Yesterday, Kevin Poulson, an editor at the popular tech-focused website Wired and former black-hat hacker, published a report in which he alleged that the FBI infiltrated the WikiLeaks whistleblowing website with a mole in 2011. The mole, a then-18 year old Icelander named Sigurdur Thordarson (gotta love those phonetic Icelandic names!), had worked for Julian Assange's famous (or infamous) leak organization for over a year, where he managed the internal chat room, handled new informants, and managed scores of volunteers. Poulson reports that, in August 2011, Thordarson approached the U.S. embassy in Reyjavik with an offer to collaborate with American authorities, which he did for half a year until he was fired from WikiLeaks. During that time, he compiled eight hard drives' worth of internal data from his former employer, which he then transferred to the FBI.
That the FBI has enlisted a teenage Icelander man to spy on a "not-for-profit" media organization reflects the severity of the threat the U.S. government thinks WikiLeaks represents. The primary conceptual distinction between WikiLeaks, and, say, the Guardian, the British newspaper that first broke the story on the NSA's PRISM program, is that WikiLeaks has demonstrated a willingness to indiscriminately publish massive volumes of classified and top secret state information, oftentimes involving military or diplomatic actors. Maddeningly for federal authorities, though, it is extremely difficult under U.S. legal precedent to prosecute WikiLeaks, since the organization doesn’t steal any classified information itself. Instead, it acts as an intermediary, accepting information from anonymous sources and then broadcasting them, an action protected as free speech under U.S. law.
Besides chronicling the story of how Thordarson infiltrated WikiLeaks, Poulson also speculates about the character of the young man. The picture Poulson paints is hardly unsullied — Thordarson is quick to lie and acts recklessly and from crude concerns for compensation, more weasel than whistleblower.
But of course what you think about Thordarson's actions probably depends to a large extent on what you think of WikiLeaks and its cult-of-personality founder, Julian Assange. Since he first began publishing leaks in 2006, and especially after the major publication of Iraq War documents and U.S. diplomatic cables, Assange and WikiLeaks have been a political lightning rod — eliciting strong opinions from all corners of the population. For those who have a relatively iron stomach when it comes to the federal government withholding information for the sake of state security, Thordarson's actions are a triumph of national sovereignty over a rogue cyberterrorist organization, a reminder that the U.S. is not the paper tiger some make it out to be in the digital era — at least not yet. Persons with more civil libertarian leanings tend to see organizations like WikiLeaks as bulwarks against authoritarian and oppressive states, corporate corruption, and other unethical practices of those in power.
So which is it, and how ought we think of Thordarson's betrayal of Assange and his former comrades-in-code? Perhaps the mere existence of the Assanges and Snowdens of the world — and the threats they pose to states — will prompt this leak-obsessed president to alter his position and embrace a national dialogue on the healthy limits of government secrecy and surveillance. Such a conversation would be all well and good — but given WikiLeaks's predilection for publishing first and asking questions later, in some cases potentially placing U.S. forces and/or civilians in harm's way, I can't say I’m too torn up that the Feds know what's for dinner at Assange’s batcave. There is, it seems, a very short distance between prison and a Pulitzer.