In what non-profit media organization Wikileaks is calling a “horrifying precedent for press freedoms,” internet giant Google has confirmed it complied with a request by the U.S. government to hand over the complete content and data attached to email accounts belonging to three Wikileaks staffers under a secret search warrant issued by a federal judge in 2012.
On Sunday, attorneys representing Wikileaks sent a letter (web) to executives at Google demanding answers related to what they termed the “serious violation of the privacy and journalistic rights” of their three employees–Investigations editor Sarah Harrison, Section Editor Joseph Farrell and senior journalist and spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson.
“The broadly tailored search warrants are evidence of the fact that the government refuses to recognize that WikiLeaks is staffed by journalists and editors. It refuses to recognize that the organization’s act of publishing US government documents is an act of journalism.” —Kevin Gosztola, FireDogLake
Wikileaks was notified on Christmas Eve of 2014 by Google that the order had been fulfilled, citing a gag order the company said prevented it from informing the three individuals, or their employer, earlier. Wikileaks is only making the details of the situation public now.
The letter from Wikileak’s legal team to Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt states, “We are astonished and disturbed that Google waited over two and a half years to notify its subscribers that a search warrant was issued for their records.”
According to Wikileaks, the warrants reveal for the first time a clear list of the alleged offenses the US government is trying to apply in its attempts to build a prosecution against Julian Assange and his staff for their role in revealing secrets that have proved damaging to the nation’s reputation. The possible criminal offenses cited by the order, according to the group’s analysis, could total 45 years of imprisonment.
Assange, in a statement, aimed his ire at the White House for seeking out access to the private communications. “WikiLeaks has out endured everything the Obama administration has thrown at us,” Assange said, “and we will out endure these latest ‘offenses’ too.”
Though Wikileaks has said that its staffers do not use their gmail accounts for communications related to their work, the group argues the search warrants represent a clear violation of their personal privacy and an assault on press freedoms.
For her part, Sarah Harrison told the Guardian, “Knowing that the FBI read the words I wrote to console my mother over a death in the family makes me feel sick.”
The Guardian reports:
When it notified the WikiLeaks employees last month, Google said it had been unable to say anything about the warrants earlier as a gag order had been imposed. Google said the non-disclosure orders had subsequently been lifted, though it did not specify when.
Harrison, who also heads the Courage Foundation, told the Guardian she was distressed by the thought of government officials gaining access to her private emails. […]
She accused Google of helping the US government conceal “the invasion of privacy into a British journalist’s personal email address. Neither Google nor the US government are living up to their own laws or rhetoric in privacy or press protections”.
The court orders cast a data net so wide as to ensnare virtually all digital communications originating from or sent to the three. Google was told to hand over the contents of all their emails, including those sent and received, all draft correspondence and deleted emails. The source and destination addresses of each email, its date and time, and size and length were also included in the dragnet.
According to the statement from Wikileaks:
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.
Speaking with the Guardian, Alexander Abdo, a staff attorney and privacy expert at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the warrants were “shockingly broad” and deeply troubling.
“This is basically ‘Hand over anything you’ve got on this person’,” Abdo told the Guardian. “That’s troubling as it’s hard to distinguish what WikiLeaks did in its disclosures from what major newspapers do every single day in speaking to government officials and publishing still-secret information.”
Journalist Kevin Gosztola, writing at FireDogLake, expanded on this point. “The broadly tailored search warrants are evidence of the fact that the government refuses to recognize that WikiLeaks is staffed by journalists and editors. It refuses to recognize that the organization’s act of publishing US government documents is an act of journalism.”
The implications of this, according to Gosztola, are profound. He explained:
Imagine the US government had served search warrants on the editors of The New York Times. Imagine Google received these warrants, and they were as broad as the ones issued against WikiLeaks editors—and Google did not fight back. The entire US press corps would be livid, as they rightfully were when it became known that the Justice Department had seized the Associated Press’ phone records for a leak investigation.
In fact, the government recently concluded their relentless pursuit of Times reporter James Risen. They spent years arguing in court that he had no reporter’s privilege and had to reveal his confidential sources so the government could prosecute former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling for a leak. They seized many of records of his personal communications and even some detailing financial transactions.
While comparatively there may be more of a political cost to the Justice Department if they were to go after The New York Times, one never knows when there might be a presidential administration that does not buckle to public pressure, as was the case with Risen. The legal precedents created as the government pursues WikiLeaks are the same legal precedents that can always be used to go after other journalists in the future. American journalists maintain their collective silence at their profession’s own peril.
In his statement released on Sunday, 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.”