It appears increasingly likely that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will be extradited to Sweden and turned over to the United States for criminal charges of a dubious nature.
That brings heightened urgency to this question: What is contained in the "thermonuclear device" of government files that WikiLeaks has vowed to release if harm comes to the organization or its leader?
Little is known about the files that WikiLeaks possesses but has not released, so we can only make an educated guess. But a source tells Legal Schnauzer that the files could include information about Bush-era crimes, including political prosecutions, stolen elections, U.S. attorney firings, and more.
One hint came when Assange said in a recent interview that he has "insurance files" on Rupert Murdoch and his global media company, News Corporation. But we've seen signs that WikiLeaks' "big bomb" goes way beyond anything involving Rupert Murdoch.
The strongest insight we've seen came in a recent Time magazine profile of Assange in its Person of the Year issue. WikiLeaks, it turns out, obtained sensitive information by piggybacking on the work of Chinese hackers. Time explains:
The worst--or best, in the view of advocates for radical transparency--could be yet to come. John Young, a New York City architect who left the WikiLeaks steering committee after clashing with Assange, says the group members are storing "a lot more information underground than they are publishing on the surface." Some of it comes from a hacker-on-hacker sting in 2006, when data jockeys at WikiLeaks detected what they believed to be a large-scale intelligence operation to steal data from computers around the world. The intruders were using TOR, an anonymous browsing technology invented by the U.S. Navy, to tunnel into their targets and extract information. The WikiLeaks team piggybacked on the operation, recording the data stream in real time as the intruders stole it.
In an encrypted e-mail dated Jan. 7, 2007, decrypted and made available to TIME by its recipient, one of the participants boasted, "Hackers monitor chinese and other intel as they burrow into their targets, when they pull, so do we. Inxhaustible supply of material?... We have all of pre 2005 afghanistan. Almost all of india fed. Half a dozen foreign ministries. Dozens of political parties and consulates, worldbank, apec, UN sections, trade groups."
The theft scandalized some WikiLeaks insiders, and Assange has held back from publishing most of its fruits. But shortly before his arrest in London, he issued a veiled threat that "comes straight out of cypherpunk fiction," according to Christopher Soghoian, a well-known security researcher.
Last July, it turns out, as controversy erupted over its release of the Afghanistan war logs, WikiLeaks had posted, without explanation, a 1.4-gigabyte encrypted file called "insurance.aes256." Some 100,000 people around the world have downloaded it. On Dec. 3, Assange said in an online chat with readers of the Guardian newspaper that the file contains the entire diplomatic archive, most of which has yet to be released, and additional "significant material from the U.S. and other countries." He added, "If something happens to us, the key parts will be released automatically."
From a domestic standpoint, the most intriguing information might be the reference to "political parties" and "trade groups." Could that mean the Republican Party during the George W. Bush years? Could that be one reason GOP guru Karl Rove seems particularly determined to see that Assange is "hunted down"? Could "trade groups" include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has been a powerful force in the GOP's electoral strategies.
Our source finds it particularly interesting that the WikiLeaks files were obtained on the backs of Chinese hackers. This brings to mind SMARTech, the Chattanooga-based company whose servers hosted 2004 presidential-election results for Ohio, plus Bush-administration e-mails that went outside of official White House channels.
According to several published reports, SMARTech CEO Jeff Averbeck has ties to Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and possibly has routed information through servers at those federal facilities. Says our source:
If I was working in Chinese intelligence, I think Oak Ridge Labs would be an inviting target for hacking. If SMARTech has used those lines, the Chinese might have obtained all kinds of information about stolen U.S. elections. I would want the NASA and TVA servers, as well, and who knows what the Chinese might have found there? With information about stolen elections and more, the Chinese could blackmail the U.S. government for about a century. I suspect Assange has stuff we haven't even thought of.
The next court date in Assange's extradition battle is February 7. Meanwhile, we can ponder these questions: Is it possible that WikiLeaks will force the U.S. government into rediscovering its conscience? Wouldn't it be ironic if we wind up having to thank Chinese hackers for helping to get our democracy back on track, to essentially save us from the criminality of the Bush years?