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07.28.10

WikiLeaks Probe Heats Up

Government officials have expanded the investigation of Bradley Manning, suspected of spilling the Afghan war secrets, to include possible U.S. civilian accomplices. Philip Shenon reports.

Criminal investigators suspect that the young Army intelligence analyst accused of turning over a trove of classified material to the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks had computer-savvy civilian accomplices in the U.S. and elsewhere who helped direct him to gather information, government officials say.

Investigators from the Pentagon and the Justice Department are trying to retrace the travels of the suspected leaker, 22-year-old Bradley Manning of Potomac, Maryland, during a visit home to the U.S. last winter in which he appears to have told friends that he was considering leaking the information. Manning was based at the time in Iraq.

Officials tell The Daily Beast they suspect the possible civilian accomplices in the U.S. and elsewhere may have helped direct Manning to Julian Assange, the elusive Australian-born founder of WikiLeaks, who then organized an electronic pipeline that allowed Manning to transmit the information secretly.

“[Government investigators] would be trying to determine just those things—did he have help and what kind of help?” said Pentagon spokesman Dave Lapan.

The comments from the officials correspond to information provided by Adrian Lamo, the former computer hacker in California who turned in Manning to authorities this spring.

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In an interview with The Daily Beast last weekend, Lamo said that he did not believe Manning, an intelligence specialist, had the sort of technical background in computers that would allow him to gather all of the information that he is believed to have turned over to Assange. Lamo has said that he is certain that Manning was the source of the more than 90,000 classified military reports from the war in Afghanistan that were made public last weekend by WikiLeaks. The Defense Department confirmed this week that it expanded its investigation of Manning to determine whether the Afghanistan reports were part of the library of classified material that he is believed to have leaked.

The Justice Department confirmed today that it was part of the investigation of Manning, suggesting that the investigation now involved criminal suspects other than Manning.

Traveling Wednesday in Cairo, Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters that “the Justice Department is working with the Department of Defense with regard to an investigation concerning who the source of those leaks might be.”  He added, “Whether there will be any criminal charges brought depends on how the investigation goes.”

Manning, reportedly being held in confinement in Kuwait, is already facing court martial in the military justice system.

A Pentagon spokesman, Marine Col. Dave Lapan, said in an interview that Manning had not yet entered a plea to charges of illegally transferring classified data—charges that could result in a prison sentence of more than 50 years—and was awaiting the military equivalent of a grand jury hearing.

Colonel Lapan said he did not know if criminal investigators were focused on the possibility that Manning had civilian accomplices in the United States or elsewhere, but he said that “if something like that were true, it would fall to the Justice Department.”

He said it would only be natural for criminal investigators at the Pentagon and Justice Department to try to determine if Manning had accomplices in such a massive leak. “They wouldn’t just stop at the one individual,” he said. “They would be trying to determine just those things—did he have help and what kind of help?”

A close friend of Manning’s in Boston, Tyler Watkins, 20 years old, told Wired.com’s Threat Level blog in June that Manning had visited him last winter and confessed that he had obtained secret information from Pentagon computer networks and was considering whether to leak it. “He wanted to do the right thing,” Watkins was quoted as saying. “That was something I think he was struggling with.”

Several telephone calls to Watkins from The Daily Beast were not returned this week.

Assange has said that he has stopped traveling to the United States on the advice of lawyers who say he could face legal sanctions here.

He could face legal troubles in his homeland of Australia, as well, according to news reports. The Australian Associated Press quoted the director of a prominent defense research group there as saying that Assange may be in violation of Australian national-security laws that bar assistance to the nation’s military adversaries; Australian troops have been part of the American-led NATO force in Afghanistan.

Neil James, who runs the research group, the Australian Defense Association, was quoted as saying that Assange might be guilty “of a serious criminal offense by assisting an enemy.” Assange, who was in Britain this week, has not replied to repeated email requests for comment.

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.