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Feds Subpoena Twitter Over WikiLeaks

January 9, 2011

The federal government’s investigation into WikiLeaks intensified after a federal judge approved a subpoena to Twitter ordering the popular messaging service to provide investigators all the data they have on five WikiLeaks activists.

The move is further evidence of the Obama administration’s determination to build a criminal case against WikiLeaks.

The subpoena, ordered by a U.S. district court in Alexandria, Virginia, demands that Twitter disclose details about the accounts of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Army intelligence analyst PFC Bradley Manning, who is suspected of supplying WikiLeaks with classified military and State Department information.  

Manning is currently in U.S. custody at a maximum-security military brig at Quantico, Virginia, and has been charged with leaking video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack in Iraq that killed a Reuters news photographer and his driver.   WikiLeaks released the video on its Web site last April.

Mr. Assange is currently out on bail in Britain, where he is fighting extradition to Sweden over allegations of sex crimes.

The other activists targeted in the U.S. probe are Birgitta Jonsdottir, an Icelandic parliamentarian believed to have collaborated with WikiLeaks, Dutch hacker Rop Gonggrijp and U.S. programmer Jacob Appelbaum, both of whom had worked with WikiLeaks in the past.

News of the subpoena follows months of heated rhetoric between U.S. officials and WikiLeaks, which has released thousands of secret U.S. military documents on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan along with classified U.S. diplomatic cables.

The Justice Department escalated its investigation into WikiLeaks after the whistleblower Web site revealed the classified State Department cables on November 28.  The day after the documents were posted, Attorney General Eric Holder pledged that anyone found to have violated U.S. law would be prosecuted.

Assange called the latest U.S. move harassment, and vowed to fight it.

“If the Iranian government was to attempt to coercively obtain this information from journalists and activists of foreign nations, human rights groups around the world would speak out,” Assange told The Associated Press.
ҬThe subpoena seeks information dating back to Nov. 1, 2009, months before an earlier WikiLeaks release.

In a statement about the matter, WikiLeaks said it has reason to believe that Facebook, Google and others have also received similar orders.  

The U.S. District Court subpoena ordered Twitter to provide investigators with private messages, telephone numbers, billing information, connection records and other data about accounts run by Assange and the others.

According to an Associated Press report citing a copy of the subpoena obtained from Jonsdottir, the federal government said the information sought was “relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation”.  The government also ordered Twitter not to disclose the existence of the subpoena to any of its intended targets.

However, a second document dated January 5 unsealed the court order, something WikiLeaks attributed to “legal action by Twitter”.

Twitter has not publicly commented on the matter, except to say its policy is to notify its users, whenever possible, of government requests for information.

While it is not entirely clear how the Twitter data being demanded would be of use to federal investigators, the logs could reveal the Internet addresses used by Assange and WikiLeaks supporters, which could help track their locations as they traveled throughout the world.  The data might also help identify others with official access to WikiLeaks’ Twitter account that may have escaped notice by authorities.

Mr. Assange’s lawyer, Mark Stephens, said targeting Twitter demonstrates how desperate U.S. officials are to charge Assange with crime.

In an interview with BBC News, Stephens called the subpoena an attempt to “shake the electronic tree in the hope some kind of criminal charge drops out the bottom of it.”

Jonsdottir posted a Twitter message saying that she had “no intention to hand my information over willingly.”

Appelbaum, whose Twitter messages indicate is traveling in Iceland, said he was nervous about returning to the U.S.

“Time to try to enjoy the last of my vacation, I suppose,” he wrote.

Gonggrijp commended Twitter for notifying him about the matter.

“It appears that Twitter, as a matter of policy, does the right thing in wanting to inform their users when one of these comes in,” the AP quoted him as saying.

“Heaven knows how many places have received similar subpoenas and just quietly submitted all they had on me.”

U.S. officials say that WikiLeaks’ release of classified military documents put informers’ lives at risk, and that posting the diplomatic cables has made other nations hesitant to work with American officials.  However, WikiLeaks denies putting any lives at risk, and accuses the U.S. government of acting out of embarrassment over the revelations contained in the cables.

WikiLeaks and its staff have relied upon American Internet and finance companies to communicate and raise money.  

The group’s frequently updated Facebook page boasts some 1.5 million fans, and it has more than 600,000 Twitter followers.

Until recently, WikiLeaks solicited donations through PayPal, MasterCard and Visa, and hosted content on Amazon.com’s servers.

However, its use of American companies has come under growing pressure as the group continues to publicly disclose U.S. classified documents.

Last month, PayPal, Visa and MasterCard severed their ties with WikiLeaks, while Amazon.com removed WikiLeaks from its servers, sparking a cyber-battle with WikiLeaks’ supporters.

Mr. Assange’s next hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

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