After several weeks of intense attention, Pvt. Bradley Manning began to slip off the media’s radar screens again last month with his transfer from the maximum security brig at Quantico to a medium-custody military prison at Leavenworth, Kansas, while he awaits trial. That is about to change again, as the first anniversary of his alleged online “chatting” with convicted hacker Adrian Lamo -- it led to his arrest on multiple charges of leaking classified information -- arrives later this week. Next Tuesday, PBS Frontline plans a full program on Manning, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, and they promise to air new information.
I’ll be previewing the Frontline show later this week, and in other articles analyzing the Lamo logs and other aspects of the case, but for now let’s return to the sequence of events leading up to the now infamous “chats.” Much of this is drawn from my current book and e-book, Bradley Manning: Truth and Consequences.
On February 18, 2010, WikiLeaks posted on its Web site a U.S. State Department diplomatic cable dated January 13, 2010, from the embassy in Reykjavik, Iceland. It was an intriguing, if not earthshaking, document that would later earn the tag “Reykjavik13.” In the cable, the U.S. deputy chief of mission, Sam Watson, described private talks with Icelandic leaders over a referendum on whether to repay losses from a bank failure, with the real possibility that Iceland could default in 2011.
In the “chat log,” Manning would claim that he sent Reykjavik 13 to WikiLeaks as a “test document” from much more to come.
If, in fact, Spc. Bradley Manning came to contact WikiLeaks (anonymously, if at all, Assange insists) during this period, how did it come about? One must rely largely on the “chat logs” that allegedly document the lengthy discussions between Manning and convicted hacker Adrian Lamo from May 21 to May 25, 2010. Little other evidence against Manning has surfaced, at least publicly – although we know the Army seized his computers -- and even the validity of the chats logs have been called into question, both because of what appears there and what’s been edited out. The prisoner, of course, is innocent until proven guilty.
With that said, the chat logs suggest that Manning told Lamo that he first contacted WikiLeaks back in late-November 2010, after Wikileaks posted thousands of pager messages from 9/11. ”I immediately recognized that they were from an NSA database, and I felt comfortable enough to come forward,” he IMed Lamo. By then, he had been probing classified military and government networks for months, and saw that they contained “incredible things, awful things … that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington D.C.,” he told Lamo.
Then he discovered a graphic video of an attack on what seemed to be Iraqi civilians by U.S. Apache gunships back on July 12, 2007. Perhaps the most questionable aspect of the attack came after a van arrived to take one or more of the badly wounded from the scene, probably to a hospital. Fire from the Apache obliterated the van. “At first glance it was just a bunch of guys getting shot up by a helicopter,” Manning supposedly wrote to Lamo much later. “No big deal … about two dozen more where that came from, right? But something struck me as odd with the van thing, and also the fact it was being stored in a JAG officer’s directory. So I looked into it.”
When he returned to Baghdad on February 11 after a trip to the U.S., Manning went into leak mode – according to the chat logs. He would tell Lamo that in February he transmitted to WikiLeaks the Reykjavik13 cable, the 2007 Iraq Apache video; a video of a May 2009 air attack near Garani in Afghanistan that may have killed almost 100 civilians, including many children; a quarter of a million U.S. diplomatic cables from embassies around the world; and possibly much more.
On a somewhat amusing note, the soldier claimed he also leaked a 32-page classified Army study from 2008 — on the threat posed by WikiLeaks to inspire and publish such leaks. WikiLeaks had published it on March 15, producing a highly embarrassing moment for the Pentagon.
On April 5, 2010, WikiLeaks posted on its site the Iraq video, now titled Collateral Murder. It showed U.S. Army Apache helicopter air strikes in an eastern district of Baghdad in July 2007, which killed two staffers for Reuters and a dozen or more others. WikiLeaks said it had obtained the video from unnamed “whistleblowers” in the military.
The video drew a massive worldwide audience, quickly reaching millions. Now WikiLeaks had fully arrived – as a concept, as an organization, as a media fixture in America.
But media coverage of Collateral Murder died quickly, and very little of the actual video was ever aired on national television in America. But the saga of WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning was about to take a fateful turn, partly due to a run-of-the-mill online profile.
The article by editor Kevin Poulsen (he's pictured above with Manning) at Wired magazine’s site on May 20 opened on a richly ironic note (as it would turn out): “Last month Adrian Lamo, a man once hunted by the FBI, did something contrary to his nature. He picked up a pay phone outside a Northern California supermarket and called the cops.”
When police arrived, Lamo, 29, told them his backpack carrying anti-depressants had been stolen. They listened to his halting speech, then put him on a stretcher and took him to an emergency room. Then he was transferred to Woodland Memorial Hospital near Sacramento, and placed on a 72-hour involuntary psychiatric hold under a state law allowing this for those judged dangerous or unable to care for themselves. That stay was extended to nine days, and when he was discharged on May 7, he had a new diagnosis: Asperger’s Disorder.
By then, Lamo had called Poulsen to tell him about his plight. Poulsen, who had known and written about Lamo for the past decade, felt this human interest story was worth a profile for Wired. Lamo was something of a fallen celebrity in geekworld, famous nearly a decade earlier for hacking sites such as Reuters, Microsoft, and Excite, notifying the press soon afterward and sometimes helping the targets identify their security holes. That ended in 2002, however, when he added his name to a list of New York Times op-ed contributors at their site, the FBI was alerted, and he would end up sentenced to six months of house arrest (at his parents’ home) and two years of probation. Years of wandering and depression followed. He became known as “The Homeless Hacker.”
Now Poulsen wrote, “For his part, Lamo thinks Asperger’s might explain his knack for slipping into corporate networks — he usually operated with little more than a web browser and a lot of hunch work. ‘I have always maintained that what I did isn’t necessarily technical, it’s about seeing things differently,’ he says. ‘So if my brain is wired differently, that makes sense.’”
The sympathetic article apparently caught the eye of a young Army private halfway around the world, who thought he saw the world a little differently himself, helping set off a chain of events with frightening consequences, especially for the soldier, after he contacted Lamo directly.
NEXT: Will Frontline tie Manning directly to Assange?