WikiLeaks Volunteer Hacked a Reporter, Assange Autobiography Reveals

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has revealed in an unauthorized autobiography published Thursday that an Icelandic member of his team hacked into a journalist’s computer system last year to retrieve a database of documents he had given to the reporter.

The revelation of the crime could potentially place the organization, or at least the former WikiLeaks member, in legal jeopardy. The information appears in a new autobiography written by a ghostwriter who interviewed Assange for the book earlier this year.

A British publisher released the book on Thursday, Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography, in the midst of a rousing battle with Assange over its right to publish the book. The book is currently being sold online in the U.K., but it’s unclear when or if it will be sold in the U.S., since Assange’s U.S. publisher backed out of its deal to publish the title.

The hacking incident mentioned in the autobiography involves a U.K.-based American journalist named Heather Brooke, who received a copy of the now-infamous database containing more than 250,000 U.S. State Department cables that WikiLeaks published with media partners in the U.S. and Europe beginning last November.

Some time after the summer of 2010, Brooke obtained a copy of the database from a WikiLeaks member named Smári McCarthy — after Assange had agreed to give the Guardian newspaper and other media partners exclusive access to the documents. Assange apparently didn’t know about the internal leak from his staffer until Guardian editors brought it up with him in a heated confrontation over publication of the documents.

Smári McCarthy, a former WikiLeaks volunteer. Credit: Wrote/Flickr

“I investigated that matter,” Assange says in the book. “It turned out that our Icelandic colleague, Smári McCarthy, had indeed shared the material with the Independent journalist during an anxious moment. He had been asked to work on the cables for a short time to help format them, but, stressed at the workload, he had misguidedly shared them with her — to get some help with the burden of the work involved — under certain strict conditions. He then hacked into the computer remotely and wiped the cables, though it would never be clear whether she had copied them or not.”

Brooke, indeed, had already copied the documents off of the server where it was stored, so the WikiLeaks hack proved pointless. McCarthy, who left WikiLeaks last year around the time it began publishing the Afghan War logs, acknowledged to Threat Level that he deleted the file on Brooke’s server but says that she had given him permission to have remote access to her system, though not to delete the file.

“That was me overreacting to the situation that came up with regard to the way WikiLeaks people reacted to the knowledge that I had been giving her some access to the files,” McCarthy told Threat Level, adding that he later smoothed things over with Brooke about the unauthorized file deletion.

According to an account of the incident that Brooke put in her recent book, The Revolution Will Be Digitized, McCarthy, who is not identified by name in that book, told Brooke that he deleted the file because, “I’ve been put under a lot of very serious pressure and I’m afraid for my security.”

It’s not the first time that the issue of WikiLeaks hacking has come up in connection to journalists. Earlier this year, both the New York Times and the Guardian newspapers suggested that Assange or someone associated with WikiLeaks had hacked into the e-mail accounts of their reporters.

The Guardian revealed in a book it published about its collaboration with WikiLeaks that one of its reporters suspected Assange hacked into his e-mail account or sniffed his e-mail traffic after making coy remarks to the reporter about network security and referring to information the reporter had sent his colleagues in a private e-mail. Former Times Editor-in-Chief Bill Keller also hinted in a Times magazine piece that WikiLeaks hacked reporters, writing that “at a point when relations between the news organizations and WikiLeaks were rocky, at least three people associated with this project had inexplicable activity in their e-mail that suggested someone was hacking into their accounts.”

The Assange autobiography covers his childhood, early hacking career, WikiLeaks work and the legal difficulties he’s faced in connection with the publication of U.S. documents as well as sex-crimes allegations in Sweden.

While it contains few new revelations, the book does give Assange the chance to explain some of his criticized behavior and present his side of the story about things — such as claims from his media partners that he callously refused to redact the names of informants in U.S. documents before publishing them, saying that if the informants got killed due to the revelations, they deserved to die simply for being informants.

One of the few new tidbits is that WikiLeaks’ media partners weren’t the only ones to have copies of the State Department cable database. Assange says he made other copies “and stashed them first with contacts in Eastern Europe and Cambodia” and also “put them on an encrypted laptop and had it delivered to Daniel Ellsberg, the hero of the Pentagon Papers” since Ellsberg, an outspoken WikiLeaks supporter, could be trusted “to publish the whole lot during a crisis.”

Strangely, there’s little mention in the book of Bradley Manning, the former U.S. Army intelligence analyst who was arrested for allegedly supplying WikiLeaks with the State Department cables and thousands of other documents. It also doesn’t address the falling-out Assange had with former spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who staged a revolt with another member of WikiLeaks and formed a competing secret-spilling venture called OpenLeaks.

The absence of this information may in part be due to the fact that the book is unfinished. It’s based on a first draft of the manuscript from Assange’s ghostwriter and ends abruptly just at the point WikiLeaks and its media partners were about to begin publishing the cables.

Canongate Books, the publisher of the book, announced suddenly on Wednesday that it planned to publish the book Thursday after asserting that Assange had stopped cooperating with the project. Assange disputes this in a lengthy rebuttal, asserting that Canongate agreed to extend his deadline for a revised manuscript to later this year, then suddenly reneged on this and decided to publish the unfinished draft, which Assange didn’t factcheck.

Despite all of the drama around the book, Assange comes off fairly well in it, as one would expect in an autobiography, though he has a well-known tendency to see faults in everyone else that he can’t see in himself. There are also contradictions and factual issues, particularly in the chapter addressing the sex-crimes allegations in Sweden, where Assange claims he was warned twice against possible honey traps and was feeling very paranoid and suspicious in general, yet showed a remarkable lack of trepidation about bedding two strange women he’d just met.

He claims that just as he arrived in Sweden a contact “in a Western intelligence agency” revealed that the U.S. planned to use devious means to get him, such as planting drugs or child pornography on him or embroiling him in some immoral conduct. He says Frank Rieger, a member of the Chaos Computer Club in Germany, had written a press release to publicize the information quickly “as it did no good to put these things out after some damage had been done,” but that Assange, regretfully, failed to release it before the women publicly lodged their complaints against him. Rieger, however, tells Threat Level that he never prepared a release or anything else like this for Assange.

Journalists in general don’t fare well in the book, but Assange reserves the most withering comments for his former media partners at the Guardian and New York Times, who treated him badly after profiting from the valuable documents he gave them. Times former Editor-in-Chief Keller, whom Assange refers to as a “moral pygmy with a self-justifying streak the size of the San Andreas Fault,” is particularly called out for suggesting in an article that Assange uses “sex as both recreation and violation.”

“Ladies and gentleman, that last statement is actionable,” Assange says in the book. “It is a malicious libel, and one intended — bizarrely — to inflict maximum damage to a person then facing, as I was, allegations of sexual misconduct. He must have known as he wrote and published that line that it constituted the most heinous assault on my wellbeing, my legal standing and my reputation. But he did it anyway. I’ll never understand why and I won’t speculate.”

One new piece of information in the book involves one of Assange’s earliest collaborators, a mathematician named Daniel Mathews, whom he’d met at the University of Melbourne. Mathews wrote an analysis of the first document — from Somalia — that WikiLeaks published shortly after its launch in December 2006. The document was part of a mysterious cache of one million documents that, according to a 2010 New Yorker profile, WikiLeaks had obtained from someone who intercepted them while or after they passed through the Tor anonymizing network.

Mathews also worked on Guantanamo Bay manuals that WikiLeaks later published, but opted to distance himself from the organization after he became embroiled in a legal dispute that the Swiss-based Julius Baer Bank initiated to squelch internal bank documents that WikiLeaks had published.

Mathews, who was then teaching and working on his Ph.D. at Stanford University, told Threat Level that the bank served him with a summons because he was the only U.S.-based person they were able to associate with WikiLeaks. He had been a moderator on a WikiLeaks Facebook page. After this, Mathews decided to focus on his academic activities, though he remains friends with Assange.

Below are some highlights from the book.

Assange on being fair game for criticism:

From the start, of course, being a whistleblowing website, as they call us, certain people were keen to blow the whistle on us and that hasn’t changed. My response was, ‘Fair enough. We should eat our own dog food and see how it tastes.’ We were a group of committed, idealistic people who were trying to get something done. We could take what flak was on offer, but our basic position was strong and ethical, and I couldn’t see what rubbish could be thrown at us.

On the difficulties of finding collaborators in the early days and having to work alone:

Once or twice, quite comically (though not at the time), I turned out to be the only person at those online meetings. And of course the whole thing was right on the border of schizophrenia: I’d be there, tapping away, being the Chair and the Secretary and bringing the next thing on the agenda and calling the vote. Mad. But I felt I had to go on as if the whole thing were possible, and that way it would really happen.

On the “Collateral Murder” video:

It is a famous document of our times. But when I first saw the footage, it wasn’t at all clear what was going on; the images were jagged and the sequence lacked drama and impact, though what it depicted, eventually, was truly devastating.

On his disappointment in how the media reacted to it.

The storm that blew up about that title was depressing and surprising, even given what I knew about the attitude of much of the Western media to the official US government line. So puffed up are they with a sense of their own importance that, on seeing the video, the first debate they wanted to have was about our title, not about the contents.

On claims that he said that informants named in the cables shouldn’t be protected because they deserved to die.

Another erroneous report emerged at this time that had me saying we weren’t responsible for the welfare of informants and that ‘they deserved to die’. This is just nonsense: I said some people held that view, but that we would edit the documents to preserve their essential content and not throw harm in people’s way if we could avoid it. … In actual fact, we had been burning the midnight oil on redactions from early on.

On the sex-crimes allegations:

I may be a chauvinist pig of some sort but I am no rapist, and only a distorted version of sexual politics could attempt to turn me into one. They each had sex with me willingly and were happy to hang out with me afterwards. That is all.

Update: This post has been updated with information about the hacking incident as it was reported in Brooke’s book.

Photo: Wrote/Flickr