Private First Class Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old who allegedly provided the whistleblower site WikiLeaks with footage documenting U.S. troops killing Iraqi civilians, was charged Monday with transferring classified data and disclosing information to an unauthorized source that could cause injury to the United States. The release of this footage by WikiLeaks in April 2010, the subsequent tipping off of the FBI by ex-hacker and journalist Adrian Lamo, and the detention of Pfc. Manning, have thrown the site and its enigmatic founder, Julilan Assange, into the spotlight and prompted much cyber-debate about the ethics of anonymous sources.
The Site – WikiLeaks
Launched in 2006, WikiLeaks provides a forum where whistleblowers can leak sensitive documents while remaining anonymous. It describes itself as “a multi-jurisdictional public service designed to protect whistleblowers, journalists and activists who have sensitive materials to communicate to the public.” The technical infrastructure of the site is built to protect the privacy of the leaker. A New Yorker article explains that “Key members are known only by initials — M, for instance — even deep within WikiLeaks, where communications are conducted by encrypted online chat services.” WikiLeaks has published everything from Sarah Palin’s hacked email to a confidential list of U.S. nuclear sites. In 2009, WikiLeaks’ editor, Julian Assange, won Amnesty International’s New Media Award for the site’s work exposing extrajudicial assassinations in Kenya. WikiLeaks exploded into public consciousness in the U.S. in April 2010 with the release of Collateral Murder, the video exposing U.S. gunners killing Iraqi civilians.
In June 2010, WikiLeaks had a legislative success in Iceland. A WikiLeaks-advised proposal to build an international “new media haven” in Iceland, with the world’s strongest press and whistleblower protection, passed the Icelandic Parliament. However, despite this increased interest in WikiLeaks, Wired magazine reports that the site hasn’t published a document for four months, and has only published 12 documents this year to date. (Though WikiLeaks claimed responsibility for Collateral Murder, it was not originally released on the WikiLeaks site.)
There have been media reports that WikiLeaks plans to release another secret video of an airstrike in the Afghan village of Garani in which dozens of children are believed to have been killed.
The Founder – Julian Assange
Born in Australia in 1971, Assange moved around a lot and had little formal education as a child. He was a voracious reader and became interested in science. As a teenager, he became part of a group that called themselves the International Subversives. They hacked into computer networks, including the U.S. Department of Defense. Assange studied physics for a time at the University of Melbourne. In late 2006, Assange launched WikiLeaks. He is notoriously enigmatic, highly secretive and seems to have no fixed abode. Assange fled the U.S. and went into hiding after the arrest of Pfc. Manning, fearing that he was being tracked down by the Pentagon, which was following up on Manning’s claims that he provided WikiLeaks with 260,000 classified State Department diplomatic cables. He resurfaced in June, telling the Guardian that though he feels perfectly safe, he won’t be traveling to the U.S. anytime soon.
The Controversial Video – Collateral Murder
Collateral Murder is an 18-minute video that shows Iraqi civilians — including two Reuters employees, Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, a photojournalist, and Saeed Chmagh, 40, a driver and camera assistant — being killed by gun fire from a U.S. Apache helicopter in 2007. After the shootings, a military spokesperson said that ”There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force.” In the video, the gunners can be heard saying “Have five to six individuals with AK 47s. Request permission to engage.” But the footage shows no weapons or hostile behavior from the people on the ground. Reuters requested the footage using a Freedom of Information request, to no avail.
Assange and volunteers secretly edited the footage in Iceland, and released it on April 6, 2010. Assange was criticized for editing the piece and for its provocative title. Assange defended the editing on the Colbert Report arguing that the first 11 minutes of footage were left unedited, and saying, “The promise we make to our sources is that not only will we defend them through every means that we have available… but we will try to get the maximum possible political impact for the material that they give to us.”
The Whistleblower – Private First Class Bradley Manning
Pfc. Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old Army intelligence analyst in Iraq, was detained in Kuwait in May after Adrian Lamo, an ex-hacker and journalist, told authorities that Manning had confessed to him that he was responsible for giving WikiLeaks the footage in Collateral Murder, as well as 260,000 classified State Department diplomatic cables.
Instant messages between Manning and Lamo released on wired.com reveal a person in turmoil. At one point Manning writes “ive been so isolated so long… i just wanted to be nice, and live a normal life… but events kept forcing me to figure out ways to survive… smart enough to know whats going on, but helpless to do anything… no-one took any notice of me” and “im self medicating like crazy when im not toiling in the supply office (my new location, since im being discharged, im not offically intel anymore)”
On Monday Manning was charged with “violating a lawful Army regulation by transferring classified data onto his personal computer and adding unauthorized software to a classified computer system” and “for communicating, transmitting and delivering national defense information to an unauthorized source.”
The military’s press release about Manning’s charges that an officer will be appointed to preside over an Article 32 investigation (akin to a civilian grand jury hearing) after which the officer will make recommendations on whether to refer the case to trial by court martial.
WikiLeaks has retained lawyers to look into the case, but according to a WikiLeaks spokesperson, they have been unable to reach Manning.
It’s unclear why Pfc. Manning initiated contact with Adrian Lamo, an ex-hacker who was once sentenced to six-months house arrest and two years probation for hacking the The New York Times. Lamo, a self-described threat analyst and journalist, instant messaged with Manning for a few days, eliciting confessions from the soldier about his leaks which Lamo then turned over to federal authorities. In a comprehensive piece attempting to untangle the chain of events leading to Manning’s arrest, Salon journalist Glen Greenwald says that Lamo claims he “told Manning early on that he was a journalist and thus could offer him confidentiality for everything they discussed under California’s shield law.” But in a press release, Adrian Lamo said that he was not acting as a journalist in his conversations with Manning, and that he informed on Manning to protect U.S. National Security. “A cop may be considered to be on-duty 24 hours a day, but a journalist can pick his stories,” Lamo said. “Manning approached me out of the blue, and I elected to act as a source for Wired News rather than proceed as a journalist myself, due to my involvement in the story.”
In a recorded conversation between Lamo and Greenwald, Lamo said that he would bet Greenwald “either ten bucks or a beer at a hacker conference that he doesn’t do more than six months.” Greenwald responded that he would take the bet. “We can do both ten dollars and the drink,” he said.
It’s likely that Lamo will owe Greenwald a beer and ten bucks. Lieutenant Colonel Eric Bloom from the U.S. Public Affairs office told Boing Boing that they were not considering the death penalty, but that they calculated the maximum sentence for Manning on these charges is 52 years.