WASHINGTON — The unfolding battle between the United States government and WikiLeaks over the publication of hundreds of thousands of once-secret U.S. documents moved into a new phase Tuesday with the unsealing of court motions asking a federal magistrate in Virginia to quash a subpoena for the Twitter records of three people with ties to WikiLeaks.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Theresa C. Buchanan ordered the motions unsealed at the request of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed them on behalf of a member of Iceland's parliament whose Twitter records were among those sought, apparently as part of a criminal investigation into how secret U.S. documents allegedly downloaded by Army Pfc. Bradley Manning found their way to WikiLeaks. Two private law firms joined in the filing on behalf of the other two Twitter users.
In addition, the ACLU and EFF asked Buchanan to make public any subpoenas issued to other Internet services as well as the U.S. government's original request for the records. Buchanan did not act on those motions, however. She set a hearing on the matter for Feb. 15.
The U.S. government is investigating whether it can charge WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange with a crime in connection with the website's publication of hundreds of thousands of classified and secret documents. U.S. officials believe Manning downloaded the documents while he was stationed as an intelligence specialist in Iraq and then passed them to WikiLeaks, which began publishing them in April.
U.S. investigators have been unable to tie Manning to Assange, Pentagon officials briefed on the investigation have said. Manning, who's been charged with eight criminal counts that could send him to prison for 52 years, is being held at the Marine Corps base at Quantico, Va.
In December, Buchanan issued the subpoena to Twitter, ordering it to produce a wide variety of information about the Twitter accounts of Manning and Assange, as well as three people who had worked with WikiLeaks, including the parliament member, Birgitta Jonsdottir, and two computer programmers, Rop Gonggrijp of the Netherlands and Jacob Appelbaum, an American.
The subpoena had been secret until Twitter asked Buchanan to make it public Jan. 5 so that the five could be notified that their records were being sought.
The challenge to the subpoena, which was filed Jan. 26, also had been filed under seal. The ACLU and EFF asked that it be unsealed in a separate motion Jan. 31.
In its Jan. 26 motion, the ACLU and EFF did not challenge the subpoena for Assange's and Manning's records, but it argued the subpoena violated Jonsdottir's, Gonggrijp's and Appelbaum's First Amendment right of free association and the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable search because the records would reveal the locations of computers the three were using at specific times.
"The government's fishing expedition into information about all the parties, Twitter postings, and about certain of the parties' direct messages over a six and a half month time period may chill the parties' and other individuals' rights to speak freely and associate with them," the motion said.
In a separate motion, the organizations argued that there was no valid reason for the court to keep secret the U.S. attorney's original request for the information. "Because the court has previously determined that . . . the public can be made aware of the underlying investigation and the Twitter order, no legitimate government interest, let alone a compelling interest, is served by continued sealing of the materials," the motion said.
Appelbaum is being represented by the law firm Keker & Van Nest LLP and Gonggrijp is represented by John D. Cline, according to a news release issued by the ACLU and EFF.