[iw] - The Rise of Private Spies

Richard Forno rforno at infowarrior.org
Mon May 10 12:40:24 EDT 2021

The Rise of Private Spies
Charlie Savage/May 10, 2021

What happens when online investigators and detectives-for-hire take on intelligence work?

As WikiLeaks was riding to global fame a decade ago by publishing archives of leaked American military and diplomatic files, its founder, Julian Assange, liked to call his organization an “intelligence agency of the people.” The slogan conjured an ideal of gathering and disseminating information solely to improve public understanding of the world and to enable democracy to better function, without the presumed machinations of a nation-state spy agency. But by 2016, WikiLeaks had famously been co-opted by Russia’s GRU. Through a front entity, the Russian intelligence agency provided WikiLeaks with Democratic Party emails, stolen as part of a covert hack-and-dump operation intended to manipulate the U.S. presidential election. Assange then stoked the conspiracy theory—apparently concocted by another Russian intelligence agency—that the emails had instead been leaked by a Democratic Party staffer, Seth Rich, who had been murdered in July that year. In fact, as the Mueller report showed, WikiLeaks had corresponded with and received an encrypted file from the actual source of the hacked emails after Rich’s death.

I kept thinking about the big questions raised by the complex tragedy of WikiLeaks’ idealistic rise and later debasement—what label to attach to its various activities as it changed over time, and how difficult it proved for it to stay out of entanglement with nation-state spy games—as I read two new books about other intelligence-style activities being performed outside of government.

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