Thin Ice

The man behind WikiLeaks has some allegations

It was certainly alarming when Julian Assange, a board member for the secret document sharing site WikiLeaks, alleged in a statement last week that his organization was “currently under a US and Icelandic aggressive surveillance operation.”

WikiLeaks, a non-profit, has draw attention and praise from many quarters (including CJR) for providing safe harbor to whistleblowers with hot documents that others would rather keep hidden. The site has published important information on U.S. policies in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay, Swiss bank records, and so on, generating stories in just about every major outlet across the globe.

Recently, Assange, an Australian national and WikiLeaks’s de facto chief spokesperson, has been spending some time in Iceland working with Parliament members and others to encourage the adoption of a package of reforms that would create the world’s most publisher- and journalist-friendly freedom of information, libel, and source protection laws. Together it is hoped that they would make the sparsely populated island nation something of a journalistic haven.

During his time in Iceland, Assange reports discovering “half a dozen attempts at covert surveillance in Reykjavik both by native English speakers and Icelanders” targeted at WikiLeaks. The charges come as the site is engaged in a fundraising drive that has caused it to suspend aspects of its normal operations.

Assange’s perhaps most alarming report of any such surveillance begins on the night of March 22, when a teenaged WikiLeaks volunteer was detained by Icelandic police. In the course of the detention, Assange says, the volunteer was shown photos of Assange leaving a Reykjavik restaurant, where a WikiLeaks team had been meeting to discuss the release of undisclosed Pentagon video showing a U.S. air strike. In the interrogation, according to Assange’s syntax-challenged telling, the police also identified others who’d been at the meeting, using information they gained when they “spied on production meeting used a discreet, closed, backroom,” and mentioned the existence of the video, a fact that Assange forebodingly writes “could not have been understood from that day’s exterior surveillance alone.”

The week before the meeting and the volunteer’s arrest, Assange left Iceland to speak at an investigative media conference in Norway. Assange writes that after “receiving a tip” he obtained flight manifest records showing that two individuals “operating under the name of the U.S. State Department” boarded his outbound flight.

All this comes just a week after WikiLeaks’s March 15 publication of a 36-page classified report, prepared in 2008 by an analyst in the Army’s Counterintelligence Center, on the potential threat that WikiLeaks represented to Army operations. Assange has claimed the document contains a “plan” by U.S. intelligence to “destroy” and “hack” WikiLeaks.

Assange further suggests that the increased scrutiny he describes may be in response to WikiLeaks’s possession of the video, which he says shows a “massacre” of civilians by U.S. pilots, likely depicting a notorious May 2009 air strike on the Afghan village of Garani that may have killed close to 100 civilians.

While there’s been next to nothing written about it in English, the Icelandic press took a look at Assange’s charges of being surveilled in Iceland last week—and, at best, have found nothing to substantiate them.

Again, one of his most specific charges—that authorities spied on a private meeting and that he was photographed on the street emerging from this meeting—stems from his retelling of his teenage associate’s encounter with Icelandic police.

The police have confirmed to Icelandic journalists that the teenaged volunteer was indeed arrested and questioned. But according to Ingólfur Bjarni Sigfússon, the deputy head of news for the RUV national broadcast service, he was accompanied to the interview by his father and, in accordance with Icelandic procedures on the arrest of minors, a government child services worker.

According to Stigur Helgason, who’s written about Assange’s allegations for Frettabladid, Iceland’s largest paper, the arrest “happened when the kid was allegedly trying to break into a company out in the suburbs of Reykjavik”—a paint company where his father works.

This was not the teenager’s first arrest. He landed on Iceland’s front pages in January after trying to sell news outlets financial records that he allegedly stole from his employer, an investment company key to Iceland’s economic collapse.

“This kid is apparently a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic, and is quite clever at coming up with stories,” says Ingólfur.

“This kid has had quite a bit of problems as of late,” says Helgason. “He has checked into a rehabilitation center for youths.”

The police told Helgason they never asked the teenager any questions about WikiLeaks, and that the teenager brought up the organization, claiming that a laptop he had on him at the time of his arrest was owned by WikiLeaks.

In regards to the laptop, Helgason says “we only have the word of the police for what he said. And if he said it, we don’t know if it’s the truth.”

More broadly, the police and the Icelandic Minster of Justice denied to Hegalson that they are involved in any investigation of WikiLeaks.

Assange or someone else writing at WikiLeaks’ official Twitter account admitted that perhaps not all about the interrogation was as originally suggested. On March 28, after Icelandic journalists had had a chance to report out his claims, the account was updated with the following:

There is debate as to what happened during the interrogation in Iceland [not other matters]. We are seeking clarification.

Whatever clarification Assange may have sought, he hasn’t offered any himself—the WikiLeaks site and Twitter feed have since been essentially silent on Assange’s surveillance charges. (Hegalson and Ingólfur’s attempts to reach Assange failed or went without response, as did CJR’s.)

And while Assange’s brackets insist that there is no debate about other surveillance matters, Icelandic journalists have been unable to substantiate his claims about the two people “operating under the name of the U.S. State Department” who boarded his flight to Norway.

When asked about Assange’s allegations, State Department spokesperson Darby Holladay it was the “first anyone’s heard of this in the State Department.” Further inquiries made to spokespeople in the Diplomatic Security and Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs branches of the department were not responded to by press time.

While WikiLeaks’s front page offered a new document—the political profiles—on March 29, Assange has not released the purported passenger records that could help substantiate his claims that State Department officials tailed him on an international flight. He also says that he was able to trace the license plate of a car involved in surveillance to a private security company in Iceland.

Whatever the ultimate truth of these other claims, Assange’s haste to disseminate such baroque charges, based on the unproven claims of a possibly troubled youth with a criminal record, do not inspire the sort of cool-headedness, taut B.S. detector, judgement in personnel, or respect for accuracy that one would like to see in a journalist involved in disseminating and analyzing some of the world’s most sensitive documents.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Assange has stepped beyond the known facts in claiming persecution. Assange’s recent statement also mentioned the Pentagon’s 2008 reporton WikiLeaks, published by the site on March 15, that identified the site as a “potential … threat.”

There have been many overwrought takes about what’s in this document, starting with a typo-ridden tale that Assange wrote for a cover page WikiLeaks appended to the release:

It concocts a plan to fatally marginalize the organization. Since WikiLeaks uses “trust as a center of gravity by protecting the anonymity and identity of the insiders, leakers or whisteblowers”, the report recommends “The identification, exposure, termination of employment, criminal prosecution, legal action against current or former insiders, leakers, or whistlblowers could potentially damage or destroy this center of gravity and deter others considering similar actions from using the Web site”. [As two years have passed since the date of the report, with no WikiLeaks’ source exposed, it appears that this plan was ineffective]. As an odd justificaton for the plan, the report claims that “Several foreign countries including China, Israel, North Kora, Russia, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe have denounced or blocked access to the website”. The report provides further justification by enumerating embarrassing stories broken by WikiLeaks—U.S. equipment expenditure in Iraq, probable U.S. violations of the Cemical Warfare Convention Treaty in Iraq, the battle over the Iraqi town of Fallujah and human rights violations at Guantanmo Bay. Note that the report contains a number of inaccurances, for instance, the claim that WikiLeaks has no editorial control. The report concludes with 13 items of intelligence to be answered about WikiLeaks.

The quotes lifted from the document are accurate, but the spin around them is a step too far. While it’s written in an odd form of bureaucratese, the analyst’s musings about knocking WikiLeaks off its “center of gravity” boil down to exposing the people who leak to WikiLeaks, so that others will think twice before doing so in the future.

Leakers who provide the press or others with classified information are usually violating the conditions of their employment, or breaking some criminal code. That doesn’t mean their actions aren’t morally defensible or valiant—often, in effect, a form of civil disobedience. But it’s hardly news that their bosses have some obligation to uncover them and make them face the consequences. Nor is it news that superiors would hope such punishment would act as a deterrent.

The document does note that “Organizations with properly trained cyber technicians, the proper equipment, and the proper technical software could most likely conduct computer network exploitation (CNE) operations”—in other words, infiltrate—“‘s Web site, information systems, or networks” to determine the source and method behind the leaks. But it doesn’t say a word about who those organizations might be, nor does it counsel that any branch of the U.S. government should do so. (A later paragraph specifically mentions the possibility that foreign—not domestic—intelligence and security services, law enforcement, and corporations would be interested in such a course of action.)

The document also discusses the possibility that close scrutiny of the DoD’s own information technology logs and records could reveal the source of the leaks. Is it so shocking or nefarious that a branch of the government, suspecting that someone inside was leaking classified documents, might seek to see what its own IT records showed? The report says as much in its conclusions section, the closest thing to anything approaching a recommendation—rather than a report or analysis—in the document:

The unauthorized release of DoD information to highlights the need for strong counterintelligence, antiterrorism, force protection, information assurance, INFOSEC, and OPSEC programs to train Army personnel on the proper procedures for protecting sensitive or classified information, to understand the insider threat, and to report suspicious activities. In addition, personnel need to know proper procedures for reporting the loss, theft, or comprise of hard or soft copy documents with sensitive information or classified information to the appropriate unit, law enforcement, or counterintelligence personnel. Unfortunately, such programs will not deter insiders from following what they believe is their obligation to expose alleged wrongdoing within DoD through inappropriate venues. Persons engaged in such activity already know how to properly handle and secure sensitive or classified information from these various security and education programs and has chosen to flout them.

Without a clear “plan” there’s no need for “justification,” Assange’s loaded characterization of the report’s undoubtedly true claims that a rogues gallery of states—North Korea, China, and Russia among them—had spoken ill of or blocked WikiLeaks’ site by the time of the report’s production in 2008, or the “further justification” he says is represented by the report’s anodyne and accurate catalogue of DoD documents that WikiLeaks has posted.

Last week, when writing about WikiLeaks’ latest claims, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald made similar claims about that report’s contents, while relaying Assange’s charges about the teenager’s interrogation before encouraging readers to donate to the site. Gawker’s Adrian Chen relayed Assange’s statement as well, with some caution as to its credibility.

While WikiLeaks is not one and the same as the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, the working group pushing for the journalism-friendly legal changes, the two groups are linked. According to Smári McCarthy, a spokesperson for the initiative who works with the Icelandic Digital Freedoms Society, the idea for the legislative package emerged after Assange and a WikiLeaks colleague proposed something like it in a keynote address delivered at a Society-sponsored conference that discussed, among other topics, the role of the Icelandic media in the run-up to the nation’s severe financial crisis.

Assange is listed as an advisor and a suggested interviewee on the IMMI Web site’s contact section. He has given many interviews to foreign media on the legislative project.

Birgitta Jónsdóttir, an Icelandic parliamentarian first elected in 2009 as part of a grassroots movement that arose from protests around the financial crisis, is a key backer of the Media Initiative. She is not worried that Assange’s claims of surveillance on Icelandic soil will do anything to discredit or impede the furtherance of the Initiative’s goals.

“It’s been extremely valuable to have someone like him help pushing it,” she says. “In Iceland, WikiLeaks and the IMMI is not as closely related as in international media.”

WikiLeaks has said it plans to unveil the Afghan airstrike video on April 5 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The club website confirms that a room has been reserved.

“I think he’s afraid that the Americans are on to him and are following him,” says Ingólfur of RUV. “I’m guessing when you run WikiLeaks you become slightly paranoid.”

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.