A year ago, the Department of Justice threatened to put Fidel Salinas in prison for the rest of his life for hacking crimes. But before the federal government brought those charges against him, Salinas now says, it tried a different tactic: recruiting him.
A Southern District of Texas judge sentenced Salinas earlier this month to six months in prison and a $10,600 fine after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of computer fraud and abuse. The charge stemmed from his repeatedly scanning the local Hidalgo County website for vulnerabilities in early 2012. But just months before he took that plea, the 28-year-old with ties to the hacktivist group Anonymous instead faced 44 felony hacking and cyberstalking charges, all of which were later dismissed. And now that his case is over, Salinas is willing to say why he believes he faced that overwhelming list of empty charges. As he tells it, two FBI agents asked him to hack targets on the bureau’s behalf, and he refused.
Over the course of a six-hour FBI interrogation in May, 2013, months after his arrest, Salinas says two agents from the FBI’s Southern District of Texas office asked him to use his skills to gather information on Mexican drug cartels and local government figures accepting bribes from drug traffickers. “They asked me to gather information on elected officials, cartel members, anyone I could get data from that would help them out,” Salinas told WIRED in a phone interview before his sentencing. “I told them no.”
“Fundamentally this represents the FBI trying to recruit by indictment,” says Salinas’ lawyer Tor Ekeland, who took the case pro bono last year. “The message was clear: If he had agreed to help them, they would have dropped the charges in a second.”
Salinas, to be clear, has no proof of his claims. He had no lawyer present at the time of the questioning, made no recordings, and his story couldn’t be independently confirmed. The FBI has flatly denied his account, writing in a statement to WIRED that Salinas “was never asked to conduct any investigative activity on behalf of the government.” A Department of Justice spokesperson pointed out in a statement that “at no point during the case did the defense ever present any testimony or evidence to show that any of the defendant’s hacking attempts had been made at the behest of the government or at the request of any alleged victim.”
But Ekeland says Salinas didn’t testify about his claims of the FBI’s hacking request because there wasn’t a trial. Ekeland advised Salinas not to tell the story until after his sentencing to avoid scuttling his plea deal. And Ekeland believes that story helps to explain the pile of unsupportable charges Salinas faced soon after. The 44 felony charges against Salinas, Ekeland says, were “an intimidation tactic designed to get him to fold, to get him to take a plea or cooperate.”
Salinas’ troubles with the law began when his house was raided in early 2012 as part of the investigation of his alleged hacking. He was arrested and all of his computer equipment seized, then released on bail. In May, 2013, as he tells it, he was called by the FBI and told to come to the local field office to retrieve his confiscated computers. When he arrived at the office with his wife, however, he claims he was instead put in a room and questioned. His wife, who was pregnant at the time, was, he says, left to wait for six hours in the building’s lobby.
During those six hours, Salinas says FBI agents showed him evidence that he had logged into Anonymous IRC chatrooms. He says they brought up OpCartel, an aborted Anonymous plan in 2011 to hack Mexico’s Zeta drug cartel. And finally, he claims they asked him to help them gather information on both the cartels and local officials who had accepted money from them.
“We think you can help us,” Salinas says he was told. “You can help us stop some of this corruption and stop the cartels.”
“I’m not going to snitch,” Salinas says he replied. They insisted that they weren’t asking him to inform on his friends or Anonymous associates.
“Think of it like this, you have a superpower,” Salinas says the agents told him. “And you should use your superpower to help us help people.”
Salinas says he refused. Four months later, he was hit with a single computer fraud and abuse charge. Six months after that, prosecutors filed a superseding indictment, adding 13 more counts. The next month they added another 30, adding up to a total of 44 charges. Eighteen of those charges were for cyberstalking an unnamed victim, and each charge was based on a single instance of Salinas submitting junk text in a contact form on the victim’s website.
As those charges mounted, Salinas says he wasn’t asked again to hack for the FBI or otherwise contacted by agents. But he nonetheless believes the series of superseding indictments was meant to convince him to change his mind. “I think with the first charge they thought I would cop a plea and help them, but I didn’t,” Salinas says. “I do believe they were upping the charges to put pressure on me, out of spite for not helping them out.”
When Ekeland took Salinas’ case and began to push back, the charges quickly fell to 28 counts and then a single-misdemeanor plea deal. “As soon as they got caught, they folded,” Ekeland told WIRED in November. “I feel sorry for all the people that don’t have the support that Fidel had … There are a ton of Fidel Salinases out there that aren’t as lucky.”
In her statement, Justice Department spokeswoman Angela Dodge emphasized that Salinas had in the end been convicted, and she defended the decision to bring the 44 charge indictment against him. “A federal grand jury found probable cause for each of the charges alleged in the indictment and … it is not uncommon for some charges to be dismissed as part of a plea,” she wrote. “We always consider what will serve as a deterrent to similar crimes and what is in the best interest of justice for all parties involved.”
But Ekeland says the overreaching charges fit into a pattern of the FBI and Justice Department threatening hackers with ruinous charges to turn them into informants, and in at least one other prominent case, cooperative hackers. While working as an FBI informant, Anonymous hacker Hector “Sabu” Monsegur led hacking operations against more than 2,000 internet domains, according to the leaked sentencing statement of Jeremy Hammond, another Anonymous hacker who took direction from Monsegur. Those targets included government websites in Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria, Turkey and Brazil.
Securing a defendant’s cooperation by threatening him or her with a mountain of charges is nothing new, says Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Hanni Fakhoury. But that’s usually accomplished by first charging the defendant and then allowing him or her to reduce punishment by working as an informant or offering information. “I’ve represented many defendants who were propositioned by the government to come into a room and cooperate,” says Fakhoury.
In this case, Salinas’ claims—if they’re at all true—could represent the opposite: a vindictive indictment after a refusal to cooperate. “To proposition him first and punish him after is much rarer and would be much more problematic,” says Fakhoury. “If this is true, it’s very troubling and very improper.”