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07.29.10

The Pentagon's WikiLeaks Breakthrough

Adrian Lamo, the ex-hacker who turned in suspected Afghan war-logs leaker Bradley Manning, says he helped the Pentagon connect the dots in the case. Philip Shenon reports.

The former California computer hacker who first raised the alarm weeks ago about a massive leak of classified documents to the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks said he provided the Pentagon this week with technical information that almost certainly proves that the leaker was 22-year-old Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning.

And he said he hopes he helped the Pentagon figure out what secrets WikiLeaks will reveal next.

Adrian Lamo, the former hacker, told The Daily Beast in an interview that he began analyzing the huge library of classified information about the war in Afghanistan immediately after its release by WikiLeaks on Sunday. On Monday, he said, he alerted Pentagon criminal investigators to technical markings on the documents that would allow them to identify exactly which Defense Department computer databases had been used to store the information.

“I really do believe Manning was guided by—and to an extent, manipulated by—WikiLeaks,” Lamo says.

With the help of military contacts, “I looked at the so-called Afghan war logs and identified what systems it looked like they were sourced from,” Lamo said. The Pentagon might now be able to use the same technical information, he said, “to figure out what else is about to released” by WikiLeaks, which is threatening other disclosures of military secrets.

Lamo tells The Daily Beast that, when he called the investigators on Monday, they seemed unaware of the importance of the markings and how they might be used to identify the leaker.

With the information, Lamo said, the investigators had apparently been able to quickly review Defense Department computer records and show conclusively that Manning, the troubled young analyst from Potomac, Maryland, leaked the Afghan war logs to WikiLeaks.

Lamo said that he and a group of electronics-savvy contacts, including veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, determined that the Afghan logs could only have come from a small number of government computer databases—databases that Manning had almost certainly tried to access in gathering information to leak to WikiLeaks. “I believe you wouldn’t even need to see Manning’s computer to figure it out,” Lamo said.

A Pentagon spokesman, Marine Colonel David Lapan, said Thursday he could not comment on Lamo’s remarks, citing the need for confidentiality in an ongoing criminal investigation.

The Defense Department said Thursday night that Manning had been flown earlier in the day from Kuwait, where he has been held since last month, to the United States and transferred to a Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Virginia, to await the military equivalent of a grand jury hearing.

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“Manning was transferred because of the potential for lengthy continued pretrial confinement given the complexity of the charges and ongoing investigation,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “The criminal investigation remains open.”            

Manning is facing formal charges that he leaked a library of secret material to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, including a video of a deadly 2007 American airstrike in Baghdad. He has not been charged so far with disclosing the Afghan war logs, although Pentagon officials have suggested this week that Manning was a key suspect in that leak, as well.

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the Pentagon had obtained “concrete evidence” that tied Manning to the leak of the Afghan war reports. But the paper said “it isn’t precisely clear what that evidence is.”

On Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates assailed WikiLeaks for disclosing the war logs, saying the leak would endanger the lives of American soldiers and Afghan informants and would undermine trust between the United States and its allies.

“The battlefield consequences of the release of these documents are potentially severe and dangerous for our troops, our allies and our Afghan partners, and may well damage our relationships and reputation in that key part of the world,” he said. “In the wake of this incident, it will be a real challenge to strike the right balance between security and providing our frontline troops the information they need.”

Lamo, who abandoned his hacking career after he was charged in 2004 with breaking into the computer systems of The New York Times, has figured in almost every chapter of the recent WikiLeaks saga.

It was Lamo who turned in Manning to the FBI and Army criminal investigators this spring.

Lamo, who is 29 and lives near Sacramento, said he had had no choice after Manning reached out to him in May, apparently seeking a kindred soul in the hacking world, and confessed that he had downloaded massive amounts of classified information and had leaked the material to WikiLeaks.

Lamo has said that he feared the disclosures to WikiLeaks could endanger people identified in the reports—a fear that he said had only grown worse since WikiLeaks released the Afghan war logs on Sunday night.

News organizations say that the logs released last weekend contain the names and home villages of hundreds of NATO’s Afghan informants, who might now be targeted for death by the Taliban and its insurgent allies.

“I really wish I could have played a different role in Manning’s life,” Lamo said. “I’m all the more angry at the fact that I really do believe Manning was guided by—and to an extent, manipulated by—WikiLeaks.”

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 .