Spies in WikipediaFrom Computerra magazine
Author: Kiwi Bird
Published on 26 September 2007
Translated from Russian
In September of this year, the milestone of two million articles on the English-language version of Wikipedia represents an impressive success for the global Internet community. This is a grand and, most importantly, freely-available source of information about almost everything in the world.
However, if Wikipedia reflects the real world as it is, and given that modern society includes a high level of activity on the part of secret agents, it would be surprising if such agents ignored the ever-popular "People's Encyclopedia." And they have not ignored Wikipedia, but have tried to spin articles for particular purposes. This ranges from varnishing the image of political leaders, to the use of disinformation and cover for covert operations.
The interest of special agents and agencies in influencing Wikipedia should not surprise anyone; it is simply a daily part of their official duties. The scale and efficiency of their efforts on Wikipedia are not surprising, but they stun untrained observers. At the same time, they reveal to the mass media how international policy is pursued, and what stands behind the war against global terrorism.
Google and other search engines have given Wikipedia articles high rankings, often placing them at the top of the listings. It should be remembered that the contents of these articles have already influenced those who are not adept at pursuing objectivity.
American professor Ludwig De Braeckeleer is a nuclear physicist by profession, who also researches government abuses of power and human rights issues. He has been interested in the Lockerbie disaster for a long time. Curious details still surface today about the bombing in 1988 of a Boeing 747 over Scotland, which killed 270 people. As more evidence emerged, those who were following the case noticed that the intelligence services of several nations were implicated.
De Braeckeleer also stumbled across something strange while searching the web to prepare an article about Lockerbie. He wanted a source for information about the infiltration of PFLP by the Israeli security agency Shin Bet. (The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command was an early suspect in the Lockerbie case.) He consulted Wikipedia, where he knew the Shin Bet connection had once been noted, but there was no longer any trace of that information in Wikipedia. The article itself (on Operation Entebbe) had been blocked from editing. It is not unusual for disputed articles to be protected from editing for certain periods. But normally this still allows access to previous versions of the article, as is the case when vandalism is reverted, for example. However, this time it was impossible to recover the information. [De Braeckeleer reads better in the original English -ed]
For someone seeking the truth as meticulously as De Braeckeleer, this was a red flag signaling that something was not right. The scientist began to analyze Wikipedia and its articles on the Lockerbie case and the tragic flight of Pan Am 103. This included the unjust, to say the least, trial of Libyan Megrahi, who categorically denied his guilt and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Despite Wikipedia's professed "neutral point of view," all of its articles on the subject were clearly biased toward the official viewpoint of the authorities. In trying to determine who could be manipulating the facts, De Braeckeleer came across a Wikipedia editor who used the pseudonym "SlimVirgin."
Many Wikipedia editors and administrators prefer to hide behind screen names, and sometimes it is not difficult to discover their real names. But this was not the case with SlimVirgin. This woman (her gender has not been questioned) first appeared in Wikipedia in the Fall of 2004, and since then has skillfully concealed her identity and whereabouts. But she is not famous for that. She quickly understood the methods of successful Wikipedia combat (learn the formal rules, and loudly accuse opponents of violating the rules, so that an administrator can ban the opponent from the debate). SlimVirgin began vigorously editing articles within the scope of her interests. Among the first, it must be emphasized, were articles about Pan Am 103 and ABC News journalist Pierre Salinger, who had investigated the case. SlimVirgin's editorial work progressed so well, and she observed the rules so perfectly, that she gained the rank of administrator. This gave her the right to remove users from the debate and from editing.
Of course, this created enemies and detractors for SlimVirgin, including those who had been banned by her from participating in the establishment of a "People's Encyclopedia." For example, a poll in the famous forum Wikipedia Review awarded SlimVirgin the dubious title of "most abusive administrator." At the same time, the numbers increased among those who wanted to know the real identity of this cool and mysterious woman who was hiding behind the guise of a "lean virgin."
"A spectacular miscarriage of justice"
Many found the verdict of the Scottish judges, who decided that Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi had intentionally caused the death of 270 people, to be unconvincing and unfair. The international observer appointed by the United Nations, professor Hans Koechler, called the decision a "spectacular miscarriage of justice." He elaborated on the inconsistencies and questionable evidence against Megrahi.
The "Libyan connection" had been questioned from the beginning, and many demanded a new, independent investigation. However, all British prime ministers, including Thatcher, Major, and Blair, spared no effort to block such an investigation. Nevertheless, in 2005 a Scottish appeals court began a procedure for reviewing the case, and so far there is substantial information suggesting that U.S. and British intelligence agencies forged evidence against Libya in order to isolate that country. In particular, one of the key pieces of evidence in the case against Libya a fragment from a printed circuit board of a timer fuse was planted by CIA employees, according to the testimony of a Scottish policeman. And engineer Ulrich Lumpert, from the Swiss firm Mebo that produced timers ordered by the Libyan army, recently admitted that he secretly provided a counterfeit board at the request of American intelligence.
But if evidence of Libya's guilt was fabricated, then who blew up the plane? Immediately after the disaster, Pan American Airlines hired the detective firm Interfor, headed by Juval Aviv, a former Israeli-intelligence Mossad operative. Aviv quickly discovered that Pan Am flight 103 from Europe to America regularly carried heroin. This channel for Syrian traffickers was covered up by the CIA in exchange for intelligence on Palestinian militant groups in Syria. On the day of the disaster, everything went wrong: terrorists who knew about the channel replaced the suitcase containing drugs, which avoided security screening, with a suitcase containing explosives. This version of events was confirmed in 1990 by former Defense Intelligence Agency operative Lester Coleman, who described Syrian cooperation with U.S. intelligence services. After writing his book Trail of the Octopus, Coleman was under severe legal pressure from U.S. security services. He had to go into hiding and request asylum in Sweden, and became the first American political refugee since the Vietnam War.
Next came a massive Internet hunt for bits of information that could shed light on the mystery of SlimVirgin. The key role in her identification was played by American researcher Daniel Brandt, known for his site Wikipedia-Watch.org. He is also known for revelations about misinformation published in Wikipedia about the Kennedy assassination (the Seigenthaler case), as well as the identification of another administrator. This was a professor of theology with two doctorates named Essjay, who turned out to be an ambitious young imposter named Ryan Jordan. The story of the painstaking investigation of the SlimVirgin case would make a good chapter in a spy novel, but we will go to the end because it is more interesting.
The consistency and credibility of the collected evidence leaves no doubt that SlimVirgin is the screen name chosen by Linda Mack, now living in Canada under the name Sarah McEwan. In the 1980s she was a student in the philosophy department at Cambridge University. She participated as a journalist in the investigation of the Lockerbie attack, while playing an active role as an organizer of some close relatives of the victims. Due to a series of events, strong suspicions arose concerning Linda Mack's close links to the British security service MI5, causing her to disappear from sight for a long time. Years later she surfaced in the Canadian province of Alberta under the name Sarah McEwan. Her email address (email@example.com) was the same address that Cambridge showed for Linda Mack in its list of alumni.
The most important evidence was an involuntary confession by SlimVirgin that she was Linda Mack. In the early 1990s, American journalist John K. Cooley worked with Pierre Salinger at the London bureau of ABC News, and was involved with the investigation of Lockerbie. In his email to Brandt, he described how they hired an impressive and energetic Linda Mack, who was eager to investigate the bombing. But after a while it became clear that Linda was trying to push journalists toward the official version of the story that accused Libya. It wasn't long before a special unit of Scotland Yard raided ABC News and seized certain materials. Because only a few people knew about the seized material, Salinger realized that this was the work of Linda Mack, and he locked her out of her office. ABC's efforts to fight the seizure were unsuccessful in court. Daniel Brandt had already announced the identification of SlimVirgin as Linda Mack publicly, and she knew that he was about to ask John Cooley for information. She called Cooley as a former colleague and asked him not to speak to Brandt. But her request was late an email from Cooley to Brandt had already been sent.
These events occurred in Fall 2006. At that time almost no one was interested in the identification of SlimVirgin, except for regular visitors to the web forum Wikipedia Review. But at the end of July 2007, the above-mentioned professor Ludwig De Braeckeleer published his article "Wikipedia and the Intelligence Services" at the South Korean "civic journalism" site OhmyNews. He briefly recapped the key points about the "People's Encyclopedia." This article was picked up by the very popular forum Slashdot. Because of that, the OhmyNews article was read by 50,000 people in three days.
Reaction to leaks
Whenever the work of intelligence services is punctured, the most important information for analysis appears in the first days and hours after the event. Those who know something inadvertently reveal superfluous information, while those who are directly involved are either keeping silent, or refute everything through quick and flagrant misinformation. In the case of Linda Mack, it is impossible to determine who knew what in the upper echelon of Wikipedia, but their reaction fits all the characteristics of espionage leaks.
SlimVirgin slipped into a state of unconsciousness and has not shown any signs of life for thirty hours. This is very unusual, because she is known as an administrator with inhuman capacity for work. Over the past year, she edited nearly 35,000 articles (about 100 every day, without holidays and weekends). The same SlimVirgin also holds a record of continuous editorial work lasting 26 hours, with the longest break in editing not exceeding 40 minutes. These statistics from Wikipedia's editing records suggests either a supernatural ability, or more likely that SlimVirgin is a convenient smoke screen for an entire team of specialists editing Wikipedia articles on behalf of intelligence services.
The "god-king" of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, rushed to protect the honor and dignity of SlimVirgin, declaring the article by De Braeckeleer as "really spectacular nonsense." A bit later in a special message to readers of Slashdot, he stated:"This story is demented and broken on so many levels, it is quite difficult to know where to begin, even. Here we have an excellent Wikipedia administrator who has been victimized by lunatic conspiracy theorists, a private person who has absolutely no relation to the wild stories that this article promulgates. Slashdot, you have been trolled."But participants in the discussion were able to prove from the records of Wikipedia that certain administrators, contrary to their own rules, had completely removed editing evidence. Jimmy Wales had to admit that yes, this is sometimes done, but only to protect the identity of administrators or editors, who are often threatened with physical violence.
Wikipedia and its rules
Like any online community, Wikipedia follows certain rules of conduct. But because Wikipedia is a rather contradictory combination of normal encyclopedia, panel discussions, and role-fantasy games, the rules are intricate and ambiguous. For example, everyone knows the famous motto, "The encyclopedia that anyone can edit." But in fact, anyone who wants to fix or add something has to be liked by the administrator who is in charge of that topic.
According to basic rules of Wikipedia, the articles should reflect the "neutral point of view." However, some points of view are always more neutral than others. One's point of view (POV) should be supported by sources that are "verifiable" and "reliable" although "reliable" is a constant subject of fierce disputes. But there is a clear taboo against "original research," which are opinions that are not supported by recognized authority.
Editing and overall policy in Wikipedia is conducted on the basis of "consensus." In practice this means approximately the following: there can be only one successful editor who is able, through flattery or threats, to persuade the others. If someone wants to simply edit the encyclopedia, he or she will quickly come into conflict with more aggressive editors. That will end first with a temporary, and then a total ban on participation.
The highest level of the Wikipedia hierarchy is called The Cabal, or Clique. Becoming a member of the Clique means that one has unprecedented authority, including the right to ignore the rules. But to achieve such power, a person has to sell one's soul to the devil by renouncing one's own views, and accepting the viewpoint of the Clique. According to the head of Wikipedia, Jimbo Wales, The Cabal represents the power of "some shadowy mysterious elite group of us to do things that might not be possible for newbies."
from a satirical essay
The most curious reaction to the news of SlimVirgin's identity was demonstrated by the English-language media: apart from personal blogs and web forums, not a single word appeared in any of the major media! Previous scandals such the Seigenthaler case, exposing Essjay, and the WikiScanner program by Virgil Griffith, received wide coverage. But there was silence about SlimVirgin, comparable to the silence on classic themes such as UFOs and the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
This year such themes have been completely ignored by major media, even when new light is shed on these twentieth-century mysteries. First the famous E. Howard Hunt, who personally participated in many covert operations during the 1950s and 1960s, admitted before he died that the assassination of President Kennedy was organized by U.S. intelligence, in conjunction with the Mafia and top administration officials, headed by Vice-President Lyndon Johnson. Several months later a notarized deathbed confession by Walter Haut was published. In 1947 he was the public relations officer at the 509th Bomb Group based in Roswell, New Mexico. First he composed a press release about the crash of a flying disc, and soon followed with a new release about a weather balloon. For the rest of his life he gave evasive explanations of what was really found, but just before he died he dared to tell the truth. In the document he left behind, Walter Haut states that he not only saw the wrecked spacecraft, but also the bodies of aliens recovered from it. They had unusually large heads, and bodies the size of a ten-year-old child. It is clear that the deathbed confessions of people who participated in these extraordinary events deserve serious attention. But the major media ignored both of them.
Moreover, the sensational confession of E. Howard Hunt did not even get any space in Wikipedia's article on the assassination of John F. Kennedy (at least it is mentioned in the article on E. Howard Hunt). The confession of Walter Haut is reflected in the article about the Roswell incident, but it lacks a direct reference to the document published on the web. Thus, the conclusion: for important Wikipedia articles, the content is gradually approaching the official information available from traditional sources. It is more or less understandable who is behind this. Everyone must decide for himself or herself whether this is acceptable.
more data on SlimVirgin home page