Some more material and a few shreds of thought on the story and the hacker himself…
The other day Pando.com of San Francisco published my big feature on the Romanian hacker Guccifer, real name Marcel Lazar-Lehel. He is a fascinating character and a totally atypical hacker. This was a wonderful assignment. People seem to have liked it too, as it held the front page of the US edition of the Huffington Post for two days.
He hacked politicians and military brass, bureaucrats and executives, spies and diplomats, rich and powerful, actresses, footballers, singers – and sometimes their families and friends. In a twisted and inconsistent way he sought poetic justice against the NSA policies of mass surveillance, becoming a “vigilante of the Internet,” as his prosecutor Viorel Badea called him.
Anastasia Ciupac and I took these pictures of the penitentiary and of the village of Sambateni (see below). I think they evoke the hacker’s hopeless condition, his superstitions, and his misguided ambition to overcome his rural surroundings. Both his wife and him are spiritual but not necessarily in a Christian way. Many people from these parts hold faith in witchcraft, scarcely-defined divinity, astrology, the magic power of priests and combined forms of supernatural, mythology and folklore.
When I arrived at the prison where he’s held the guard on duty took my Romanian ID card and asked pointedly “why are you here? What are you to him? Relative, friend, acquaintance… what?” I said I may be an acquaintance: I was writing an article about him in a magazine. He said “well, now, you’re seeing him as a plain visitor, not a journalist, so you can’t have any pens and notebooks with you at all.” I was only allowed to take in a copy of his US indictment and the guards upstairs gave me a pen to write with.
The jail’s hallways smelled of chlorine and the meeting room smelled musty and stale. There was something odd about the smells I encountered on this trip. They seemed to carry meanings beyond themselves.
When meeting the prosecutor, the interview took place in the grand, while marble Ministry of Justice building with 4m-high solid wood doors and windows up to the ceiling, overlooking the even grander People’s Palace of Bucharest, Romania. The world’s second largest building by volume displacement, second to the Pentagon, is situated in the bullseye of the city centre.
Viorel Badea is a prosecutor in the Directorate for Organised Crime and Terrorism (DIICOT), cybercrime unit, Bucharest, and Violeta Fotache, who also took part, is a former journo turned communicator for the aforementioned department.
I woke up hungover at 11am on Monday October 13th in Sinaia, Romania, some 70 miles from Bucharest and before I brushed my teeth I called DIICOT (what was the third call in the past five days) to establish if Mr Badea has decided on a time. Fotache told me she had written me an email on Friday asking me to be in Bucharest Monday 2pm for the meeting with Badea. That was in three hours and I was half-drunk in my underwear in the mountains 110 km away. I had completely missed the Friday email.
I asked my father to call Nicu Preda, the oldest, quickest and meanest taxi driver in town, who is known for driving very fast safely, and paid him about £50 to drive me there and back, which in sterling money terms isn’t bad. He picked me up at 12:20. He drove like a racing pilot, averaging 70 miles per hour outside localities. He was never overtaken, which to me at least meant that we were the fastest on that stretch of road whilst we rode it. No motorway was used and most of the road was plain single carriageway; we spent about a half hour driving through a jam on Calea Victoriei leading us to the People’s Palace.
We got there at three minutes to two pm. The barriered parking lot was full of chauffeur-driven European luxury cars, with earpiece-wearing, suited and booted drivers waiting and reading inside the vehicles.
I drank water from the guard’s red mug in the waiting hall, decorated with greek-style marble columns and a 3 metre high golden statue of lady justice, before Fotache came down to meet me. I had made it in the nick of time.
I met a young, smiling and eager prosecutor five minutes later on a higher floor of the building and we started our three-way conversation immediately. He comes across as a little cocky – he wears a modern tailored black suit with white shirt, tie loosened and top button unbuttoned. DIICOT is a coveted section of the Romanian legal sector and the 37 year-old prosecutor has been basking in the attentions of international press for a case he bagged with a straight confession from Lehel in just two weeks.
Mrs Fotache, somewhat older and with much more experience of media and power, comes across as calculating, cunning and restrained, as high-profile PRs usually do. She wears comfortable, autumn-coloured clothes and colourful makeup behind the slightly lowered golden spectacles. She smiles faintly from time to time and weighs her words much more carefully that Badea. She wears ballerina shoes and a scarf on her shoulders. Her dress betrays no glamour or arrogance of character although she acts as though she is reading both mine and Badea’s minds at the same time. Because of this, I felt subtly patronised by her.
Fotache did not deal with Guccifer’s case first hand and she seemed to be there solely to ensure the outspoken prosecutor didn’t say anything that would jeopardise his career or embarrass the Ministry. She reigned him in on several occasions.
Viorel and Violeta spoke in concert at times and finished each other’s sentences – which proved a challenge for the transcription. Occasionally I interrupted them in order to keep the conversation on topic. It was relaxed, informal and loud, as a good Romanian conversation should be.
When she led me out the building after the interview, she said she switched press for government PR out of a sense of duty and that she is bound by a very restrictive secrecy agreement as she also has partial access to files. She feels proud in her work and secure in her experience, but doesn’t enjoy the art of writing too much. She detects an error in my Romanian speech (the vernacular mi-ar place instead of the correct mi-ar placea) but admonishes me only with her eyes and a flick of displeasure in her lips. She also reminds me of ethical norms.
On the way out we met her boss, a young woman about my age (~26), smartly dressed, with two-piece suit – jacket, skirt – and high heels, who shows little interest in our business. She trails off to a meeting after a brief introduction. She remarks that Viorel Badea likes media attention.
Guccifer is a relic of the wild days of the truly open internet – when somebody who lives an 18th Century way of life in rural Romania was on equal footing with the most powerful people in the world, like Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton or G. W. Bush.
Unfortunately he has paid a dear price for the fame he so desired, and he has sacrificed the happiness of his family. He realises he is in for a world of pain but I don’t think he knows what life is like in federal prison in the USA otherwise he wouldn’t be so keen to go there. I think he may find that Romanian prison is mild by comparison and once there, that his hope he would somehow be employed by the USGov was vain.
The world may seem a very scary place indeed to someone who grew up in the hardship and oppression of Communist Romania and still lives in a village where sewage and hot water can still be considered a luxury. Conspiracy theories are modern day folk tales, a way for superstitious commoners to make sense of the world and their role in it by assigning supernatural attributes to their rulers. I doubt, having known him, that Guccifer believes these stories in his heart of hearts but having lost everything else he now has little choice than playing the game he has locked himself into. I believe he is animated by hubris and bigotry.
He is brave and, as the prosecutor said, a natural investigator. He may yet change ways and try to get himself some slack from the system to shorten his sentence. As it is now he is an unrepenting criminal, but Romanian law tends to be on the permissive side for electronic crime. He is in effect now serving two sentences, having breached the terms of his three-year suspension for Micul Fum’s crimes when he started as Guccifer.
Finally, and this can’t be stressed enough, there is no public interest at all in what Guccifer did, and the sheer scale of his crimes – huge, hundreds of victims – is the best counterargument to anyone calling him a hero.
His horrible disregard for people’s private lives, dozens of people who I suspect don’t even know they were hacked and whom by no stretch of the imagination can be called world dominators have pictures of their children, spouses, houses, and all their personal and contact information published in the Guccifer archive. As a journalist I had to go through it and it turned my stomach.
Frankly, it’s an outrage that this thing is still available, on Google servers, no less, last time I checked…
These people never pressed charges, people all over the world, not just Romania and the US, regular people whose lives he went through in the most barbaric and self-entitled way… and that is why the sentence is so long. The judges saw his so-called work.
To see people use the article I wrote to attack Hillary Clinton is quite disturbing and not what I was hoping to achieve. She and all the others are victims here. It’s no crime to use free commercial email, and there were no secrets shared in the private communications Guccifer stole. Every bit of Gov-related information that’s in there could have been learnt from the news or press.
The story was first commissioned by a big magazine who then spiked it because I didn’t write Guccifer as a cartoon villain or a victimised anti-hero of sorts. They wanted more simplicity and drama but I refused and went to Pando because people need to see Guccifer’s human side; that is what makes a good story.
He deserves clemency, it’s the Christian thing, of course, but he also deserves his punishment. It is up to him to repent and engage with the justice system, take classes, rehabilitate and get out sooner. The Romanian penal system is progressive in that regard. It’s unfortunate that he put himself in a position where he has to serve the same sentence as violent criminals, but this is due to the scale of his criminal activity.
Guccifer has likely devastated lives, but unlike violent offenders for him there is hope if he chooses to change his ways and go straight.
He shows no intention of doing so though, so there you have it.
The terms of his sentence don’t explicitly ban Guccifer from using the Internet.
UPDATE – April 2nd 2015: reading the news recently I have come to the conclusion that my evaluation of Guccifer’s hacks “not revealing anything in the public interest” isn’t strictly true. In fact Pro Publica and Gawker (both American) say that the very use by Clinton of a privately-held email address during her time in State Department office (first exposed by Guccifer) as well as having relied on an informal network of information-gathering in the Maghreb might have gone against guidelines for public officials of the US Government. Being UK-based and never having crossed ‘the pond’ I didn’t know American politicians were held to such strict rules. Links here and here.
UPDATE2 – May 23rd 2015: it dawned on me why it is so important nowadays to include smell and touch in reportage. With telemetric devices enabling sight and sound to be experienced from anywhere in the world, it is the senses of smell, touch and taste that put somebody undeniably at the scene of an event. Writing finds new added value in being able to convey to readers what it is to actually be somewhere and live something with all the five senses. You can’t stream that.