Preet Bharara v. Ross Ulbricht: Who’s the Real Dread Pirate Roberts?

On February 4, American media trumpeted the expected, “dog bites man” headline: “Ross Ulbricht Convicted” of being Dread Pirate Roberts, operator of the online Silk Road marketplace. Few expected an acquittal. From the moment US Attorney Preet Bharara announced Ulbricht’s indictment on seven charges, ranging from “money laundering” to “drug trafficking,” the prosecution ran on rails.

A compliant judge rejected  defense motions to exclude illegally obtained evidence, as well as denying bail for Ulbricht based on “murder for hire” charges publicized just long enough to poison the jury pool before being quietly withdrawn. Then came  a show trial typical of the current US “justice” system, its verdict known beyond reasonable doubt well in advance of opening arguments. Ulbricht faces 30 years to life in prison on charges that amount to “doing business without Preet Bharara’s permission.”

The pseudonym “Dread Pirate Roberts” is drawn from the popular 1987 film The Princess Bride. Wikipedia summarizes the character as “not one man, but a series of individuals who periodically pass the name and reputation to a chosen successor. … the method works because Roberts'[s] notorious reputation inspires overwhelming fear in sailors. Ships immediately capitulate and surrender their wealth rather than be captured, a fate they imagine to be certain death.”

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Ulbricht was, indeed, the operator of Silk Road as of his arrest. Who sounds more like Dread Pirate Roberts: The operator of a business connecting willing sellers with willing buyers, or the US Attorney who caged him and whose co-conspirators in the US Marshals Service auctioned off Bitcoin — tens of millions of dollars worth — stolen from Silk Road’s accounts?

“This case is about a dark and secret part of the Internet,” said Bharara crewman (sorry, “Assistant US Attorney”) Timothy T. Howard in opening arguments. Well, no. It’s about money, power and control. Striking fear into the hearts of vulnerable merchantmen. Preserving reputation as the biggest, baddest band of buccaneers on the Spanish — Spanish Harlem, anyway — Main.

The Silk Road abduction/heist scheme is no one-off thing. It’s part of what prosecutors would call, if they had Preet Bharara in the dock, a “pattern of serious criminal misconduct.” As one example of his racketeering record, let us remember the 2011  caper in which Bharara’s corsairs took down several internationally based online poker sites, indicting their operators for offering online gambling to willing US customers. The extortion payoff … excuse me, “settlement” … from one site and operator alone (Gibraltar-based Party Poker and co-owner Anurag Dikshit) came to more than $400 million. As such things go, the mafia’s “Five Families” pale next to Bharara’s operation.

Unfortunately, the mafia analogy isn’t trite and frankly supersedes the Dread Pirate Roberts comparison. The fictional Roberts and his crew ran as a self-contained operation. Bharara ranks, at best, as capofamiglia or sotto capo (family boss or sub-boss) in the largest, wealthiest and most powerful organized crime ring in human history: The US government, which rakes in trillions of dollars every year on its various rackets.

If there’s a weakness in the analogy, it’s that capo di tutti capi Salvatore Maranzano didn’t, for the most part, try to tell his victims how to run their lives or convince them that he was shaking them down for their own good.

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