It’s like a Hollywood thriller. A military spy is arrested, betrayed by someone he thought to be a comrade in arms — a brilliant yet mentally unstable hacker. A journalist is on the run, hunted by the authorities who want to know what he knows. All we need is to add a love interest and get Matt Damon attached, and I think we can get this greenlit. (When I get through with this blog post I’m going to have my agent call Spielberg and set up a lunch.)
But first, the back story.
Last April whistle-blower site WikiLeaks published a disturbing video of a 2007 US military attack in Baghdad in which a dozen civilians were killed. It also published a confidential DoD report that enumerated several ways US intelligence agents could put WikiLeaks out of business, which I wrote about here last March. That report discussed the possibility of the WikiLeaks source being an employee of the US military. Turns out it was right.
Those documents, as well as some potentially far more serious ones, appear to have come from a single source: US Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, who was arrested earlier this month for espionage and is being held right now in a Kuwait prison.
We know this thanks to Wired News’ Kim Zetter and Kevin Poulson, who reported on Manning’s identity last week. Thanks to Wired we also know who turned Manning in: legendary hacker Adrian Lamo.
Lamo became famous for breaking into the New York Times’ network back in 2002. (He also broke into Yahoo News and posted fake stories there.) He got caught and cut a deal with the Feds to avoid doing time. Last month, Wired revealed that Lamo has Asberger’s Syndrome, which would account for his extraordinary hacking abilities and apparent lack of social skills, and which may have played a role in how he acted here.
Needing someone to talk to (or maybe just wanting to brag), Manning approached Lamo a few weeks ago, thinking he had found a kindred spirit. After Manning told Lamo he’d stolen 260,000 confidential State Department cables and sent them to WikiLeaks, Lamo contacted the authorities. He then spent more time chatting with Manning online, trying to draw information out of him at the request of the Feds.
Now Lamo is receiving death threats (and a lot of media attention) for revealing a source, even though he’s not a reporter. His reason? He felt Manning posed a serious threat to US security.
WikiLeaks spokes-human Julian Assange has canceled several public appearances in the US, fearing that he will be detained. (I think he’s probably right.) But he’s also using this incident to raise funds for the struggling organization. Yesterday he sent out an email that read in part:
WikiLeaks a small organization going through enormous growth and operating in an adverserial, [sic] high-security environment which can make communication time consuming and the acquisition of new staff and volunteers, also difficult since they require high levels of trust.
To try and deal with our growth and the current difficult situation, we want to get you to work together with our other supporters to set up a "Friends of WikiLeaks" group in your area. We have multiple supporters in most countries and would like to see them be a strong and independent force.
This episode raises all kinds of questions, none of which have very clear, satisfying answers.
Is Manning a true whistleblower or an ordinary spy? Is he closer to Daniel Ellsberg or to the Falcon and the Snowman’s Christopher TK? It seems from this vantage point he started out as Ellsberg and ended up more like TK.
Does Julian Assange have those 260K cables Manning claimed to have sent him? So far Assange has only issued some vague denials via Twitter. Can he please stop being so damned coy about it and just tell us?
Was Adrian Lamo right in flipping on Manning? Did his Asberger’s play a part in that?
Was Wired right in revealing the alleged source of these leaks? Journalists are supposed to protect the confidentiality of sources. Though Manning was not one of its own sources, Lamo was. Apparently he and former-hacker-turned-reporter Poulsen are friends. Did Lamo understand that he was putting himself in jeopardy by talking to Poulsen and not securing an agreement to keep his identity secret? Did Poulsen take advantage of Lamo’s condition to get him to reveal this information?
It’s a hot sticky mess any way you look at it. And once again WikiLeaks and how it operates are called into question.
As I’ve said before: In an age where news gathering organizations are either being pared to the bone or sucked into the maw of corporate conglomerates, WikiLeaks serves an extremely useful purpose. It’s a cheap, easily accessible, hard-to-squelch outlet for news that powerful people don’t want you to hear.
But it’s also ripe for manipulation. And the material it handles on a daily basis requires the ultimate in editorial judgment and discretion, something we have not always seen from WikiLeaks. If Assange had 260K confidential cables in his possession, and some of those cables would put US operatives in mortal peril, would he withhold that info? That’s a question only WikiLeaks and Assange can answer. And so far, he isn’t talking.
Hopefully we’ll get answers to at least some of these questions, before Hollywood steps in and sugar coats everything.
UPDATE: After this post originally appeared, I got an email from Adrian Lamo. Here it is in full, reprinted with his permission:
You have a number of questions that could be answered by contacting me. I politely request that you consider doing so via my publicly-available contact details in the future – and if you did & I was somehow unreachable, I retract this & apologize.
I would suggest that Manning is neither a whistleblower nor a spy (although he may be guilty of espionage, which is a different animal in some circles.) I was aware that KLP had little interest in keeping my identity secret.
Whether I was right is not for me to globally judge (though I believe I did the right thing, which is also a different animal. Yes, I’m splitting that hair mighty thin.)
Poulsen knows I’ve been around the block a couple dozen times, and I’ve been a bona-fide confidential source, albeit never for Poulsen. I don’t feel taken advantage of. If I was pressured, it was up to me to exercise my right & ability to resist.
I object to your characterization of Asperger’s as a "disability" – it’s more-often described as a "syndrome" or "condition" in psychiatric circles, and in a less pejorative fashion to boot.
I know Poulsen isn’t my friend. We don’t socialize. We don’t go clubbing. He’s the most highly ethical journalist I know. If I were unaware that he considers me a source, not a friend, I’d be taken advantage of. I am however quite aware of this.
The government – and this is important – never asked me to be a source for them in the Manning case, in terms of eliciting information in furtherance of prosecution. This request would be improper, and I would decline in the interests of justice.
Consider it done. Also, to clarify: It would be great to be able to reach everyone I blog about here before I write about them. I agree that’s a better way to go. And if I did that, I might manage to post one a week, maybe. Because this blog is mostly opinion mixed with snark, not straight reporting, I usually don’t attempt to contact sources first; in this case, I did not attempt to reach Lamo, with whom I have corresponded in the past. In hindsight that probably would have been a better idea.
What do you think? Who’s the hero, who’s evil, and who will play them in the movie? Weigh in below or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This post originally appeared on InfoWorld.
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne courtesy of anomalous material.