Uncle Sam’s Latest Martyr Should Have Gotten a Second Passport
Hacker and all-around eccentric Virgil Griffith is the latest victim in America’s unceasing battle to punish political crimes.
In an indictment unsealed November 29, federal prosecutors accuse Griffith of violating “licenses, orders, regulations, and prohibitions in and issued under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA).” If convicted of these offenses, Griffith could spend up to 20 years in federal prison.
Griffith’s ordeal began Thanksgiving Day when he was arrested after landing at Los Angeles International Airport. His underlying crime? Giving a talk in North Korea last April without Big Brother’s permission.
The indictment says that Griffith’s presentation “revealed valuable information on blockchain and cryptocurrency technologies.” It further alleges that he “participated in discussions regarding using cryptocurrency technologies to evade sanctions and launder money.”
A US citizen living in Singapore, Griffith tried to abide by Big Brother’s playbook before traveling to North Korea. The indictment describes how he applied to the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for a license to travel to North Korea. That’s a necessary step for US citizens who wish to visit a country on America’s enemies list. Not surprisingly, OFAC refused to issue the license.
Griffith then applied for a visa to visit North Korea through that country’s United Nations mission in Manhattan. Once it was issued, he rather unwisely posted a photo of it on Twitter.
But that was only one of Griffith’s tactical mistakes. He also cooperated fully with the FBI’s investigation following his return from North Korea and even allowed investigators access to his cell phone.
Griffith’s first and biggest mistake, though, was not acquiring a second citizenship and passport and subsequently giving up US citizenship before visiting Korea. If he’d done that, he wouldn’t have needed to apply for a license from OFAC to visit North Korea. And while federal prosecutors still could have indicted him for sanctions-busting, if he avoided travel to the US afterward, Uncle Sam would have had a much harder time arresting him.
There’s no guarantee that Virgil Griffith could have indefinitely avoided involuntary repatriation to the US had he expatriated before traveling to North Korea. If US efforts to extradite him had failed, it could have asked Interpol, the international police agency, to issue a “red notice” against him. The notice would have triggered alerts at ports of entry throughout the world for his immediate detention. But even then, Griffith could have fought extradition in the courts of whatever country had detained him.
For instance, in September, a judge in Spain rejected a US request to extradite Hugo Carvajal, Venezuela’s former military intelligence chief. Federal prosecutors claimed that Carvajal was involved in drug trafficking. But the Spanish magistrate concluded the real motive for the extradition request was political. He believed the real reason for the extradition request was because the US wanted to interrogate Carvajal about Uncle Sam’s political enemy, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
Griffith now faces an uphill battle against an adversary with an unlimited budget and the intention to place him behind bars for the next 20 years. He’s likely to incur hundreds of thousands of dollars of legal fees to defend himself – a sum far exceeding the cost of a second passport.
In truth, the indictment seems almost comically frivolous, as it appears that the information he revealed in North Korea is publicly available on the internet. Still, a jury unfamiliar with the nuances of cryptocurrencies and blockchains could be easily be swayed by the claim that he (in the words of the indictment) “jeopardized the sanctions” on “North Korea’s dangerous regime.”
And it all could have (possibly) been avoided had he been more thoroughly prepared.
Second passport, anyone?
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