Thordarson with Julian Assange. Photo: Courtesy Sigurdur Thordarson
On an August workday in 2011, a cherubic 18-year-old Icelandic man named Sigurdur “Siggi” Thordarson walked through the stately doors of the U.S. embassy in Reykjavík, his jacket pocket concealing his calling card: a crumpled photocopy of an Australian passport. The passport photo showed a man with a unruly shock of platinum blonde hair and the name Julian Paul Assange.
Thordarson was long time volunteer for WikiLeaks with direct access to Assange and a key position as an organizer in the group. With his cold war-style embassy walk-in, he became something else: the first known FBI informant inside WikiLeaks. For the next three months, Thordarson served two masters, working for the secret-spilling website and simultaneously spilling its secrets to the U.S. government in exchange, he says, for a total of about $5,000. The FBI flew him internationally four times for debriefings, including one trip to Washington D.C., and on the last meeting obtained from Thordarson eight hard drives packed with chat logs, video and other data from WikiLeaks.
The relationship provides a rare window into the U.S. law enforcement investigation into WikiLeaks, the transparency group newly thrust back into international prominence with its assistance to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Thordarson’s double-life illustrates the lengths to which the government was willing to go in its pursuit of Julian Assange, approaching WikiLeaks with the tactics honed during the FBI’s work against organized crime and computer hacking — or, more darkly, the bureau’s Hoover-era infiltration of civil rights groups.
“It’s a sign that the FBI views WikiLeaks as a suspected criminal organization rather than a news organization,” says Stephen Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “WikiLeaks was something new, so I think the FBI had to make a choice at some point as to how to evaluate it: Is this The New York Times, or is this something else? And they clearly decided it was something else.”
The FBI declined comment.
Thordarson was 17 years old and still in high school when he joined WikiLeaks in February 2010. He was one of a large contingent of Icelandic volunteers that flocked to Assange’s cause after WikiLeaks published internal bank documents pertaining to that country’s financial crisis.
When a staff revolt in September 2010 left the organization short-handed, Assange put Thordarson in charge of the WikiLeaks chat room, making Thordarson the first point of contact for new volunteers, journalists, potential sources, and outside groups clamoring to get in with WikiLeaks at the peak of its notoriety.
In that role, Thordarson was a middle man in the negotiations with the Bradley Manning Defense Fund that led to WikiLeaks donating $15,000 to the defense of its prime source. He greeted and handled a new volunteer who had begun downloading and organizing a vast trove of 1970s-era diplomatic cables from the National Archives and Record Administration, for what became WikiLeaks’ “Kissinger cables” collection last April. And he wrangled scores of volunteers and supporters who did everything from redesign WikiLeaks’ websites to shooting video homages to Assange.
He accumulated thousands of pages of chat logs from his time in WikiLeaks, which, he says, are now in the hands of the FBI.
Thordarson’s betrayal of WikiLeaks also was a personal betrayal of its founder, Julian Assange, who, former colleagues say, took Thordarson under his wing, and kept him around in the face of criticism and legal controversy.
“When Julian met him for the first or second time, I was there,” says Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of Icelandic Parliament who worked with WikiLeaks on Collateral Murder, the Wikileaks release of footage of a US helicopter attack in Iraq. “And I warned Julian from day one, there’s something not right about this guy… I asked not to have him as part of the Collateral Murder team.”
In January 2011, Thordarson was implicated in a bizarre political scandal in which a mysterious “spy computer” laptop was found running unattended in an empty office in the parliament building. “If you did [it], don’t tell me,” Assange told Thordarson, according to unauthenticated chat logs provided by Thordarson.
“I will defend you against all accusations, ring [sic] and wrong, and stick by you, as I have done,” Assange told him in another chat the next month. “But I expect total loyalty in return.”
Instead, Thordarson used his proximity to Assange for his own purposes. The most consequential act came in June 2011, on his third visit to Ellingham Hall — the English mansion where Assange was then under house arrest while fighting extradition to Sweden.
For reasons that remain murky, Thordarson decided to approach members of the Lulzsec hacking gang and solicit them to hack Islandic government systems as a service to WikiLeaks. To establish his bona fides as a WikiLeaks representative, he shot and uploaded a 40-second cell phone video that opens on the IRC screen with the chat in progress, and then floats across the room to capture Asssange at work with an associate. (This exchange was first reported by Parmy Olson in her book on Anonymous).
Unfortunately for Thordarson, the FBI had busted Lulzsec’s leader, Hector Xavier Monsegur, AKA Sabu, a week earlier, and secured his cooperation as an informant. On June 20, the FBI warned the Icelandic government. “A huge team of FBI came to Iceland and asked the Icelandic authorities to help them,” says Jonsdottir. “They thought there was an imminent Lulzsec attack on Iceland.”
The FBI may not have known at this point who Thordarson was beyond his screen names. The bureau and law enforcement agencies in the UK and Australia went on to round up alleged Lulzsec members on unrelated charges.
Having dodged that bullet, it’s not clear what prompted Thordarson to approach the FBI two months later. When I asked him directly last week, he answered, “I guess I cooperated because I didn’t want to participate in having Anonymous and Lulzsec hack for Wikileaks, since then you’re definitely breaking quite a lot of laws.”
That answer doesn’t make a lot of sense, since it was Thordarson, not Assange, who asked Lulzsec to hack Iceland. There’s no evidence of any other WikiLeaks staffer being involved. He offered a second reason that he admits is more truthful: “The second reason was the adventure.”
Thordarson’s equivocation highlights a hurdle in reporting on him: He is prone to lying. Jonsdottir calls him “pathological.” He admits he has lied to me in the past. For this story, Thordarson backed his account by providing emails that appear to be between him and his FBI handlers, flight records for some of his travels, and an FBI receipt indicating that he gave them eight hard drives. The Icelandic Ministry of the Interior has previously confirmed that the FBI flew to Iceland to interview Thordarson. Thordarson also testified to much of this account in a session of the Icelandic Parliament, with Jonsdottir in attendance.
Finally, he has given me a substantial subset of the chat logs he says he passed to the FBI, amounting to about 2,000 pages, which, at the very least, proves that he kept logs and is willing to turn them over to a reporter disliked by Julian Assange.
Thordarson’s “adventure” began on August 23, 2011, when he sent an email to the general delivery box for the U.S. embassy in Reykjavík “Regarding an Ongoing Criminal investigation in the United States.”
“The nature of the intel that can be brought to light in that investigation will not be spoken over email conversation,” he wrote cryptically.
An embassy security officer called him the same day. “He said, ‘What investigation?’ I said the Wikileaks,” says Thordarson. “He denied there was such an investigation, so I just said we both know there is.”
Thordarson was invited to the embassy, where he presented a copy of Assange’s passport, the passport for Assange’s number two, Kristinn Hrafnsson, and a snippet of a private chat between Thordarson and Assange. The embassy official was noncommittal. He told Thordarson they might be in touch, but it would take at least a week.
It happened much faster.