WASHINGTON (CN) – A nonprofit government watchdog claims the FBI refuses to release information on “the government’s identification and surveillance of individuals who have demonstrated support for or interest in WikiLeaks.”
The Electronic Privacy Information Center sued the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division and National Security Division, and the FBI, in a FOIA complaint in Federal Court.
It claims the Justice Department and FBI refuse to disclose a single record of their tracking of people who are sympathetic to WikiLeaks.
EPIC, a public interest research organization, says it based its request for information “on the need for the public to obtain information about government surveillance of individuals exercising the rights to freedom of speech and association guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
WikiLeaks, whose website allows anonymous posting of documents to discourage unethical behavior in governments and corporations, published an enormous trove of diplomatic cables concerning U.S. foreign policy in November 2010.
WikiLeaks posted more than 91,000 classified documents about the war in Afghanistan, attracting government scrutiny. The U.S. government has taken a number of steps to punish the group for this, including pressuring the companies that process online donations to Wikileaks to stop doing so.
“After the November release, the U.S. government opened investigations into WikiLeaks,” the complaint states. “On Nov. 29, 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder said that the DOJ initiated an ‘active, ongoing criminal investigation’ into the WikiLeaks release.
“On Dec. 6, 2010, Attorney General Holder said that he authorized ‘significant’ actions related to the WikiLeaks investigation.
“On Nov. 30, 2010, representatives of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee contacted Amazon concerning the company’s hosting of WikiLeaks’ content.
“On Dec. 22, 2010, the Central Intelligence Agency announced that the agency had opened an investigation into WikiLeaks and the November release.”
The U.S. government condemned WikiLeaks’ release of classified documents, calling the leaks “irresponsible.”
EPIC says in its complaint: “In the wake of the November release, the U.S. government attempted to identify users who accessed WikiLeaks’ documents. The federal government also attempted to restrict access to the documents.
“On Nov. 30, 2010, a U.S. State Department employee informed the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University that SIPA students should not ‘post links to [the WikiLeaks] documents, nor make comments on social media sites such as Facebook or through Twitter.’
“On Dec. 6, 2010, the State Department acknowledged that it had ‘instructed State Department employees not to access the WikiLeaks site and download posted documents …’
“On Dec. 14, 2010, the U.S. Air Force barred its personnel from accessing WikiLeaks documents.
“On Jan. 18, 2011, The Guardian reported that WikiLeaks called on Facebook and Google to release the contents of any U.S. subpoenas regarding WikiLeaks that they may have received.
“A Jan. 27, 2011 FBI press release stated that the FBI executed more than forty search warrants in the investigation regarding cyber attacks ‘in protest’ of actions of U.S. companies, referring to the activities of WikiLeaks supporters.
“A July 29, 2011 press release issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California stated that FBI agents arrested sixteen individuals for alleged involvement in a cyber attack against PayPal ‘in retribution for PayPal’s termination of WikiLeaks’ donation account.'” (Brackets and ellipses in complaint).
EPIC asked the Justice Department and the FBI to release their records on surveillance of people who showed support for or interest in WikiLeaks, including agency communications with Facebook, Google, other Internet and social media companies and financial services companies.
Its says the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and the FBI improperly withheld records, and the Justice Department’s National Security Division denied its request.
EPIC appealed, but the agencies failed to produce any additional documents.
EPIC claims that the “DOJ had not provided any factual basis for the claim that the withheld documents were actually compiled for law enforcement purposes and that disclosure would interfere with enforcement proceedings.”
EPIC wants to see the records. It is represented by Ginger McCall.