Defense Department investigators are weighing espionage charges against a 22-year-old Army intelligence specialist accused of leaking highly classified documents to the website Wikileaks. On Saturday, the investigators took custody of electronic records from a former computer hacker based in California who has emerged as the Pentagon’s key informant in the case, the informant tells The Daily Beast.
The former hacker, Adrian Lamo, first alerted the Defense Department to the leaks by Army Specialist Bradley Manning—including a 2007 video of an American helicopter attack in Baghdad, which created a sensation when posted recently by Wikileaks, as well as a cache of sensitive State Department cables.
The word “espionage” appeared on a formal release form that Lamo was asked to sign by the Pentagon criminal investigators who took custody of his electronic records.
Lamo, a former hacker who once tapped into a New York Times database, has emerged as the Pentagon's key informant in the Bradley Manning case. (Photo: Frances M. Roberts / Newscom)
Lamo said in an interview Saturday night that he had voluntarily turned over his computer records, including contents of one of his hard drives, to the Pentagon earlier in the day. He said criminal investigators from the Defense Department were scheduled to interview him again on Sunday near his home in California.
Lamo said he first learned that Manning might face espionage charges, a crime that could carry the death penalty, when the word “espionage” appeared on a formal release form that he was asked to sign by the Pentagon criminal investigators who took custody of his electronic records. “It’s one of the statutes that was written down on a piece of paper that I signed to authorize the search,” Lamo said. Calls to the Pentagon press office were not immediately returned Saturday night.
Lamo said he understood that the Defense Department and the State Department were alarmed by the damage that might be done to national security if Wikileaks, which is based nominally on a server in Sweden and bills itself as a whistleblowers’ website, posts all of the information that it had received from Manning in recent weeks. Manning, who had been based in Iraq, is reported to be under arrest in neighboring Kuwait.
Logs of an Internet chat that began in May between Lamo and Manning, first made public by Wired magazine, show that Manning bragged of having provided Wikileaks with an explosive video of a American helicopter attack in Baghdad in 2007 in which a dozen people were killed, including two employees of the news agency Reuters; the video appeared on Wikileaks in April. Manning also boasts in the logs of having downloaded 260,000 State Department cables and turned them over to Wikileaks. Among them: classified material prepared by department officials in the Middle East regarding the workings of Arab governments and their leaders, according to an American diplomat.
“I think any rational person would see the national-security threat here,” Lamo said of Manning. Lamo, 29 years old, gained notoriety after his arrest for having hacked into the computer system of The New York Times in 2003. He now works as a journalist and consultant.
Government officials said last week that they were urgently trying to determine the whereabouts of the Australian-born founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, if only to urge him not to publish any other classified material that Manning may have provided to Wikileaks. Assange, who has no permanent home, has not replied to repeated emails from The Daily Beast. He canceled an appearance scheduled for Friday night at a journalists’ conference in Las Vegas.
Lamo said he did not know the whereabouts of Assange. Nor did he know what Assange might do with other material that he obtained from Manning. “I would be trying very hard to be scarce,” Lamo said of Assange. As of last week, Assange, another former computer hacker, was believed to be in his native Australia.
In the interview with The Daily Beast, Lamo said he understood that the Defense Department was particularly alarmed about material that Manning had provided to Wikileaks that dealt with a particular foreign country—a country that Lamo said he could not reveal.
CNET News, a technology news website, identified the country as China and said that Manning had provided Wikileaks with information about allegations that China orchestrated cyberattacks on internet giant Google, including efforts to infiltrate the Gmail accounts of human rights activisits. The cyberattacks led Google to withdraw from mainland China and base its operations in neighboring Hong Kong.
Lamo said he did not have serious doubts about Manning’s claim that the young intelligence analyst had gotten access to the 260,000 cables and provided them to Wikileaks. “Everything else that former Specialist Manning told me has turned out to be true,” Lamo said.
Lamo said he turned in Manning to the Pentagon out of fear that the volume of Manning’s leaks would put lives at risk—within the United States government and elsewhere. He said it pained him to turn informant against Manning—“I feel bad for him”—but “you can regret something and know that you’ve done the right thing.”
Philip Shenon, a former investigative reporter at The New York Times, is the author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation.