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Watchdog Confirms Ongoing WikiLeaks Probe

(CN) - More than four years after WikiLeaks started publishing files leaked to it by Army private Chelsea Manning, a federal probe of the whistle-blowing website remains active, a court ruling revealed.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a Washington-based advocacy group, confirmed the continuing investigation while seeking information on whether federal investigators also had their sights on WikiLeaks supporters.

WikiLeaks' publication of hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan "war logs," U.S. embassy cables, profiles of Guantanamo Bay prisoners and other files triggered what has been called the largest criminal investigation of a publisher and its source.

Much of the scope of that investigation remains a secret, even after a military sentenced Manning to spend 35 years behind bars two years ago for disclosing the files.

The FBI's "still active and ongoing" probe of WikiLeaks for the "unauthorized disclosure" of Manning's leaked files means that much of that information will remain under wraps, U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein ruled Wednesday.

Michael Ratner, a lawyer for WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Assange has spent more than two years inside London's Ecuadorean embassy, where he sought refuge months before formally receiving asylum in August 2012. Swedish investigators have sought to question him about allegations of sexual misconduct brought by two women, which Assange has depicted as a ruse to extradite him to the United States.

While the new revelations show his fear of U.S. prosecution to be well-founded, the FBI still denies pursuing or keeping lists of those who "simply support or have an interest in WikiLeaks," according to the 22-page opinion.

The FBI refused to disclose documents to EPIC under an exemption of the Freedom of Information Act protecting files "compiled for law enforcement purposes."

Contesting this privilege claim, EPIC argued that these files could include information about those targeted for "lawful First Amendment activities for which no legitimate law enforcement purpose exists."

"In other words, [EPIC] believes that WikiLeaks supporters are being targeted illegally, given that '[t]here is no criminal conduct, no security risk or violation of federal law, and no law violators to prosecute,'" the opinion stated.

WikiLeaks spokesman Jacob Appelbaum and Manning's friend David House have both unsuccessfully sued the government about its surveillance of them, the privacy watchdog noted.

But the FBI insisted that EPIC had been "argu[ing] about documents that do not exist" because "there are no surveillance records for individuals who 'simply support' or have interest in WikiLeaks," the opinion stated.

Crediting the bureau's denials, Rothstein found the documents "quite obviously related to the FBI and [the Justice Department Criminal Division's] law enforcement duties to enforce criminal laws and to protect against national security threats."

She wrote that she based that belief on seven government declarations, "three of which were filed ex parte and in camera," meaning for the judge's eyes alone.

"Moreover, there is no support for the notion that [government's] investigation into the unauthorized publishing of classified material on WikiLeaks is pretext and that [agencies] are conducting illegal investigations of innocent WikiLeaks supporters," she added later.

The Justice Department's National Security Division, however, "failed to provide evidence of an adequate search," Rothstein found.

"[The inadequate search] is especially troubling given the specificity of EPIC's request, which expressly included the names of people and companies it sought information about," the opinion stated.

Spokesmen for WikiLeaks and EPIC did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

The same day Rothstein issued her ruling, the Army Court of Criminal Appeals ordered military prosecutors to refer to Manning using her female name and pronouns.

Born Bradley, Manning came out as a transgender woman the day after her court-martial sentencing and formally applied to change her name to Chelsea from a military prison in Ft. Leavenworth, Kan. A judge approved the request.

The Army's appellate court ordered that "future formal papers filed before this court and all future orders and decisions issued by this court shall either be neutral, e.g., Private First Class Manning or appellant, or employ a feminine pronoun."

Manning's appellate lawyer, Nancy Hollander, said in a statement that the ruling marked "an important victory for Chelsea, who has been mistreated by the government for years."

Meanwhile, the fight to recognize Manning's gender identity in federal court continues.

Rothstein's ruling the same day referred to the WikiLeaks source as "Bradley Manning."

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