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Government challenged on Twitter records access

From Larry Lazo, CNN
  • ACLU, Electric Frontier Foundation have filed motions in federal court
  • One motion seeks to unseal court records on attempts to collect info on Twitter users
  • A second motion seeks to overturn order requiring Twitter to provide user info to feds
  • Civil rights groups represent three people who are focus of government investigation

Washington (CNN) -- Two civil liberties groups have squared off against the government as investigators probing the WikiLeaks scandal seek to gain access to Twitter records.

Lawyers for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) appeared in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, Tuesday representing three people government investigators are targeting.

Two motions have been filed in the case. The first aims to unseal court records on attempts by the government to collect private records from people holding accounts with Twitter, and the second seeks to overturn a previous court order that requires Twitter to provide information about its users to the government. Defense lawyers say the government's demand for the records violates First Amendment speech rights and Fourth Amendment privacy rights.

Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of Iceland's parliament, is the most high-profile of the three defendants. The other two people represented in court were WikiLeaks associates Jacob Applebaum and Rop Gonggijp. The three defendants are believed to have helped prepare a classified U.S. Army video that was published on the WikiLeaks website last year.

Defense attorneys argued that the government has not sufficiently demonstrated the need for secrecy when it comes to keeping court documents sealed. They also question the justification for the government wanting IP addresses pertaining to their clients' use on Twitter.

The government said looking at IP addresses is no different than subpoenas of phone records. The "defendants are tying together privacy in the home with public movements," said Assistant U.S. Attorney John Davis. "IP addresses do not show location with precision," he added.

The government says its investigation is not about politics or defendants' associations with certain invidividuals. The government did not disclose why it is seeking information on the people in question in addition to the others in the still-sealed court documents. But they did say a person's use of Twitter is fair game and their wanting to know about it is justified.

"Tweets are public statements," Davis said.

U.S. Magistrate Theresa C. Buchanan appeared to be persuaded by the government's argument on privacy concerns, telling defense attorneys, "There is no expectation of privacy when using Twitter." Having said that, Buchanan said she would take both arguments under consideration.

The WikiLeaks website is behind the largest-ever intelligence leak in American history. Hundreds of thousands of sensitive documents have been posted on the site. Everything from details about classified military operations to commentary about various foreign heads of state has been posted on

Bradley Manning, a U.S. Army private suspected of being involved in the scandal, is being held in solitary confinement at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia. He is facing eight counts of violating U.S. Criminal Code for allegedly leaking a secret military video from the Iraq war that was posted on the WikiLeaks website.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is in London and is fighting extradition to Sweden to face sex charges brought against him by two women.