WASHINGTON — The FBI said Thursday that it had served more than 40 search warrants throughout the United States as part of an investigation into computer attacks on websites of businesses that stopped providing services in December to WikiLeaks.
The FBI statement announcing the search warrants was the first indication that the U.S. intends to prosecute the "hacktivists" for their actions in support of WikiLeaks.
The search warrants were executed on the same day authorities in Great Britain announced that they had arrested five people in connection with the attacks, which temporarily crippled the websites of Amazon.com, PayPal, MasterCard, Visa, the Swiss bank PostFinance and others.
FBI officials were unavailable for comment, and the statement did not say who was served or where the searches were conducted. The statement noted that the attacks, known as distributed denial of service attacks and which use easily available software to shut down a computer network by flooding it with millions of requests for information, violate federal law and are punishable by a prison sentence of 10 years.
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The statement noted that a group known as "Anonymous" had claimed credit for the attacks. Anonymous is also believed responsible in recent days for attacks on government websites in Tunisia and Egypt.
The attacks were organized through social networking sites such as Twitter in the days after WikiLeaks began publishing State Department cables that apparently had been downloaded by an American Army private serving in Iraq. Their first target was Amazon.com, which, at the behest of U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., had stopped hosting the WikiLeaks website.
They spread to PayPal, MasterCard and Visa after those businesses declined to process credit card payments destined to WikiLeaks.
The attacks did no long-term damage and in most cases only lasted a few hours. But legitimate would-be users were unable to contact the sites while the attacks were under way.