Chapter Twelve: End 2011

The 2001 terrorist attacks on the USA supposedly "changed everything". A decade later, according to the Electronic Frontier Fund, 2011 was "The Year Secrecy Jumped the Shark". US government censorship had reached absurd levels:

  • The Department of Justice refused to declassify a key 2001 legal opinion that was used to justify the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, even after that program was declared illegal.

  • A 2011 report revealed that in 2010 - at least partly in response to the Manning leaks - the US government had classified 77 million documents, a 40% increase on 2009. A month later it was revealed that over 4.2 million people held US security clearances. This was the first precise tally of clearances held by federal employees and contractors that had ever been produced.

  • In February the US government told Air Force families, including their kids, it was illegal to read WikiLeaks. A month earlier, the Air Force had barred service members abroad from even reading the New York Times. In April, lawyers for Guantanamo detainees were also barred from reading the WikiLeaks Guantanamo files, even though the contents were widely reported.

  • When the first US citizen ever to be killed by a US drone was reported dead in Yemen, President Obama refused to even say the words “drone” or “CIA”. Instead he said that Anwar al-Awlaki “was killed” and this “significant milestone” was “a tribute to our intelligence community.” The New York Times called it "the latest reflection of a growing phenomenon: information that is public but classified". The US government then refused to release its legal justification for killing an US citizen abroad without a trial, despite announcing the killing in a press conference.

  • The CIA refused to release any information from their global warming study center (established in 2009) claiming it would damage national security. The CIA also demanded former FBI agent Ali Soufan censor his book about CIA torture, even though the information was already widely reported elsewhere.

  • President Barack Obama accepted an award for transparency - as part of the "Sunshine Week" festivities - behind closed doors.

  • Peter Van Buren, who worked at the State Department for 23 years, had his security clearance revoked because he linked to a publicly available WikiLeaks document on his blog.

As we sat in a small, gray, windowless room, resplendent with a two-way mirror, multiple ceiling-mounted cameras, and iron rungs on the table to which handcuffs could be attached, the two DS agents stated that the inclusion of that link amounted to disclosing classified material. In other words, a link to a document posted by who-knows-who on a public website available at this moment to anyone in the world was the legal equivalent of me stealing a Top Secret report, hiding it under my coat, and passing it to a Chinese spy in a dark alley.

The US government was now spending over $10 billion per year just to keep information secret. This ridiculous lack of transparency was the polar opposite of what WikiLeaks was striving to achive. The beltway zeitgeist was captured by this Wall Street Journal headline:

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But the pinnacle of absurdity was perhaps best revealed by the clever work of the American Civil Liberties Union:

The ACLU sued asking the State Department to declassify 23 cables out of the more than 250,000 released by WikiLeaks. After more than a year, the government withheld 12 in their entirety. You can see the other 11, heavily redacted, next to the unredacted copies on the ACLU website.

If you follow that link, you can see the exact sections of text that the US government most wanted to redact from their cables. By refusing to declassify information that was already public - thanks to the Guardian and the Openleaks team - the US government had revealed exactly what information they were still most desperate to hide, even though it was already public.

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By the end of 2011 WikiLeaks had over 1,267,000 followers on Twitter and many more on Facebook. During the year, WikiLeaks had promoted several new initiatives that aimed to engage supporters, raise funds and boost public support.

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The Friends of WikiLeaks initiative (hashtag #FoWL - hence the bird) aimed to link up supporters around the world with encrypted email accounts hosted by WikiLeaks, in the hope they would build local support networks, perhaps organise protests, and maybe even come up with their own new initiatives. There were plans to expand the platform to include encrypted chat, thus creating an alternative social media platform. In practice, however, delivery was slower than expected, many supporters were not sure what to do with their new #FoWL email address, and productive "real life" meet-ups were not too common, particularly for those in remote areas. Relentless public attacks on WikiLeaks no doubt also had a negative impact.

Earlier in the year, on 24 May 2011, WikiLeaks had posted a tweet (later deleted) announcing a new "WikiLeaks Forum" site. This was supposed to be an unofficial and independent online forum. It quickly became another nightmare. By this time, social media networks were already full of anti-WikiLeaks - and particularly anti-Assange - trolls. Some of them were unhinged lunatics encouraged by the constant media attacks on Assange, some were well-meaning activists who were just stupid, misguided or uninformed, but many had more sinister agendas.

The WikiLeaks Forum started out well, with lots of passionate supporters [Ed: including myself] becoming contributors and even administrators of various sections. But top-level administrators who kept their identities secret were soon bombarding members with questions about their support for Julian Assange: was it time for him to go? Wouldn’t WikiLeaks be better off without him? Soon a new section was created that was openly hostile to Assange, leading many disillusioned admins [Ed: including myself] to quit the forum. Then new sections appeared that were dedicated to trolling and slandering the admins who had quit!

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Within two years the forum pages had become a home for troll accounts and were openly peddling disinformation. When the identity of one of the original site administrators was exposed - German photographer Mark Goeder Tarant was seen filming protestors - he denied any involvement with the FBI and took legal action to keep his photo (below) suppressed. Supporters claimed he was also behind many other anti-Assange and anti-WikiLeaks sites and social media accounts.

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But Mark was just one of two original administrators who reportedly set up the forum site. The other administrator, a teenager from Iceland, would cause WikiLeaks far worse problems - not only did he work for the FBI, they flew him around the world, put him up in hotels, and paid him cash for informing on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks staff and supporters.

"Siggi"

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Sigurdur "Siggi" Thordarson was reportedly only 14 years old when got a job scrubbing information from the computers of a business in his native Iceland. After he started making copies of the data and investigating it more closely, he realised the business was corrupt. He then leaked the information to a local newspaper and became a minor celebrity on the Nordic island nation, catching the attention of journalist Kristinn Hrafnsson, who introduced him to Julian Assange at an open lunch for the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative project in 2010.

Thordarson soon joined the local team of WikiLeaks volunteers, helping the staff working on the Collateral Murder video, despite objections from Birgitta Jónsdóttir:

"I warned Julian from day one, there’s something not right about this guy.”

After Jónsdóttir, Domscheit-Berg and others departed, leaving the organisation short of staff, Thordarson helped moderate the WikiLeaks IRC channel, manage an online shop, and set up the WikiLeaks Forum. Although Hrafnsson insisted that his role was limited, he soon caused trouble:

Around the fall of 2010, he took part in moderating the open chat forum. And then when one of the supporters approached him on that forum with the idea of raising money for WikiLeaks through online sales of t-shirts and coffee mugs and things of that nature, he was tasked to oversee the project, which resulted in him stealing or embezzling — whatever words you would use for it — around $50,000, which was the proceeds from the sales.

At 3:33 am on 23 August 2011, after Hrafnsson had started pressuring Thordarson to explain what had happened to the money, the desperate "cherub-faced" 20-year-old sent a secret email to the local US Embassy, offering to become a snitch.

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The very next day, according to numerous sources cited in Assange’s 2013 affidavit, six FBI agents and two US Department of Justice prosecutors flew by private jet to Iceland. They told Iceland’s Interior Minister that their operation was related to the #LulzSec hacking investigation and a reported breach of the Icelandic Parliament’s computer system. But officials in Iceland became suspicious when they noticed interrogation sessions with Thordarson were taking place in hotels around Reykjavik rather than at the US embassy. They concluded that the FBI was trying to use Thordarson as a bait to entrap Assange.

WikiLeaks was very popular in Iceland at the time, and this was not acceptable behaviour. The Icelandic Interior Minister immediately declared that the FBI operations were an illegal violation of Icelandic sovereignty. The US team was expelled from the country, taking Thordarson with them to Denmark for further questioning. Thordarson reportedly stayed at the Hilton hotel near Copenhagen and was later flown to the Marriott hotel in Arlington, Virginia, where he handed over "eight hard drives in total containing of about 1 terabyte of data".

The problem with this story is that everything from this point onwards is impossible to verify, because "Siggi" - a "patholigical liar" who fabricated evidence, was repeatedly convicted of fraud, and was also repeatedly convicted of sexually abusing children - is the only source for revelations that shocked the public in 2013. These revelations became a key part of the US Department of Justice’s "computer intrusion" or hacking charges against Julian Assange in 2020. But Thordarson then retracted his evidence in 2021. So the end result is that none of his statements can be considered credible, and none of the unverified "proof" he supplied can be considered credible either.

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At any rate, in 2013 Thordarson gave an interview to WIRED’s Kevin Poulsen, the same editor who had previously misrepresented the Assange-Manning chatlogs, and whose multiple articles citing anonymous "former WikiLeaks insiders" were repeatedly denied by WikiLeaks. The WIRED interview was soon followed up with a lengthy article in Rolling Stone that went into even more detail about Thordarson’s strange life and colourful claims. Then Slate’s Ryan Gallagher published an article including a link to unverified and allegedly fabricated chatlogs between Thordarson and LulzSec leader Sabu. Given that both of them had by then co-operated extensively with the FBI, the chatlogs might as well have been dictated by FBI agents.

The unverified chatlogs and media stories above suggest that Assange was drunk on power, relied on hacking to keep WikiLeaks afloat, and even hacked his own friends and colleagues. But Thordarson’s retracted lies told a different story:

  • Assange never asked him to hack or access phone recordings of Iceland MPs.

  • Assange did not help him attempt to decrypt a file stolen from an Iceland bank.

  • Assange did not use unauthorized access, provided by a source, to access an Iceland government website that tracked police vehicles.

Thordarson admitted to personally hacking into the hard drives of WikiLeaks staff and mispresenting himself as an official representative of WikiLeaks in order to get media to pay for lavish trips abroad. It’s possible that if (as the chatlogs suggest) Thordarson also misrepresented his role in online chats and inflated Assange’s involvement with the 2011 LulzSec hacks, the FBI agents controlling Sabu might have been even more determined to bring charges against the WikiLeaks founder. But even that is just speculation.

In 2013, Sigurdur Thordarson was convicted of sexual assault against a 17-year-old boy. In 2014, he was ordered to pay WikiLeaks 7 million ISK (roughly $55,000) and sentenced to prison for 2 years for embezzlement and financial fraud. In 2015 he got another three years in prison for sexually assaulting nine boys on multiple occasions, including one boy 40 times. One of his alleged victims committed suicide. He was arrested again in Iceland for fraud in September 2021, soon after retracting his claims against Assange and despite being given immunity by the FBI in exchange for his earlier testimony. A psychiatrist who evaluated Siggi declared him fit to stand trial but in all likelihood a sociopath incapable of feeling remorse for his actions.

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Thordason was jailed in Iceland’s highest security prison for repeated, blatant & ongoing offences.

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The Spy Files

Following Thordarson’s departure in November, WikiLeaks called a press conference for 1 December 2011, where they said they would announce "a new phase" for the organisation, including a new online submissions system. Unfortunately the long-delayed anonymous dropbox was still not quite ready - WikiLeaks blamed vulnerabilities in the SSL certificate system - but instead a roomful of invited journalists were presented with the organisation’s latest release.

The Spy Files were released in conjunction with Privacy International. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) explained the importance of the documents:

These brochures and other marketing material…​ shine a light on this shadowy industry, which is worth $5bn (£3.2bn) and is growing fast. These brochures are not readily available: instead, they are handed out to key contacts – often government agencies and police forces – at trade shows that are closed to the public and the press…​

The documents have been collected from over 130 companies based in 25 countries from Brazil to Switzerland, and reveal an array of technologies so sophisticated, it often seems to have come out of a Hollywood film. But the ‘Spy Files’ and their contents are real. They add weight to the campaigners who claim these proliferating technology companies constitute a new, unregulated arms industry.

There were 287 documents from 160 digital surveillance firms in the initial release: some of them had been published elsewhere with little impact, some were publicly available to anyone who searched for them, but many were newly revealed secrets. WikiLeaks kept updating their Spy Files trove with new files over following years.

WikiLeaks partners for the original release included the Washington Post, the Hindu, Italy’s L’Espresso and French news outlet OWNI, who revealed (for example) a manual by the French surveillance firm Amesys that included a screenshot of pseudonyms belonging to Libyan dissidents that Muammar Gaddafi wanted dead or jailed. Californian company Glimmerglass was offering "non-intrusive intercepts of any fiber asset" including submarine Internet cables. Another US company helped repressive regimes spy on targets and "see what they see, in real time" including "draft-only emails, attached files, pictures and videos".

The Spy Files release was covered by Forbes, WIRED, and other outlets but Guardian journalists showed no interest in the story. James Ball dismissed the release as "mainly brochures" (he later deleted all his tweets prior to 2012). A single article by TBIJ’s Pratap Chatterjee was later posted in the Guardian’s "Comment is Free" opinion section.

NOTE

Ten years later, the Guardian joined the Pegasus Project group of media outlets who exposed intrusive surveillance software from Israeli company NSO Group. Over a dozen Guardian articles were devoted to the project. NSO group was founded a year before WikiLeaks published the Spy Files.

The Guardian’s Vendetta

By this stage the Guardian’s extraordinary public vendetta against Assange had been in full swing for months. I compiled a list of hostile articles which was published on WikiLeaks Central:

  • On 2 September 2011, the day after the full Cablegate archive was posted online, James Ball haughtily declared that this was "the last straw". He said WikiLeaks had "done the cause of internet freedom – and of whistleblowers – more harm than US government crackdowns ever could" and activists named in the cables "should never have had to fear being exposed by a self-proclaimed human rights organisation". No mention that it was his Guardian colleagues and the OpenLeaks crew who had actually caused the exposure of the full archive, or that others revealed it before WikiLeaks.

  • On 18 September Nick Cohen authored another Guardian smear piece titled "The Treachery of Julian Assange". He called the WikiLeaks boss "an active danger to the real seekers of truth" who was "aching to betray better and braver people than he could ever be". Cohen said Assange "published the documents in full because my colleagues on the Guardian inadvertently revealed a link to a site he was meant to have taken down". Um, what? He said "in China, as elsewhere, the chilling effect WikiLeaks has spread has caused critics of the communists to bite their tongues". Really? In Ethiopia, Cohen stated, "Assange has already claimed his first scalp" - but WikiLeaks had already shown three days earlier that the story he cited was not true. Cohen demanded "relentless pressure" on Assange’s supporters and condemned the "anti-Americanism" of the wider transparency movement.

  • On 26 September, despite the obvious conflict of interests, David Leigh was chosen to review Andrew O’Hagan’s “unauthorised autobiography” of Assange, which Assange called a "novel" and even the author admitted had "a voice which was as invented as anything I’d ever produced in fiction." Leigh suggested that Assange suffered some sort of mental illness: "a truly threatened personality, in fear of being overwhelmed and extinguished…​ living in a fantasy world". He patronisingly suggested that critics who called Assange "preposterously grandiose and lashing out at imagined enemies" should perhaps try to be more kind.

  • On 2 October Karin Olsson, the "Culture Editor" at Sweden’s Expressen newspaper, was invited to write another substance-free Guardian smear piece titled "Julian Assange: from Hero to Zero". She called Assange “a paranoid chauvinist pig [who] cuts an increasingly pitiable figure”. She quoted criticism of Assange as "a solitary and shabby libertarian who wants to tear down democratic societies" then said he should "give up his futile struggle against extradition and show a little respect to the Swedish justice system".

  • On 8 November James Ball took exception to a new article in support of Assange by Israel Shamir, claiming Shamir’s "influence over WikiLeaks and beyond is difficult to overestimate". Ball declared that "Assange’s moves have driven the organisation to the brink."

The Guardian also falsely repeated for years that Assange was "facing charges" in Sweden (there were no charges: he was only wanted for questioning). These smears were widely reprinted in newspapers around the world, including former media partners. Readers comments were usually disgusted at the authors, but comments on Twitter from other journalists increasingly supported the anti-Assange narrative. A United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture later declared that years of such deeply personal and unsubstantiated media attacks on Assange amounted to a form of torture.

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Friends and Foes

By 7 December 2011 Julian Assange had spent a full year either in jail or under house arrest without charge. Two days earlier, a UK Parliamentary debate had agreed to demand urgent reform of the European Arrest Warrant system and the UK’s extradition treaty with the USA. Here the Australian’s case had tapped into growing anti-European sentiment at Westminster; Tory MP Dominic Raab, who later headed Brexit negotiations, declared:

"Fast-track extradition in the EU is based on a leap of faith. It is based on an assumption that all European justice systems are of a decent standard. That assumption is a sham."

The UK High Court had also agreed that the Supreme Court should hear the Assange extradition case on 1-2 February 2012, before a full bench of seven judges, because the case was of significant public importance. And a new ally had arrived in London: appalled at the lack of Australian government support, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam had paid for his own flights and accommodation in order to meet Assange in person and build support for his freedom.

Ludlam had already filed Freedom of Information requests to find out if the Australian Government had offered the USA any assistance; he wanted letters, emails, file notes and records of phone conversations. He also wanted to meet with UK and European MPs to discuss the case. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, a strong supporter of US expansionism, was not interested.

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Citing cables as evidence, Assange later said that Carl Bildt had been a US Embassy informant since 1973, when he was 24 years old, and had befriended President Bush’s Senior Advisor Karl Rove when he lived in Washington. If Assange were extradited to Sweden, Bildt would be the official in charge of onward extradition to the USA.

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Meanwhile in the USA, Texas congressman Ron Paul, a strong supporter of WikiLeaks whose libertarian policies were often applauded by Julian Assange, had become the Republican Party’s leading Presidential candidate.

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Manning’s Pre-Trial Hearing

Chelsea Manning’s pre-trial military hearing began at 9:00 AM on Friday, 16 December 2011, the day before her 24th birthday. The hearing was held at Fort Meade in Maryland, the location of the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters. It was Manning’s first public appearance since being detained and tortured a year and a half earlier. Support rallies, protests and vigils were organised around the world.

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Manning’s defence lawyer David Coombs had asked for 48 witnesses, including President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Only two witnesses were approved.

“Two out of 48!” he exclaimed. “In a case in which the government has charged [Manning] with aiding the enemy, which carries the maximum sentence right now of death!”

Manning was facing a total of 34 counts, with this hearing set to decide which charges would be brought to a court-martial. Prosecutors revealed the secret 2010 chatlogs between Manning and "Nathaniel Frank" (see Chapter Five) and suggested this was proof that Julian Assange had worked with Manning to hack into US classified systems. But they could not even prove beyond doubt that "Nathaniel Frank" was Assange. In response, Assange told media that WikiLeaks could not verify the chatlogs because they did not record chatlogs, and maintained two-way anonymity with sources.

Manning’s defense counsel moved that the judge recuse himself because he had worked since 2002 as a prosecutor for the Justice Department, which now had a criminal investigation against Assange.

“If the Department of Justice got their way, they would get a plea in this case, and get my client to be named as one of the witnesses to go after Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.”

Three unidentified men in suits appeared in the courtroom every day of the hearing: one was revealed to be a Department of Justice employee working on the Assange case.

Despite presenting a string of witnesses over the first five days, US prosecutors were unable to make the case that anyone, anywhere, had ever been harmed as a result of the leaks published by WikiLeaks. This was an important victory for the transparency organisation.

Prosecutors revealed that they were also investigating a page on the Wikileaks website called the “Most Wanted Leaks of 2009". They pointed to this as evidence that WikiLeaks was illegally soliciting classified US government information. Of course there was nothing illegal about such a list - which US prosecuters again cited in the Assange trial ten years later - especially because in 2009 WikiLeaks was still a "wiki". So this was a publicly-generated list developed by contributors! You can see an archived version here.

WikiLeaks ridiculed this dangerously foolish line of attack by linking to a parody article:

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Assange claims the list of names is one-half of a master document with details on most of the earth’s population, and originates from an eccentric recluse within the Arctic Circle…​.

“The document came to us on a frost-damaged parchment, it’s hardly ‘present day’ technology”, claimed Assange. “But whoever compiled it is a master of espionage. They know when you are sleeping, they know when you’re awake. And they have some strong opinions about whether you’ve been good or bad, based on outmoded ideals and capitalist dogma.”

On Christmas Day itself, WikiLeaks had a new idea to present. It was a good idea. It generated a lot of optimistic discussion among supporters, and a few years of hard work. But ultimately it would lead to another major disappointment:

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There were a few other interesting tweets in the last week of 2011…​

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Meanwhile, WikiLeaks were not the only ones who had noticed how many US legal cases had been scheduled to run into Christmas. Manning supporters claimed the late December trial was designed to minimise public scrutiny and make it harder to gather for protests. Then, on New Years Eve, President Obama very quietly signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which provides continued funding for the US Department of Defence.

A provision in the 2011 Act authorized, for the first time, the indefinite military detention of US citizens. Obama, who had threatened to boycott the bill, insisted that his own administration would never use these powers. The ACLU said Obama would "forever be known as the president who signed indefinite detention without charge or trial into law".

"The statute is particularly dangerous because it has no temporal or geographic limitations, and can be used by this and future presidents to militarily detain people captured far from any battlefield."

Reminding people that President Obama now claimed the right to assassinate suspected terrorists - including US citizens - without charge or tiral, Ron Paul explained how the NDAA text "any associated forces" meant that everyone in the USA was now "a potential terrorist".

If you happen to visit a website, happen to attend a meeting…​ you can be accused of being a terrorist. And the Bill says you have no right to a lawyer.

A US district judge later ruled the provision unconstitutional because "it left intellectuals, activists, and journalists vulnerable to detention for exercising First Amendment rights". But the US Congress and Senate found tweaks to keep the extreme executive powers alive.

Meanwhile all the emails of all US soldiers had been placed under surveillance to prevent another WikiLeaks-style disclosure. And in response to the Arab Spring, DARPA - the guys who invented the Internet - were working on a $42 million Social Media in Strategic Communication program. The goal was to track "purposeful or deceptive messaging and misinformation" in social networks and to pursue "counter messaging of detected adversary influence operations":

"Events of strategic as well as tactical importance to our Armed Forces are increasingly taking place in social media space. We must, therefore, be aware of these events as they are happening and be in a position to defend ourselves within that space against adverse outcomes".

O, brave new world?

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By the first of January 2012, Chelsea Manning had been in a military jail for 588 days and was still awaiting trial. Julian Assange had been detained 391 days and still had not been charged. And WikiLeaks had been subject to an unlawful banking blockade for 394 days.

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NEXT CHAPTER: Chapter 13: Early 2012

The author of this book can be found on Twitter: @Jaraparilla

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Copyright Gary Lord 2021, 2022