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Displacing WikiLeaks and Intercepting Whistleblowers: SecureDrop’s Security Problem

Displacing WikiLeaks and Intercepting Whistleblowers: SecureDrop’s Security Problem

Displacing WikiLeaks and Intercepting Whistleblowers: SecureDrop’s Security Problem
March 03
16:00 2018

This report has been updated thanks to new revelations from the work of investigative journalist Yasha Levine and his research into the Tor project for his new book Surveillance Valley.

WikiLeaks, the transparency organization known for publishing leaked documents that threaten the powerful, finds itself under pressure like never before, as does its editor-in-chief, Julian Assange. Now, the fight to silence Wikileaks is not only being waged by powerful government figures but also by the media, including outlets and organizations that have styled themselves as working to protect whistleblowers.

As Part I of this investigative series revealed, Pierre Omidyar – eBay billionaire and PayPal’s long-time owner – holds considerable sway over several journalists and organizations, like the Freedom of the Press Foundation, that once championed WikiLeaks but now work for organizations or publications funded by Omidyar. Thanks to his deep ties to the U.S. government and his own long-standing efforts to undermine the organization, Omidyar is using his influence to bring renewed pressure to WikiLeaks as it continues to publish sensitive government information.

In Part II of this investigative series, the role of Palantir — the “secretive” PayPal offshoot turned government contractor — in the war against whistleblowers was examined. Particular attention was given to Palantir’s targeting of would-be government whistleblowers and other “subversives,” as well as its plan to deal with “the WikiLeaks threat” by turning former defenders of the organization against it. Central to this plan was a media campaign intended to discredit WikiLeaks, particularly Assange, and to capitalize on “fractures” among those who supported WikiLeaks in order to raise doubts over the group’s commitment to non-partisanship.

One such writer doing just that also happens to be connected to the Freedom of the Press Foundation and has a dubious track record of reporting on WikiLeaks and whistleblowers. His name is Kevin Poulsen.

MINNEAPOLIS – When the Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) was debating whether to end its processing of WikiLeaks donations (see Part I of this series), the news was made public in an exclusive article in the Daily Beast, written by Kevin Poulsen and Spencer Ackerman. The article is jarring for several reasons, primarily owing to the terms in which it speaks of both WikiLeaks and its editor-in-chief Julian Assange, as well as its one-sided slant and promotion of false claims.

The article asserts, for instance, that the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s decision to stop accepting U.S. donations on behalf of WikiLeaks was motivated by Assange’s “embrace of Trump,” claims echoed by FPF members like Micah Lee. However, Assange never embraced Trump and the article’s proof of his alleged partisanship is that WikiLeaks published information that was damaging to Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton.

This, of course, ignores the fact that supporting neither Trump nor Clinton is possible, as publishing information damaging to one does not necessarily indicate support for the other. In fact, WikiLeaks publicly encouraged anyone with access to leak Trump’s tax returns and also stated on Twitter that “Trump’s breach of promise over the release of his tax returns is even more gratuitous than Clinton concealing her Goldman Sachs transcripts.”

That accusation forms the ideological basis for some of the more shocking statements that follow. In the article, Assange and WikiLeaks are accused of “echoing Nazi publications” and capitalizing on Trump supporters because it was “good for WikiLeaks’ bank account.” It also downplays Assange’s well-founded fear of U.S. extradition; revives unsubstantiated claims that Assange is guilty of rape; and, in regards to his asylum in Ecuador’s London embassy, asserts that Assange chose to play the victim and “portray himself as a political prisoner.” The article does not mention that the UN has found Assange to be a victim of arbitrary detention and that prominent journalists, such as John Pilger, have called him a political refugee.

Many of those quoted in the article have well-known personal vendettas against Assange — such as Guardian reporter James Ball, who was quoted in the article as calling Assange “someone who’s in it for himself” and “a sad man in a broom cupboard.” It also quotes billionaire Intercept backer Pierre Omidyar — whose distaste for WikiLeaks and connections to the U.S. government were exposed in Part I — and supports his claim that WikiLeaks should be not be considered a “media organization.”

The tone of the article, as well as its slanted reporting in regards to WikiLeaks, have become common in mainstream reporting. This is especially true at the Daily Beast, where this article was written, as its parent company, IAC, counts Chelsea Clinton among its directors and some of its senior editors were outed by the Podesta emails as journalists who actively colluded with the Clinton campaign.

Like other articles recently written on WikiLeaks and Assange — this one echoes a plan drafted by Palantir and other U.S. government contractors to confront the “WikiLeaks threat” (see Part II). The plan includes pushing “the reckless and radical nature of WikiLeaks” through a coordinated media campaign. It also includes spreading “disinformation” by creating “messages around actions to sabotage or discredit the opposing organization [WikiLeaks],” and “feeding the fuel” between factions of WikiLeaks supporters, by exploiting the fact that some see Assange as “going astray from the cause” and playing partisan politics.

Beyond the inherent bias of the Daily Beast, the authors of the article disclose their own conflicts of interest within the report, which mentions that Spencer Ackerman works at the Guardian and has collaborated in the past with James Ball as well as Intercept co-founder Glenn Greenwald and “Citizenfour” filmmaker Laura Poitras. Kevin Poulsen, it notes, once sat on the FPF’s technical advisory panel and helped to co-develop the SecureDrop project, which the FPF promotes and manages.

Poulsen’s conflicts of interest don’t stop there. What the article’s disclaimer fails to mention is that Poulsen also has a very strong personal dislike for Assange and WikiLeaks. As Assange wrote in an email to Trevor Timm regarding the FPF’s decision to end processing WikiLeaks donations, Poulsen was “a key actor in the imprisonment of Chelsea Manning,” and also “manipulated the alleged Manning-Assange chat logs in an attempt to frame WikiLeaks.”

Assange also noted that Poulsen has collaborated with Micah Lee, who initiated the FPF’s decision regarding WikiLeaks, has publicly slandered Assange on social media and is the author of a recent smear against him and WikiLeaks in The Intercept, where he works as a technologist and writer.

Yet what Assange noted in his correspondence with Timm is just a small part of Poulsen’s troubling past.


Poulsen’s role in the Chelsea Manning affair

A group photo of showing from left to right, Adrian Lamo, Kevin Mitnick, and Kevin Lee Poulsen circa 2001. (Photo: Matthew Griffiths/Creative Commons)

A group photo of showing from left to right, Adrian Lamo, Kevin Mitnick, and Kevin Lee Poulsen circa 2001. (Photo: Matthew Griffiths/Creative Commons)

As Assange noted in his emailed response to Timm, Poulsen’s feud with the Wikileaks founder dates back to 2010, when Poulsen wrote a story for Wired using private chat logs between Chelsea Manning and the man who exposed her as a leaker and ultimately helped send her to prison, Adrian Lamo. The story named Manning as the source before her arrest had been made public and Poulsen’s ethics on drafting the piece were widely criticized — particularly by Julian Assange, as well as Glenn Greenwald, who was then writing for Salon.

As Greenwald noted at the time, Poulsen published only a fraction of the chat logs between Manning and Lamo, acknowledging that he withheld other parts of the logs. In an email exchange with Greenwald, Poulsen stated that the withheld logs were “either Manning discussing personal matters that aren’t clearly related to his [sic] arrest, or apparently sensitive government information that I’m not throwing up without vetting first.” Yet, when the full logs were released over a year later, the assertion proved dishonest at best.

Poulsen’s selective disclosure was significant as it allowed Lamo to create a misleading portrait of Chelsea Manning. Greenwald wrote at the time that prior to the log’s full release, and in the lead-up to Manning’s trial, Lamo “incoherently invoked a slew of trite, right-wing justifications, denouncing Manning as a ‘traitor’ and ‘spy,’ while darkly insinuating that Manning provided classified information to a so-called ‘foreign national,’ meaning WikiLeaks’ Assange.” In other words, Lamo used the highly edited chat logs published by Wired to essentially defame Chelsea Manning prior to her trial, painting her as a threat to national security while the full logs revealed that she was seeking to inform the public of government wrongdoing — the very definition of a whistleblower.

Equally significant was that the failure to release the full logs allowed Lamo to claim – falsely – that Assange had convinced Manning to leak the documents, essentially making him an accomplice. At the time, the U.S. Department of Justice was attempting to prosecute WikiLeaks based on the claim that Assange “encouraged or even helped” Manning extract classified information. However, the full chat logs, once they were finally made public, showed this was in no way what transpired between Manning and Assange.

In an article for Salon, Greenwald also noted that Poulsen had a long, storied past with Lamo. Lamo – who now allegedly works for the CIA – had long used Poulsen as “his personal media voice,” as Poulsen, like Lamo, was also a hacker who was convicted of serious hacking felonies prior to becoming a journalist. Poulsen wrote numerous articles about Lamo and cited him in others, a connection that went far beyond that of a simple relationship between journalist and source. By concealing portions of the chat logs for so long, Poulsen left Lamo as the only source of information regarding the full contents of the of the logs. Lamo then used this power to fuel his documented desire for media attention at Manning’s expense. Greenwald called it a “journalistic disgrace.”

WikiLeaks was even more critical in its assessment than Greenwald, going so far as to insinuate that Poulsen was a government informant — a claim Poulsen has fiercely denied. Yet, an examination of Poulsen’s past makes the suggestion not unreasonable. Prior to his arrest for hacking-related felonies in 1994, Poulsen worked with the U.S. government. According to a 1993 article in the Los Angeles Times, “So good was Poulsen at cracking clandestine government and military systems that the defense industry anointed him with a security clearance and brought him inside to test its own security.”

A 1990 police booking photo of Kevin Poulsen, who was charged with espionage for hacking into FBI and national security computer systems. (AP Photo)

A 1990 police booking photo of Kevin Poulsen, who was charged with espionage for hacking into FBI and national security computer systems. (AP Photo)

Then, as Greenwald noted in Salon, Poulsen “was allowed by the U.S. Government [after his release from prison] to become a journalist covering the hacking world for Security Focus News,” where he worked prior to Wired. While at Security Focus, Poulsen worked with Mark Rasch, who had criminally investigated Poulsen as chief of the DOJ’s Computer Crimes Unit. Rasch, at the time of Manning’s arrest, was also a regular contributor to Wired, where Poulsen still works and was the very person who put Lamo in touch with the FBI in order to out Manning. This, along with the fact that one in four U.S. hackers are, or become government informers, makes WikiLeaks’ admittedly speculative claim of Poulsen’s collusion with the government in the Manning case nonetheless feasible.

Poulsen, of course, remembers things differently. In an article published in January 2017 at the Daily Beast, Poulsen maintained that he withheld portions of the chat logs because “Manning had told Lamo all about her struggles with gender dysphoria, and those personal disclosures were out of bounds. By her own account, her leaks were impelled by her moral compass and nothing else.” Poulsen failed to mention he had withheld portions of the chat logs which showed the Manning had, in fact, been motivated by morality and not to “aid the enemy”, as Lamo had claimed while the logs were in Poulsen’s possession, but not yet released to the public.

Poulsen’s recent article recounting the Manning case paints Assange as a villain, but the chat logs reveal the care Assange took to protect Manning as a source. He accuses Assange of “attacking me [Poulsen] directly” for the initial report on Manning and insinuates that it was wrong for Assange to initially deny that he knew Manning was the source of the Collateral Murder video as well as numerous diplomatic cables. Poulsen goes on to opine that “the WikiLeaks that Manning knew has all but vanished,” citing Assange’s alleged partisanship in the 2016 presidential election – a recurrent theme in much of Poulsen’s reporting on the subject.


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