WikiLeaks volunteer hires lawyers in Twitter fight

CNET has learned that the Electronic Frontier Foundation will represent member of Icelandic parliament who volunteered with WikiLeaks and is target of a U.S. Justice Department probe.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
5 min read

An ex-WikiLeaks volunteer has hired American lawyers to oppose the U.S. government's efforts to obtain the contents of her Twitter account, CNET has learned.

Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a member of the Icelandic parliament who helped with WikiLeaks' release of a classified U.S. military video, is being represented by the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"We're looking at options and various things we can do to help our client," EFF legal director Cindy Cohn said yesterday. "She's disturbed that her information is being sought."

On Friday, Twitter notified Jónsdóttir and a handful of other subscribers that the U.S. Justice Department had obtained a court order for their "subscriber account information." The order covers possible accounts linked to WikiLeaks, including those of Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private accused of leaking classified documents; Seattle-based WikiLeaks volunteer Jacob Appelbaum; Dutch hacker and XS4ALL Internet provider co-founder Rop Gonggrijp; and WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange.

Cohn said the EFF was representing only Jónsdóttir and not any of the other targets of the order (PDF), which was signed by U.S. Magistrate Judge Theresa Buchanan in Alexandria, Va. "They all have separate stories," she said.

The U.S. government began a criminal investigation of WikiLeaks and Assange last July after the Web site began releasing what would become a deluge of confidential military and State Department files. In November, Attorney General Eric Holder said the probe is "ongoing," and a few weeks later an attorney for Assange said he had been told that a grand jury had been empaneled in Alexandria.

Prosecutors send subpoenas to and serve other legal process on Web sites and Internet service providers every day. But because Jónsdóttir is one of 63 members of Iceland's national parliament who serves on the foreign affairs committee, the order may cause an international incident: this weekend, the Icelandic government summoned U.S. ambassador Luis Arreaga to a meeting.

The U.S. State Department yesterday confirmed the meeting took place but did not provide details. "We took the opportunity to underscore how seriously the U.S. government takes the unauthorized disclosure of classified information and the harm it has caused," spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "Our ambassador assured the government of Iceland that the Department of Justice investigation is being conducted in compliance with U.S. law and is subject to all of the rules of law and due process norms enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and applicable federal law."

Crowley declined to say whether Jónsdóttir is a criminal suspect--Assange is apparently being investigated for violations of the Espionage Act and conspiracy to bypass security of military computers.

"If the message with the subpoena was to scare me--it has failed," Jónsdóttir said in a Twitter message yesterday.

This evening, WikiLeaks published a press release linking incendiary statements aimed at Assange, including calls for his assassination, to "violent rhetoric" that it said may have led to the Arizona shooting.

"WikiLeaks staff and contributors have also been the target of unprecedented violent rhetoric by U.S. prominent media personalities, including Sarah Palin, who urged the U.S. administration to 'Hunt down the WikiLeaks chief like the Taliban,'" the statement said.

It quoted Assange as calling for criminal charges against Palin and other conservative commentators, who in the United States are protected by the First Amendment. "When senior politicians and attention-seeking media commentators call for specific individuals or groups of people to be killed they should be charged with incitement--to murder," he said.

A broad, ambiguous order
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."

The 2703(d) order is broad. It requests any "contact information" associated with the accounts from November 1, 2009, to the present, "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.

It requests "all records" and "correspondence" relating to those accounts, which appears to be broad enough to sweep in the content of messages such as direct messages sent through Twitter or tweets from a non-public account. That could allow the account holders to claim that the 2703(d) order is unconstitutional. (One federal appeals court recently ruled that under the Fourth Amendment, a 2703(d) order is insufficient for the contents of communications and a search warrant is needed, although that decision is not binding in Virginia or San Francisco.)

Buchanan's original order from last month directed Twitter not to disclose "the existence of the investigation" to anyone, but that gag order was lifted this week. Twitter's law enforcement guidelines say "our policy is to notify users of requests for their information prior to disclosure."

Jónsdóttir was a close ally of Assange and supported efforts to turn the small north Atlantic nation into a virtual data haven. A New Yorker profile last year, for instance, depicted Jónsdóttir as almost an accidental politician whose self-described political views are mostly anarchist and who volunteered with WikiLeaks.

At one point, the profile recounted, Assange was unshaven and his hair was a mess: "He was typing up a press release. Jónsdóttir came by to help, and he asked her, 'Can't you cut my hair while I'm doing this?' Jónsdóttir walked over to the sink and made tea. Assange kept on typing, and after a few minutes she reluctantly began to trim his hair."

Jónsdóttir even invited Assange to a reception--this was before last year's series of high-profile releases--held at the U.S. ambassador's residence in the capital of Reykjavik. "He certainly had fun at the party," Jónsdóttir told the U.K. Telegraph. "He went as my guest. I said it would be a bit of a prank to take him and see if they knew who he was. I don't think they had any idea."

But after Assange became embroiled in allegations of sexual assault, which have led to the Swedish government attempting to extradite him from the U.K., Jónsdóttir said the organization should find a spokesman who's not such a controversial figure.

"WikiLeaks should have spokespeople that are conservative and not strong persons, rather dull, so to speak, so that the message will be delivered without the messenger getting all the attention," Jónsdóttir said at the time. Although she said she did not believe the allegations, she suggested that Assange step aside, which he did not do.