emphatically over the phone one afternoon. “It’s doctored.” It's true that Kniss cut and pasted excerpts from the logs into his affidavit, changing names, removing timestamps, and failing to include associated IP addresses, though legally, Matt's attorney tells me, he didn’t have to include any such evidence to establish probable cause for Matt’s arrest. “All [Kniss] has to do in the affidavit is swear that what he’s saying is true,” Ekeland says.
But one of Matt’s alibis remains questionable regardless. He tells me that he was on a drill at the 181st on May 18, 2008, the day of some of the logs, and therefore could not have been online. “The base can verify that,” he says. But when I run this by Lt. Col. Howard he responds, “Our records do not show Mr. DeHart being here on May 18, 2008.”
Matt doesn’t dispute that he met Troy and William online in early 2008, after he’d gone on 4chan looking for World of Warcraft players to join his guild. He admits to posing as a 16-year-old named Matthew DiMarco, who he claimed was the son of a Mafia boss, but says there is nothing suspicious about that. Like many gamers, he invented a persona that he considered both protective and “fun,” he says. “If I tell you I’m the son of a mobster, you don’t fuck with me,” he tells me. “It stops people from being too nosy.”
Matt also admits that he visited the boys in Tennessee in December 2008. As he tells it, he mentioned online that he planned to visit a childhood friend, Heather Casier, in Nashville, and William suggested he drop by Franklin on the way. (When I contacted Casier, she did not want to discuss the case but confirmed that Matt had come to see her. "I haven't spoken to him in years," she wrote me, "and I would rather not be involved.")
By then, Matt had fallen out with William, whom he says he had kicked out of the guild for swapping porn online. When Matt met Troy at a Wolfgang Puck’s, he says, the boy didn’t care that he had invented the Mafia persona. Troy, who had also had a rift with William, asked Matt to buy him toilet paper so he could vandalize William’s house. Matt says he obliged, buying him dozens of rolls — as well as some cigarettes — but didn’t participate. He admits, however, to giving Troy an Adderall, and says the boy grabbed a beer out of the back of his car. He also says he let Troy take one of the shell casings he had in a cupholder for the .380 he kept in the back of his car, but he denies taking the boy shooting — or to a hotel, as prosecutors would later also allege.
During a detention hearing in Maine on Aug. 11, Paul received an urgent call from Villa, Matt’s public defender. She told him that she was calling from the courtroom, where Matt had just collapsed on the floor, sobbing and unable to respond. She hoped that speaking with his father might rouse him. Paul’s heart raced; he had yet to speak with his son since he had been detained at the Canadian border. “Matt, are you there?” he said. Matt mumbled unintelligibly, then finally eked out a sentence. “Dad,” he slurred, “they think I’m spying for the Russians.” Then the call ended, and Matt was gone.
Matt’s account of what happened to him during his detention is the most contentious part of his story: After he was stopped at the Canadian border, he says, he was handcuffed and shackled by two agents in FBI jackets, who drove him in a paddy wagon to a U.S. Customs facility at the Calais Point of Entry. There, Matt says, he was led to a windowless examination room where he was pushed, still in shackles, into what looked like a dentist chair. A tall, gray-haired doctor in a lab coat entered, and, with the FBI agents holding down Matt’s arms, administered an IV into the crook of his left arm. “I just sat there; I’m in shock,” he tells me on the phone, as he pauses to collect himself. “It’s still shocking to describe.”
About 20 minutes after receiving the IV, Matt says, he was taken to a conference room and seated at a table with the two FBI agents who detained him. Matt says they wanted to know about Deal, Matt’s fellow airman at the Indiana Air National Guard who joined his World of Warcraft guild.
The FBI agents pressed Matt about his trip to the Russian Embassy, but he continued to tell them that he wanted to plead the Fifth. According to the FBI’s own unclassified report of the interrogation, which was later released by the bureau, Matt “was told that pleading the Fifth was for court proceedings.” (Matt’s attorney says that refusing to allow him to take the Fifth violated his constitutional rights.) A couple hours into the interrogation, Matt says, he was feeling woozy. “It was like I was getting drunk,” he says. “I don’t remember most of what I told them.”
The FBI report, which makes no mention of a forced IV, paints a far different picture of Matt’s interrogation. According to the report, Matt claimed at first that he went to the Russian Embassy hoping to get a job so he could spy on the Russians for the U.S. government. As part of his ruse, the report continues, Matt says he provided the Russians with falsified military documents on U.S. military radar systems, as well photos and names of his fellow airmen at the Indiana Air National Guard.
But Matt changed his story, the FBI report says, once the agents showed him the complaint from Tennessee containing the charges of child pornography. According to the report, Matt reacted by telling the agents that he hadn’t “been quite forthright” with them, and would now come clean.
According to the FBI, Matt confessed that he had really wanted to spy for the Russians. While in Indiana, he told the agents, he had listened to some of his fellow airmen, including Deal and two others, Brent Cooper and Justin Daniel Taylor, talk about selling secrets taken from government databases. The Russians had wanted him to move to another country to facilitate his work as a spy — that’s the real reason, he said, that he had moved to Canada. The Russians told him he would receive $100,000 a month “if the intelligence he gave was good.” In fact, the report continues, Matt confessed that he was supposed to meet with his Russian contact later that month, on Aug. 21. But now that he had been caught, he offered to work for the FBI as a double agent — spying on the Russians, and helping to implicate Deal, Cooper, and Taylor.
The next thing Matt says he recalls is being on a stretcher in an ambulance. According to medical records from the Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, correctional officers arrived at the hospital at 12:55 a.m. with Matt, who was complaining of eye discomfort.
“The patient is very vague, has multiple rambling complaints,” Dr. Christopher Geertz, the physician who examined Matt, wrote in his medical report. “He appears to be paranoid and delusional with an idea of the FBI monitoring him and accusing him of espionage.” Geertz chalked Matt’s ramblings up to “possible drug-induced psychosis ... secondary to amphetamines, cocaine, or other stimulant medications.”
Matt remained in the Penobscot jail for a week, where he says he was left in a cell, naked. There was no sink, he says, no toilet, no food or water other than a small cup of orange Kool-Aid he was given to wash down a handful of pills each day. Medical records from the jail show that Matt was administered the psychotropic drug Thorazine.
Psychiatrists at the Mulberry Center in Evansville, Indiana, which had been treating Matt for his depression and ADHD since 2005, later wrote a letter in Matt’s defense expressing concern over the presence of Thorazine. “He has no history whatsoever of psychosis; therefore, no clinical justification for use of any antipsychotic medication and especially Thorazine that has always had potential for major side effects; and this would especially be significant if the medication was started early in his arrest.” They also wrote that as a result of his arrest and imprisonment, Matt had been exhibiting “elements of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
However far-fetched Matt’s claims of being tortured may sound, in 2012, a declassified report from the Pentagon inspector general revealed that prisoners in Guantanamo had been forcibly injected with “mind altering drugs,” including Haldol, a powerful antipsychotic sedative, prior to interrogations. “In the modern era, with the legal requirement that confessions be voluntary, using drugs to interrogate a suspect would be a clear violation of DeHart’s constitutional rights,” says Radack, the former Justice Department ethics adviser.
In the summer of 2010, Matt DeHart wasn’t the only intelligence analyst being interrogated by the government. Just three months before Matt was stopped at the border, federal agents arrested Chelsea Manning and charged her with the biggest leak in military history: the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs and videos published by WikiLeaks. If Matt had contact with those who had the same job as Manning, with the same access to classified files, the FBI could have feared he represented a similar threat. In fact, according to Matt’s attorney at the time, the child pornography charges against Matt were never mentioned when he was stopped at the Canadian border. According to the FBI’s own report, Matt was detained because he was “wanted for questioning in an espionage matter.”
The FBI has acknowledged that there was further questioning of Matt during his time in jail, but it will not reveal specifics, saying the reports are “classified.” On one occasion, Matt says, he was restrained naked, with a black pillowcase over his head, and tased. He says that agents interrogated him over and over about WikiLeaks, Anonymous, the Shell, and the Air National Guard. According to Matt, one agent said that he knew the charges of child pornography were bogus, and that he could help get them dropped if Matt chose to cooperate.
Matt also claims that the FBI tried to use his allegiance to his father against him. He says agents produced surveillance photos that showed him sitting in the car with his father outside the Russian Embassy. The agents somehow even had audio recordings of their conversation and knew what he and his father had been discussing.
“You know the last words you said to your dad before you left?” an FBI agent asked him.
“I told him I loved him,” Matt said, “and God bless him.”
“You’re right,” the agent said.
Whatever happened to Matt behind bars, it produced valuable results. FBI records show that he signed over control of his email accounts, and provided agents with the accompanying passwords — a move that would have enabled the FBI to infiltrate the hacker underworld by impersonating Matthew DeHart. The unclassified FBI report includes a document, signed by Matt, authorizing the FBI to install a recording device on his phone for the purpose of taping any future calls he had with Deal and the two other airmen. At the bottom of the form are the words, printed in Matt’s own sloppy handwriting, “Statement Made Voluntarily,” along with his initials.
Taylor, who still serves at the 181st, did not return my request to comment for this story. When I contact Brent Cooper on Facebook saying I wish to talk about his time served with Matt at the 181st, he messages me, “u got the wrong guy sorry no help here.” I then send him a page from the newsletter for the 181st Intelligence Wing, which includes his picture next to Matt’s. We hop on the phone and he explains that he had only been at the 181st briefly and has no memory of Matt. “I wish I could say I do,” he says, “and that he was either a complete genius or a whack job. But I don’t know which one it would be.”
But Cooper does recall the FBI paying a visit to him at his parents’ home in late 2010. “I said, ‘Why are you here? I don’t know what you’re talking about,’” he says. “Then they left and never came back.”
When I ask Cooper about whether he and the others were getting trained to analyze intelligence from drone strikes he pauses and says, “I don’t know if that’s classified or not.” But, he adds, “From that base they can run a war. It’s like a command center.”
As for why he thinks Matt DeHart named him during his FBI interrogation, Cooper hasn’t a clue. “I’d love to be put in the same room as him and ask, 'What the fuck are you talking about?'” Cooper says.
In the FBI files, Deal's name is misspelled. In the newsletter for the 181st , he’s referred to by only his first and middle name, while Matt is listed as "Paul Dehart." (When I asked Lt. Col. Howard for an explanation, he said, “I don’t know why.”). The only person who correctly spelled out his full name in the FBI report was Matt. After tracking Deal down on Facebook, he calls me in a nervous voice, telling me our discussion would be off the record — and then hangs up abruptly shortly after we begin talking.
The next morning, I receive a call from Lt. Col. Howard saying Deal had contacted him and they were preparing a statement, which Deal reads to me later that day on the phone, with no elaboration. Matt’s “allegations against me are false,” he says. But he admits that the FBI paid him a visit. “In late 2010 the FBI investigated me regarding Matt DeHart. And [FBI] Agent Smith stated I was cleared of all charges. The FBI had a job to do and were professional in their dealings with me.”
Lt. Col. Howard tells me that the fact that Taylor and Deal remain in service should speak volumes against Matt’s claims. “Both these airmen are in our wing and are in good standing,” Lt. Col. Howard says.
Matt’s response to Deal’s denials: “I respect Deal's position as a military member, therefore I have nothing to add on this matter.”
In September 2010, a month after Matt was detained, Paul DeHart was subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury. Though grand jury proceedings are sealed, Paul says he was questioned by an assistant U.S. attorney as well as several civilians — one of whom, Paul thought based on the nature of his questions, seemed to be from the NSA. They wanted to know about Paul’s work for the Air Force, and his friends in the service. He was shown photos of Matt’s fellow airmen in the Indiana Air National Guard, including Deal, and questioned about them. He was also asked about his visit with Matt to the Russian Embassy.
In October, after two months in federal custody and nine months after the initial FBI raid, Matt was formally charged with production and transportation of child pornography. He spent the next two years being shuttled between jails, waiting for a chance to tell his version of events in court. In presenting the indictment, the government produced no further evidence against him, beyond the detective’s original affidavit in the case. “It’s very easy to get an indictment,” says Alan Ellis, a criminal defense attorney who has written extensively on child porn sentencing guidelines. “Any federal prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich.”
Though Matt was initially deemed a flight risk and denied bail in the months after his indictment, when another bail hearing came in May 2012, the judge sided with him. Though the prosecution branded Matt as a pedophile, the defense noted that there had been no allegations of inappropriate sexual contact between Matt and the boys. Despite a claim by William’s mother that her son also had met Matt in person, William could not pick Matt out in a police lineup. And most damningly, Detective Kniss admitted in court that the boys could have been lured into online sex acts not by Matt, but by a real teenage girl.
“The total lack or the total reluctance of the government to provide evidence in this case ... is overwhelming,” Mark Scruggs, Matt’s defense attorney, had previously argued. “The purpose of the arrest had nothing to do with child pornography” — it was really, he said, about “national security.”
Federal Judge Aleta Trauger agreed. On May 22, 2012, she ordered Matt released on a bond. Instead of cash, the DeHarts put up the titles on their two cars, and equity in Leann’s mother’s house. As part of his release, Matt was required to wear a GPS anklet, which ensured that he return home by 9 every night for his curfew.
Trauger’s decision pointedly called the child porn case against Matt into question. Though the probation office could have imposed conditions on a suspected child predator to curb his flight risk, no such measures had been taken in Matt’s case. “No one told him he could not leave the United States when he went to Mexico,” Trauger said. “No one told him he could not leave the United States when his desperate parents are trying to get him involved in something [school in Canada], get him on a different track than he's on.” She concluded that, with regard to the child porn charges, “the evidence is not as firm as I thought it was.”
As for the national security investigation against Matt, Trauger also had choice words. “I can easily understand why this defendant was much more focused on that investigation, much more afraid of that investigation, which was propelling his actions at that time,” she said. Matt “thought that the search for child pornography was really a ruse to try to get the proof about his extracurricular national security issues,” Trauger told the court. “I found him very credible on that issue.”
After his release, Matt and his parents would take short drives from their home to the Ohio River and the library in Paul's church. Once there, they would remove the batteries from their cell phones. They assumed their house was bugged. The river and library were two of the few places they felt safe to talk.
Though Paul doesn't remember which, it was in one of those locations that, for the first time, Matt shared his whole story with his parents. But Paul was still an Air Force guy at heart and didn’t want to be ethically or legally culpable for knowing the details of files that were not intended for his eyes. “I don’t need to know all the details,” said Paul. “You’re my son, you’re home, you’re here. That’s all that matters.”
Leann was another story: She wanted to hear whatever Matt wanted to tell her. If Paul didn’t want to know, so be it — she’d assume the risk. “If anything ever happens to me,” she recalls Matt telling her, “I want you to know what I know.”
But she believes that what she saw was true: the agrochemical company’s culpability in 13,000 deaths, the CIA’s role in the anthrax attacks. She tells more than Matt had recalled, stories that sound too incredible to be true: a report that says the CIA explored plans to put anthrax in a New Jersey bay in order to drum up support for the war. “That’s what they were going to do,” she recalls, “And I remember reading that and saying [to Matt], ‘OK, all right, I know you’re not crazy.’”
But, invariably, many hearing this story now will not be so understanding. “This is real,” she tells me one afternoon as we talk in a Chinese restaurant near her and Paul’s apartment in Ontario. “I saw it,” she goes on, as her voice falters and eyes redden, “and that’s when the lights start going on, and I’m thinking to myself, Now that’s something you’d torture somebody for.”
By spring 2013, the DeHarts were out of patience, and resources. They had sold their home and spent more than $100,000, the entirety of their savings, on Matt’s defense. Though the feds still had not produced any evidence besides the chat logs in the child porn case against Matt, his defense attorneys feared that he could still end up held back in prison, one way or another.
“There’s only so much a human being can take,” Paul says. In a rare moment, he breaks from his pastorly composure and becomes red in the face. “I don’t swear, but if I did I’d say, ‘You cannot fuck with us. We’ve had enough. Here we are. Do with us what you want, but we’re not gonna take it anymore.’” Given Matt’s history of depression, he feared his son could even be driven to take his own life. “You’re not gonna have my son commit suicide 'cause you’re jerking him around,” Paul says. “We’re here as a family. You answer to us as a family.”
That April, the day another hearing was scheduled on Matt’s case, Paul and Leann borrowed an old blue Chevy truck from some friends in the church, and left their dog, Cleo, with Leann’s mother. A half hour into their drive, Matt cut off his GPS anklet with some garden scissors and left it in a cemetery they passed on the road. They brought their disguises — floppy hats and sunglasses — in case facial recognition software was deployed along the way. Then they drove over a dozen hours straight through to the Canadian border, with only a few suitcases, their military IDs, and Matt’s two thumb drives, which he wore on a lanyard around his neck.
With his long and deep sense of patriotism, Paul felt distraught as he penned his official statement that disavowed his country. “That’s the thing that got me,” Paul says, choking back tears. “It’s against the United States. You’re betraying your country, you know? You can’t go back. That’s it. It’s done.”
After taking the family’s statements, the guards told them to come back later in the morning. A few hours after the DeHarts returned, the border police said they had orders to detain Matt for missing the hearing that had been scheduled for the previous day, and on charges of child pornography and suspicion of espionage. Paul and Leann were free to go. But the guards seized Matt’s thumb drives, and once again led him away in handcuffs.
One day last June, Paul and I head down the long, empty hallways of the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ontario, to visit his son. “I always get the creeps when I walk through here alone,” Paul tells me.
Whether guilty or innocent, Matt certainly had made many questionable moves — exposing a teenager to drugs and alcohol, approaching the Russians, skipping bail, turning his thumb drives and email passwords over to the authorities. But however inept he was, his supporters believe he was snared in the same government war on hacktivists that sent Chelsea Manning to prison and Edward Snowden into exile. “Matt DeHart’s case is not about some kiddie porn charge in Tennessee, but because of information that he became aware of when he hosted the Shell server,” says Radack. “That’s part of a larger narrative that’s been going on.” And, she adds, “it’s not the first time the government has drummed up child porn allegations with regards to a whistleblowers. The easiest way to alienate someone is to name them in the same sentence as something to do with child porn.”
Kniss is no longer with the department in Tennessee; he is in Wyoming, where he now works for the police department. The DeHarts believe that he was sent out to pasture here after his questionable actions in the case — a theory that Kniss laughs off when I run it by him. Though he acknowledges that he changed the first names in the chat logs “to protect the identity of the victims,” the only cover-up, he insists, is coming from Matt himself. “It’s his way of trying to gather support for himself,” says Kniss, adding that more evidence will come out at trial. “This case has always been a child sexual predator investigation.” Citing his 13 years of investigating such cases, the detective is convinced that Matt is guilty. “There’s no doubt in my mind,” Kniss tells me.
The DeHarts were hoping that the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada would grant Matt asylum as well as protected status, which would put pressure on the U.S. government to drop the case. The decision, which came on Feb. 5 of this year, confirmed some of Matt’s claims: The IRB found no “credible and trustworthy evidence” that Matt was guilty of enticing or transmitting child pornography. It also concluded that there are “significant differences” between the chat logs submitted by Kniss in court and the ones later obtained by the DeHarts from AOL. Kniss, it was determined, had typed up his own edited version of the logs, and had testified that he was unable to obtain the originals from AOL. “Given that the grand jury indictment relied solely on the affidavit of Detective Kniss and without evidence of the conflicting AOL chat logs,” the IRB concluded, “the panel places little weight on its conclusions.”
Nevertheless, the IRB denied Matt’s asylum request, stating that the United States “has a fair and independent judicial process” that can resolve his case. It also rejected Matt’s plea to return his thumb drives.
A few weeks later, on the morning of March 1, Matt was deported back to the U.S. The CBSA took him to the border crossing at Fort Erie, New York, where he was transferred into the custody of two FBI agents. Any day now, he will end up in a federal pretrial detention in the Federal Middle District of Tennessee, likely in one of four county jails in either Kentucky or Tennessee. Last November, the court issued a new indictment against him. In addition to the previous charges for production and transportation of child pornography, Matt now faces another charge of production of child pornography, as well as one for failing to appear at the detention hearing that was scheduled the day he and his parents fled to Canada. According to Matt’s attorney, Ekeland, the additional child pornography charge doesn’t appear to be based on any new information. In total, he faces a maximum of 80 years in prison.
The whereabouts of the thumb drives that the CBSA had detained are currently unknown, though Ekeland thinks they are with “presumably, the FBI,” he says. Matt insists he sent copies of the drives to a contact in the U.K., but would not reveal the person’s name. The DeHarts and Matt’s attorneys can’t confirm who, if anyone, might have received them. Leann, however, suggests that the folder of files Matt had shown her are still online, but that she does not have the means to get it. “It’s still out there,” she says.
Paul and Leann were also denied asylum, and are being deported as well — required to leave Canada by April. They’ve chosen to cross back over the Peace Bridge on April Fool’s Day. “Both symbolic,” says Paul. They’re not sure where they’ll go — perhaps back to Indiana or somewhere close to where Matt will be held.
Leann, for one, feels bitter and hopeless. “I don’t want to be an American anymore,” she says. “I think Matt will go somewhere in prison for a long time.” Ekeland intends to sue the federal government for violating Matt’s constitutional rights during his detention and interrogation by the FBI. “They have a lot to answer for,” Ekeland tells me, “and we fully intend to make them answer.”
As our visit with Matt comes to an end, I step aside to give Paul and Matt some time alone. After chatting quietly for a few minutes, they lower their heads in prayer. Then Paul stands up and gives Matt a salute, which his son returns. On the way out, I ask Paul the meaning behind the gesture. “It’s like they used to do with the POWs,” he says. “What helped them through it was that they had hope and dignity. They had dignity because they were part of a military unit. And they had hope that America would rescue them.”
The state of Indiana issued the January 2010 search warrant for the DeHarts' home. A previous version of this story said the FBI issued it.