WikiLeaks ‘astonished and disturbed’: Google gave its major staff data to US govt

Reuters / Toru Hanai
The whistleblowing website has learned that Google handed over to US authorities the digital correspondence and other data from three of its employees on suspected espionage-related charges related to the Chelsea Manning case.

Google informed WikiLeaks on December 24 that it had complied with a March 2012 order by the US Justice Department to hand over the emails and other information pertaining to Sarah Harrison, a British citizen who is Wikileaks’ investigations editor, the spokesperson for the organization, Kristinn Hrafnsson, and Joseph Farrell, a senior editor at the site.

The US search engine giant explained the nearly three-year delay in notifying Wikileaks of the search and seizure warrants, saying it had been under a non-disclosure order not to discuss the investigation.

Harrison said she was distraught over the thought of the US government pouring over her private correspondence.

“Knowing that the FBI read the words I wrote to console my mother over a death in the family makes me feel sick,” she told the Guardian.

She heaped scorn on Google for covering up “the invasion of privacy into a British journalist’s personal email address. Neither Google nor the US government are living up to their own laws or rhetoric in privacy or press protections.”

Although details of the investigation against Wikileaks remain classified, it is believed to be connected to the investigation of Chelsea Manning, the former US Army intelligence analyst who was sentenced to 35 years in prison for releasing the largest set of classified US documents, which included 250,000 diplomatic cables and 500,000 Army reports.

The probe by the US departments of Justice, Defense and State began in 2010.

WikiLeaks wrote a letter (dated January 26, 2015) to Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, saying it was “astonished and disturbed” that the search company “waited over two and a half years” to provide notification of the warrants.

The letter mentions a similar request made to Twitter, the instant messaging service, which declined to hand over information involving Wikileaks because the latter organization hadn’t been told about the subpoena request.

“[Julian] Assange requested that Google, like Twitter, argue for Wikileaks to receive notice if Google received similar orders. We are surprised that Google appears to have failed to act upon this request...”

Wikileaks provided details of the alleged offences, which include violations of the 1917 Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, among other alleged violations.

The maximum prison sentence for all of the offenses combined totals 45 years.

The website provides a plea, dated January 26, 2014, from its founder, Julian Assange, to US President Barack Obama: 'I call on President Obama to do the right thing and call off his dogs - for his own sake. President Obama is set to go down in history as the president who brought more bogus "espionage" cases against the press than all previous presidents combined.'

The search and seizure order demanded that Google deliver the contents of the emails, draft correspondence and even deleted emails of the three Wikileaks employees. Also demanded were source and destination addresses of each electronic correspondence, its date and time, and size and length.

Google hasn’t disclosed the details of the digital data it gave the US government by the deadline of April 2012, but the search company told the Guardian it does not discuss individual cases, to “help protect all our users.” A spokesperson for the company said: “We follow the law like any other company.”

The data seizures were approved by a federal magistrate judge, John Anderson, who a year later issued the arrest warrant for the former National Security Agency contractor-turned whistleblower Edward Snowden, who now lives in Russia, where he has been granted asylum.

Meanwhile, Julian Assange remains in asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, facing possible extradition to Sweden over sexual assault allegations.

Alexander Abdo, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, said government search and seizure warrants were “shockingly broad” in scope.

“This is basically ‘Hand over anything you’ve got on this person’,” he told the Guardian. “That’s troubling as it’s hard to distinguish what WikiLeaks did in its disclosures from what major newspapers do every single day in speaking to government officials and publishing still-secret information.”