U.S. WikiLeaks Criminal Probe ‘Ongoing,’ Judge Reveals

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gestures in August after his statement to the media and supporters on a balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in central London. Photo: AP

A 2-year-old federal grand jury probe into the secret-spilling website WikiLeaks is still “ongoing,” a federal judge in Virginia revealed Wednesday in a brief ruling.

It’s the first official confirmation since WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was granted asylum by the Ecuadorean government in August that the grand jury investigation is continuing.

U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady of Alexandria, Virginia, noted the investigation in a legal flap surrounding three WikiLeaks associates who lost their bid to protect their Twitter records from U.S. investigators. The three had asked the court to unseal documents in their case. In May, O’Grady ordered the documents remain under seal for six months. On Wednesday he renewed that order, based on a government filing.

“For reasons stated in the memorandum of the United States, unsealing of the documents at this time would damage an ongoing criminal investigation,” O’Grady ruled. (.pdf)

The Justice Department served Twitter with a records demand in December 2010 as part of the investigation into WikiLeaks.

The targets of the records demand are WikiLeaks’ official Twitter account, and the accounts of three people connected to the group: Seattle coder and activist Jacob Appelbaum; Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of Iceland’s parliament; and Dutch businessman Rop Gonggrijp. Jonsdottir and Gonggrijp helped WikiLeaks prepare the release of a classified U.S. Army video published last year, “Collateral Murder,” and Appelbaum was the site’s U.S. representative.

The court order Twitter complied with sought the full contact details for the Twitter accounts (phone numbers and addresses, even though Twitter doesn’t collect these — only an e-mail address), account payment method if any (credit card and bank account number), IP addresses used to access the account, connection records (“records of session times and durations”) and data transfer information, such as the size of data files sent to someone else, and the destination IP (though this isn’t technically possible in Twitter).

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union unsuccessfully fought the Twitter order, arguing in part that it violated the account holders’ First Amendment rights. The groups lost, and the judge refused to stay his order pending appeal.

The order requiring Twitter to turn over information also showed that the authorities were seeking other information, including mailing addresses, billing information, email addresses, credit card and bank account numbers, and IP address information from other internet service providers.

The ACLU and EFF sought to unseal the government’s request for these records, but Judge O’Grady allowed the government to keep under seal those court orders.

The only person who has been charged with any crimes connected to WikiLeaks, is former Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, whose long-delayed trial is scheduled for February. Assange remains holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in the United Kingdom. Ecuador has granted Assange asylum, claiming that if Assange is returned to Sweden to face questioning in a sex crimes investigation he’ll be shipped to the United States to face prosecution in connection to WikiLeaks.