What Happened After U.S. Cables Revealing Massive Bulgarian Corruption Were Leaked in Bulgaria

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Oct. 1 2012 9:45 AM

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.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov gives a press conference in June with his Portuguese counterpart at the Sao Bento palace in Lisbon.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov gives a press conference in June

Photo by Pedro Nunes/AFP/Getty Images.

The following is the third 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 and the second part here.

When Atanas Tchobanov and Assen Yordanov set out to meet Julian Assange, their first hours in England went badly. Yordanov left his laptop in an overhead bin on the airplane and they spent hours trying to retrieve it from the airline. The Bulgarian pair got lost on the drive from London to Norfolk after Tchobanov’s GPS stopped working. And on one of the roundabouts, Tchobanov forgot to drive on the left and caused a minor collision with an oncoming car.

When they finally reached Ellingham, they found the WikiLeaks founder dressed in a gray suit and in a dour mood. He seemed preoccupied, Tchobanov and Yordanov remember, with his legal fate and the financial industry’s ongoing blockade choking donations to WikiLeaks.

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Assange also worried that the pair, like WikiLeaks’ rogue partner Israel Shamir, might redistribute the cables willy-nilly, and had prepared a contract that held them responsible for redacting names of sensitive State Department sources before publishing the cables. It also stipulated that they only access the unredacted files from a computer with no Internet connection.

But the Australian WikiLeaks founder also praised BalkanLeaks, Yordanov and Tchobanov told me. He said he had looked over the submission site’s security and approved of its simple rigor. And he seemed to enjoy the homemade rakija that Yordanov had presented him as a gift. “By the time we opened the second bottle, I knew that he would give us the documents,” says Yordanov with a grin. They made arrangements to hand over the Bulgarian embassy files securely, and returned home.

When they accessed the full documents back in Burgas a month later, they found the wealth of scandals they had hoped for. One cable showed that Bulgarian officials in the United States had accumulated parking tickets totaling more than $400,000, so many that the United States had threatened to withhold nearly half a million dollars in aid until they were paid. One cable listed all the Bulgarian banks that engaged in money laundering and corrupt loans.

And then they came upon the greatest prize of all, a cable that dealt with the same subject Yordanov had first tackled 16 years earlier: Boyko Borisov, Bulgaria’s prime minister.

It was a 2006 memo from the U.S. ambassador in Sofia, John Beyrle, on the subject of Borisov, predicting his run for the prime minister post and titled “Bulgaria’s Most Popular Politician: Great Hopes, Murky Ties.”

The cable began by describing Borisov as “implicated in serious criminal activity” and maintaining “close ties to Lukoil and the Russian Embassy.” It then tells Borisov’s entire life story, starting with his youth as a “neighborhood tough” in a gang on the edges of Sofia, how he founded a private security firm “and built it into one of the biggest in the country at a time when ‘private security’ was synonymous with extortion and strong-arm tactics,” as the cable reads. As chief secretary, he reportedly paid cash for positive press coverage and threatened journalists who criticized him.

Then the cable comes to another section labeled “The Dirt.”

Accusations in years past have linked Borisov to oil-siphoning scandals, illegal deals involving LUKoil and major traffic in methamphetamines. … Borisov is alleged to have used his former position as head of Bulgarian law enforcement to arrange cover for criminal deals, and his common-law wife, Tsvetelina Borislavova, manages a large Bulgarian bank that has been accused of laundering money for organized criminal groups, as well as for Borisov’s own illegal trans- actions. Borisov is said to have close social and business ties to influential Mafia figures, including Mladen Mihalev (AKA “Madzho”), and is a former business partner of [organized crime] figure Roumen Nikolov (AKA “the Pasha”).

“We should continue to push him in the right direction,” the cable concludes. “But never forget who we’re dealing with.”

If a single document could ever be Bulgaria’s Watergate, this was it. And two journalists from a news website that no one had ever heard of were about to publish it.

In December 2010, just as the first rounds of WikiLeaks’ State Department Cables were metastasizing around the Internet, I spoke with Evgeny Morozov, a Belarusian academic and writer with a famously pessimistic attitude toward the Internet’s ability to democratize global politics. Instead, he believes digital tools have only tightened governments’ control over their citizens.

I ask him about WikiLeaks, and whether it might be an exception to his rule. He thinks not. “Information can embarrass governments, but you have to look at the nature of governments as well as the nature of information to measure this embarrassment factor,” he answers.