Ex-hacker Lamo: No regrets over Bradley Manning

Onetime homeless hacker Adrian Lamo, who turned in the alleged Wiki-leaker, will talk about the case for first time with prosecutors today.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
5 min read

Adrian Lamo, the ex-hacker who became notorious for turning in alleged Wikileak-er Bradley Manning, says he has no regrets about his role in aiding the U.S. Army's criminal prosecution of the young soldier.

"Sometimes you need to consider the good of the many versus the good of the one," he told CNET in a recent interview. Lamo says he's scheduled to talk with prosecutors in Manning's case today for the first time and expects to be called as a witness in future proceedings.

In April, Manning was declared fit to stand trial on a series of criminal charges, including one that carries a possible death penalty, relating to transmitting classified material to WikiLeaks. After allegations of mistreatment by his jailers attracted widespread attention and criticism, not least some pointed queries from the Geneva-based U.N. special rapporteur on torture, Manning was transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Lamo, 30, is now positioning himself as a kind of patriotic hacker-for-hire who has publicly demonstrated his loyalty to the United States in no uncertain terms. In fact, he says, he's already been approached for a possible job.

Adrian Lamo
File photo: Adrian Lamo holds Wanted: Dead or Alive poster with his face on it that anonymously appeared at the HOPE hacker conference last summer Declan McCullagh/CNET

"I would love to, as a contractor, help the government take out some of the vectors that the hackers originating from China are using to gain access to our classified, to our sensitive systems," he says. "There's no need for a security clearance when it's not our government systems I'd be working on."

Obtaining a security clearance might, of course, prove to be a bit of a challenge: the so-called homeless hacker pleaded guilty in 2004 to federal felony charges stemming from his electronic intrusions into the New York Times' computer network.

Among the community of hackers who coalesce around events like Defcon, the Chaos Communication Congress, and HOPE, internecine spats, shifting alliances, and outsize personalities are nothing new. But by encouraging Manning to confide in him, and then turning the soldier in to military and civilian authorities, Lamo has become a uniquely polarizing figure.

Once a star of the first magnitude in the hacking underground, boasting of intrusions into networks owned by Yahoo, Microsoft, Excite@Home, and WorldCom, Lamo has now become the world's most hated hacker. Wanted posters with his photograph appeared at the HOPE conference in Manhattan last summer, an Adrian Lamo is a Snitch Facebook community has sprouted, and a blog has been created that does nothing but recount his use of psychoactive drugs. (Lamo was briefly institutionalized last year, and says he was just released from the hospital after another bout with pneumonia.)

Lamo insists that turning in the U.S. Army private was justified. Manning "essentially defected to a non-sovereign foreign actor," meaning WikiLeaks. "He's not the Rosenbergs. But he's done harm to our country that could, in the long run, be just as damaging."

"Am I sorry that the death penalty is on the table? I'm of two minds...I'm not advocating the death penalty for him, but given that, I would not say the death penalty is not warranted," he says. Lamo quickly adds that, if there were a sentencing phase of the court-martial proceedings that included the death penalty, he would not participate.

Lamo isn't quite in hiding but is unwilling to disclose even what state he lives in. He will acknowledge he's living on the East Coast but doesn't want to be more specific out of fear for his safety. "We had to have the bomb squad called to my parents' house" in a Sacramento suburb, he says, though it was a false alarm.

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He's made a point of taking on Julian Assange, claiming that the WikiLeaks editor's instant messaging conversations with Manning (under the screen name "bradass87") revealed a close collaboration with the Australian ex-hacker. Relatively small excerpts of those conversations have been publicly posted by Wired.com and other Web sites.

"If Julian Assange shared with him that he had once smuggled a camera across Customs in his rectum, I believe they have a fairly intimate connection, in a non-sexual way, when it comes to sharing information," Lamo says.

A detailed article in the Washington Post on Manning's case last month says that the chat logs between Lamo and Manning "have been authenticated by Army investigators, according to an intelligence official familiar with aspects of the case." The article quotes a second source as saying that the chat logs on Lamo's hard drives matched the logs found on Manning's hard drive.

If Lamo had not blown the whistle, he believes, Manning "would have continued to try to gain the approbation and attention of Julian Assange by continuing to provide that information." He was, Lamo says, "in a way dependent on it."

For his part, Assange maintains that he never heard of Manning or "bradass87" before the news became public, and insists that WikiLeaks maintains an anonymous submission system. "We're in a very difficult position concerning Bradley Manning," he told PBS Frontline. "Our technology does not permit us to understand whether someone is one of our sources or not. Because the best way to keep a secret is never to have it." (Frontline has also posted excerpts from Manning's Facebook page.)

That Frontline feature has proved to be a lightning rod for criticism among WikiLeaks supporters, some of whom believe it spent too much time on Manning's sexual identity and past boyfriends and not enough time on his motivations and treatment while in military custody. Perhaps in response, PBS' Web site was hacked earlier this weekend and thousands of stolen passwords were posted.

The details of their electronic relationship--assuming they had one--are important.

A federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., is investigating possible violations of the Espionage Act. If Assange worked with Manning and actively solicited classified documents, perhaps providing tips on how to circumvent military security, that would allow prosecutors to claim he conspired to violate that law.

The text of the Espionage Act, 18 USC 793, is breathtakingly broad. It says that anyone who has "unauthorized possession" of documents "relating to the national defense" and publishes them, believing they "could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation," is guilty of a federal felony.

As of a few days ago, the Bradley Manning Support Network's defense fund has raised $287,000, and an additional 640 people have given a total of $62,000 directly to the legal fund. A rally is planned on June 4 at Fort Leavenworth to protest Manning's "indefinite detention."

The next step for Manning is a pre-trial hearing, which will likely take place in mid-summer. "It will be the first time we get a chance to see any of the evidence that the military claims to have against Manning," Kevin Zeese, an attorney with Manning's support network, said on a conference call last week. The trial will probably take place in early winter, he said.

Lamo claims he still views Manning as a "friend."

"I emphasize that I care a great deal about what happens to Bradley," he says. "I see him the same as any other friend who did a very bad thing. If a friend of mine committed murder they'd still be my friend. I can, as they say, love the sinner but hate the sin."