ALEXANDRIA, Va., Feb 15 (Reuters) - U.S. prosecutors on Tuesday clashed in federal court with associates of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange over a request for their Internet records in a probe into the leaking of secret U.S. diplomatic messages.
Prosecutors in Virginia obtained a court order on Dec. 14 requiring the social media site Twitter to turn over records for Assange, U.S. Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning who is suspected of the leak and several others.
Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of Iceland’s Parliament, and two others who were among those targeted by the court’s order sought to quash it and demanded the court unseal orders for their records from other service providers so they could also seek to quash them too.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Theresa Buchanan, who issued the Dec. 14 order, did not rule from the bench on Tuesday after more than an hour of oral arguments between the two sides. She said she would issue a written opinion but gave no timetable.
Prosecutors, who in court described the investigation as in its “preliminary stages,” have been casting a wide net to determine whether Assange broke any laws related to his publication of thousands of leaked diplomatic cables on his WikiLeaks website.
Manning is suspected of leaking the documents and is in military custody. WikiLeaks published the classified cables, some of which offered candid and embarrassing assessments of foreign leaders, and also military documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Buchanan’s order sought about seven months of information from Twitter about the targeted individuals, such as whom they communicated with and when, whom they followed, and who followed them regardless of any connection to WikiLeaks.
Prosecutors also sought data about how they logged in, which could identify their location.
Lawyers for Jonsdottir and the two others argued that the prosecutors’ requests were too broad, violating rights under the U.S. Constitution that protects free speech and freedom of association and that limits searches.
“If they want to go on a fishing expedition, they should get a search warrant or a subpoena,” said John Keker, a lawyer for those targeted in the order. He argued that the prosecutors “couldn’t justify an order as broad” as granted by Buchanan.
Prosecutors defended their request for the information as akin to a routine request in seeking telephone records and emphasized they were not seeking the content of the conversations between the individuals.
“This is a standard investigative measure used every day of the year all across the country,” said John Davis, representing the prosecutors, adding that the requests were for the records of a handful of individuals, “no showing of overbreadth.”
Lawyers for Jonsdottir and the others, Dutch activist Rop Gonggrijp and American computer security researcher Jacob Appelbaum, also pressed the judge to release any other similar orders for records.
They argued that because the Twitter order was released, there was no harm to the investigation by unsealing any others that existed.
Prosecutors opposed that request as well, telling the judge that it would “damage the ongoing investigation.”
Editing by Cynthia Osterman