Wikileaks' estranged co-founder becomes a critic (Q&A)

John Young, editor of document-leaking site Cryptome.org, has switched from being one of Wikileaks biggest fans to one of its prominent critics.

Caption: Wikileaks co-founder John Young outside of Next HOPE hacker conference in Manhattan last weekend
Caption: Wikileaks co-founder John Young outside Next HOPE hacker conference in Manhattan last weekend. Declan McCullagh/CNET

NEW YORK--John Young was one of Wikileaks' early founders. Now he's one of the organization's more prominent critics.

Young, a 74-year-old architect who lives in Manhattan, publishes a document-leaking Web site called Cryptome.org that predates Wikileaks by over a decade. He's drawn fire from Microsoft after posting leaked internal documents about police requests, irked the U.K. government for disclosing the names of possible spies, and annoyed Homeland Security by disclosing a review of Democratic National Convention security measures.

Cryptome's history of publicizing leaks--while not yielding to pressure to remove them--is what led Young to be invited to join Wikileaks before its launch over three years ago. He also agreed to be the public face of the organization by listing his name on the domain name registration.

Operating a Web site to post leaked documents isn't very expensive (Young estimates he spends a little over $100 a month for Cryptome's server space). So when other Wikileaks founders started to talk about the need to raise $5 million and complained that an initial round of publicity had affected "our delicate negotiations with the Open Society Institute and other funding bodies," Young says, he resigned from the effort.

In the last few weeks, after the arrest of Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning cast a brighter spotlight on Wikileaks, Young has been trying to trace Wikileaks' money flows. On July 17, Wikileaks asked supporters for $200,000 to pay for Mannings' attorneys, even though co-founder Julian Assange said a few days earlier that the organization had already raised $1 million.

CNET caught up with Young at the Next HOPE hacker conference here last weekend, where he was attending the Wikileaks keynote speech. Following is a transcript made from a recorded interview with Young, lightly edited for space.


Q: How many hours a day or days a week do you spend on Cryptome?
Young: Well, it varies. When I'm doing professional practice work, it's very little. I just answer e-mail and when something hot comes in, I'll put it up. Most of my time is spent on my architectural practice. So I do Cryptome between when I have time to get to it. It's by no means a full-time activity.

What you're doing sounds a lot like what Wikileaks is doing, no?
Young: Only superficially, Declan, because, and we can talk more about this, I initially thought that was what they were going to be doing when I first agreed to participate. But it became clear right away that they were going to set up an operation with multiple people involved. So the first difference is that I don't run an operation. I don't have any people working on this. This is strictly--and I like the term myself, but other people hate it--it's strictly an amateur version.

It's not like Wikileaks and their grand goals. I've never had any desire to overturn governments or do any of these noble things that they want to do. Or jack up journalism. This was just a way to get certain kinds of documents out to the public.

And so when they explained the amount of money they were going to try to raise, that was the basis for parting company with them. I thought it was going to be more like Cryptome, which is a collective of people contributing their time to it and not a centralized operation raising lots of money. Cryptome is not into that kind of thing. We parted company at that point. We're still not like Wikileaks in that we don't do any promotional work for our activities.

Who were the other Wikileaks founders?
Young: I'm not going to talk about those. I'll say Julian (Assange) was clearly there. I elected to conceal those names when I published these messages. And I think it's basically a violation of Cryptome's policy--to publish the names of people who do not want to be identified.

You had a falling-out with the other Wikileaks founders?
Young: Yes. But it was over this: someone said that the initial goal was $5 million. That caught my attention. One, because I think the type of stuff I was going to publish, you should never do it for money. Only because that contaminates the credibility and it turns it into a business opportunity where there's great treachery and lying going on.

And it will contaminate Wikileaks. It always does. In fact, that's the principal means by which noble endeavors are contaminated, the money trail. That's pretty obvious. I happen to think that amateur stuff is better than paid stuff.

How long were you involved before you resigned?
Young: Not long. A few weeks. It wasn't long. However, one of the things that happened is that somehow I got subscribed to that list under another nym and the messages kept coming in. I got to keep reading what they were saying about me after they booted me off. The messages kept coming in. So I published those too.

Did they criticize you for, well, leaking about Wikileaks?
Young: They certainly did. They accused me of being an old fart and jealous. And all these things that come up, that typically happen when someone doesn't like you. That's okay. I know you would never do that and journalists never do that, but ordinary people do this all the time.

Because journalism is a noble profession in all its guises?
Young: That's right. And there's no back-biting there.

Over the years you've been running Cryptome, you've had some encounters with federal agencies. What visits did you have and what were the agents concerned about?
Young: They were most concerned that we published lists. The names of spies. That was the first issue that brought us to their attention. There was a request, so we were told, from one of the British intelligence people to have that list removed.

And did you remove it?
Young: No. And not only that, but the FBI was always very polite. They said you've done nothing illegal, we're not pursuing a criminal investigation. These are just courtesies we're offering other governments. We had one with the Brits and one with the Japanese that brought them to our door.

You had no other interaction with, say, Homeland Security?
Young: The other was when we started our eyeball series of publishing photos. That brought one visit and one phone call. But again, they were polite and said there's nothing illegal about this. They never used a negative term. They just said the issue has been raised with us.

And by the way, I did a FOIA trying to get records of these visits, but I could never find anything. I did get business cards, though, and I asked for ID. They were very polite and gave me business cards and I published all that. They asked me not to publish their names. But what the hell, Declan, what else do I have to go with?

So if you've been publishing sensitive government information for so long, why have you not had the same encounters that Wikileaks has had? [Ed. Note: Wikileaks has claimed its representatives have been harassed by U.S. government agents.]

I don't think they've had any encounters. That's bogus. But that's okay. I know a lot of people who talk about how the government's after them. It's a fairly well-worn path. You know it from your own field. It remains to be seen whether any of this stuff holds up or not.

One of the tests is: unless you go to jail, it's all bogus. When I go to jail, you'll say he actually did it, finally. He came up with something that offended someone. So far that hasn't happened, no indictments or anything. These polite visits are the closest I've come.

Professionals are going to have nothing to do with Wikileaks, as you probably know if you check around. People who know security will not have anything to do with Wikileaks. But the public will.

Wikileaks pledges to maintain the confidentiality of sources and stressed that in the presentation over the weekend. Do you offer your contributors the same guarantee?
Young: No. That's just a pitch. You cannot provide any security over the Internet, much less any other form of communication. We actually post periodically warnings not to trust our site. Don't believe us. We offer no protection. You're strictly on your own.

We also say don't trust anyone who offers you protection, whether it's the U.S. government or anybody else. That's a story they put out. It's repeated to people who are a little nervous. They think they can always find someone to protect them. No, you can't. You've got to protect yourself. You know where I learned that? From the cypherpunks.

So Wikileaks cannot protect people. It's so leaky. It's unbelievable how leaky it is as far as security goes. But they do have a lot of smoke blowing on their site. Page after page after page about how they're going to protect you.

And I say, oh-oh. That's over-promising. The very over-promising is an indication that it doesn't work. And we know that from watching the field of intelligence and how governments operate. When they over-promise, you know they're hiding something. People who are really trustworthy do not go around broadcasting how trustworthy I am.

It sounds like you've become more critical of Wikileaks over time.
Young: It's not just them. It's also that they're behaving like untrustworthy organizations. So yes, if the shoe fits, fine.

I don't want to limit this to Wikileaks, but yes, they're acting like a cult. They're acting like a religion. They're acting like a government. They're acting like a bunch of spies. They're hiding their identity. They don't account for the money. They promise all sorts of good things. They seldom let you know what they're really up to. They have rituals and all sorts of wonderful stuff. So I admire them for their showmanship and their entertainment value. But I certainly would not trust them with information if it had any value, or if it put me at risk or anyone that I cared about at risk.

Nevertheless, it's a fascinating development that's come along, to monetize this kind of thing. That's what they're up to. You start with free samples.

You've been trying to follow some of Wikileaks' money flows. You contacted the German charity and posted their response. They said they're going to have some information to you perhaps in early August. Does that make you feel any better about the money trail?
Young: No. To clarify, they're going to publish it on their Web site. They said, "you could mirror it or point to it." So it's not just for me.

But it's only a tiny sliver of what Wikileaks claims it's raised. whether Wikileaks has raised a million dollars as they've claimed, or whether they're trying to prime the pump, I don't know. (German charity) Wal Holland has only handled a very tiny amount of this, and they've said that, "We know nothing about the rest."

I notice that Wikileaks is touting the revelation that's going to come. But it doesn't fit the claims that Wikileaks is making about how much it's raised. There's nothing wrong with that. People exaggerate all the time for effect. So back to why I admire Wikileaks: they've got chutzpah.

What do you think of Wikileaks' spat with Adrian Lamo? You've been publishing some of the correspondence.
Young: None of the stuff that Lamo has made available has been verified. Early on, I said chat logs can be forged, you can make this stuff up. So far there's nothing of substance here. It's a story that's being played. I'm not seeing any credible information that this story has any substance at all other than as a story.

It's being treated almost as if there's something of substance here because the chat logs have come out. But I've not seen any verification. And chat logs are notoriously (easy to) forge by authorities and other people, as with other digital stuff. So I don't know whether there's anything to this or not. But I'm following it because it's kind of a test of how gullible people can be with a good story. And all frauds work that way.

And I think Wikileaks is wary too. I think they're not sure that anything's actually happened here or if they're not being sucked into a trap.

The kind of sacred character of these chat logs is weird. I don't know why anyone believes these have any genuine quality at all, just because Lamo allegedly handed them over.

I saw the two e-mail messages that you sent to Adrian Lamo. Have you received a response to your questions? [Ed. Note: Lamo, an ex-hacker, says he tipped off authorities that Manning was leaking classified information.]
Young: Not yet, no. I don't know if I will. But those are questions I would have liked to have asked at (Sunday afternoon's) panel. Except there was no time.

There's lots of interesting things going on if this is a genuine investigation. And since Lamo said (he would be) transparent so everyone would know what was happening, well, I happen to believe the whole legal thing should be transparent too. That was the basis of my questions.

If you want to get transparent, really get transparent. And don't let the feds tell you what you can and cannot do. There are some interesting issues here because the feds don't want this stuff to become public and yet they haven't kept him from talking. So let's see how far he goes. We'd all like to know more about how this is actually working.

There was suspicion from day one that this was entrapment run by someone unknown to suck a number of people into a trap. So we actually don't know. But it's certainly a standard counterintelligence technique. And they're usually pretty elaborate and pretty carefully run. They'll even prosecute people as part of the cover story. That actually was talked about at (Sunday's) panel. They'll try to conceal who was informing and betraying others by pretending to prosecute them.

How do you expect this affair to resolve itself? Do you expect Manning to be sentenced to a significant prison term?
Young: I don't think so. Based on what I have seen so far, and these so-called State Department cables, as someone said on (Sunday's) panel, does anyone know if they actually exist? The answer is no. Nobody knows if these exist or not. The videos are not terribly incriminating. The cables seem to be what's being plumped as a crucial thing, but we don't know if they exist or not.

 

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