Google hands data to US Government in WikiLeaks espionage case

Today, WikiLeaks’ lawyers have written to Google and the US Department of Justice concerning a serious violation of the privacy and journalistic rights of WikiLeaks’ staff. Investigations editor Sarah Harrison, Section Editor Joseph Farrell and senior journalist and spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson have received notice that Google had handed over all their emails and metadata to the United States government on the back of alleged ‘conspiracy’ and ‘espionage’ warrants carrying up to 45 years in prison.

Importantly, the warrants reveal for the first time a clear list of the alleged offences the US government is trying to apply in its attempts to build a prosecution against Julian Assange and other WikiLeaks staff. The offences add up to a total of 45 years of imprisonment.

The US government is claiming universal jurisdiction to apply the Espionage Act, general Conspiracy statute and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to journalists and publishers – a horrifying precedent for press freedoms around the world. Once an offence is alleged in relation to a journalist or their source, the whole media organisation, by the nature of its work flow, can be targeted as alleged ‘conspiracy’. Julian Assange, WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief said: ‘WikiLeaks has out endured everything the Obama administration has thrown at us and we will out endure these latest “offences” too.’

The alleged offences are:

  • Espionage: 18 U.S.C. § 793(d) – imprisonment up to 10 years
  • Conspiracy to commit espionage: 18 U.S.C. § 793(g) – imprisonment up to 10 years
  • The theft or conversion of property belonging to the United States government: 18 U.S.C. § 641 – imprisonment up to 10 years
  • Violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act: 18 U.S.C. § 1030 – imprisonment up to 10 years
  • (general) Conspiracy: 18 U.S.C. § 371 – imprisonment up to 5 years

In a letter to the US Department of Justice and the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, WikiLeaks lawyers have requested further details on the investigation. They state, “We have reason to believe that these warrants were issued in violation of the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 (“PPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2200aa et. seq, which protects journalists and publishers from being forced to turn over to law enforcement their journalistic work product and documentary materials. The subjects of these warrants are journalists working for a publishing organization.”

The US Department of Justice confirmed to US federal court on 19 May 2014 that it was “very clear that the main, multi-subject, criminal investigation of WikiLeaks ‘remains open and pending’,” but that to release additional information would “harm” the “ongoing Department of Justice (“DoJ”) and FBI criminal investigation and pending future prosecution”. In 2012 the US government stated in military court that the target of the DoJ investigation included the “founders, owners and managers of WikiLeaks”. The investigation began as early as February 2010 and has involved search warrants and court orders for the records of WikiLeaks’ associates.

Assange said: ‘I call on president Obama to do the right thing and call off his dogs–for his own sake. President Obama is set to go down in history as the president who brought more bogus “espionage” cases against the press than all previous presidents combined.’

Google’s failure to notify

WikiLeaks’ legal team has written to Google expressing its dismay that Google failed to notify the warrants’ targets immediately. The failure to notify has prevented the three journalists from “protect[ing] their interests including their rights to privacy, association and freedom from illegal searches”. The “take everything” warrants are unconstitutionally broad and appear to violate the Privacy Protection Act so would have a good chance of being opposed; however, Google handed everything over before that was possible.

Although Google claims that it was at some stage under a gag order from the US government, there is no indication that Google fought the gag and it is unlikely that the gag just happened to expire the day before Christmas. Similar gags for warrants against WikiLeaks journalists have been successfully fought by Twitter in much shorter time-frames.

While WikiLeaks journalists, perhaps uniquely, do not use Google services for internal communications or for communicating with sources, the search warrants nonetheless represent a substantial invasion of their personal privacy and freedom. The information handed over to the US government included all email content, metadata, contacts, draft emails, deleted emails and IP addresses connected to the accounts. Google redacted the search warrants before sending them to WikiLeaks staff.

Press conference in Geneva

WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange was granted asylum in August 2012 by the Republic of Ecuador due to the ongoing attempt by the United States to bring a prosecution against him. This asylum has been obstructed by Sweden and the United Kingdom.

On Monday, 26 January 2015, Sweden must respond to human rights concerns from the UN Human Rights Council over its continued obstruction (with the United Kingdom) of Mr Assange’s asylum. Judge Baltasar Garzón, who is the Legal Director for Julian Assange’s legal team, will be at the UN with the published search warrants on 26 January to speak to the press following Sweden’s response.

Further information:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s