He's been called a snitch, a traitor, even a war criminal. He's receiving death threats regularly. But Sunday Adrian Lamo took the stage at HOPE 2010 to defend his decisions, and then sat down with Gizmodo.
Former hacker, columnist, and security consultant Adrian Lamo is one of a cast of characters in the story of WikiLeaks, the controversial whistleblower site. WikiLeaks is most well known for Collateral Murder, a video based on a leaked Apache helicopter video which showed US forces killing various Iraqis, including two journalists.
In May, 22-year-old US Army Private First Class Bradley Manning contacted Lamo over IM, apparently out of the blue. Manning was looking for someone to confide in. According to Lamo, Manning went on to tell him that he leaked the Apache video, and that he'd also leaked 260,000 diplomatic cables. Lamo decided to turn him in, and then told the story to Kevin Poulsen of Wired. Wired reported on Manning's arrest and Lamo's involvement.
For many of WikiLeaks' supporters Lamo became persona non grata. WikiLeaks spokesman Jake Appelbaum used his Saturday keynote to request that the hacker community shun Lamo. His request was greeted with loud applause. Lamo was given the chance to defend himself on the same stage Sunday, and took it.
He told the audience that he, like Manning and WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange, had acted out of conscience. Lamo believed the cables were dangerous. "Holy fracken crap, there's 260,000 documents," he said, "Do you think you could look through those and make sure they wouldn't cause anybody's life to be lost?"
A fellow panelist ask whether if it had just been the video, and not the classified diplomatic cables, would Lamo have turned Manning in? "Absolutely not," Lamo replied. He called Manning his friend, and said that he wished he could have been a better friend to him. "I wish to hell that Bradley Manning had never said a word to me."
Later, speaking to Gizmodo, Lamo filled in details of his story. Lamo said Manning didn't necessarily have access to the materials he'd leaked as part of his job, Manning had "exceeded his authority," he'd hacked his way into classified data. Lamo said after Manning had told him about the cables he'd contacted Army Counterintelligence through an ex still involved with the military. He dropped the name of an ongoing counterintelligence program, and according to Lamo, the sensitivity of that name escalated the situation. After reporting Manning to Army Counterintelligence, Lamo continued to chat for 2-3 days with Manning online, while also telling Army officials about the files Manning claimed to have leaked.
Lamo doesn't like to say that he was deceptive to Manning in the days when he was both talking to the authorities and Manning. He prefers to say that during his daily chats he omitted telling Manning he had turned him in. "But it was an omission to not compromise what was at that point a potential criminal investigation," Lamo says. He also contacted Kevin Poulsen of Wired in that time, though he requested an embargo. After Manning was taken into custody he says Poulsen pressured him to let him run the story, and Lamo did.
Lamo says he never saw a classified cable, despite that being his purported reason for turning in Manning. But other information Manning passed along about ongoing classified operations led Lamo, and presumably the Army investigators, to conclude that the claim was credible.
Many have said that Lamo turned in Manning and then went to Poulsen for media attention. Lamo claims he turned Manning in as a matter of conscience, then went to Poulsen because he didn't feel safe with his Army contacts, he claimed he was afraid of being taken into custody himself. Only Adrian Lamo will know for sure why he allowed Manning to befriend him, and then turned him in to the authorities Manning was struggling against.
The days after became a firestorm of hacker drama, with WikiLeaks condemning not only Lamo but also Poulsen for reporting the event. "I was surprised by parts of the reaction... I didn't expect the raw vitriol, the hatred," says Lamo.
Somewhere in the back-and-forth Lamo decided to leak an excerpt of his chat logs with Manning to WikiLeaks. His reasons are murky, but he seemed to see it as some kind of test of their integrity. He claims this portion of the chat was later given by WikiLeaks to Xeni Jardin at Boing Boing. Jardin posted it, and within hours the story took an unexpected turn. (Gizmodo contacted Jardin for comment; Jardin declined to reveal her source or sources.) Boing Boing readers analyzed the logs and concluded that Manning was talking in parts about being either gay or transgendered. (The Boing Boing post has since been modified.) This was the first plausible reason anyone had given for Manning to choose Lamo to confide in; Lamo has a history of working on GLBT issues, rare in the sometimes homophobic hacker community.
Lamo won't confirm whether he and Manning discussed sexuality, but either way he sees it as no one's business. "Outing someone because they are part of a news story is a despicable act," he said. But if he was the source of the logs he may have been the determiner of that. "That was my bad," says Lamo, "I didn't give thought to whether (the logs) appear to speak to his sexual identity." The logs that appeared on Boing Boing were identical to what Lamo gave to the WikiLeaks site via their submission system. "Instead of leaking his confession the same way they'd leak any other leak, (WikiLeaks) elected to release them in a side-channel kind of way."
Like Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing, Lamo appears to have not noticed the parts of the logs that suggested Manning was struggling with queer issues as well as his conscience about the actions of his superiors. Presumably neither did WikiLeaks. Lamo says he doesn't regret sending Manning's confession to WikiLeaks. However he seems to have doubts. "In retrospect, reading it, there are portions I could have redacted that would have prevented that."
If Lamo is correct about WikiLeaks being the source of the leak to Boing Boing, it raises troubling questions. Wikileaks either didn't know or didn't care that the material suggests GLBT ties about Manning that might endanger him in prison. If they are unable or unwilling to take care on one high profile chat log about a man they have declared they support, how well will they do vetting the relevance and safety of the alleged 260,000 diplomatic cables they are said to possess?
To date WikiLeaks hasn't confirmed or denied having the cables, and hasn't posted anything apparently related. They haven't confirmed that Manning was their leaker, but Appelbaum announced WikiLeaks is trying to raise $200,000 for Manning's defense fund. Manning faces multiple charges and is still waiting for trial in prison, with the possibility of a 52-year sentence.
The Hackers on Planet Earth conference is an outsized 2600 meeting that happens every two years in New York. It's come a long way in its time, ideas of hacking expanding from software to hardware, society, food and even sex. Quinn Norton is reporting live throughout the weekend.
Illustration by Sam Spratt. Check out Sam's portfolio and become a fan of his Facebook Artist's Page.