The federal probe into the leaks of military and diplomatic communications by Wikileaks has gained enough momentum to get a federal judge to start approving subpoenas — including one aimed at the popular messaging service Twitter. The US district court in Virginia has ordered Twitter to give investigators all data they have regarding five Wikileaks activists, including private messaging and contact information. The Telegraph reports that Google and Facebook may have similar demands pending as well:
Federal investigators want private messages, contact information, bank account numbers and other personal details about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the US soldier accused of supplying classified documents to the site, an Icelandic MP and two computer experts.
A judge in the US District Court in Virginia ordered Twitter to hand over the private information last month, according to court papers unsealed last week. …
It also raises important questions about online privacy. As the controversy has developed, messages and debates on Twitter have played a key role for supporters and critics of WikiLeaks.
Assange blasted the order as “harassment,” saying that if such a demand had come from the Iranian government, the world would have screamed about the attack on free speech. That is an apparent reference to the role Twitter played in the 2009 uprising in Iran, which ultimately got suppressed through a violent military and paramilitary intervention by the mullahcracy. The Iranians did their best to track down the tweeters using the network to organize the protests, which led to a worldwide effort to thwart security forces by having Twitter users all over the world list Tehran as their location.
However, a couple of differences exist that make the comparison absurd. First and foremost, Iran is not run by a representative government but a dictatorial theocracy, which was painfully obvious in the summer of 2009 and the rigged election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Nothing done by a court in such a country will have any real legitimacy. If Assange can’t tell the difference between the systems of justice in Iran and the US, then he’s clearly too stupid to take seriously. Just slightly less obviously, the theft of government data is a crime even in the most liberal of nations, and one that gets taken seriously by those governments, especially when the thieves and their colleagues decide to publish them indiscriminately in an attempt to destroy their ability to conduct military and diplomatic operations now and in the future.
There could be a question on whether the government might be pushing the limit in terms of the First Amendment. Going after the leakers is a given, but the Wikileaks activists aren’t the leakers. They could be considered accomplices, but to be consistent in that interpretation, the government would have to also prosecute the New York Times and Washington Post for exposing government secrets, which arguably fall into the definition of accomplices but for obvious political reasons have been left alone in leak probes, with the exception of contempt-of-court citations for refusing to reveal sources. The Department of Justice is playing hardball a lot more enthusiastically against Wikileakers than they have in other cases of media-released classified material. In order to justify that, the DoJ has to deny that Wikileaks is a media organization with at least some justification in giving the public its right to know how its government operates, which is what the judge appears to have decided, at least at this stage of the investigation. If so, then it opens up the question as to what makes a media organization and where the DoJ and the courts will draw the line in other cases.
It may also lead to yet another diplomatic embarrassment. One of the targets is former Wikileaks activist Birgitta Jonsdottir, who quit last year in protest of Assange’s public media blitz. Jonsdottir is now a Member of Parliament in Iceland, which will certainly create some tense conversations between the US and Iceland if the DoJ succeeds in raiding her Twitter data.
The final question, of course, is why the DoJ didn’t get to this level of response before the leaks of the diplomatic cables. The Obama administration seems aggressive and motivated now, but shouldn’t they have been this motivated after the first leak of military communications?