Interview Adrian Lamo
In May 2010, Lamo, a former hacker, was contacted by someone with the AOL Instant Messenger name "Bradass87," who alleged to be in possession of secret U.S. documents and cables. Lamo later decided to turn the chat logs over to authorities after learning Bradass87 had handed over State Department cables to WikiLeaks; Pfc. Bradley Manning was later arrested and charged with leaking the documents. "I believed and knew that he couldn't possibly have vetted over a quarter of a million documents himself and reassured himself to his satisfaction that they didn't contain anything that would cause human harm," says Lamo. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Feb. 15, 2011.
… What do you think the hacker's role in society would be?
I think the role of the hacker is best described as someone that finds new and innovative ways of accomplishing things, shortcuts that aren't obvious to the average person, ways of using existing resources more efficiently or getting around things that were once seen as barriers.
And how do they do that? ...
That's a bit of a tough question in that I personally have never tried to strongly sell myself as a hacker. People describe what I do as hacking, but I personally feel that I just find different ways of seeing. It's about looking at things that people see every day and finding new ways to rearrange them.
By way of example at one of my intrusions, MCI WorldCom, I didn't actually have to break any of the systems in order to bypass security. I just had to take multiple systems that were all operating normally and cause them to work together in an unforeseen way. So really, in summation, hacking is about unforeseen consequences.
You don't see yourself as a hacker?
It's not necessarily that I don't see myself as one, but I don't try to portray myself as one because of the great deal of controversy that surrounds the term. Everyone has a different definition of what "hacker" is, and I really don't have the energy to convince anybody that I am. I'm just somebody that sees everyday things and finds new ways of using them.
… Tell me a little bit about your AOL days. …
Early on, I was interested in what went on behind the scenes at AOL, seeing as how AOL was my first Internet service provider. People see AOL as this kind of simplistic thing that gives you a menu. You sign on; you choose news, sports, weather, that kind of thing.
But there's a lot that goes on behind the scenes that is occluded from the day-to-day user. And AOL at the time had a number of security issues, as they still do, that they kind of went out of their way to avoid having publicized for fear of bad publicity. I, apart from seeking out and trying to develop those security issues, try to find ways to make the service work in unexpected ways. Also worked on a website called Inside-AOL.com that publicized in a news format what those insecurities were.
There seems to be -- maybe I'm wrong about this -- but kind of like a code of ethics [by which] some hackers operate, which is to, I guess what I'm trying to say is that you don't necessarily write a letter to the president of AOL and you prove to him he's got a problem. Maybe you can talk about that sort of --
Well, I can't speak to the experience of anyone else in compromising any given company, but when I was working on AOL security, my experience was that if I tried to approach them and tell them, "Hey, you have this specific security problem," I would get no attention and basically be told to bug off. It was only when they were contacted through what were subjectively considered reputable media outlets ... that they actually paid attention. …
What drew you to try to do some of the kind of intrusions into companies that didn't want you browsing their secret servers? Is it a challenge? Is it sort of defiance of authority? What motivates this?
We live our life every day surrounded by complex systems that we only partially understand. I think that if we exist for any reason, a big part of it is to try to experience as much of those complex systems as possible. I wanted to know more about how the things that I used every day worked.
And really, things like AOL or any other computer network were only a part of it. It's just that if I'm exploring an abandoned building or out somewhere exploring a sewer system, no one covers that since it's not mediagenic. It doesn't mean that I'm going to do it any less; it just means there's a hyperfocus in terms of public perception on what I do that involves computers because computers to a lot of people are arcane, kind of esoteric. It's something that draws readership and viewership, and as such, that maintains the focus.
You sound like a philosopher.
I think that a big part of hacking is philosophy.
You have to have an appreciation for the unseen world around you, for lack of a better phrasing, if you want to be interested in hacking. Hacking is not just breaking into somebody's account or breaking into a particular system. Anybody can do that. The mere act of committing a crime with a computer doesn't make someone a hacker, and crime is not necessarily implicit in the act of hacking.
Hacking is creating a result that's not only unforeseen but is so improbable as to be something that the universe, if it has sentience, would probably appreciate and say: "That's why I put that there. Thank you."
And there was one time where you did sort of try to put something there -- and I'm talking about The New York Times -- and you did something that I consider quite cheeky, which is to put your name on the editorial board. Did I get that story wrong? … What happened and what motivated you to do that?
I didn't really have any particular motivation for adding myself to the editorial contributor list for The New York Times. I did it more or less on a lark. It was similar to something that I had done previously where I had made satirical changes to Yahoo! News articles.
For instance, in the instance of Yahoo!, there was an article about a Russian programmer named Dmitry [Sklyarov] who had been arrested and was facing prosecution for creating a program that would allow anybody to read e-books which had been locked. And I changed the story to say that he was facing the death penalty and added a quote citing Attorney General John Ashcroft as saying to a "cheering horde" that "Whomsoever told them that the truth shall set them free was obviously and grossly unfamiliar with federal law," something that I think was rather factually accurate.
So you do this. You're on your computer. You're alone. And then you do it, and what do you feel afterward? …
A sense of improbability of thinking, really, what are the odds?
So your relationship or run-ins with the FBI date back to 2004. Is that correct?
2003. The New York Times didn't find your joke that funny. So what happened after that?
The New York Times elected to press charges, as was their right and prerogative, and the FBI launched an 18-month investigation culminating in the issuance of an arrest warrant. They spent a period of time trying to track me down unsuccessfully, ultimately failing to locate my apartment, and for some reason or another raiding my parents' house, where they showed up with an arrest warrant but no search warrant, resulting in them surrounding the place for three days without actually being able to go in, all the time convinced that I was actually squirreled away inside.
And did you serve any time?
I pled guilty because I was in fact guilty and had always maintained that I would accept responsibility for what I knew to be violations of relevant sections U.S. code. The judge, I can only hypothesize, had some appreciation for that acceptance of responsibility and my subsequent understanding of the fact that these weren't just computers; these weren't just ones and zeros; these were real people involved whose days have been ruined and whose careers had in fact possibly been damaged and that I had been going about this in a way that did not take into account the human cost.
And it was that same appreciation for the human cost that came to mind again when Bradley Manning years later revealed the number of documents that he had leaked and that he intended to continue to leak if he had access to them, which made me make the same sort of evaluation: Who's going to be hurt by this? Who gets hurt?
So in the end, in my case, I did six months of house arrest and a year or two of probation. And I still owe the federal government roughly $60,000 in restitution to Microsoft, LexisNexis and The New York Times.
That will take a while to pay off.
I consider it a very expensive student loan for a very unique education. ...
… Did [the experience] sort of quench your thirst for cracking into other people's systems, and did you stop? Or what have you done to kind of curb that desire to know what's out there?
My experience with the FBI was the reason that I ended up studying journalism. I still needed an outlet for curiosity for finding connections between things that might at first blush seem to not be connected. And I consider journalism to be a more legal form of hacking. It still speaks to the same spirit of discovery of wanting to know more about the world around you, of wanting to know more about the unseen elements that drive society.
So that was my outlet, that and legitimate security work, as well as doing public speaking regarding my experiences, how they could be applied in a corporate security environment, how my insights as a result of those could help prevent future damage from other intrusions. While I was breaking into systems, I never really appreciated how drastically it would ruin the day of some network administrator to have his secretary tell them there's an Adrian Lamo on the phone about your network. …
You are a bit of an expert in cyber security just from where you stand. How hard is it to kind of break into a government computer and get classified information?
I've never broken into a government or military computer, so I don't really have standing to answer that. I've been told that, generally speaking, many classified environments are hard and crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. For somebody who already has access, there are not as many safeguards as there ought to be so that the focus is on deterring intruders from the outside and not so much on actioning insider threats.
… I want to ask you about your relationship with [Wired editor] Kevin Poulsen. When did that begin? And tell me a little bit of the narrative of how you got to know him through the years and how you collaborated with him on stories.
I first heard from Kevin Poulsen as a result of a modification that I had made to the domain registry system. It was a legal trick that made it so that if someone looked up the domain record for Microsoft.com, instead of returning the ownership information, it would return the text "Microsoft.com.is.secretly.run.by.Illuminati.terrorists.net." It would take a while to explain how that worked technically.
He called me. I explained that Microsoft had not actually been hacked, that it was a kind of workaround that made it look like they had been. And that was the end of it, but I kept his number and his contact information, because at the time I hadn't been previously aware that he worked in journalism, but I was aware of his previous career as a hacker. And he was someone that I had always been rather amused by in terms of his exploits.
And down the line, when there was this security vulnerability at America Online that put users at risk of having their identities hijacked, he came to mind in getting AOL to take it seriously, because they, AOL, had ignored the issue when I had tried to bring it to them directly. So it was sometime in 2000 that I discussed the first story that [I] ended up writing about with him.
And that relationship became one of source and journalist over several stories, isn't that right?
I've worked with Kevin on a lot of stories. I've always felt that he has a better understanding of the subject matter than someone who hasn't had the experience of being both a hacker and a journalist. It's because of his experiences in that regard that I trust him to be able to portray events accurately and fairly. He is probably the most ethical journalist that I know in that, with almost every other publication, including many major ones, national daily papers, ... I would be given the opportunity to go over stories before they ran and asked if there was anything in there that I wanted changed or altered. And I always felt that that was unethical. It gave the source too much control over the story.
And Kevin was the one guy that never let me see anything other than my quotes before running a story. And it was because of that that I trusted him to go to jail before releasing his notes on me, and that's why I kept up my source-journalist relationship with him over the past decade. ...
Kevin wrote a story about you, your trials with a mental illness sometime in 2009. Was that correct?
2010. Tell me about how that came about, what he proposed to write, what happened at that time.
I contacted Kevin while I was at Woodland Hospital being evaluated for Asperger's and depression. Because I was a little bit uncertain as to when I was going to get out of there, however, I didn't want to get lost in the system, or so to speak, and so asked him to just kind of maintain the awareness that I was there in the event that he didn't hear from me for a prolonged period of time.
This was particularly relevant because Asperger's is rather, not predominant but not exactly uncommon in the hacker community. It's been described by at least one outlet as the "geek syndrome." And once I was done with my stay there, he inquired as to whether he was released from the embargo, and I thought that it would be a beneficial story to have run, to have people, particularly self-identified hackers who might be in a similar position in terms of symptoms and difficulties, see someone else going through the same thing that they were going through and having a positive outcome.
While I was in there, I was placed on several medications that helped a great deal with anxiety and overall social ability. And I'm still not the most social person in the world, but it made a big difference, and I hoped that being able to communicate that story would encourage other people to seek help if they needed it. ...
Had you ever heard of Julian Assange before Bradley Manning appeared on your laptop?
I had no idea who Julian Assange was before talking to Bradley Manning.
WikiLeaks was something that you were familiar with?
I was familiar with WikiLeaks. I viewed them positively, and I still believe that they have the potential to do good. I think there needs to be a balance between transparency and secrecy, and without the influence of forces like WikiLeaks causing friction against the interests of secrecy, where we don't see evolution in terms of greater disclosure as quickly or as easily.
But I think that they have gone overboard in their latest batch of leaks. I think that they are carrying them out in a fashion calculated to perpetuate less transparency and more the ongoing kind of cult of personality that has been manufactured for Julian Assange. And when you think of organizations that are doing good in the world, like say, oh, ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] or Greenpeace or what have you, most people that are familiar with them wouldn't be able to tell you who the executive director is off the top of their head, whereas it's difficult to mention WikiLeaks without mentioning Julian Assange in the same breath.
… What did you know about WikiLeaks? What appealed to you about it? Do you remember when you first noticed them?
I'm not sure when I first heard of WikiLeaks. I just know that they struck me as a force for transparency, which I believe to be a good thing and I still believe to be a good thing. I had at one point donated money to them, and I in fact evangelized the concept of donating money to them when my documentary Hackers Wanted was leaked on BitTorrent.
People had contacted me, asking how they should pay compensation for it if they downloaded it, which, obviously if it had been leaked, it wasn't being released commercially, but they still wanted to give something back for it. And I asked the director, and he wasn't interested in compensation for the unauthorized leaks, so I said that if people enjoyed the documentary, which is very much about curiosity and freedom of information, then they ought to donate to WikiLeaks, which seemed to embody some of those same principles.
Did you get any people that responded to your tweets on that, saying, "That sounds like a good idea; I'll donate," or was it --
Some people did in fact donate as a result of that, and other people just happened to read that tweet, and as luck would have it one of those people was Bradley Manning.
On a daily basis I get so many spurious messages that one does not really stand out from the other. When Bradley Manning first e-mailed me, it was just another e-mail from another person that had heard about something I had done and wanted to talk to me. I kind of filed it away for future reference and didn't pay a great deal of attention to it at the time. So in that way, many of the details of what I was doing are lost to posterity. I don't remember if I was eating a bagel or checking my e-mail on my phone or whatever.
... It was an e-mail, though?
The initial communication was an e-mail. It was encrypted. It was encrypted to an encryption key, which I no longer used. And as a result, I couldn't read it, and as a result of that, I ignored it.
I received a subsequent e-mail, also encrypted, and then another one after that, and going by my rule of threes, whereby if somebody tries to get a hold of them three times I figure they're probably serious so I'll get back to them, I shot back an e-mail saying, "Hey, I'm not able to read your encrypted e-mail because it's using the improper encryption key, but if you would like to chat, we can chat at America Online in Instant Messenger."
And sometime after that I received my first instant message from Bradley Manning.
And was it unusual that you couldn't open this encrypted [e-mail]? …
My encryption key had been on a hard drive that was no longer available to me. You have to have the key and the pass phrase if you want to open the e-mail. Bradley had gotten the key from a public server that I had uploaded my contact information to sometime before. And I hadn't updated it since. As a result of that, there was no way for him to send me a securely encrypted e-mail that I would actually be able to open. So I don't know what he said in that first e-mail. He, for all I know, he might have been complaining about the weather.
Have you ever opened that e-mail since?
It's impossible using the technology available to me.
So it's still in your inbox, but you don't know what it says?
It's just to the human eye gibberish without the correct key and pass phrase.
Does the FBI, the CID [the Army's Criminal Investigation Command], any of them have the key?
If they have any means of opening it, it's technology that wouldn't be publicly disclosed and not something that they've shared with me.
Do you think they know the contents of those e-mails?
I hesitate to guess. It's beyond the information that I have, and I don't want to seem to try to inflate my knowledge of what's happened beyond what it actually is. ...
So a few days after the e-mail, or on the third time of being contacted by Bradley, you finally wrote back, or he wrote, and then he contacted you via AIM?
I'm not saying gospel that it was the third time; it might have been the fourth; it might have been the fifth. ...
So you get this message. Do you remember what the screen name was and what the message said?
Message was from screen name Bradass87. It basically introduced the sender as a military analyst stationed at Forward Operating Base Hammer, and that's just outside of Baghdad. From the opening statement, there was no clear indication of the direction that things were going to go in.
What did this person want?
Well, to talk, and more to the point, they wanted to unload their burdens, be they [sub]conscious or simply a desire to share what they had done with some third party that they felt would appreciate it.
Do you want to be more specific? I mean, I imagine a lot of people contact you, but perhaps not a solider sitting in Iraq.
I've gotten a few of those. There's a lot of boredom out there.
But this didn't seem like boredom to you. What was Bradass87 writing?
He inquired, hypothetically speaking, if I had unfettered access to classified information for X number of hours a day, X number of hours a week for weeks on end, what I would do with that kind of access.
He spoke in hypotheticals at first. And even then I largely blew it off. There just aren't enough hours in the day to correspond with everybody that wants to correspond with me. I'm not trying to make myself out to be some kind of pop star or anything, but people come across what I've done, and they want to talk about it, and there's a lot of them. And if there's a hell, I think it involves telling the same story over and over, having to explain every detail again and again. ...
But out of the blue, that's all he says? You guys don't start to get to know each other a little bit at first? I mean, there's no "Hi, I'm doing this, and I admire you," or, "Can you kind of back me up a bit?" It just seems sort of, "Hi, I'm writing from Iraq, and what would you do if I had all these documents?"
That's about the gist of it. There wasn't much in the way of introduction.
So he trusted you right away with this by posing the hypothetical? And tell me how that message relationship developed. Did he start confiding in you more? Did he instant message you many times a day? What was going on in the course of those few days?
We messaged fairly frequently over the course of several days. It was a brief but intense interaction that covered his personal life, his romantic life, his difficulties adjusting to the military, his feeling regarding U.S. policy and actions in Iraq and in other countries, his life back home.
Did you relate to him?
I understood his position. It's not the easiest topic in the world to think about, when I talked about human harm and human cost earlier. And in the instant matter of -- I felt and still feel that I had the choice between human harm to Bradley Manning or the potential of human harm to individuals named in documents that he had leaked and would leak, and to efforts to protect national security currently and in the future.
And there was no correct option. There was only the least incorrect one. Either way I would have been screwing somebody over, and I had to pick who. There was no option to just sit back and wash my hands of the responsibility, because that in and of itself would have been making a choice.
In the chat logs, you're quite provocative. You say to him, or you type, "Oh, what would you do if someone turned you in?" What were you trying to [do]? Were you trying to tell him something?
It was a pragmatic question. I got the sense that Bradley was very depressed, and I was concerned that he might do something to harm himself.
What kind of a person emerges from reading all these chats? Can you describe him, his humor, his frame of mind at that stage?
Brad struck me as someone that cared a great deal about the world, about the people in it, but didn't really have a grasp of how his actions could affect others. He was quick to anger, didn't really have roots anywhere in particular and didn't seem to have a whole lot to lose.
Why do you say quick to anger? What evidence in the chatting between the two of you did you see that anger?
He had described an incident in which he had struck a superior officer for a comment that they had made, which was what resulted in his demotion from specialist to private. And looking at his Facebook page, he had posted angrily after disputes and incidents with his significant other in the past. There didn't seem to be a lot of restraint there, although there were certainly good intentions.
Do you have a sense of what was motivating him to reach out to you? Why you?
I don't know. The only connection I can draw is that tweet regarding the documentary and donations to WikiLeaks. But I can't speak to why he would confess so much to a total stranger. I really wish it had happened sooner that he could have been telling me simply that he was planning on doing these things, and [he] could have been dissuaded from that course of conduct, found a better way to address his concerns about the military and U.S. policy.
What of all the things he told you struck you the most? Is there a phrase, something that you thought, wow, this is shocking to me or surprising to me?
At one point he made a comment about [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton and numerous other diplomats waking up one morning and having a heart attack when they read their diplomatic cables in the press. And at that point it seemed to me that he didn't care so much about the consequences of his actions; he just wanted to take action. Again, I'm not arguing that he was not originally inspired by good intentions. I believe that he has a good heart. But that and another point in the conversation where I had to go and take a phone call, and on my return he made what I assumed to have been a joke about how he had his weapon with him in case whoever I was on the phone with showed up to take him away really troubled me.
What, 25 percent of the chat logs were published by Wired. What has not been published? What was held back and why? Do you know?
Elements of the logs that have been redacted include details of Bradley's personal life. He talked a lot about his personal life, about his relationships, about his experiences in the military, about his experiences back home. He also discussed at least one classified military operation that significantly troubled federal investigators when I mentioned the code name for it. They instructed me never to mention those words again.
So what has been kept back has been kept back out of concern for keeping the logs relevant to the story rather than having them be some kind of sensationalistic picking apart of Brad's personal life and out of concern for national security.
Did you feel you became a friend of his over those four days of chatting with him?
It was a very brief period of time, but I did feel that I was his friend, and it didn't make the decision of what to do about his course of conduct any easier.
When did you decide to turn him in?
I decided to turn Brad in when he mentioned the State Department cables and all their number. I believed and knew that he couldn't possibly have vetted over a quarter of a million documents himself and reassured himself to his satisfaction that they didn't contain anything that would cause human harm. I felt that was a really indiscriminate action, one that was not taking into account the well-being of others, and that reoccurrences of that sort of event needed to be prevented. At that point, the needs of the many outweighed the needs of the one.
Did he admit that he had already leaked it, and how did he admit that? Describe the sort of evidence that he did this.
I asked him if there was any way to recover the documents, and he indicated that they had already been uploaded to WikiLeaks' server, which they provided for him, and that he no longer had custody of them. It was fairly an ambiguous statement.
Did he mention Julian Assange at all?
He mentioned Julian Assange in the context that Julian was the individual at WikiLeaks who he had initially established contact with. He stated that he has spent four months trying to track Assange down and reassure himself of the identity of the person that he was communicating with, that is to make sure that it actually was Assange.
And in the meantime, are you trying to hack into his computer to find out more? I mean, what are you doing? You're a curious guy; you're looking at open-source records to figure out who he is? Walk me through what you're behind the scenes trying to figure out.
At that point I was really more or less just talking to him. I was too taken aback by the sheer scope of what I was being told to be motivated to do anything else. It was so broad, such a significant assault on national security and on diplomacy that I was really just trying to take it all in.
And you struggled with that decision, or you knew you had to turn him in? …
I was really hoping deep down that Brad would turn around and say, just kidding; none of this was actually true. And I attempted to verify through those phone calls that what information he had given me was in fact indicative of actual classified operations, and as it turned out, that was the case.
There is, I guess, the phone call you made to Tim Webster. Why did you call him, and how does he come into this whole story?
I called Tim because I felt he was best situated to give me advice on how to handle the situation since he had formally been a special agent in counterintelligence. And if there was ever a counterintelligence issue, this was one. And he came up with some of the right people to call, and [computer security analyst] Chet [Uber] made some of the other phone calls in order to make sure that this didn't end up getting lost on some secretary's desk somewhere.
And so what happened? You also called Kevin Poulsen. Tell me about that phone call.
I gave Kevin Poulsen an outline of what had happened after I had spoken to Webster and Uber and after there was a meeting with the federal authorities lined up. Because of the scope of the whole situation, I just wasn't sure how that meeting was going to go. Bearing in mind my background with federal authorities, I didn't know if they would believe that I was telling them everything. I didn't know if they would decide that Manning had told me too much during the course of those instant message conversations.
And I wanted Kevin Poulsen to know where I was and what I was doing, in case for one reason or another I didn't come back. It may sound a bit spy-novelish out of context, but for someone that was actually living it, it seemed very reasonable.
At what point did you definitely decide to turn Manning in? On the first day, on the second day, what?
It was after talking to Tim and getting his read on the situation -- I trust his judgment -- and based on his feedback, my initial gut suspicion that this was something that could not be allowed to continue was pretty much confirmed.
What was your fear?
That Manning would continue to leak, to continue to gain unauthorized access to classified systems, and that additional people could be placed at risk by his course of conduct.
Did Manning ever say to you, or did you suggest, "Why don't you go to the inspector general with this?" Or did you sort of ever question why he had done this, or were you sympathetic along the way?
It was a little bit late for him to go to the inspector general.
Do you think he knew the consequences of leaking this information?
Everyone that enlists and receives a security clearance is aware of the consequences of mishandling classified information.
So you believe Manning was being naive, or he didn't care [about] the consequences? ...
I don't know the answer to that question. I simply don't know enough about his mind-set to know whether he decided to say, "Fuck it; what happens, happens," or whether he simply felt this would never come back to him and that he could discuss it with random strangers without repercussions.
You were a random stranger.
Perhaps the most random stranger.
Did he ever say, "I contacted you because of X, Y or Z"? He never gave you an indication of --
Well, as I said, he'd mentioned the tweet, and he had made reference to that, which is, I believe, how he became aware of me. But he never really elucidated his modus beyond that. He just seemed to have a great deal that he needed to talk about.
If I had to characterize the content of the logs, the bulk of them were not discussions about leaks, leakage and contents of leaks. They were discussions about his personal life and his personal troubles. He wanted to talk about everything, and I wish that there had been some way that I could have simultaneously been the friend that he needed and also the friend to the people who could have been adversely affected by his actions.
How did you hear that he had been arrested?
I was told by federal investigators that he would no longer be in a position to have access to Internet-enabled computer systems, which I took to mean that he had been taken into custody.
What did you feel when you heard that?
It wasn't what I wanted for him. I don't know what I wanted or what I expected, and in that respect perhaps I am also naive.
How do you feel about it in retrospect?
His current circumstance is regrettable but also necessary. I don't have experience in corrections. I don't know what is considered appropriate for an inmate of his nature. I don't believe that his life is being made miserable out of spite. I think there is genuine reason for concern in trying to establish prevention of injury and making sure that he doesn't engage in additional mishandling of classified information while in contact with any other inmates in his facility.
I don't feel I have enough information to really comment beyond that on the conditions of his incarceration, given that really all that we know comes from his attorney and from [Manning's friend] David Maurice House, both people involved in advocacy for Manning who, I wouldn't assume that they're lying, but they certainly have no motivation to characterize things in any particularly charitable way.
I guess I'll ask the view of other conspiracy theorists that say that the chat logs were made up by Adrian Lamo. How can you prove them wrong?
I think it's a little bit ludicrous that I would invent that particular number of leaked documents and that WikiLeaks would just happen to receive those exact documents simultaneously. It's not really a credible position, in my eyes.
So when Bradley Manning contacted you, what had been leaked to that point, a "Collateral Murder" video and some cables, the so-called test cables? Talk about that a bit.
At that point, the "Collateral Murder" video, as it's colloquially called, had been leaked; previously the Icelandic cable had been leaked. The 260,000 State Department cables had been leaked, as well as the Afghan war logs and the Iraq war logs.
And what had been published?
At that point, the Icelandic cable had been published and the "Collateral Murder" video had been published, and a second video had also been leaked which was encrypted and has not yet been decrypted, to the best of my knowledge. ...
What did you know that then happened later; in other words, when those logs were published, that came to be true? What events eventually happened?
Bradley Manning had taken responsibility for having previously leaked the so-called "Collateral Murder" video and the Icelandic cable, and also having leaked the Iraq war logs, the Afghan war logs and the cache of diplomatic cables. The former had already been published by WikiLeaks, and the latter were all subsequently published in whole or in part by WikiLeaks.
And there was, in fact, internal debate at WikiLeaks, I've been made to understand, as to whether or not they should go ahead with that publication for fear of adversely affecting Bradley Manning's case. And Julian Assange made the determination that they should go ahead and publish them regardless of the consequences to Manning's defense. Had they never been published, then it would certainly be a bit shakier, but the fact is, all of it came true.
You mentioned in a conversation we had on the phone that there's been a lot of misinformation published out there. Maybe you want to take the time right now to tell me what are some of the lies that you feel have been published.
I think it's more effective to let the truth of what I say stand on its own merits rather than take the time to line-item every misconception or piece of misinformation that's come out to date.
Fair enough. And I will ask you, are those questions that the critics [have], ... they say, for instance, that you told Bradley Manning that you were both a journalist and an ordained minister, and perhaps he felt he could trust you because you'd have a confidential journalist-source relationship, and you violated that confidentiality. Do you feel that's true or that should have applied?
When I first started talking to Bradley Manning, I gave him the same opportunity that I'd given to numerous computer hackers who have contacted me to talk about their exploits, to either talk about me under the protection of California's journalistic shield law or to utilize the privilege afforded to the clergy. I'm ordained through the Universal Life Church. They're an Internet-based ministry whose validity has been upheld by the Supreme Court. [The church] will essentially ordain anyone, but it makes it no less true.
And I was willing to afford him that option, just as I was willing to talk to him as a journalist if that's how he wanted to get his story out. And he chose to take me up on neither offer. Had he taken me up on either offer, we wouldn't be having this conversation today. But I did was tell him that there was the possibility of utilizing either of those protections, because what he was saying to me, he struck me as being very sensitive, and at no point did I afford him the premise that we would be conversing under those protections. ...
Can we talk about Bradley's sexuality? Was that a big topic in his logs to you? People have said he's done this because he was angry at the military for "don't ask, don't tell." Do you sense that was at all a reason for [him] to embarrass the government?
Bradley's sexuality -- be it gay, straight, bisexual, transgendered, queer, questioning -- is something that is his own to confirm, deny, publicize or not publicize. I don't feel that it's germane to the public discourse, and I think I would be doing him an unnecessary disservice by really going into that.
When you decided to turn him in, talk to me a bit about that sort of quandary of the fact that you have been a hacker, and being a hacker is all about more transparency, and what Manning was doing, perhaps from his perspective, was doing the same, allowing countless people to see things that were being kept secret. It was about transparency from his perspective. What do you say to that?
Certainly what Manning was doing was about transparency, but the way in which it ties into my own experience with computer hacking is that in my case, I became very much aware of the human cost of mishandled information, the way that it affects real people, how it's not just information on a screen; it's people's lives, people's livelihoods. And it was that awareness that led me to feel that what he was doing was not OK.
Had I not been prosecuted, I don't think I would have had the opportunity for introspection that gave me the context to fully appreciate the harm that mishandling of information, unauthorized access to information can do. So while I was very much aware [at] that same age, at 22 -- I had been taken into custody and processed through the criminal justice system for what I felt was a crime of curiosity and conscience -- the same way that I didn't feel that my objectively good intentions excused me, they didn't excuse him. It was necessary that his actions be interdicted, lest they continue.
When you finally confronted the FBI about the logs, tell me about that. How did that sequence of events happen? You met somewhere? What did they ask you? What did you tell them? What did you hand over? How did you leave it?
I answered many of the same questions that I've answered here today: How did I start talking to him, and how did the conversations go? What did he reveal? What were his motives? Obviously I shared more with them in terms of the contents of the logs than I'm able to share here, but they more or less wanted to establish what the harm done by this incident was, whether it could be contained, how it could be mitigated, how further harm could be prevented.
They were all very human, and their concern was for the people, the individuals that would be affected by this. I've heard people dismiss my concerns over national security as being rhetoric, but it's important to remember that national security is at the end of the day about real individuals. It's about the security of people.
Did you give the chat logs to the FBI right away?
I gave the chat logs to military investigators at the end of our meeting. My initial meeting was not actually with the FBI; it was with Army counterintelligence. There were a pair of FBI agents that came along, but I asked that they wait in the car while we talked until I was comfortable with their presence.
Were they concerned about you as a witness, so to speak, given your run-ins with the law? Was that at all a concern or --
I don't know that I have the ability to know what their personal concerns were.
Why did you hand the chat logs to Kevin Poulsen, and why did you agree for them to be published, or parts of them at least?
I don't recall whether I was ever asked as to whether or not the logs should be published. But I gave them to Kevin out of, as I indicated earlier, concern as to how the meeting would go, how my interaction with federal authorities would go given the very grave seriousness of this breach of national security.
He said that you gave them to him as a sort of insurance: "If I disappear, here's that; there's this." Am I right about that? It was like you were afraid and you mentioned that. But I mean, why publish it? Why did that need to be out there? You gave your friend the big scoop, is all I know.
I felt that there needed to be transparency about what had happened. I'm of the opinion that my role in the events would have come out one way or another. Given that, clearly Bradley Manning would have known who was involved in his arrest, and ultimately that would have come out.
Yes. Assange sent me an e-mail after Bradley was arrested encouraging me to change my characterization of the events, to refer to Manning as a whistleblower rather than a spy and to ascribe my motivations to a momentary lapse of reason that I would under no circumstances repeat. I have no idea what made him think that his request would be effective. But that was my only communication with him.
Did you write back?
I did not. I didn't feel that I had anything relevant to say to him. …
... Do you know if [Manning] reached out to anybody else, confessed to anybody else?
Manning indicated at one point in time in our conversations that he had been in contact with another individual in the military that was actively compromising the security of classified computer systems, but they had no interest in engaging in any sort of leak, which could be interpreted as meaning that he had shopped the idea to them and been rebuffed. But I don't have enough information to say for sure whether or not that was the case.
I've heard reports that he asked his significant other to help him with the couriering of information and was rebuffed in that. Again, I don't know if that's true.
Do you know any of Manning's friends and his sort of circle of hackers that he met at MIT?
I've had some brief, intermittent contact with some of the people in Boston who Bradley knows.
Before or after this case happened?
So you might have met some of his friends prior to being in contact with Bradley?
I was friends with David Maurice House prior to this case, and I really haven't delved into whether or not House became involved in the case because he knew Bradley before or simply because he was interested in the case. ...
So you don't think Bradley contacted you because you knew friends of his or anything like that?
I don't think that I was recommended to him by anybody.
How hard would it have been for Manning to get access to the information that he got?
I'm not an expert in military computer systems, but my understanding is that Bradley Manning had authorized access to all of the material which he leaked, so it really wouldn't have been a terribly difficult feat to gain access to it. It would have been something that he did normally in the scope of his employment.
What struck me as perhaps having been guided was the specific nature of the information that he sought out. At one point I was told that he had received assistance in setting up encryption software for use in securing his instant messages. For instance, our instant message conversations were encrypted.
But I wouldn't characterize his course of conduct as hacking except in the sense that he perhaps exceeded his authorized access to a protected computer system.
One thing I guess I've never quite understood is, Manning arrives in Iraq in the fall of 2009, October, and by the chronology of events, he supposedly started leaking in November. If this is sort of the war is welling in him, it seems like not a lot of time goes by before he starts leaking. Did he ever sort of tell you what sparked this need to hand this cache of documents over?
He described one event which generated a certain amount of disillusionment with the occupying forces in Iraq, wherein he had been asked to go out and investigate some dissidents that were handing out leaflets, and upon translation of the leaflets [they] turned out to be legitimate political discourse regarding an Iraqi political figure. And when he reported that to his superiors, allegedly he was told to simply go out and find some more dissidents.
If true, that's something that would be understandable to be unhappy about, but whether that was the catalyst is beyond the scope of my ability to speculate.
How do you think this story ends?
I don't know how this ends. I hope that Mr. Manning gets the opportunity to do his time and move on with his life, reinvent himself, and be a force for the kind of positive change that he envisioned.
And you? Journalists will stop hounding you perhaps at some stage?
It will be an interesting story to tell my grandkids.
It sure will.
But I couldn't even begin to speculate how it ends with me. If someone had told me that all this would happen, say, five years ago, it would have beggared belief. It's really living proof that truth is stranger than fiction. And if you put this down as the plot for a spy novel, readers would probably put it down in the first chapter and ask how the hell someone had come up with such an improbable plot. I've seen James Bond movies that had more continuity and realism, and yet the events happened.
... What do you think the impact, then, will be of this case? …
I think there will be increased movements for protections against leakage from within the United States government, increased watermarking of documents so that their owners can be identified if they end up being leaked, increased compartmentalization of information.
I think much of the information sharing that became more prevalent after the intelligence failures preceding Sept. 11 are going to go away on the assumption that we should be more careful about who has access to what. And realistically, there is no reason why a relatively low-ranking enlisted solider in Iraq should have had access to those diplomatic cables. It was the fruit of the belief that intelligence failures could be prevented by increased intelligence sharing.
And I really hope that the pendulum doesn't swing too far in the other direction. There's danger in overreaction either way, either over-sharing or overprotection. It can both lead to intelligence failures, and the only thing I can really say for certain is that it's probably something that's going to be taught in counterintelligence courses for some time to come. ...