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WikiLeaks says Aaron Swartz may have been a 'source'

Group says the late tech activist talked with editor Julian Assange and may have been a WikiLeaks source. But it doesn't offer any details or corroborating evidence.

WikiLeaks said late yesterday that recently deceased Internet activist Aaron Swartz assisted the organization, was in contact with Julian Assange, and may have been one of the organization's sources.

Reached in Iceland on Saturday evening, California time, WikiLeaks representative Kristinn Hrafnsson confirmed to CNET that the tweets were authentic but declined to elaborate.

In the tweets, the organization said it was revealing the information "due to the investigation into the Secret Service involvement" with Swartz.

Here are screenshots of the tweets:

The phrasing of the last tweet ("strong reasons to believe, but cannot prove") may be related to the precautions WikiLeaks says it takes to ensure its sources' anonymity. WikiLeaks' policy says:

...we operate a number of servers across multiple international jurisdictions and we we do not keep logs. Hence these logs can not be seized. Anonymization occurs early in the WikiLeaks network, long before information passes to our web servers. Without specialized global internet traffic analysis, multiple parts of our organisation must conspire with each other to strip submitters of their anonymity.

The Secret Service has a legal mandate to investigate computer crime, a task it shares with the FBI and other federal agencies, which the agency describes including "unauthorized access to protected computers" -- which Swartz is alleged to have been guilty of. It also investigates forgery, identity fraud, visa fraud, money laundering, food stamp fraud, wire fraud, and a host of other federal offenses.

It would not be unusual, in other words, for the Secret Service to be involved in a criminal probe of Swartz's alleged bulk downloading from the JSTOR database. Some other examples: The Secret Service, which is now part of the Department of Homeland Security, has investigated an artist who installed photo-taking software in Apple stores, a credit card theft ring, spyware installed on college campuses, and a possible theft of GOP candidate Mitt Romney's income tax returns.

The ambiguous WikiLeaks tweets have prompted speculation about what the group was trying to suggest. The Verge's Tim Carmody wrote that "the aim of these tweets could be to imply that the US Attorney's Office and Secret Service targeted Swartz in order to get at WikiLeaks, and that Swartz died still defending his contacts' anonymity. Taking that implied claim at face value would be irresponsible without more evidence." And blog emptywheel wrote that if true, the tweets "strongly indicate" that "the US government used the grand jury investigation into Aaron's JSTOR downloads as a premise to investigate WikiLeaks."

Until WikiLeaks elaborates on what it intended to say by highlighting the Secret Service's involvement, and provides supporting evidence, it will be difficult to draw any conclusions.

After confirming the authenticity of the tweets, WikiLeaks representative Hrafnsson asked that we contact him later with any further questions. We'll do that and let you know what we find out.

It seems the only thing that's now certain is that criticisms of, and speculation about, the government's handling of the Swartz-JSTOR case isn't likely to die down overnight.

CNET's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.