Wikileaks founder worked on U.S. intelligence computer espionage system in 1990s
By Wayne Madsen
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was not always considered a pariah by the U.S. intelligence community. In fact, according to a knowledgeable source who once worked on sophisticated computer security programs for the U.S. intelligence community at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Assange helped develop, at the time, a state-of-the-art computer surveillance tool for use by the U.S. intelligence community, one that ended up being used by the National Security Agency and CIA.
Assange, according to our source, performed his technical work at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, where the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) conducted computer surveillance work in a relatively unclassified setting as compared to the NSA.
Hackers as spies
Assange first came to the attention of western intelligence agencies in 1990, when, during Operation Desert Shield, the forerunner to war with Iraq over its invasion of Kuwait, the Hamburg-based Chaos Computer Club, along with computer hackers in the Netherlands and Australia, were caught hacking into U.S. Defense Department computer systems via MILNET links to the ubiquitous ARPANET, a network that linked government research and development agencies to various universities around the world.
In 1987, Assange, at the age of 16, began his hacking career in Australia. He and two colleagues established an underground hacking group called "International Subversives" Assange used the hacker handle of "Mendax," which is Latin for "untruthful." The late 1980s represented a time period when intelligence agencies and law enforcement were playing a catch-up game with hackers — young people who, in most cases, knew more than even the NSA about how to crack into computer systems. Eventually, in 1991, the Australian Federal Police nabbed Assange as part of "Operation Weather," a law enforcement operation being carried out against hackers. One of Assange's targeted computers was one operated by the U.S. Air Force in the Pentagon. And the hacking took place during Desert Shield/Storm at a time when the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the CIA began to take the issue of computer hacking more seriously.
It was in 1989 that some computer hackers were suspected of working with foreign intelligence agencies, including the Soviet KGB, to break into western defense computers. Through a link provided by the Chaos Computer Club, a group of German hackers — Karl Koch, aka "Hagbard;" Markus Hess, aka "Urmel;" Hans Heinrich Hubner, aka "Pengo;" and Dirk-Otto Brezinski, aka "DOB" — teamed up with hackers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and in Melbourne, Australia to penetrate U.S. military computers. It was Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory system administrator Clifford Stoll who first discovered the hackers’ portal into military computers — at the University of Bremen via the German DATEX-P network into Lawrence Berkeley via Tymnet and out into some 400 military computers from the Ramstein Airbase in Germany to Fort Buckner, Okinawa and the OPTIMIS database at the Pentagon. Koch, or "Hagbard," was found burned to death with gasoline in a forest near Celle, West Germany in 1989. Police ruled the death a suicide.
In October 1998, another Chaos hacker, Boris Floriciz, aka "Tron," was found hanging in a Berlin park. After treating the death as a suicide, police began to treat the death as a homicide after Stern magazine reported that Floriciz had been working for unsavory elements. Floriciz's father reported that his son had been approached by intelligence agents who wanted the hacker to work for them.
In August 2001, Herwart Holland-Moritz, aka "Wau Holland," one of the founders of Chaos, died at age 49 in Hamburg. Holland died after suffering a stroke. In 1987, Holland claimed that Chaos had obtained sensitive data on U.S. weapons systems from NASA VAX 11/785 computers linked to the Space Physics Analysis Network or SPAN.
In 1995, Jean-Bernard Condat, founder of the Chaos Computer Club of France, was discovered to be working for the French domestic intelligence agency, the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire(DST). According to French investigative journalist Jean Guisnel, Condat began working for DST in 1989. Condat's DST handler went by the cover name "Jean-Luc Delacour."
In his book, "Guerres dans le Cyberespace, Internet et les Services Secrets," Guisnel revealed: "Internet is controlled to the bone by such measures as turning around hackers, systematically bugging computer networks and manipulating newsgroups."
In 2000, Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the international organization that assigns Internet domain names, elected Chaos's Andy Mueller-Maguhn as a European regional director.
In 1998, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu praised an 18 year-old Israeli hacker named Ehud Tenebaum, aka "The Analyzer," who had hacked into Pentagon and NASA computer systems from Tel Aviv via a university modem in Sde Boker in southern Israel. Netanyahu said Tenebaum was "damn good." The leader of the ViRii group, Tenebaum was detained by Israeli police along with two other Israeli hackers and an American, Calidan Levi Coffman of Carson, Washington. The FBI raided the homes of two teen ViRii members in Cloverdale, California but the Justice Department only sought probation in their criminal cases. Federal prosecutors went easy on the Israeli hacker ring even after Attorney General Janet Reno said the United States would treat computer intrusions as "serious crimes".
Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre said the ViRii attacks on the Pentagon were "the most organized and systematic attack" to date. Targeted by the Israelis were Pentagon personnel and payroll files. As with Assange's deal with Australian intelligence, it was later reported that Tenebaum's plea deal with Israeli authorities involved having him go to work for Israeli intelligence. Israel's apologists in the corporate press likened ViRii's hacking to tossing "electronic spitballs." The hacking attack on the Pentagon as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was demanding a freeze on Israeli settlements on the West Bank and east Jerusalem and as U.S. forces were preparing for military action against Iraq. The recent Wikileaks disclosures of State Department cables, which includes the selective release of cables on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, comes amid similar U.S. demands on a freeze on Israeli settlements.
In an indication that Tenebaum's continued his hacking for Israeli intelligence, in 2003, a New Zealand known as "VeNoMouS" was accused of maintaining links with Tenebaum and breaking into the India's Bhabha Atomic Research Center in Mumbai. The hacking attack purged data and stole emails. There were reports that VeNoMouS and hackers linked to him were involved in hacking of Pakistan's nuclear program computer systems. The Pentagon's cyber-security program, as previously reported by WMR, has been thoroughly penetrated at high-levels by Israeli agents-of-influence. John P. Wheeler III, who, as assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force in the Bush administration and later at MITRE Corporation, was involved heavily in the Pentagon's cyber-warfare program, was found dead in a Wilmington, Delaware landfill on December 30 last year.
The Enigmatic Assange
Some in the corporate media similarly praised Assange and Wikileaks for the release of the State Department cables but New York Times managing editor Bill Keller recently expressed regret over his paper's dealings with Assange. Keller said that when relations between the Times and Assange grew frosty, three Times staffers experienced hacking into their email accounts. Keller is obviously unaware of Assange's past work for the U.S. intelligence community and journalistic due diligence by him and his paper would have uncovered what WMR has discovered about Assange and his hacker colleagues before entering into a relationship with Wikileaks and its founder, described by Keller as dressed like a bag-lady and needing a bath.
About the only thing law enforcement and intelligence could do faced with such a new and technologically-advanced hacking threat was to cut deals with hackers who were arrested. The choice for the Australian police was simple: either face prison and a huge fine or come work for law enforcement and intelligence in new computer security divisions and branches. For Assange, the choice was also simple. Sometime between his arrest in 1991 and his being charged in 1994 with 31 criminal charges, six of which were dropped, Assange, according to our source, reported for duty to the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, where under DISA unclassified cover, Assange worked on a system that would permit U.S. intelligence to hack into computer systems through a security hole in fax modems. The program DISA developed for the intelligence community allowed intelligence operators to covertly switch from fax mode to data mode modems connected to computers, permitting computer files to be surreptitiously downloaded. It was via modems that Assange, from Australia, had been able to penetrate Defense Department computers and it was via the fax modem security hole — the use of fax modems that were on-line and waiting to receive faxes — that certain U.S. intelligence agencies wanted to be able to accomplish the same task against their intelligence targets.
Upon completion of his task and his return to Australia for his trial, Assange was fined a mere A$2100 and released on bond with the following statement from the judge: "there is just no evidence that there was anything other than sort of intelligent inquisitiveness and the pleasure of being able to—what's the expression—surf –through these various computers."
The judge also mentioned Assange's tough childhood, one in which he was raised in a religious cult, the Santiniketan Park Association, also known as "The Family" and "The Great White Brotherhood" and led by yoga guru Anne-Hamilton Byrne. The Family, in addition to meting out corporal punishment and sleep and food deprivation, subjected the children of cult members to psychotropic drugs, including psychiatric drugs Anatensol, Diazepam, Haloperidol, Largactil, Mogadon, Serepax, Stelazine, Tegretol or Tofranil. Children were also subjected to LSD. WMR has learned that the cult had links to mind control operations run jointly by the CIA and its partner, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO). In 1978, the Victoria Police shut down the cult. Thus, Assange's apparent first, albeit involuntary, interaction with an intelligence agency came when he was a child being abused by the Santiniketan cult. The Family of Australia bears striking similarities to another child abuse cult in the United States linked to the CIA: "The Finders."
In October 1990, as more and more U.S. government departments became cognizant of the threat posed by the Chaos hackers and their associates, a meeting of computer security officials from various agencies dealing with classified computer systems was held in a secure room at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. This editor took part in the meeting, representing the State Department's Information System Security Division within the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Present were representatives from the CIA, FBI, Commerce Department, Defense Department, DIA, and NSA.
The CIA was concerned about the KGB angle to the German Chaos gang and their hacker friends in the Netherlands and Australia. However, after about an hour back-and-forth, the lead FBI representative stood up, his brass belt buckle very prominent along with his gaudy double-knit suit, and assured all attendees that as a lead agent with the FBI's Soviet counter-intelligence branch, he had "everything under control." The name of the FBI agent was Robert Hanssen, arrested on February 18, 2001, for spying for 22 years for the Soviets and Russians.
The media had been reporting on the Chaos-linked hackers since 1987. From ABC News World News Tonight on September 15, 1987, Peter Jennings reported: "There's been another case of computer hackers electronically prying their way into some very secret files. Two West Germans apparently got into a worldwide computer network used by NASA to link space research centers in Europe and Asia. NASA confirms the system was entered, denies the hackers got any classified information." But on April 25, 1991, the story of the hacking into military systems during Desert Shield was reported in full by ABC:
"PETER JENNINGS: Once again electronic thieves have managed to break into some of the giant computer systems at American military installations and universities. An ABC News investigation has found that for at least a year now, computer hackers, electronic intruders based in the Netherlands have been cracking the security of American computer systems where they can read sensitive information about military plans and operations. Here's ABC's John Martin.
JOHN MARTIN: [CU DOCUMENTS/GRAPHICS] Documents obtained by ABC News show the hackers got so much information on the Patriot missile, they had to break into several computers just to find a place to store the data. [SOLDIERS] At one point the intruders shut down computers in Wisconsin and Virginia which were later used to mobilize troops for Operation Desert Storm. [BLDG EXT] The CIA considered the theft so serious it convened a special meeting.
FORMER GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL: [SILHOUETTE] There was information gathered from systems, on the Patriot rocket launching system, the Navy's Tomahawk cruise missile, the call up of the military reserves. [TROOPS BOARDING JET] The words they were particularly interested in were 'military', 'nuclear', 'missile'; and 'Desert Storm' or 'Desert Shield'.
JOHN MARTIN: Sources say many of the computer penetrations originated in Geldrop, Holland. [BLDG EXT] Investigators believe the thieves were freelance spies looking for information to sell KGB or Iraqi intelligence. [HACKER ON COMPUTER] One Dutch hacker demonstrated how easy it was. [MAP/GRAPHICS] Using local telephones, the hackers electronically entered a nearby university computer, then crossed the Atlantic through campus lines to American universities. [VARIOUS BLDGS] From computers here at Bowling Green in Ohio and other campuses, they broke into at least 22 networks: [VARIOUS INSTALLATIONS] The Naval Sea Systems Command, the Army's readiness system at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, the missile research lab at Aberdeen, Maryland. None of the information they got was classified, but the government is worried.
GERALD BURKE: Some of the great achievements in modern espionage that resulted from the collation of seemingly innocuous, unclassified data.
JOHN MARTIN: The government alerted its computer emergency response team.
LARRY DRUFFEL PhD / RESPONSE TEAM LEADER: Anytime that someone is penetrating a system used for military purposes, then you have to assume that they're trying to get information they shouldn't and that's espionage.
JOHN MARTIN: One reason hackers were able to penetrate the computers, poor passwords.
WAYNE MADSEN: All these computer crackers out there know what those passwords are and they know how to basically use them to break into systems.
JOHN MARTIN: [SU] The FBI is on the case, but has run into difficulties. Dutch law does not permit the prosecution of computer hackers unless the information they steal is classified. John Martin, ABC News, Crystal City, Virginia.
PETER JENNINGS: Actually some Dutch think there's nothing wrong with this kind of computer hacking. The Director of Economics at Utrecht University says most Dutch schools actually encourage students to break into other computer systems as part of their training. He says security is the responsibility of the systems' owners."
But what ABC News and no one else knew was that some intelligence agencies, including ASIO in Australia and NSA had decided to co-opt the services of some hackers in order to penetrate their groups and determine the technology they were using to hack into systems. The project with Cornell student Robert Morris, Jr., who was able to launch a disruptive Internet computer worm program in 1988 that brought down a number of computer systems, was one example. Morris's father happened to be Robert Morris, Sr., NSA's chief scientist at the time. The young Morris's "punishment" included working on cracking cryptographic codes used by drug dealers and other hackers. Morris's punishment was similar to the sweetheart deal worked out with Assange in return for his services at Sandia.
Assange continues to play his part in being a "limited hangout" operative for the U.S. intelligence community. The selective leak of over-classified State Department cables from the maximum Secret SIPRNET, cables that report on gossip and open source information gathered from U.S. diplomats and their contacts abroad, have been used to influence events around the world. It is a classic "cognitive infiltration" operation as advocated by White House Office of Information Regulatory Affairs chief Dr.Cass Sunstein, a promoter of Wikipedia and Wikileaks, both used by the intelligence agencies for information and psychological warfare operations.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that in December 2010, the international Pirate Party, which has its beginnings in Sweden, where Assange is wanted on sex charges, and its Austrian branch, offered to host Wikileaks's cache of over 250,000 State Department cables. The Pirate Party, with branches also in Germany, Switzerland, and Luxembourg, has close contacts with the Chaos Computer Club.
Wayne Madsen is a Washington, DC-based investigative journalist, author and syndicated columnist. He has written for several renowned papers and blogs.
Madsen is a regular contributor on Russia Today. He has been a frequent political and national security commentator on Fox News and has also appeared on ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, and MS-NBC. Madsen has taken on Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity on their television shows. He has been invited to testifty as a witness before the US House of Representatives, the UN Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and an terrorism investigation panel of the French government.
As a U.S. Naval Officer, he managed one of the first computer security programs for the U.S. Navy. He subsequently worked for the National Security Agency, the Naval Data Automation Command, Department of State, RCA Corporation, and Computer Sciences Corporation.
Madsen is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), Association for Intelligence Officers (AFIO), and the National Press Club. He is a regular contributor to Opinion Maker.