The FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice are still pursuing an "ongoing criminal investigation of WikiLeaks," news outlets reported Thursday, citing a ruling from the U.S. district court for the District of Columbia.
In largely rejecting a Freedom of Information Act request by the Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) for information about the government's surveillance of WikiLeaks supporters, U.S. District Court judge Barbara Rothstein cited (pdf) FBI and Justice Department claims that the disclosure of such information would prejudice a "multi-subject investigation" into the website that is "still active and ongoing."
Over the five years since WikiLeaks first published a massive cache of U.S. state secrets leaked by former army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, there has been significant speculation regarding whether the Justice Department would prosecute the media organization or its founder, Julian Assange.
In 2012, an Australian newspaper reported that a "sealed indictment" existed in the U.S. against Assange, who is currently living in the embassy of Ecuador in London after being granted asylum there that year. In 2013, the website urged the U.S. government "to do the right thing: close the investigation and formally and unequivocally tell WikiLeaks that no charges will be brought."
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Judge Rothstein accepted 10-month-old claims by the FBI and Justice Department that disclosure of any details about the individuals who had been targeted for surveillance could "expose the scope and methods of the investigation, and tip-off subjects and other persons of investigative interest."
Observers said the decision highlights the Obama administration's ongoing hostility toward WikiLeaks specifically and whistleblowers in general.
WikiLeaks's lawyer, Michael Ratner, told the Guardian that Thursday's revelations left no doubt about the U.S. government's intentions.
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"We are talking about a serious, multi-subject long-term investigation of WikiLeaks and its people," Ratner said. "This confirms in spades that the U.S. authorities are coming after WikiLeaks and want to close it down."
The Guardian further reports:
In her ruling, the judge ordered the national security division of the DoJ to redouble its search of its files for documents that might fit the freedom of information request. But she sided with the federal agencies in granting them an exemption to the rules, so that they did not have to hand over any material to Epic—on grounds that doing so might interfere with their law enforcement activities.
The FBI and criminal division argued before the court that the release of their files "would allow targets of the investigation to evade law enforcement". Rothstein agreed that "the government’s declarations, especially when viewed in light of the appropriate deference to the executive on issues of national security, may satisfy this burden."
In her analysis of the court ruling, investigative journalist Marcy Wheeler concluded: "I'm left with the impression that FBI has reams of documents responsive to what EPIC was presumably interested in—how innocent people have had their privacy compromised because they support a publisher the U.S. doesn’t like—but that they're using a variety of tired dodges to hide those documents."
For his part, Assange told the Guardian: "My God, I know I am an Australian, but that doesn’t mean that WikiLeaks deserves a kangaroo court."