It was only after the Cablegate release that Tchobanov began to consider the full power of WikiLeaks’ model—not just to protect journalism, but potentially to advance it. In a Skype chat with a few other journalists and technologists who worked on and off with Bivol, they proposed the idea of a leaking site that would publish locally focused documents that WikiLeaks wouldn’t, a leaking syringe targeted at the Balkans and its neighbors rather than a hose aimed at the world at large: BalkanLeaks. Within days, they had registered the URL and set up an SSL-encryption-protected site and a Tor Hidden Service in an OVH data center in the French city of Roubaix, the same one that briefly housed WikiLeaks’ publications until they migrated to Sweden.
To Tchobanov and Yordanov’s delight, the documents flowed into BalkanLeaks’ submissions portal immediately, from the nuclear power agreement to the judicial bribery tapes: solid, irrefutable primary-source evidence obtained with cryptographic anonymity.
But the Bulgarians, like Julian Assange, weren’t merely seeking to prove the power of cryptography and anonymity to slice through institutional secrecy; like all good journalists, they were on the scent of the biggest possible stories—and they smelled them hidden deep in the still-unpublished majority of the WikiLeaks cables, a trove of documents that, as Bradley Manning had promised in his leaked chat logs, affected every country in the world.
In February of 2011, nearly three months after Cablegate began, only 5,000 of the quarter million cables had actually been leaked. WikiLeaks lacked the necessary manpower to read the endless memos and redact the names of at-risk sources, and had put out a call on its Twitter feed for more media organizations to participate. Tchobanov emailed a plea to a WikiLeaks contact to give the 978 cables from the embassy in Sofia to Bivol. No response.
One released cable in particular had tantalized and galled Tchobanov and Yordanov: It was a 2005 briefing by U.S. Ambassador James Pardew on the state of organized crime in Bulgaria and its extraordinarily cozy ties to government. But after the memo’s redactions by WikiLeaks’ partners at the Guardian, it contained no specific names of Bulgarians. The Guardian had used the cable to construct a story on Russian influence in Bulgaria’s mafia world, but hadn’t been able to confirm any of the allegations against Bulgarians themselves. So the paper simply snipped huge portions of the text, mostly from a section titled “Who’s Who in Bulgarian Organized Crime.” Of the cable’s original 5,226 words, all but 1,406 were missing.
Luckily for Tchobanov and Yordanov, WikiLeaks’ control of the cables was itself beginning to spring leaks. One of the group’s erstwhile partners, a freelance journalist and controversial Holocaust denier named Israel Shamir, had obtained a portion of the unredacted cables and was using them to write stories for the Moscow magazine Russian Reporter. Tchobanov wrote him an email in February asking about the contents of the Bulgarian cable. To his surprise, Shamir soon responded with the full text. A few days after the Guardian’s Bulgaria story, the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten announced that it had also inexplicably gained access to the full set of cables. So Tchobanov wrote to Aftenposten, asking the papers’ editors to verify the text that Shamir had sent him. They wrote back, confirming that Shamir’s slice of the megaleak was the real deal.
The unredacted cable was an encyclopedia of Bulgarian organized crime, with entries for every major group: gangs with names like Multigroup, Intergroup, TIM, the Union of Former Commandos, and the Amigos. It cataloged their involvement in all flavors of crime from tax fraud to smuggling, extortion to sexual slavery. It followed the flow of money to every major political party, and named government officials who openly consorted with the groups or had made the transition from mafioso to politician. The cable named towns like Svilengrad and Velingrad that were controlled entirely by mafia-cum-government.
Bivol published a story on the report, titled simply “Bulgarian Organized Crime, Uncensored.” Other Bulgarian newspapers picked up on the story. One, the paper Capital, headlined it simply “Black and White”; the cable had confirmed in stark terms all the corruption that had been suspected for years. As usual, no one was indicted, perhaps the strongest evidence of all of the government’s symbiosis with criminals.
For Bivol, the most important reaction came from WikiLeaks itself. The group published the unredacted version of the cable on its site rather than the version of the cable that had been gutted by the Guardian, and accused the newspaper on its Twitter feed of “cable cooking.”
Tchobanov wrote to WikiLeaks again, suggesting that instead of the Guardian, the group hand all of its Bulgarian cables to Bivol. This time WikiLeaks’ staff wrote back, asking for time to look into Bivol’s background and to learn more about Tchobanov and Yordanov.
Three weeks later, they got their response: an invitation to Ellingham Hall in the U.K. for a meeting with Julian Assange.
Monday: BalkanLeaks obtains and publishes Bulgaria’s own Watergate—and tests the limits of the media’s power to fight a fundamentally corrupt government.