LONDON (AP) — U.S. officials are demanding the details of WikiLeaks’ Twitter account, according to court documents obtained Saturday, a sign of the scope of the case the American government is trying to build against the secret-spilling website.
The Twitter activity of other alleged WikiLeaks associates has also been requested by U.S. investigators, while the site’s founder, Julian Assange, said he believed other American Internet companies may have been ordered to hand over information about his online activities.
Assange blasted the moves, saying they amounted to harassment.
“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,” he said in a statement.
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia has ordered Twitter Inc. has been ordered to hand over private messages, billing information, telephone numbers and connection records of accounts run by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and others — including Pfc. Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army intelligence analyst suspected of supplying the site with classified information, and Birgitta Jonsdottir, an Icelandic parliamentarian and one-time WikiLeaks collaborator.
The subpoena, dated Dec. 14, is for information dating back to November 1, 2009.
It was not immediately clear how the data bring requested would be useful to investigators, but Twitter’s logs could reveal the Internet addresses that Assange and WikiLeaks supporters have been using, which could help track their locations as they had traveled the world. The information also might identify others with official access to WikiLeaks’ account on Twitter who so far have escaped scrutiny.
While order targeting Twitter is almost certainly a minor part of the government’s investigation, it is significant because it confirms the wide-ranging nature of the case. WikiLeaks and its supporters say that other organizations, such as Facebook Inc. and Google Inc., had likely been served with similar orders.
Neither company immediately returned messages seeking comment Saturday.
In Washington, the U.S. government volunteered little new information Saturday about its ongoing criminal investigation against Assange and WikiLeaks after news of its subpoena leaked. Under rules governing grand jury investigations — in which U.S. prosecutors present evidence and testimony to selected private citizens behind closed doors to seek their approval to formally file charges — government lawyers are not allowed to discuss the case until charges are announced publicly.
A copy of the subpoena, sent to The Associated Press by Jonsdottir, said only that the information sought was “relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation” and ordered Twitter not to disclose its existence to Assange or any of the others targeted.
But a second document, dated Jan. 5, unsealed the court order. Although the reason wasn’t made explicit, WikiLeaks said it had been unsealed “thanks to legal action by Twitter.”
The micro-blogging site has declined to comment on the topic, saying only that its policy is to notify its users, where possible, of government requests for information.
In addition to Manning and Jonsdottir, those named in the order include Dutch hacker Rop Gonggrijp and U.S. programmer Jacob Appelbaum, both of whom have previously worked with WikiLeaks.
Assange has promised to fight the order, as has Jonsdottir, who said in a Twitter message that she had “no intention to hand my information over willingly.” Appelbaum, whose Twitter feed suggested he was traveling in Iceland, said he was apprehensive about returning to the U.S.
“Time to try to enjoy the last of my vacation, I suppose,” he tweeted.
Gonggrijp expressed annoyance that officials had misspelled his last name in the subpoena — and praised Twitter for notifying him and others that the U.S. had demanded his details.
“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,” Gonggrijp said. “Heaven knows how many places have received similar subpoenas and just quietly submitted all they had on me.”
The news of the subpoena follows months of angry back and forth between U.S. officials and WikiLeaks, which has released a grim video showing the killing of two Reuters journalists by a U.S. helicopter crew in Baghdad, tens of thousands of U.S. classified military documents on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and — most recently — thousands of classified U.S. diplomatic cables.
U.S. officials say posting the military documents put informers’ lives at risk, and that posting diplomatic cables has made other countries reluctant to deal with American officials.
WikiLeaks denies U.S. charges that its postings could put lives at risk, saying that Washington merely is acting out of embarrassment over the revelations contained in the cables.
Although its relations with the U.S. government have been ugly, WikiLeaks and its tech-savvy staff have relied on American Internet and finance companies to raise funds, disseminate material and get their message out.
WikiLeaks’ frequently updated Facebook page, for example, counts 1.5 million fans and its Twitter account has a following of more than 600,000. Until recently, the group raised donations via PayPal Inc., MasterCard Inc., and Visa Inc., and hosted material on Amazon.com’s servers.
But the group’s use of American companies has come under increasing pressure as it continues to reveal U.S. secrets — with PayPal and the credit card companies severing their links with site. Amazon.com booted WikiLeaks from its servers last month.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)