Adrian Lamo, Bradley Manning, and The Next HOPE.

Jul 21, 2010

As you may or may not be aware The Next HOPE was last weekend, and a veritable firestorm of hacker drama broke out (in both of the usual senses of the word) at the con. I won't be writing about the keynote on Saturday, not yet. Instead, I'll be putting some thoughts together about the arrest of PFC Bradley Manning who is charged with leaking the gun camera footage known as Collateral Murder among other things. If you're not aware of what happened Adrian Lamo, known a few years ago as the homeless hacker, was contacted by PFC Manning who needed a sympathetic ear to talk to. So the story goes, Lamo contacted the US Army upon being told by Manning that he was the person who leaked the footage and that he had a quarter million diplomatic cables ready to send to Wikileaks. Lamo handed transcripts of his instant messenger chats with PFC Manning over and also to Kevin Poulson of Wired Magazine to be used as source material for his articles on the condition that they not be used until Lamo felt safe. You can read some of the logs here, and I advise that you do so. Long story short, PFC Manning is in a world of hurt and looking at something like 52 years in military prison for leaking classified material (which includes both transferring it to an unclassified system and actually transmitting it to someone it wasn't meant for) as well as tampering with classified computers (which could mean anything), among other things.

Then word that Adrian Lamo was the informant hit the news wires.

As one would imagine it was a hot topic at The Next HOPE. The "Bradley Manning! Fuck Yeah!" contingent was well represented. Unsurprisingly, the "BMFY!" contingent was also Team "Adrian Lamo! Fucking snitch!"

First of all Lamo admitted that he ratted out PFC Manning. No ifs, ands, ors, or buts about it. Now, if you were an ex-hacker who publicly turned informant, wouldn't your community turn on you? Stop and think about this for a minute. After pulling something like that it takes balls to then circulate among 2000+ people from your community whose shit lists you just claimed the #1 position of.

I don't know Adrian Lamo. I might recognize him three out of ten times if he's in a crowd on a good day. However, I've been following this debacle since the beginning but keeping my mouth shut. I spoke and listened to some people who know Lamo last weekend; I've spoken and listened to people who claim they know Lamo; I've been reading the articles, cross-referencing and checking the facts against what I've been told thus far. I've been monitoring his Twitter feed. Maybe he's a fame whore, and maybe he isn't. The evidence I've seen seems to suggest that he is. Maybe he's self-serving and maybe he isn't. I've seen no evidence of this. What I can say is that Adrian Lamo has set the torch to almost all of his connections to the hacker community. I say 'almost' because he was seen and photographed running around with a small cadre of associates at The Next HOPE. Further, Lamo stated a few times after he got out of his own spot of trouble a couple of years ago that he was studying journalism (scroll all the way down to the last paragraph). It is central to the ethics of journalism that one's sources must be protected, lest retribution be visited upon them when the article hits the press. Given that Lamo informed on the person who possibly did the most to ever make the involvement of the US in Iraq look bad, it's a safe bet that no one would ever trust him to keep their identities confidential if he was looking for sources for an article he was writing. As someone who is pretty open with everyone about his personal life (and believe me I'm pretty strange), I wouldn't trust him not to try to abuse even openly available information, let alone the inside scoop on anything.

Something that bothers me about the Bradley Manning case is that people are already collecting money for his legal defense and protesting the charges leveled against him. First of all, PFC Manning is covered by the UCMJ, the Uniform Code of Military Justice which is a whole 'nother smoke, as they say. What you know or think you know about criminal law likely does not apply to military law. Pluswhich, there really isn't any such thing as laws to protect whistleblowers anymore and there haven't been for a half decade, so even if you are doing the right thing by reporting that someone powerful kicks puppies they can still hand you your ass for it. Then there's the matter of Manning violating his security clearance. From what we know he had a TS, which means that he was entrusted with information the military considers of grave importance to national security. What you, I, or anyone else thinks of the Collateral Murder video is irrelevant because it was classified. When your interim clearance goes through you have to sign a non-disclosure agreement that breaks down the trust the government is placing in you and the minimum penalty for breaking that trust. Manning's in pretty hot water, seeing as how he's looking at something like 52 years in a military prison.

It should be pointed out that there is stuff about the Manning case that we don't know, and we might never know because classified material was involved. The whole story never comes out in the press release, and while Lamo may have told Kevin Poulson everything he could (I'm inclined to think that he did) there are things that he isn't aware of. He doesn't know what counterintelligence found out on their own, he doesn't know what Manning's chain of command knows, and he doesn't know what their investigations turned up. That information is probably classified consonant with the information that Manning is accused of misusing and will be for some time to come.

Also, regardless of whether or not you agree with a law it still applies to you. If you break that law and get caught you face the consequences and there's a chance that you'll be punished for it. If you were in Manning's shoes and got caught leaking classified material, even if you thought you were doing the right thing you'd still wind up in the brig facing trial. Thinking that Manning is a hero doesn't get him off the hook with Army counterintelligence or the military justice system. Do not confuse your rage over someone you believe did the right thing facing consequences for his actions with what you think of a law that you don't agree with.

While I was at The Next HOPE I caught myself getting swept up in the "Adrian Lamo! Fucking Snitch!" current along with everyone else, so I did what I normally do when someone's trying a heap overflow on my cerebral cortex: I sat down in the corner, turned my phone and laptop off, and thought about it rather than letting other people's words overwrite my thoughts. This has earned me a bit of flak but I'd like to remind everyone that at one time the capacity to imagine what it was like to be someone else was considered a defining characteristic of the human race. When you use your capacity to feel emotions to do this it's called empathy; when you use your ability to think logically and associatively it's called looking at the big picture.

I can think of a couple of reasons why Lamo might have informed on Manning, news articles, Twitter battles (of which I'm guilty), and forum postings aside. First of all, maybe he genuinely thought it was the right thing to do. Some guy admitted to leaking classified information and he called the feds. They asked for his help and he gave it. Law enforcement has enough trouble getting people to admit that they heard gunshots a block away. Second, and this is the most commonly heard opinion of Adrian Lamo in the hacker community, maybe he really is a fame whore and when his name stopped showing up in Wired Magazine he took advantage of Manning confiding in him to get back into the spotlight. You can't tell me that Lamo didn't realize that by going public he was taking his rep among hackers out behind the chemical shed to put a couple of bullets in it. Whether or not he really cares, assuming this is the case, I don't know. Another possibility is that Lamo is a convicted criminal (that he was sentenced to home detention and probation is irrelevant) and might have been considered an accomplice for not turning Manning in if the accused had been caught otherwise. It is also possible that acting as an informant in the hacker community was a condition of his reduced sentence; it's happened before. There also could be some other possibility, or combination of possibilities at work.

Executive summary:
Adrian Lamo is an informant. I don't trust him, but because I sat down and thought things through and not because the community's pissed at him. PFC Bradley Manning's still in a world of hurt.