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11.30.10

Moscow's Bid to Blow Up WikiLeaks

As U.S. officials struggle to control damage from the secret cables, Russia is planning to block a similar dump about the Kremlin. And they will be ruthless, Philip Shenon reports.

American intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, outraged by their inability to stop WikiLeaks and its release this week of hundreds of thousands of sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables, are convinced that the whistleblowing website is about to come up against an adversary that will stop at nothing to shut it down: the Russian government.

National-security officials say that the National Security Agency, the U.S. government’s eavesdropping agency, has already picked up tell-tale electronic evidence that WikiLeaks is under close surveillance by the Russian FSB, that country’s domestic spy network, out of fear in Moscow that WikiLeaks is prepared to release damaging personal information about Kremlin leaders.

“We may not have been able to stop WikiLeaks so far, and it’s been frustrating,” a U.S. law-enforcement official tells The Daily Beast. “The Russians play by different rules.” He said that if WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, follow through on threats to post highly embarrassing information about the Russian government and what is assumed to be massive corruption among its leaders, “the Russians will be ruthless in stopping WikiLeaks.”

A U.S. military official said the U.S. assumed that WikiLeaks had access to sources who could supply the site with detailed, damaging information about Russian leaders; those sources would likely include wealthy Russian expatriates who have had the resources over the years to conduct far-ranging private investigations of graft among Kremlin leaders, including their movement of assets outside Russia.

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Anatol Lieven, a professor at King’s College in London who specializes in Russian and military affairs, said he believed the Russians would be ready to consider aggressive cyberwarfare techniques to shut down WikiLeaks and its website, as well as violence and other threats against Russians who were believed to be informants. (American officials have said they have no direct evidence to suggest that Russia was behind the cyberattack that has shut down the WikiLeaks website since Sunday.)

“We may not have been able to stop WikiLeaks so far, and it’s been frustrating,” says a U.S. law-enforcement official. “The Russians play by different rules.”

9 Most Shocking WikiLeaks Secrets“I doubt that they would consider assassination against Westerners who are involved in WikiLeaks, but as for informants in Russia, they would be in very serious danger,” he said.

The London-based Russian billionaire and newspaper magnate Alexander Lebedev suggested that a government raid on the Moscow headquarters of his National Reserve Bank this month may have been a response to recent contacts between his Moscow newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, and WikiLeaks.

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Lebedev, who is outspoken in his criticism of government corruption in his homeland—which he has described as comparable to the “evils of apartheid” in South Africa—has acknowledged that one of his reporters recently traveled to Sweden to meet with Assange.

Assange has courted attacks from the Russian government, telling a reporter from the pro-government daily newspaper Izvestia last month that WikiLeaks had obtained damaging information “about Russia, about your government and businessmen” and “we will publish these materials soon.” Another WikiLeaks spokesman was quoted as describing the Russian government as “despotic.”

The trove of State Department documents made public this week by WikiLeaks includes several cables in which U.S. diplomats are critical of Russian leaders, describing President Dmitry Medvedev as “pale and hesitant,” serving as “Robin” to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s “Batman.” In another, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is quoted as saying that “Russian democracy has disappeared and the government is an oligarchy run by the security services.”

Lieven, a former journalist who reported extensively in the former Soviet Union, said the State Department cables had, it appeared, created no significant embarrassment for Russian leaders or for U.S.-Russian relations. “So far, what’s come out has not surprised or shocked anybody,” he said.

The alarm in Moscow, he said, would be over what comes next, especially if WikiLeaks has obtained bank records or other detailed evidence of corruption among Russian leaders—the sort of information that WikiLeaks and its supporters have said that the site is eager to obtain and publish.

The Russian government has so far dismissed the threat posed by WikiLeaks. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters this week that he was perplexed by the amount of interest shown in Assange—a “petty thief running around on the Internet.”

Russian intelligence agencies have suggested, none too subtly, that WikiLeaks could be destroyed through cyberwarfare methods if the whistleblowing site did begin to create trouble in Moscow.  Last month, the Russian news agency Life News quoted an official from the FSB’s Center for Information Security as saying that the government would be capable of organizing “the right team” to target WikiLeaks and “shut it down forever.”

Philip Shenon is an investigative reporter and bestselling author, based in Washington D.C. Almost all of his career was spent at The New York Times, where he was a reporter from 1981 until 2008. He is author of the bestselling The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation . He has reported from several warzones and was one of two reporters from The Times embedded with American ground troops during the invasion of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War.