The Crazy Story of an Icelandic WikiLeaks Volunteer Turned FBI Informant

What's to come?
Aug. 9 2013 5:37 AM

WikiLeaks’ Teenage Benedict Arnold

How the FBI used a baby-faced WikiLeaks volunteer to spy on Julian Assange.

(Continued from Page 3)

Before his penultimate meeting with U.S. authorities, in early February 2012, Thordarson says he was instructed to build relationships with people close to WikiLeaks in order to gather information for the feds. He received an email from his alleged handler—who used the alias “Roger Bossard”—in an account set up for him under the fake name “Ibrahim Mohammad.” The message encouraged Thordarson to “chat with those people we discussed on the phone” in order to “get a head start before our meet.” A few weeks later, he was flown out to Washington, D.C., and says he was put up in a Marriott hotel in Arlington, Va., near the location of a grand jury that has been collecting evidence about WikiLeaks since at least early 2011 as part of a criminal investigation into the whistle-blower organization. At meetings in a conference room of the hotel, he was asked about a host of individuals who had at one time volunteered or worked for WikiLeaks in some capacity, including Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jónsdóttir; eminent computer security expert Jacob Appelbaum; and Guardian reporter James Ball, a former WikiLeaks staffer. “They wanted to know literally everything there was to know about these people,” Thordarson alleges.

He says he “mostly gave them information that was general knowledge.” But he admits that he turned over some email addresses, details about instant messenger accounts, and phone numbers. This information is useful to the authorities because they can use it to order surveillance of targeted suspects’ phone or email accounts. Since 2010, several individuals connected to WikiLeaks have had emails and other communications monitored as part of the FBI’s investigation.

By the end of the meeting in Washington, the U.S. government had already gleaned a large amount of information about WikiLeaks from Thordarson. Its biggest haul of intelligence, however, was yet to come.

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On March 18, 2012, Thordarson says he met with the FBI for what would be the final time, in Aarhus, Denmark. Prior to the meeting, he exchanged emails with his alleged handler, agreeing that he would come equipped with hard drives packed with chat logs, photographs, and other data related to WikiLeaks. According to a Justice Department receipt Thordarson says he was provided by the FBI, he turned over eight hard drives in total containing of about 1 terabyte of data, which is the equivalent of about 1,000 copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica. (The Ministry of Justice in Denmark refused to comment on whether it authorized FBI agents to enter the country to meet with Thordarson, saying that it could not discuss “specific cases.”)

130808_FT_DoJReceiptDrives
The Department of Justice receipt Thordarson says he was given for the delivery of eight hard drives to U.S. authorities.

Courtesy of Sigurdur "Siggi" Thordarson

Once the agents obtained the hard drives and received the passwords to access them, Thordarson’s emails suggest, they stopped responding regularly to his messages and rebuffed his attempts to set up another meeting. (Apparently, Thordarson’s thirst for adventure hadn’t yet been quenched.) They continued to encourage him to send data on WikiLeaks to a P.O. box at a UPS Store in Arlington, a short drive from Justice Department and FBI headquarters, but they pulled back, apparently concerned that their cover could soon be blown.

The UPS Store in Arlington, Va., where Sigi sent mail for the FBI.
The UPS Store in Arlington, Va., where Siggi was asked to send mail for the FBI.

Photo by Torie Bosch

“Understand J has your laptop,” an alleged agent wrote to Thordarson shortly after the final Denmark meeting, referencing Assange. “Is there anything on it about our relationship?”

There were also signs that internal conflict was developing within the FBI over the infiltration of WikiLeaks, a controversial tactic not least because WikiLeaks is a publisher and press freedom groups have condemned from the outset the government’s investigation into Assange and his colleagues. In early 2012, after a period of not responding to Thordarson’s emails, his alleged FBI handler wrote that there had been “bureaucratic issues beyond my control that prevented me from maintaining contact,” adding that “our relationship has been problematic for some others. This is not an ordinary case. But those were not my issues and I have been diligently trying to work out those issues so we can continue our relationship.”

Thordarson, too, was having problems. He had become embroiled in a serious dispute with WikiLeaks about money in late 2011, which created friction between him, Assange, and WikiLeaks, ultimately resulting in him being dismissed from his volunteer role and perhaps even fueling his desire to continue informing on the group. Thordarson was accused of embezzling about $50,000 from a merchandise store that he had helped set up to raise funds. He admits that he took some of the money but denies stealing it, saying he used the funds to cover expenses he was owed by WikiLeaks. The matter is currently being investigated by police in Iceland.

In February, Iceland’s state prosecutor published a detailed timeline about the FBI's visit to the country in 2011. The information shed light on the circumstances surrounding how U.S. authorities were asked to leave because of their attempt to gather intelligence on WikiLeaks. The same month, Thordarson was called to appear at a closed-door meeting with Icelandic parliamentarians to discuss the extent of his dealings with the FBI, which led to him being named in the Icelandic press as the person who had prompted the FBI to fly to the country in August 2011.

It was at this point, Thordarson says, that he was forced to come clean to WikiLeaks. He says he told Assange about everything he had turned over to the FBI and forwarded to WikiLeaks all of his emails with the alleged FBI agents. Unsurprisingly, Assange “wasn’t happy,” he says. Hrafnsson, the WikiLeaks spokesman, told me he believed Thordarson was guilty of “pathological” behavior, adding that the FBI’s apparent recruitment of Thordarson had revealed the U.S. government’s “relentless persecution” of WikiLeaks.

Thordarson, however, does not seem fazed by the controversy he has created. He now spends much of his time working for companies that offer security and bodyguard training in Iceland and Denmark, though does not believe his relationship with the FBI has “formally ended.” He claims that his handlers at the bureau told him that he might yet be asked to testify in court about WikiLeaks. The Justice Department declined to comment about Thordarson but confirmed that its investigation into WikiLeaks is ongoing.

Eventually, the U.S. government may attempt to prosecute Assange, and there can be little doubt that he remains fixed firmly in the feds’ crosshairs. The WikiLeaks founder’s attorneys believe that a grand jury probe may already have produced an indictment against him that remains under seal—and so he remains sheltered in Ecuador’s London Embassy, fearing that if he sets foot outside the door he will subsequently be extradited to the United States and thrown in jail. But the prospect of this does not appear to be weighing heavily on Thordarson’s mind. Only once, when recounting the time he spent passing information on Assange to the FBI, does his voice tremble with a quiver of guilt.

“If you come into Julian’s inner circle,” Thordarson says, “he really takes care of his friends.”

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

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