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WikiLeaks Supporters Fight Request For Twitter Data

Julian Assange, shown here Friday in London, is one of four Twitter users and WikiLeaks supporters whose account information the government is seeking.
Carl Court
AFP/Getty Images
Julian Assange, shown here Friday in London, is one of four Twitter users and WikiLeaks supporters whose account information the government is seeking.

A new front opened on Tuesday in the Justice Department's investigation of the website WikiLeaks as prosecutors appeared in a Virginia courtroom to defend their request for information about the online habits of WikiLeaks supporters.

On Tuesday morning, lawyers for WikiLeaks supporters tried to persuade a federal magistrate judge to unseal a Justice Department request for details about four private Twitter accounts. The legal advocates also want the judge to reconsider her order that would require Twitter to share the identifying information about the four WikiLeaks supporters' accounts.

The information includes Internet protocol addresses, which help pinpoint users' location.

Twitter apparently hasn't turned over the information. Aden Fine, who argued the case for the American Civil Liberties Union, said it shouldn't because the government may be violating rights to privacy and free association of the WikiLeaks supporters.

"What's especially important here is that the government is trying to get private information about individuals' Internet communications, and what makes this situation especially problematic is that the government's trying to do so in secret," Fine said in an interview.

The underlying court materials are still secret. But the request to Twitter appears to be part of a criminal investigation of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Assange didn't appear in court, and he's arguing through his legal team that the U.S. Justice Department lacks jurisdiction over him. Assange is one of the four Twitter users whose account information the government is seeking. The other three are Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of Parliament in Iceland; Dutch hacker Rop Gonggrijp, and Jacob Appelbaum, an American computer security researcher.

Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters last year that prosecutors are trying out creative theories.

"People would have a misimpression if the only statute they think that we're looking at is the Espionage Act," Holder said at a December news conference. "That is certainly something that may play a role, but there are other statutes, other tools we have at our disposal."

John Davis and Andrew Peterson, two experienced national security prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia, told the judge Tuesday that their investigation is in early stages. And they said their application for information about who's talking to whom on Twitter breaks no new ground.

It's a standard investigative tool used every day, they said, and they're not backing down.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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