In a new blow to press freedom and internet users’ privacy rights here in the heimat, Obama’s Justice Department won a significant victory on Friday.
As part of the secret state’s campaign against whistleblowers and transparency advocates, U.S. Magistrate Theresa Buchanan granted federal prosecutors access to WikiLeaks-related Twitter accounts.
The 20-page ruling, issued in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, upheld government demands that it be allowed to seize the Twitter accounts of WikiLeaks supporters Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a leftist member of the Icelandic parliament, computer security researcher Jacob Appelbaum and Rop Gonggrijp, the cofounder of the Dutch ISP XS4All.
Jónsdóttir was specifically targeted for her role in helping WikiLeaks release the Collateral Murder video last year that exposed the wanton slaughter of a dozen people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad, including two Reuters photojournalists, by a U.S. military Apache helicopter crew. Two children were also seriously wounded in the unprovoked attack.
The ruling also grants access to the Twitter accounts of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, the imprisoned and tortured Army private indicted for “aiding the enemy” over his alleged leak of incriminating documents that disclosed state crimes, charges which carry a potential death penalty.
Meanwhile, the cyber-guerrilla collective Anonymous, responsible for the HBGary hack that revealed plans by the Bank of America and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to target WikiLeaks and Chamber opponents, “has promised to avenge Manning, and wage a media war with the U.S. military,” The Tech Herald reports.
Buchanan’s ruling ordered that the micro-blogging site cough-up information to the government about what internet and email addresses are associated with the whistleblowers, as part of an “ongoing investigation” by a federal grand jury believed to be seeking criminal charges against WikiLeaks supporters.
The judge rejected arguments by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and private attorneys representing the account holders, dismissing claims that there were First Amendment issues involved because the activists “have already made their Twitter posts and associations publicly available.”
In dismissing privacy concerns, Buchanan also ruled that the account holders had “no Fourth Amendment privacy interest in their IP addresses,” and that federal privacy law did not apply because prosecutors were not seeking the contents of the communications themselves, a spurious argument.
Denouncing the ruling, EFF noted in a press release that “secret government demands for information about the subscribers’ communications came to light only because Twitter took steps to ensure their customers were notified and had the opportunity to respond.”
The ACLU and EFF are also seeking from the court similar orders issued by the Obama administration to other companies, widely reported to include Google and Facebook.
When the story first broke, WikiLeaks demanded that Google and Facebook reveal the contents of subpoenas they may have received from the government. However both multibillion firms, chock-a-block with contracts from the secret state as disclosed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) have refused all comment, leading critics to assume they have already complied with orders to hand over the data.
The ACLU’s Aden Fine, a staff attorney with the group’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project said that Buchanan’s ruling “gives the government the ability to secretly amass private information related to individuals’ Internet communications.” Decrying the judge’s order, Fine commented: “If this ruling stands, our client may be prevented from challenging the government’s requests to other companies because she might never know if and how many other companies have been ordered to turn over information about her.”
EFF’s Legal Director Cindy Cohn added, “with so much of our digital private information being held by third parties–whether in the cloud or on social networking sites like Twitter–the government can track your every move and statement without you ever having a chance to protect yourself.”
Underscoring Cohn’s point, EFF revealed back in August that “a number of documents from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) highlighted the government’s ability to scour not only social networks, but record each and every corner of the Internet.”
Both privacy watchdog groups plan to appeal the ruling.
As Antifascist Calling reported last month, the secret state began a criminal investigation of WikiLeaks and founder Julian Assange last July after the secret-spilling web site began releasing a mountain of classified files on the imperialist Empire’s criminal invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.
That probe was accelerated after WikiLeaks Cablegate revelations began last November and the group threatened to release compromising files on a “major American bank,” believed to be the Bank of America.
While WikiLeaks hasn’t followed up, Zero Hedge reported Friday that Anonymous “is claiming to be have emails and documents which prove ‘fraud’ was committed by Bank of America employees, and the group says it’ll release them on Monday.”
CNET News noted that “Buchanan’s order isn’t a traditional subpoena. Rather, it’s what’s known as a 2703(d) order, which allows police to obtain certain records from a Web site or Internet provider if they are ‘relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation’.”
Investigative journalist Declan McCullagh reports that a 2703(d) order “is broad” and covers “connection records, or records of session times and durations,” and “records of user activity for any connections made to or from the account,” including internet addresses used.
In other words, the order covers “all records” and “correspondence” relating to the accounts and is also “broad enough to sweep in the content of messages such as direct messages sent through Twitter or tweets from a nonpublic account.”
According to EFF’s Cindy Cohn, the Justice Department narrowed their request “to avoid asking for content” so as to avoid a federal appeals court decision that a “a 2703(d) order is insufficient for content data and a search warrant is necessary.” Cohn told CNET “it sure seemed like the order sought” to sweep up message content as well.
Cohn told Bloomberg News even though Buchanan’s order didn’t involve content, “the judge downplayed what can be learned from non-content information that we give to third-parties all the time.”
In February, San Francisco-based attorney John Keker who represents Jacob Appelbaum, argued in court that “it is incredibly powerful to know who the opposition is and who they’re working with,” and that turning over such information to a grand jury would violate Fourth Amendment guarantees against warrantless searches and seizures by the national security state.
For their part, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Davis argued in court that the government’s request was “routine.”
Davis told the court, “this is a standard–as this court knows well–investigative measure used in criminal investigations every day of the year all over the country.”
As the Obama administration’s war on whistleblowers escalates, prosecutions and threats of the same have focused journalists and corporate watchdogs in their gunsights.
Secrecy News disclosed last week that former National Security Agency official Thomas A. Drake, charged last year “with unauthorized retention of classified information about controversial NSA programs, should not be allowed to argue in court that overclassification is widespread or that he was engaged in whistleblowing in the public interest.”
According to federal prosecutors, while “the defendant may claim that the current classification system is ineffectual or illegal and prevents his ability to air allegations of waste, fraud and abuse to the attention of the public,” the secret state is arguing that such concerns are “irrelevant.” Illegal or not, the defendant’s “obligation” was to “protect classified information.”
This from an administration that claimed one of its “top priorities” would be to “Protect Whistleblowers”!
As Salon’s Glenn Greenwald pointed out last year: “Most of what our Government does of any real significance happens in the dark.”
“Whistleblowers are one of the very few avenues we have left for learning about any of that,” Greenwald wrote. “And politicians eager to preserve their own power and ability to operate in secret–such as Barack Obama–see whistleblowers as their Top Enemy.”
“Hence,” the Salon columnist informed us, “we have a series of aggressive prosecutions from the Obama administration of Bush era exposures of abuse and illegality–acts that flagrantly violate Obama’s Look Forward, Not Backward decree used to protect high-level Bush administration criminals.” And, I might add, “high-level criminals” within his own administration.
As the World Socialist Web Site pointed out last month, “the aim” of the Obama administration “is not only to extract revenge for WikiLeaks having published thousands of US Embassy cables detailing Washington’s involvement in spying, torture and assassinations. It is also intended as a warning to any individual or group that tries to expose the dirty reality of imperialist diplomacy.”
With any semblance of public accountability, let alone justice, closed off by America’s capitalist elites, in and outside of government, whistleblowing web sites like WikiLeaks, Public Intelligence, Cryptome and Anonymous, may very well be the last line of defense we have for exposing state crimes against what little remains of our democracy.