Jeff Chiu, File, Associated Press
LONDON — U.S. investigators have gone to court to demand details about WikiLeaks' Twitter account, according to documents obtained Saturday — the first revelation about the criminal case Washington is trying to build against those who leaked classified U.S. documents.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said he believed other American Internet companies such as Facebook and Google may also have been ordered to divulge information on himself and colleagues.
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia issued a subpoena ordering Twitter Inc. to hand over private messages, billing information, telephone numbers, connection records and other information about accounts run by Assange and others.
The subpoena also targeted Pfc. Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army intelligence analyst suspected of supplying the site with classified information; Birgitta Jonsdottir, an Icelandic parliamentarian and one-time WikiLeaks collaborator; and Dutch hacker Rop Gonggrijp and U.S. programmer Jacob Appelbaum, both of whom have worked with WikiLeaks in the past.
The subpoena, dated Dec. 14, asked for information dating back to November 1, 2009.
Assange blasted the U.S. move, saying it amounted to harassment, and vowed to fight it.
"If the Iranian government was to attempt to coercively obtain this information from journalists and activists of foreign nations, human rights groups around the world would speak out," he said in a statement.
A copy of the subpoena, sent to The Associated Press by Jonsdottir, said that the information sought was "relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation" and ordered Twitter not to disclose its existence to Assange or any of the others targeted.
But a second document, dated Jan. 5, unsealed the court order. Although the reason wasn't made explicit in the document, WikiLeaks said it had been unsealed "thanks to legal action by Twitter."
The micro-blogging site Twitter declined to comment on the topic, saying only that its policy is to notify its users, where possible, of government requests for information.
Neither Facebook Inc. nor Google Inc. immediately returned messages seeking comment Saturday on possible subpoenas.
In Washington, the U.S. government volunteered little new information Saturday about its ongoing criminal investigation against Assange and WikiLeaks after news of its subpoena leaked. Under rules governing grand jury investigations — in which U.S. prosecutors present evidence and testimony to selected private citizens behind closed doors to seek their approval to formally file charges — government lawyers are not allowed to discuss the case until charges are announced publicly.
It was not immediately clear how the data being requested would be useful to investigators, but Twitter's logs could reveal the Internet addresses that Assange and WikiLeaks supporters have been using, which could help track their locations as they traveled around the world. The information also might identify others with official access to WikiLeaks' account on Twitter who so far have escaped scrutiny.
Assange's lawyer, Mark Stephens, said targeting Twitter showed how desperate U.S. officials were to pin a crime on the WikiLeaks founder.
"(This is an attempt to) shake the electronic tree in the hope some kind of criminal charge drops out the bottom of it," Stephens told the BBC on Saturday.
Jonsdottir said in a Twitter message that she had "no intention to hand my information over willingly." Appelbaum, whose Twitter feed suggested he was traveling in Iceland, said he was apprehensive about returning to the U.S.
"Time to try to enjoy the last of my vacation, I suppose," he tweeted.
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