US court orders Twitter to release data on Wikileaks activists

posted at 12:30 pm on January 8, 2011 by Ed Morrissey

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?


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What about li’l Julian’s Right to Privacy?

Akzed on January 8, 2011 at 12:33 PM

Overreaching.

Like all policy designed to “keep us safe”…it too will be abused and used on whomever the left choose.

katy on January 8, 2011 at 12:33 PM

My older Twitter feed disappeared/was erased some time this past summer or fall. Is it actually recorded somewhere? Am I not important enough?

ParisParamus on January 8, 2011 at 12:34 PM

Finally getting serious, or overreaching?

You left out the most likely one:

Smoke and mirrors.

Trying to make it LOOK like they are doing something.

Tinfoil hat stuff, yes. However, I still have a suspicion that this wikileaks thing is somehow officially sanctioned.

LegendHasIt on January 8, 2011 at 12:38 PM

…he’s clearly too stupid to take seriously.

I thought this was already well established.

James on January 8, 2011 at 12:43 PM

The Department of Justice is playing hardball a lot more enthusiastically against Wikileakers than they have in other cases of media-released classified material.

And other crimes.

The DOJ, instead of pursuing actual threats to so-called justice, such as, among other, the fact that the entire US mortgage industry is based on churn-predicated fraud, that Goldman Sachs is an undisputed monopolist in the OTC market, and that JP Morgan uses its cartel power and FRBNY affiliation to control the commodity market, has decided to instead go after private user information on Twitter of all places.

Rae on January 8, 2011 at 12:50 PM

Seen this? State Department Warns Hundreds of Wikileak Targets

I agree that we should have prosecuted al NYT and other papers on previous occasions, but they don’t compare to Wikileaks. Assmange is an anarchist; he wants to see America burn. He’s not a whistleblower, he’s no journalist, he’s no seeker of truth.

slickwillie2001 on January 8, 2011 at 12:53 PM

The Department of Justice is playing hardball a lot more enthusiastically against Wikileakers than they have in other cases of media-released classified material.

The Obama administration is playing hardball…

I can’t remember. Did Nixon try to prosecute the Pentagon Papers leakers? HHmmmm… guess they tried..

Skandia Recluse on January 8, 2011 at 12:55 PM

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?

Wikileaks dumps No. 1 and 2 were mainly information embarrassing to the previous administration. Dump No. 3 has been more embarrassing to the current administration, worldwide climate change supporters and fat leftist documentarians who think Cuba has great health care. The latest leaks showed the Obama Administration that Assange didn’t just hate America when Gorege W. Bush was president; he hated America no matter who is president, and therefore must be neutralized.

As for the Twitter/First Amendment concerns, it would seem the current Justice Department is taking a position similar to what the Bush Administration did with the NSA monitoring of suspected terrorist supporters’ overseas phone calls, where the Bill of Rights didn’t apply because the people involved weren’t U.S. citizens — a position the left savaged after it was exposed by the New York Times. It will be fun to see how they end up rationalizing this one after getting the vapors over the phone eavesdropping (and of course accessing Manning’s Tweets are in a different category, since he’s both a member of the U.S. military amd facing espionage charges).

jon1979 on January 8, 2011 at 1:06 PM

Tinfoil hat stuff, yes. However, I still have a suspicion that this wikileaks thing is somehow officially sanctioned.

LegendHasIt on January 8, 2011 at 12:38 PM

I agree. This administration is doing everything it possibly can to weaken the US.

darwin on January 8, 2011 at 1:07 PM

Overreaching.

Like all policy designed to “keep us safe”…it too will be abused and used on whomever the left choose.

katy on January 8, 2011 at 12:33 PM

I’m kind of torn on this…but it has to be looked at as if an accomplice to murder conspiracy gets served a warrant by police to search his home. Twitter, FBook, Google etc are a part of that home…and “extension” of that home, if you will.

In any event, can you just imagine if Bush was still president and whole Manning/Assange story came to light?

JetBoy on January 8, 2011 at 1:12 PM

where the Bill of Rights didn’t apply because the people involved weren’t U.S. citizens ..
jon1979 on January 8, 2011 at 1:06 PM

Citizenship has nothing to do with it, and anyone trying to make that case has fallen for the liberal straw man argument.

It’s jurisdiction that controls where the US Constitution applies. It doesn’t apply in foreign countries, at least, it didn’t until the Supreme Court decided that foreign lands under the control of the US Military were also under the jurisdiction of the US Constitution and the supreme court. A position that had never before been considered. Foreign lands under control of the US Military during time of war were previously governed by the Military codes of justice.

Citizenship is not the controlling factor.

Skandia Recluse on January 8, 2011 at 1:15 PM

You’re next, or maybe its too late to worry about it.

Speakup on January 8, 2011 at 2:23 PM

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.

I don’t think anyone has credited him with being particularly smart.

GarandFan on January 8, 2011 at 4:21 PM

Assange wants “transparency” for everyone… but not himself.

Suck on it, freelance anarchist spy!

profitsbeard on January 8, 2011 at 6:12 PM

Somebody in the government figured out that the successful prosecution of the twit who actually stole and released the data may require a continuous narrative regarding how the data got from the twit to the other twit (Assange.)

As a non-citizen committing an act in another country with data that is arguably not “copyright-able” by our own laws there may be little we can do to Assange other than show him to be the destructive soul he is. “Some people just want to see the world burn….” And he is one of them.

But the soldier who appears to have stolen and released the documents is somebody who needs punishment to the fullest extent of the law. That requires dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s. One such detail is proving the data came from the soldier directly to Assange.

{^_^}

herself on January 9, 2011 at 4:03 AM

If a company is engaged in any sort of communications activity in Europe, they must keep transaction logs for at least a year. Now this might not contain the actual messages, but would be expected to contain logs of who sent messages to whom and when.

Note that the one year requirement isn’t a US requirement, it is an EU requirement. So it would be reasonable to assume that Twitter and anyone else handling communications with people in Europe will have at least one year’s worth of transaction logs (though probably not a year of actual traffic). That Twitter can retrieve your past tweats does indicate that the traffic is archived. When I start my twitter app, it pulls direct messages going back almost 2 years.

crosspatch on January 9, 2011 at 11:52 PM