For a brief moment, Thordarson became nervous. “The only thing that went through my mind was: ‘What the fuck am I doing?’ ” he recalls. But the feeling of doubt didn’t last long, and soon he was embracing the whole experience—almost as if he believed he was starring in his own personal spy thriller.
The FBI, he says, asked him a range of questions to “verify that I wasn’t full of bullshit.” At one point, he was asked what he knew about LulzSec, and he described the online conversations he had been having with Sabu. Thordarson did not know it at the time, but the FBI had presumably been monitoring those chats—as an informant, Sabu had been issued a government laptop, and his online activity was reportedly under surveillance 24/7. Indeed, the bureau had met with Icelandic authorities two months earlier to warn about a potential hacking attack on Icelandic infrastructure—just days after Thordarson says he gave LulzSec the “assignment” to hack Icelandic government computers.
Thordarson’s detailed knowledge of the Sabu chats—and his participation in them—apparently convinced the agents. For about the next four consecutive days, they met with him, Thordarson says, each time at a different hotel in Reykjavik. They asked about people connected to WikiLeaks and quizzed him about what Assange was doing at Ellingham Hall, the remote residence in England’s countryside where the WikiLeaks founder was living at the time while on bail and fighting extradition to Sweden. Thordarson says the agents also wanted information about WikiLeaks’ technical and physical security and the locations of WikiLeaks’ servers; they asked him, too, for names of individuals linked to WikiLeaks who might be open to becoming informants if approached by the FBI.
However, by Aug. 30, 2011, several days after the FBI entered Iceland, the Icelandic government had become unsettled about the presence of U.S. authorities. Then–Interior Minister Ögmundur Jónasson told me that Icelandic authorities initially believed the FBI agents had come to the country to continue their investigation into the impending LulzSec hacking attack on Icelandic government computers. But once it became clear that the FBI agents were in fact engaged in a broader swoop to gather intelligence on WikiLeaks, according to Jónasson, the agents were asked to immediately remove themselves from the country.
“I think it was a question of trying to frame Julian Assange,” Jónasson says, recalling the debacle. “And they wanted Icelandic authorities to help them with that.”
WikiLeaks ally DataCell had just months earlier accused the Icelandic government of working against the whistle-blower group, but by booting the FBI out of the country, the Interior Ministry had radically undermined that theory. Its decision, in fact, was a stark illustration of how WikiLeaks has continued to maintain a strong support base in Iceland since 2009, when it exposed controversial loan payments made by Kaupthing, the bank at the heart of the Icelandic financial crisis. As a result, the FBI could not meet with Thordarson in Iceland again. Instead, he says, the FBI held further meetings with him in Denmark (three times) and brought him to the United States (once) to continue discussions about WikiLeaks. Through this period, Thordarson says the bureau paid him about $5,000 in total to cover his expenses and to make up for loss of earnings.
Thordarson maintained contact with WikiLeaks, but he was secretly sending information back to the FBI. Once, he says, he told the agents that he was planning a visit to see Assange at Ellingham Hall. Eager to take advantage of the trip, they asked him to wear a recording device and make copies of data stored on laptops used by WikiLeaks staff. He alleges that the FBI wanted him to get Assange to “say something incriminating about LulzSec.” But he declined to wear a recording device and told his handlers that covertly copying data from computers wouldn’t be feasible because “people literally sleep with their laptops at Ellingham.”
Thordarson felt that wearing a wire in an attempt to secretly implicate Assange in LulzSec’s illegal hacking activities was a step too far, but he was happy to engage in equally dubious intelligence-gathering activities. He maintained contact with LulzSec and passed transcripts of his conversations with the hacker Sabu back to the FBI, his emails show. What Thordarson did not know at the time was that the FBI already knew about the chats—because, of course, it had recruited Sabu as an informant, too.
In one notable online exchange in November 2011, Sabu told Thordarson that LulzSec had breached Syrian government computers. He showed off snippets of hacked emails to Thordarson, saying he wanted to pass a trove of data to WikiLeaks. Later in the same conversation, Thordarson quizzed Sabu about a plan to “recruit” him for WikiLeaks. Neither of the two men appear to have realized that they were both independently acting as informants for the FBI.
“We ended up [inside] a certain government’s central mail server and got some fucking massive leaks coming out,” Sabu says in the chat. “You gents sure you're not wanting to do anymore leaks?”
“Did J say anything about recruiting you permanently?” Thordarson fires back a few minutes later, in reference to Assange.
“Well he emailed me once but we didn’t get to talk,” Sabu says. “Guess he’s been busy/careful or whatever. But let him know we have intercepted 92GB of mails from .gov.sy [the Syrian government] so this can be one of the biggest leaks in history.”
When Sabu was outed as an informant in an explosive Fox News story in March 2012, it made sense to Thordarson. He says he found it strange that the FBI never seemed interested in the information he told them he had about the hacker, who was a hugely prominent figure at the helm of a group that had claimed responsibility for attacking U.S. government websites and multinational corporations, including Sony and News International. What the FBI agents wanted from Thordarson, it seems clear, was information that they could not get from any other source—information about the inner workings of WikiLeaks.