In this month’s installation of Heliograph: The Investigative Journalism Playbook, we speak with Hannes Munzinger, the lead reporter on a Der Spiegel investigation on the leaked Vulkan files. Among the contents of the leak were emails and documents that spanned from 2016 to 2021, unveiling Vladimir Putin’s secret plans for cyber warfare.
Seven. Four. Four. Five. Five.
These were the numbers that investigative journalist Hannes Munzinger saw on documents leaked by an anonymous source about a Russian IT company called NTC Vulkan. The five-digit number identified the military unit Sandworm, one of the most notorious hacking groups in the world.
“When I saw those numbers, I was immediately like, that could be something big,” says Munzinger. “The source said this [NTC Vulkan] is basically a front and the Russian intelligence services hide behind it.”
Paper Trail Media published a redacted version of the Sandworm document here:
The Vulkan Files refers to the series of leaked emails and other documents that reveal the involvement of NTC Vulkan, a Russian IT company, in activities such as cybercrime, meddling in foreign political affairs such as the 2016 United States presidential election, domestic social media censorship, and espionage. The international investigation was led by Der Spiegel and Paper Trail Media.
Munzinger was part of a team of 22 journalists, experts, and researchers that analyzed more than 5,000 pages of leaked documents from NTC Vulkan. These included project plans, instructions and internal emails from Vulkan from the years 2016 to 2021.
They were leaked by an anonymous source in a complex format that took more than a year to properly translate, examine, and verify, says Munzinger.
Working with people who are reliable and trustworthy was key, he says. Having worked on a number of large collaborative projects like this one, Munzinger says a crucial element is maintaining communication.
“Get people moving by sharing your own findings. That’s what has worked in the past a lot and creates this fever to find more.”
The documents that the team had to analyze posed two major challenges: they came from an anonymous source, and they were all written in Russian.
“That’s always difficult because you can’t say too much about the source,” says Munzinger. “And in the case of someone spilling the beans on Russian intelligence, that’s the most important part of the investigation.”
When it came to translating, initially the team tried automated services. But reporters later enlisted the help of translators, Russian-speaking journalists, experts and researchers to help contextualize the information.
“It was very important that we had colleagues who were able to read in Russian and even colleagues with a security background…who know how these intelligence services work,” says Munzinger.
Beyond the Story
Munzinger’s advice for such complicated investigative work: surround yourself with a good team, and difficult tasks won’t feel as daunting.
“What stays with me is that it’s okay to be overwhelmed at times,” says Munzinger. “It’s key to collaborate with people that bring all these different powers with them – things you just can’t do alone.”
Another lesson: cultivating sources, anonymous and otherwise, starts with being visible, even as a young journalist.
“Just get your name out, focus on a specific topic, and then go talk to people. Talk to people wherever you can. Go to conferences and really get into the beat you work on, and then these people will start coming to you.”
Heliograph is a monthly podcast from the Investigative Journalism Bureau examining powerful investigative work by reporters from across the globe.
Heliograph Chapter 2: The Vulkan Files – Heliograph: The Investigative Journalism Playbook
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