How Two Bulgarian Journalists Created a WikiLeaks Copycat That Actually Worked

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Sept. 27 2012 9:46 AM

The WikiLeaks Copycat That Worked

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

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Bulgaria’s contribution to the leaking movement was warming up.

The next leak came shortly after, and it was a whopper: 100 pages of documents. They represented the full transcript of hours upon hours of wiretaps in a bribery case against Bulgaria’s former minister of defense, a judge, and the former secretary general of the Ministry of Public Finance. They contained frank discussions of how much every level of the judiciary demanded in bribes for various matters, so many hundreds of Bulgarian lev for this crime, so many thousands for this contract. “This is the first publication of the full texts of these recordings, which are a true guide to the methodology of bribery in the judiciary,” BalkanLeaks’ representatives wrote.

The site had its first real scoop, and the lone Bulgarian trickle of leaks kept flowing. A few months later, the site published a Greek criminal complaint against a high-level Bulgarian prosecutor. Then transcribed, suppressed testimony of a witness saying that he had been pressured by a prosecutor to change his opinion in a Sofia real estate case. Then a list of the partial names and identification numbers of 37 previously unexposed ex-members of the Darzhavna Sigurnost, Bulgaria’s brutal secret police during the country’s Communist era. BalkanLeaks had arrived: a lone beacon of success in the leaking diaspora.

All of which is what brought me to a café outside the Sorbonne to meet this shorter, Slavic version of Julian Assange. Of the two leaks that Tchobanov has obtained just before our Paris meeting, one is disappointlingly tame: the budget for the national Bulgarian railways, showing that they’re deeply in debt.

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The other is significantly more interesting. It’s the full transcript of the trial of Angel Donchev, a Bulgarian prosecutor who was recently found guilty of blackmailing another prosecutor, threatening him with a corruption investigation and a raid by the dreaded antimafia police known as the “berets.”

“Juicy stuff,” says Tchobanov with a tilt of his head and a giggle.

And how did BalkanLeaks succeed where the rest of the WikiLeak-alikes failed? Partly, perhaps, through Tchobanov’s sterling reputation in Bulgaria, as well as that of his in-country partner, Assen Yordanov. Both BalkanLeakers are seen as incorruptible reporters in a country where most are either “scared or bought,” as Tchobanov puts it. Bulgaria languishes near the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom list among EU countries, and has a long tradition of violence against journalists, from the Ricin-tipped umbrella that poisoned Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in 1978 to the fatal shooting of mafia-focused reporter Bobi Tsankov in 2010.

But Tchobanov attributes the leak site’s rare success to its religious adherence to strong anonymity—the same faceless online whistleblowing used by WikiLeaks to lend new courage to leakers. No submissions are accepted via e-mail, Facebook messages, or the chat protocol IRC; they are accepted only through its cryptographically anonymous Tor server, which requires leakers to run the Tor anonymity software to upload documents. “Tor is not friendly,” says Tchobanov. “We wrote a detailed explanation of how to install it, how to connect, and so on. But it’s something pedagogical. We have to teach people to use anonymity, force them to use it.”

He admits that the system’s inflexibility has likely turned some leakers away. “In the end, we chose less usability and more anonymity. And it worked. We got submissions. In the long run, it pays to have that confidence. We became trusted because we don’t give away our sources. Because we don’t even know who they are.”

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