(CN) - The Justice Department does not need to explain why it wanted Twitter information of certain WikiLeaks supporters without a warrant, the 4th Circuit ruled.
Computer coders Jacob Appelbaum and Ron Gonggrijp and Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jonsdottir discovered over two years ago that the U.S. government unsealed parts of secret subpoenas for their Twitter accounts.
Prosecutors claimed that the Twitter data would help the government learn how a young soldier, Pfc. Bradley Manning, allegedly sent WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange a record-breaking trove of sensitive military and diplomatic files.
The subpoenas demanded the usernames, contact information, direct messages and other data affiliated with the trio's accounts.
Appelbaum, Gonggrijp and Jonsdottir asked the judge handling the case in the Eastern District of Virginia to quash and unseal the subpoenas in January 2011. U.S. Magistrate Judge Theresa Buchanan refused, however, after finding that the documents contained "sensitive nonpublic facts, including the identity of targets and witnesses in an ongoing criminal investigation."
In their emergency appeal, known as a writ of mandamus, the Twitter users ended their fight to quash the subpoenas, asking only for the court to make them public.
The Richmond, Va.-based 4th Circuit denied the request Friday, saying that the subpoenas satisfied the "legitimate law enforcement needs" standards for sealing under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986.
The year that law was passed, the Supreme Court handed down a watershed ruling for press freedom in the case of Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court, guaranteeing public access to preliminary hearings in the case of an alleged serial killer.
In Friday's ruling, however, the three-judge panel cited Press-Enterpise to defend government secrecy, rather than the public's right to know.
"Although many governmental processes best operate under public scrutiny, it takes little imagination to recognize that there are some kinds of government operations that would be totally frustrated if conducted openly," the 1986 decision stated. "A classic example is that 'the proper functioning of our grand jury system depends upon the secrecy of grand jury proceedings.'"
Writing for the panel, Judge Roger Gregory said that the Twitter subpoenas fall under investigative records "even more sacrosanct" than grand jury proceedings.
In a concurring opinion, U.S. District Judge Samuel Wilson said the name of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act indicates that Congress did not intend for public access to these records. Wilson sat on the panel by designation from the Western District of Virginia.
Aden Fine, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who argued for the WikiLeaks supporters, said the ruling highlights the need to update the 27-year-old computer privacy law.
"The government should not be able to get private information like this without getting a warrant and also satisfying the standard required by the First Amendment, and it shouldn't be able to do so in secret except in unusual circumstances," Fine said in a statement. "This case offers the rare opportunity for the public to learn about the government's increasing use of electronic surveillance. Unfortunately, today's decision makes it easier for the government to keep its electronic surveillance activities hidden, even when there is no longer any need to keep them secret."
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