Investigative documents in the WikiLeaks probe spilled out into the public Saturday for the first time, pointing to the Obama administration's determination to assemble a criminal case no matter how long it takes and how far afield authorities have to go.
Backed by a magistrate judge's Dec. 14 court order, the newly disclosed documents sent to Twitter Inc. by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Alexandria, Va., demand details about the accounts of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Pfc. Bradley Manning, the Army intelligence analyst who is in custody and suspected of supplying WikiLeaks with classified information.
The others whose Twitter accounts are sought by prosecutors are Birgitta Jonsdottir, an Icelandic parliamentarian and one-time WikiLeaks collaborator, Dutch hacker Rop Gonggrijp and U.S. programmer Jacob Appelbaum, both of whom have worked with WikiLeaks in the past.
Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller declined to comment on the disclosure in the case, which intensified following WikiLeaks' latest round of revelations with the posting of classified State Department diplomatic cables in November. The next day, Nov. 29, Attorney General Eric Holder vowed that anyone found to have violated U.S. law in the leaks would be prosecuted.
Assange said the U.S. move seeking his and others' Twitter accounts amounted to harassment, and he pledged to fight it.
"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," he told the Associated Press in an e-mail.
Legal experts have said one possible avenue for federal prosecutors would be to establish a conspiracy to steal classified information.
"They are trying to show that Manning was more than a source of the information to a reporter and rather that Assange and Manning were trying to jointly steal information from the U.S. government," said Mark Rasch, a former prosecutor on computer crime and espionage cases in the Justice Department.
The problem for prosecutors is distinguishing between WikiLeaks as a news organization and those who republished the same classified information, like the New York Times, said Rasch, director of cybersecurity and privacy consulting at CSC, a Falls Church, Va., technology company.
"How do they prosecute?" asked Rasch. "The answer is by establishing a unity of interest between Manning and Assange. Make it a theft case and not just a journalist publishing information case."
The demand by prosecutors sought information dating to Nov. 1, 2009, several months before an earlier WikiLeaks release.
Manning is in a maximum-security military brig at Quantico, Va., charged with leaking video of a 2007 U.S. Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed a Reuters news photographer and his driver. WikiLeaks posted the video on its website in April. Three months later, WikiLeaks posted 90,000 leaked U.S. military records on the war in Afghanistan, including unreported incidents of Afghan civilian killings as well as covert operations against Taliban figures.
The main target of the prosecutors' document demand is most likely the IP addresses of the Twitter users, said Stanford University law professor Larry Lessig, founder of the Center for Internet & Society, Stanford.
Getting a list of IP addresses -- a specific code assigned to each computer that is recording as it visits websites -- could help prosecutors' effort to draw specific connections between individuals, their computers and the information they share.
"It's not very hard for an investigator to put these things together and come back and identify a specific individual," Lessig said.
In a statement about prosecutors' demand for Twitter account information, WikiLeaks said it has reason to believe that Facebook and Google, among other organizations, have received similar court orders. WikiLeaks called on them to unseal any subpoenas they have received.
The document demand ordered Twitter to hand over private messages, billing information, telephone numbers, connection records and other information about accounts run by Assange and the others.
A copy of the demand, sent to the AP by Jonsdottir, said the information sought was "relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation" and ordered Twitter not to disclose its existence to any of the targets.
But a second document, dated Jan. 5, unsealed the court order. Although the reason wasn't made explicit in the document, WikiLeaks said it had been unsealed "thanks to legal action by Twitter."
Twitter declined to comment on the matter, saying only that its policy is to notify its users, where possible, of government requests for information.
Assange is currently out on bail in Britain, where he is fighting extradition to Sweden on sex crimes allegations.