The man behind the world’s most dangerous website
John L. Young asks that question a lot. When he poses it to me, leveling his intense, glassy blue eyes at mine across a barroom table on a muggy evening in late May, it is less a direct attack on my credibility than a cruel epistemological riddle. Over the previous week, I had exchanged e-mails and spoken on the telephone with Young, a 71-year-old architect, spy buff, and proprietor of a strange and engrossing website called Cryptome, to set up an interview. In doing so, I supplied him with certain data: my name [John Cook], occupation [reporter], employer [Radar magazine], location [216 E. 45th St.], e-mail address [redacted], telephone number [redacted]. Young craves data. He covets it, collects it, triangulates it, and uploads it to Cryptome—an online repository of forbidden information—where it collides with more data, gig after gig sloshing around in chaotic digital clouds. There are high-resolution satellite photos of President Bush’s Crawford ranch, technical documents detailing how the National Security Agency spies on computer traffic, even the home addresses and telephone numbers of government officials, including former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte.
But Young knows that raw data is suspect. Before it is loosed on the Internet, scrubbed, cross-referenced, and interrogated by the hive mind for inconsistencies and cracks, it can be used to deceive. People lie. Misinformation is everywhere. People will use you; they will try to get you to believe things that aren’t true in order to advance their own agendas. It is, as Young likes to say, “standard tradecraft.” I could hand him a business card, show him a magazine, look him firmly and earnestly in the eye, and swear up and down that I am who I say I am. “But,” he’ll reply with a caustic smile, “that’s how liars talk.”
There is no way out of this for John Young. He has a very good reason to suspect me, but he has good reasons to suspect everyone. Inquisitive reporters could have ulterior motives. Even the most casual of social interactions could be an attempt to shake him down for information. Every smiling stranger could be a Trojan horse; each friendly e-mail the beginning of a sting. It must be exhausting.
Cryptome is, in the words of washingtonpost.com columnist and NBC News military analyst William Arkin, “the Google of national security.” It is a meticulously maintained online compendium of information—some previously available to the public, some not—devoted to plumbing and exposing the secrets of the intelligence world. With a clean, crisp design, it presents, in no discernible order, simple red links to documents and text files against a white background. Much of the material Young collects is stultifyingly dull—”RFC Keyed-Hash Message Authentication Code” will take the reader to an announcement in the Federal Register concerning a “mechanism for message authentication using cryptographic hash functions and shared secret keys” from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, for ?instance—but some of it is dangerous and even breathtaking.
During the past few years, Young has published detailed overhead satellite imagery of Site R, a military installation in Pennsylvania that he claims is Vice President Dick Cheney’s undisclosed location. Hours after the FBI announced charges in June against four men for plotting to blow up jet-fuel tanks at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Cryptome ran photos of the airport tank farms, pointing out the exact route of a jet-fuel pipeline buried beneath nearby residential neighborhoods. He regularly publishes satellite photos of the homes of intelligence officials, including CIA Director Michael Hayden’s Washington, D.C., residence. He has exposed the names of what he claims are 276 British agents covertly working for MI6, the names of 400 secret Japanese intelligence agents, and the names and home addresses of what he claims are 2,619 CIA sources.
Young is a mad scientist of secrecy, working with little more than monomaniacal focus and an Internet connection to turn the tables on the spooks and expose what he regards as a worldwide criminal network of intelligence operatives. And the spies don’t like it. After he posted the MI6 list in 1999, the British government reportedly asked his Internet service provider at the time to shut the site down. The company refused, but in May of this year, his hosting service suddenly, without explanation, announced that it would no longer have anything to do with the site. (Young promptly relocated to another service.) He says he has received three visits to his home from the FBI, including one from a pair of agents with the Joint Terrorism Task Force. Young’s enemies have tried to shut the site down with denial-of-service attacks. Officials at the National Security Agency read his site with interest, and everyone wants to know where he gets his information.
So why should he believe me? As it turns out, I am not the first reporter from Radar to interview Young. Anthony Haden-Guest, a British writer who splits his time between New York and London and is known as a garrulous, debonair, and well-traveled tippler, approached Young and spoke with him at length one year ago for a Radar story that never materialized. Young finds this curious. He doesn’t understand why Radar is so interested in Cryptome. “It doesn’t seem to be the kind of story that Radar would run,” he says. “You do this interesting, catty stuff. We don’t do that. Radar is almost the antithesis of what we do.” (Though he runs his site independently, Young says “we” to give credit to his sources, without whom he says Cryptome wouldn’t exist.) He watches me, gauging my reaction. He thinks there’s a story here, but it’s not about him. It’s about something else entirely. “People eat your stuff up,” he says. “Congratulations on your success. The thing is, I’d like them to eat something more toxic.”