The following is the first 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.
Atanas Tchobanov doesn’t look much like Julian Assange. The smallish Bulgarian man has a shaved head, elfin ears, and a perpetual few days’ growth of salt-and-pepper stubble. When we meet in front of the roaring Fontaine St. Michel in Paris in the summer of 2011, he wears a T-shirt promoting Bivol, the tiny news site that he co-founded, with its logo of a Bulgarian buffalo and its slogan in Cyrillic: “Horns ahead!”
But when we sit down at a café outside the Sorbonne University nearby, he flashes an Assange-like impish smile, and for an Assange-like reason: Apart from his day job at Bivol, Tchobanov is the co-founder of BalkanLeaks, the closest thing Eastern Europe has to its very own WikiLeaks. And BalkanLeaks is on a roll.
“We just got two new leaks,” he says in an accent that has layers of French and Bulgarian. “And they’re good ones.”
In the months leading up to our meeting, WikiLeaks’s slow release of a quarter million secret State Department memos from around the world had inspired a sudden flood of copycats. I had set out to find out which ones could actually replicate and systematize WikiLeaks’ work among the crowd of imitators: BaltiLeaks, BritiLeaks, BrusselsLeaks, Corporate Leaks, CrowdLeaks, EnviroLeaks, FrenchLeaks, GlobaLeaks, Indoleaks, IrishLeaks, IsraeliLeaks, Jumbo Leaks, KHLeaks, LeakyMails, Localeaks, MapleLeaks, MurdochLeaks, Office Leaks, Porn WikiLeaks, PinoyLeaks, PirateLeaks, QuebecLeaks, RuLeaks, ScienceLeaks, TradeLeaks, and UniLeaks, to name a few.
Mainstream media outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera, and Sweden’s public radio service had set up their own experimental leak portals. Hackers within Anonymous launched HackerLeaks. The leaking scene had become so crowded that two environmentally focused sites, GreenLeaks.com and GreenLeaks.org, threatened legal action against each other over the rights to the name.
As Nation blogger Greg Mitchell noted, only one thing was missing from this newborn leaking movement: leaks.
Nearly all of the copycat sites were publishing little or nothing. Even WikiLeaks’ own anonymous submission system had been shut down after the mutiny of several of the site’s engineers. The newborn leaking movement had found itself in a drought. With one exception.
In December 2010, BalkanLeaks had come online, with a slogan across its masthead: “The Balkans aren’t keeping secrets anymore.” When I checked out the site, I saw that it used the well-tested anonymity software called Tor for submissions, a rare sign of security smarts among the new crop of copycats. But otherwise it resembled all the other obscure and leakless WikiLeaks wannabes from Brussels to Jakarta.
Later that month, BalkanLeaks posted a Microsoft Word file with a note saying that the document had been submitted to the site’s Tor server. It was an agreement from the Bulgarian Department of Energy outlining the construction of a nuclear power plant as a joint project of Russia and Bulgaria, with no clear evidence of corruption. Hardly the world’s juiciest leak.
Just days later, another document appeared on the site, again obtained through Tor. This one was a letter from one prosecutor to another, including a list of 30 Bulgarian names, all the prosecutors and judges in the highest levels of the country’s courts who were also Freemasons. “It is not illegal [to be a Freemason],” BalkanLeaks’ note in Bulgarian posted with the document read. “But does their oath to protect the public interest take precedence over their oath to the ‘brotherhood’? Perhaps the chairman of the Ethics Commission, Tsoni Tsonev, who is a member of the Masonic lodge, has an answer to this question.”
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.
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.”