With the U.K. Supreme Court to rule on May 30
on whether WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can be extradited to Sweden over rape and sexual-assault claims, a new book has revealed a damning link with a hacker collective that could undermine Assange's previous claims that WikiLeaks doesn't solicit information.
"We Are Anonymous,"
a new book from Parmy Olson, the Forbes London bureau chief, about the shadowy world of hackers, has shed some light on the connection between WikiLeaks and hacker group LulzSec.
Olson details how, in June 2011 when Assange was holed up in the English countryside, he sent out tweets supporting LulzSec. According to Olson, he quickly deleted those tweets as "he didn't want to be publicly associated with what were clearly black hat hackers."
Assange, a former hacker himself, has always played down any links with hackers and preferred to characterize WikiLeaks as a passive recipient of leaked documents rather than an active pursuer. The page is dead now, but an old version of the WikiLeaks submissions page said that "WikiLeaks accepts a range of material, but we do not solicit it.
On June 16, 2011, a WikiLeaks associate named "q" contacted "Topiary," the nickname of Scottish hacker and LulzSec member Jake Davis who was charged and released on bail last year, in an Internet Relay Chat channel. Topiary was skeptical at first, thinking it was either a joker or a troll. But he was convinced when Assange posted a video on YouTube in real time of the chat they were having. The camera panned and revealed the WikiLeaks founder staring into the laptop.
Along with Assange, Topiary, and "q" in the chat was Sabu, the founder of LulzSec, who by now was also working as an informant for the FBI
after being arrested on June 7.
The reason WikiLeaks made contact, according to the book, was that it wanted help from the hackers at LulzSec in "infiltrating several Icelandic corporate and government sites":
They had many reasons for wanting retribution. A young WikiLeaks member had recently gone to Iceland and been arrested. WikiLeaks had also been bidding for access to a data center in an underground bunker but had lost out to another corporate bidder after the government denied them the space. Another journalist who supported WikiLeaks was being held by authorities. Assange and q appeared to want LulzSec to try to grab the e-mail service of government sites, then look for evidence of corruption or at least evidence that the government was unfairly targeting WikiLeaks. The picture they were trying to paint was of the Icelandic government trying to suppress WikiLeaks's freedom to spread information. If they could leak such evidence, they explained, it could help instigate an uprising of sorts in Iceland and beyond.
WikiLeaks was also offering LulzSec an encrypted spreadsheet of government data, which it couldn't crack into. Other avenues of cooperation were discussed but never followed up:
It was already starting to look like LulzSec was on the road to becoming a black hat version of WikiLeaks. If WikiLeaks was sitting on a pile of classified data that was simply too risky to leak, then it now had a darker, edgier cousin to leak it through.
q said he wished WikiLeaks could help the group more with things like servers or even advice, but they didn't want to link the organization too obviously to LulzSec.
Assange's links with hackers connected to the Anonymous movement are nothing new. Anonymous has been a continued supporter
of the WikiLeaks cause and in December 2010 launched distributed denial of service attacks against PayPal and a Swiss bank when those companies withdrew their support for WikiLeaks after the release of U.S. State Department cables.
Earlier this year, WikiLeaks released millions of e-mails from Stratfor
, a global security firm, which had been obtained after Anonymous hacked into Stratfor servers. At an appearance in London recently, Assange paid homage to Anonymous
by wearing their trademark Guy Fawkes mask.
WikiLeaks supporters have often maintained that the organization doesn't hack. But if the account in Olson's book is accurate then it's clear that at the very least WikiLeaks is prepared to solicit the help of hackers -- rather than plain-old leakers -- for information.
In the long run, such links could prove problematic for Assange. As "Guardian" journalist and ex-WikiLeaker James Ball
wrote in March after court documents relating to Sabu's work with the FBI were revealed:
The US department of justice has convened a grand jury investigation into WikiLeaks, based in Virginia. If through Sabu or information he had gleaned from other Anons the US could glean any evidence to tie Julian Assange to hacking attacks on US soil, such as Stratfor, the case for extradition would be substantially strengthened.
If U.S. prosecutors had such information relating to U.S. leaks, Assange might have less protection under the First Amendment -- if it could be proved that he solicited and encouraged leakers and was a co-conspirator rather than simply being a passive recipient and publisher of state secrets.
If Assange loses his appeal at the U.K. Supreme Court on May 30, his last chance to avoid extradition to Sweden would be by appealing to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Assange's lawyers are concerned that extradition to Sweden could mean that the WikiLeaks founder will soon find himself shipped off to the United States.
In February, leaks from the Stratfor intelligence company showed e-mails that indicated that the U.S. Justice Department had issued a secret sealed U.S. indictment for Assange. U.S. prosecutors have not confirmed the existence of such an indictment. According to Australian diplomats, the United States is considering "a broad range of possible charges"
...including espionage and conspiracy."