(Updates with excerpt from ruling in third paragraph.)
Jan. 5 (Bloomberg) -- Three WikiLeaks backers lost their bid to keep information on them collected from their Twitter Inc. accounts from being turned over to U.S. prosecutors who are investigating the group’s publication of classified information.
U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady in Alexandria, Virginia, yesterday denied a request by the backers that the information sought by prosecutors be blocked while a federal appeals court considers their challenge. O’Grady, in his ruling, said the appeal has little chance of success because existing case law “overwhelmingly” supports the government’s position.
“Litigation of these issues has already denied the government lawful access to potential evidence for more than a year,” O’Grady said in his ruling. “The public interest therefore weighs strongly against further delay.”
The litigation over the Twitter data was the first public skirmish in the government’s criminal investigation of WikiLeaks’s leader, Julian Assange, and others who may have helped leak diplomatic cables and classified military documents through the WikiLeaks website.
The subscribers challenging the order include Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of the Icelandic parliament; Jacob Appelbaum, a computer security researcher who represented WikiLeaks at a 2010 hacker’s conference in New York; and Rop Gonggrijp, described in court papers as a Dutch activist and businessman.
The three subscribers argued that the U.S. subpoena to Twitter violated their privacy and their rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“We’re obviously disappointed by this ruling and we think the judge got it wrong,” said Aden Fine, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who represents Jonsdottir. Fine said his client is considering her options, which include asking the appeals court to delay turning over the data.
They filed an appeal with the U.S. Appeals Court in Richmond, Virginia, last month after O’Grady upheld a magistrate judge’s ruling that required San Francisco-based Twitter to give investigators data on subscribers “associated with WikiLeaks,” including Assange and Bradley Manning, a U.S. soldier charged with leaking classified information.
In March 2011, U.S. Magistrate Judge Theresa Buchanan said the three backers didn’t have standing to challenge her order because the government wasn’t seeking the contents of their communications on Twitter.
Prosecutors asked for subscriber names, contact information, billing records, user activity, Internet protocol addresses and source and destination e-mail addresses.
In a Dec. 14 filing, prosecutors said that a delay in turning over the Twitter data would harm the grand jury’s criminal investigation.
“Ongoing litigation has already deprived the grand jury of the requested information for more than a year,” Andrew Peterson, an assistant U.S. attorney in Alexandria, wrote in the filing. “This, in turn, has prevented the grand jury from following up on investigative leads generated from the Twitter records for more than a year.”
Peter Carr, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride, declined to comment on O’Grady’s ruling.
The district court case is In re Application of the U.S. for an Order Pursuant to 18 USC 2703(d), 11-dm-00003, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Virginia (Alexandria). The appeal is In re: 2703(d) Application, 11-5151, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (Richmond).
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