WikiLeaks founder's court hearing in December. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA
WikiLeaks has demanded that Google and Facebook reveal the contents of any US subpoenas they may have received after it emerged that a court in Virginia had ordered Twitter to secretly hand over details of accounts on the micro-blogging site by five figures associated with the group, including Julian Assange.
Amid strong evidence that a US grand jury has begun a wide-ranging trawl for details of what networks and accounts WikiLeaks used to communicate with Bradley Manning, the US serviceman accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of sensitive government cables, some of those named in the subpoena said they would fight disclosure.
"Today, the existence of a secret US government grand jury espionage investigation into WikiLeaks was confirmed for the first time as a subpoena was brought into the public domain," WikiLeaks said in a statement.
The writ, approved by a court in Virginia in December, demands that the San Franscisco-based micro-blogging site hand over all details of five individuals' accounts and private messaging on Twitter – including the computers and networks used.
They include WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Manning, Icelandic MP Brigitta Jonsdottir and Dutch hacker Rop Gonggrijp. Three of them – Gonggrijp, Assange and Jonsdottir – were named as "producers" of the first significant leak from the US cables cache: a video of an Apache helicopter attack that killed civilians and journalists in Baghdad.
The legal document also targets an account held by Jacob Appelbaum, a US computer programmer whose computer and phones were examined by US officials in July after he was stopped returning from Holland to America.
The court issuing the subpoena said it had "reasonable grounds" to believe Twitter held information "relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation".
It ordered Twitter not to notify the targets of the subpoena – an order the company successfully challenged.
The court order crucially demands that Twitter hand over details of source and destination internet protocol addresses used to access the accounts, which would help investigators identify how the named individuals communicated with each other, as well as email addresses used.
The emergence of the subpoena appears to confirm for the first time the existence of a secret grand jury empanelled to investigate whether individuals associated with WikiLeaks, and Assange in particular, can be prosecuted for alleged conspiracy with Manning to steal the classified documents.
The US attorney general, Eric Holder, has already said publicly that he believes Assange could be prosecuted under US espionage laws. The court that issued the subpoena is in the same jurisdiction where press reports have located a grand jury investigating Assange.
It has been reported that Manning has been offered a plea bargain if he co-operates with the investigation.
The emergence of the Twitter subpoena – which was unsealed after a legal challenge by the company – was revealed after WikiLeaks announced it believed other US Internet companies had also been ordered to hand over information about its members' activities.
WikiLeaks condemned the court order, saying it amounted to harassment.
"If the Iranian government was to attempt to coercively obtain this information from journalists and activists of foreign nations, human rights groups around the world would speak out," Assange said in a statement.
Jonsdottir said in a Twitter message: "I think I am being given a message, almost like someone breathing in a phone."
Twitter has declined to comment, saying only that its policy is to notify its users where possible of government requests for information.
The specific clause of the Patriot act used to acquire the subpoena is one that the FBI has described as necessary for "obtaining such records [that] will make the process of identifying computer criminals and tracing their internet communications faster and easier".
The subpoena itself is an unusual one known as a 2703(d). Recently a federal appeals court ruled this kind of order was insufficient to order the disclosure of the contents of communication. Significantly, however, that ruling is binding in neither Virginia – where the Twitter subpoena was issued – nor San Francisco where Twitter is based.
Assange has promised to fight the order, as has Jonsdottir, who said in a Twitter message that she had "no intention to hand my information over willingly".
Appelbaum, whose Twitter feed suggested he was travelling in Iceland, said he was apprehensive about returning to the US. "Time to try to enjoy the last of my vacation, I suppose," he tweeted.
Gonggrijp praised Twitter for notifying him and others that the US had subpoenaed his details. "It appears that Twitter, as a matter of policy, does the right thing in wanting to inform their users when one of these comes in," Gonggrijp said. "Heaven knows how many places have received similar subpoenas and just quietly submitted all they had on me."http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/ja ... -subpoenas