If Woodward and Bernstein Were Bulgarian
An excerpt from Andy Greenberg’s This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim To Free the World’s Information.
In Russia or China, he specifies, corruption is already an open secret. “Just go and take photos of their villas and the summer houses they buy with their state salaries,” he says. “It’s already in the open, but exposure by itself in these countries doesn’t lead to democratic change.”
And what about BalkanLeaks, the Bulgarian site that at that time was just starting to get its hands on some juicy documents? Bulgaria is a subject Morozov knows well: He studied for several years at the American University in Blagoevgrad.
“I don’t know what information you could publish to embarrass the Balkans. It’s a tough one,” he says. “There’s an environment that’s so suffused with cynicism toward politicians that to me it’s hard to imagine what kind of stuff would need to be leaked.”
In May 2011, BalkanLeaks put that cynicism to the test. It published the words of the U.S. ambassador that labeled Bulgaria’s prime minister a criminal several times over. The news reverberated around the country’s blogs and was written up in several newspapers.
And then, as Morozov predicted, very little happened.
In a display of frantic backpedaling, the U.S. embassy in Sofia released a statement backing Borisov. “While we cannot comment on the content of alleged classified materials which may have been leaked, we would like to underscore that the U.S. and Bulgaria share an excellent relationship and that our high level of bilateral cooperation speaks for itself.”
Borisov himself angrily told one reporter who asked about his ties to Lukoil that “I do not read WikiLeaks,” and “will not comment on yellow press publications.”
Soon the usual politics kicked in. The opposition party demanded a probe into the accusations. Borisov’s own party emphasized that the report’s release was an underhanded move timed to influence local elections. The country’s top prosecutor, Boris Velchev, refused to pursue the case. “If we allow an investigation to be opened on mere allegations, can you imagine what country we would be turning into?” he asked rhetorically.
Borisov, it seemed, had emerged with hardly a scratch.
A few months after that miniscandal, I ask Tchobanov if he’s satisfied with the results of his leaks. “Yes, I am quite satisfied with the impact,” he answers without hesitation. Several judges have been pushed out by various means since BalkanLeaks’ reports on bribery and the Masonic lodge, what he sees as internal housecleaning. And since the cable publication on the country’s prime minister, Borisov hasn’t been invited to meet with any other European leaders one-on-one, he says—they don’t want to be seen shaking hands with an “Armani-clad tough guy,” as the U.S. ambassador once secretly described him in a memo.
The former minister of defense and two other officials exposed in BalkanLeaks’ early wiretapping transcripts have been charged with bribery, and their prosecution is ongoing. Others, like the prosecutor blackmailed by Angel Donchev, and another who pressured a witness to change his testimony in a real estate case, haven’t been charged with crimes.
On a larger scale, the leaks may have also contributed to a decision by the Netherlands and Finland to veto Bulgaria’s accession to the EU’s visa-free Schengen travel zone based on concerns about organized crime—a clear sign from Bulgaria’s neighbors that it must clean up its mafia taint.
But didn’t Tchobanov hope that the cable about Borisov would lead to his resignation? The soft-spoken Bulgarian asks for patience. He says that the full influence of the report still isn’t clear. “It’s a slow process. With the Pentagon Papers, nothing happened at first. But eventually there was Watergate,” he says. “First they ignore it, they fight it, then they finally accept it as evidence.”
I offer the adage attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
“No,” Tchobanov responds without looking at me. “Sometimes you lose.”
On my last day in Varvara, Tchobanov, Yordanov, and a group of friends invite me to go sailing in the Black Sea on a small boat with “Moby Dick” written on its side in Cyrillic. We drop anchor in a shallow cove with an isolated beach in the distance, populated by only a single tent and a pirate flag planted in the sand.
He points off in the distance to a complex of unfinished four-story buildings on a cliff beside the beach, modern structures with diagonally expanding floors that lean out over the sea, with a round, bare concrete tower at their center.
Yordanov explains that a story he wrote for the newspaper Politika exposed what would have been a luxury apartment development there as illegal construction, part of the series of investigations that eventually led to his being attacked by a group of thugs in Burgas. The news resulted in a government order to halt the construction we’re looking at. If not for that story, he says, the beach below would have been developed as private land.
“I’m very proud my investigations can save this beach,” says Yordanov. “I’m very proud of my work.”
Since Yordanov’s exposé, the apartments’ massive concrete skeleton has been left to rot. No one is allowed to finish building it, but no one has bothered to remove its carcass either. It stands instead as an enormous concrete Acropolis, a monument to a country caught between its impulse to develop and the corruption it can’t escape. As we climb back into the Moby Dick and sail toward Varvara, the newly constructed ruins loom over us from the cliff face and then recede into the distance.
Andy Greenberg is a technology reporter for Forbes Magazine, covering information security, privacy, digital civil liberties, and hacker culture. This Machine Kills Secrets is his first book.