A well-known hacker says he tipped authorities off to a man who confided in him about leaking a video of a U.S. military helicopter gunning down journalists and civilians in Iraq in 2007. Other information allegedly being leaked could compromise U.S. foreign policy and lead to deaths, the hacker said.
"I turned him in to protect lives and to protect information that's essential for the U.S. to be able to effectively carry out foreign policy abroad," Adrian Lamo, once busted for breaking into computer networks of high-profile companies, told CNET in a phone interview on Monday. "He was not at all being mindful about what he was leaking. He was basically acting as a vacuum cleaner."
U.S. Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning was arrested nearly two weeks ago from a military base near Baghdad after Lamo shared e-mails and instant-message conversations he had had with Manning.
Manning, 22, of Potomac, Md., deployed with the 2nd Brigade 10th Mountain Division in Baghdad, was placed in pretrial confinement for allegedly releasing classified information. He is currently confined in Kuwait, the Pentagon said in a statement Monday.
In addition to the airstrike shooting video, Manning told Lamo he had leaked video footage showing a 2009 air strike in Afghanistan that killed nearly 200 civilians, including many children; a classified Army document assessing Wikileaks as a security threat; and 260,000 classified U.S. diplomatic cables showing what Manning said were "almost criminal political back dealings," according to Wired, which first broke the story.
"If it was just the video, I would have left the issue alone, and frankly, he would have had my kudos--and he still does," Lamo said. "But it wasn't just the video. It was a lot of information that was unrelated to our activities in Iraq and Afghanistan or the war on terror at all, including information about some of our major trading partners."
Asked to elaborate, Lamo said he couldn't say more, except that the sensitive information had to do with code words and that it was "top-secret sensitive, compartmentalized information."
The Iraq helicopter video, released on Wikileaks in April under the title "Collateral Murder," generated an outpouring of antimilitary sentiment because the shootings appeared to be unjustified and because of the apparent lack of compassion displayed by the unidentified soldiers involved.
The video showed the Apache helicopter shooting at a group of people on the street and a van that pulled up to rescue the injured, wounding several children and killing two Reuters journalists and other unarmed Iraqi civilians.
"Look at those dead bastards," one pilot is heard saying. "Nice," someone else replies. Laughter is heard, as a tank on the ground appears to drive over a dead body.
A perfect storm
Lamo, previously dubbed the "homeless hacker," knows what it's like to be on the wrong side of the law. Sleeping in bus terminals and abandoned buildings, Lamo would use public Internet connections to break into corporate networks and Web sites. He answered customer support e-mails at Excite@Home, told WorldCom how to fix its security to prevent intrusions like his, modified news articles on Yahoo, and used Lexis-Nexis to search for owners of undercover police cars.
While some companies thanked Lamo for pointing out their lax security, others complained, and an arrest warrant was issued in 2003. Lamo spent a few days in hiding before turning himself in and pleading guilty to unauthorized network access at The New York Times, Lexis-Nexis, and Microsoft. He was sentenced to six months of home arrest and 24 months probation, and ordered to pay about $60,000 in fines. After that, he studied journalism and has been working as a threat analyst.
"I've been 22. I've been in shackles and led by guards before a judge to determine my fate. I've been where he is," Lamo said of Manning. "I know it can be terrifying, and I wish to God it hadn't been me that had to do it."
Lamo said he thinks Manning contacted him after reading a Wired article last month about Lamo being diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, after a stint in the hospital for depression.
"He was lonely and wanted somebody to reach out to," Lamo said. "It's the most painful part of it--the fact that he had such a simple and pure intent, and it had to be me."
It's unclear exactly what Manning's motivation was in the alleged whistle-blowing, but a glimpse can be seen in one of his messages to Lamo: "If you had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 8-plus months, what would you do?"
Even though Manning was required to use secured laptops to access the classified networks the information was on--SIPRNET, the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, used by the Defense Department and the State Department to transfer classified data, and the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System--and they were not connected to the Internet, it was still relatively easy for him to smuggle the information out, he told Lamo.
For example, Manning would bring a rewritable CD to work labeled as music, erase the music, and store classified data on it by compressing it and splitting it into smaller files.
I "listened and lip-synced to Lady Gaga's 'Telephone' while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history," he told Lamo. "Weak servers, weak logging, weak physical security, weak counterintelligence, inattentive signal analysis...a perfect storm."
Like many others, Lamo applauded the release of the 2007 video showing the helicopter attack in Iraq. But releasing all the diplomatic cables was going too far, he said.
"My plan initially was not to see him arrested. I and the FBI wanted to continue feeding him disinformation," Lamo said. However, the criminal investigation unit of the Army had other plans, he said.
A compassionate man, Lamo sounds burdened by the weight of his actions. He's been called a "snitch" and received lots of hate mail for turning in someone whom many people, including Wikileaks founder Julian Assange--call a hero. Lamo has even received death threats.
He knew he would feel the heat but felt that the only honorable thing to do was to go public with the story, because Manning "has a right to know who flipped him."
"I agonized over this. I regret the whole situation," Lamo said. "I wish he had never told me anything beyond the gun camera footage, but ultimately, I didn't get Bradley Manning arrested. Bradley Manning got Bradley Manning arrested."