How a Bulgarian WikiLeaks Copycat Got the Scoop of a Lifetime

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Sept. 28 2012 9:45 AM

How To Leak a Secret in Bulgaria

An excerpt from Andy Greenberg’s This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim To Free the World’s Information.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange addresses the press and his supporters.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London earlier this year

Photo by Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images.

The following is the second of three articles adapted from Andy Greenberg's This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim To Free the World’s Information, out now from Dutton. Read the first part here.

When Assen Yordanov ended his career as a buffalo shepherd and became an investigative reporter, one of his early scoops involved sneaking into to an illegal cigarette factory north of his hometown of Burgas in 1995. Yordanov’s story led to the factory’s shutdown and a two-year police investigation, but no arrests. He did, however, receive his first death threat, a letter warning him to “reserve a place in the cemetery for his tomb.” And he made his first acquaintance with Bulgaria’s most powerful man.

“One of those men involved in this factory that I exposed was Boyko Borisov,” Yordanov told me when we met in a sunny café in the Bulgarian Black Sea resort town of Varvara. Yordanov is a broad-shouldered man in a black T-shirt, with a half-week’s worth of stubble, and he’s taken off his pair of scuffed Oakley knockoffs to show me the serious expression behind them. “Today, he is the prime minister of Bulgaria. And sixteen years ago I showed that he is a criminal.”

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In 1995, Yordanov’s accusations against Borisov hadn’t stuck. In 2011, with the help of WikiLeaks’ model of anonymously leaked documents, he would have another shot.

Yordanov and his smaller, techier partner Atanas Tchobanov met in 2008, when Tchobanov, a Bulgarian expatriate in Paris working with Reporters Without Borders, interviewed Yordanov about a knife ambush that had nearly killed Yordanov outside his home in the eastern Bulgarian city of Burgas.

Yordanov believed the attackers were linked with a story about corrupt real estate deals he had written. But he had no intention of backing down. Instead, he wanted Tchobanov to help him go further, to launch their own investigative news website. They called it Bivol, the Bulgarian word for Yordanov’s favorite animal, the buffalo. And despite running it with near-zero budget, the rare independent Bulgarian media outlet had immediate impact. Rumiana Jeleva, Bulgaria’s foreign minister, was set to be confirmed as a representative of the European Commission. Yordanov and Tchobanov helped to uncover financial ties she had failed to disclose, showing that she continued to own a consulting company long after she had claimed to have no interests in it. The story contributed to an investigation of Jeleva that was picked up in foreign media and finally led to her resignation from not only the EU post, but also her ministry position.

But Tchobanov could sense that Yordanov’s traditional breed of muckraking was endangered: In September of 2008, the journalist Ognyan Stefanov had been stopped outside a Sofia restaurant one night and brutally beaten with hammers and steel bars, left for dead with broken arms and legs and a severe concussion that he barely survived. In this case, the attack had a new twist: The victim had attempted—and failed—to remain anonymous.

Stefanov was secretly the editor of the blog Opasnite Novini—“Dangerous News”—that 10 days before had published a story based on a leak that showed officials in the new intelligence agency DANS were involved in a smuggling ring. DANS, whose name translates to “National Security Agency,” had been formed the same year, supposedly to fight organized crime. Somehow it had identified Stefanov.

In a government investigation that followed Stefanov’s beating and through more anonymous leaks to the press, DANS was revealed to be engaged in mass wiretapping of journalists and government officials. (By 2010, the Bulgarian government would perform around 15,000 wiretaps annually, close to 200 times the number per capita reported in the United States that year.) The mass surveillance and intimidation tactics of the Communist-era Darzhavna Sigurnost were alive and thriving.

Tchobanov knew that Bivol needed new ways to protect itself and its sources. So he simply typed “anonymous submissions” into Google. Soon he began to discover the cypherpunks’ many gifts to journalists: the email encryption program PGP, Off-the-Record encrypted instant messaging, the anonymity software Tor. And WikiLeaks.

The Bulgarian technophile was immediately fascinated by the site’s technical methods and utter fearlessness. He began to monitor its leaks closely, and even experimented with uploading an unverified document that a source had sent him, in the hopes that this mysterious group might be able to authenticate it and publish it to a global audience. The document, written in Bulgarian, never surfaced on the site.

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