On Wednesday Wired released an almost completely unredacted version of the May 2010 chat transcripts between Adrian Lamo and Bradley Manning.
Lamo, an ex-hacker, would later turn these transcripts over to both Wired and the US government, causing Manning’s arrest on charges of having been WikiLeaks’s source for a string of high-profile releases.
But it’s very odd that Greenwald suggests that the transcript fails to confirm the explanation Lamo offered to him in a June 2010 interview about how Manning came to contact Lamo. Here’s Greenwald:
Lamo’s claim in his interview with me about one of the great mysteries here—namely, how and why Manning chose him of all people to contact and confess to (Manning “was searching for ‘Wikileaks’ on Twitter”)—is also not in the chat logs, certainly not with that specificity.
“Certainly not with that specificity” is a five-word phrase worth making note of. Greenwald is right that the just-released logs contain no sentence along the lines of “Hello Adrian, I found you by searching for ‘Wikileaks’ on Twitter.”
But the chat logs actually give ample reason to believe that on this, if on nothing else, Lamo was telling the truth as best as he understood it. And if you accept that, it diminishes the possibility (which Greenwald has brooked before) that something more baroque happened, that Manning’s arrest can be laid at something darker and grander than his poor choice of confidants.
To unwind this, let’s go back to Greenwald’s June 2010 interview with Lamo, where he asked Lamo how Manning had found him. From Greenwald’s transcript:
GREENWALD: One of the things that I find weird and difficult to understand about this whole episode is how he found you and why he decided to find you, so can you just walk me through that first encounter. Like how did he make contact with you and what did he say and how did the whole thing, how did the whole conversation, come about?
LAMO: Absolutely. I understand that he tracked me down as a result of… He was searching for “Wikileaks” on Twitter and saw that in the recent leak of my documentary and people had asked, “Hey where should we send money if we download this?” And I initially said, for lack of a better answer, “Send it to the director. He’s the one who spent his time on it.” And the director said, “No. I don’t want to be compensated for that. It’s problematic.” And I said, “Okay, well send it to Wikileaks because they support similar principles to what are discussed in the documentary. That is to say, curiosity for the sake of curiosity and freedom of information.” And it was a result of that that I popped up on his radar.
GREENWALD: I’m sorry, you were having that discussion on your Twitter feed or where?
LAMO: Yes, on Twitter [unintelligible at 03:05].
GREENWALD: And he was, how did he see that?
LAMO: By searching for “Wikileaks,” the term.
GREENWALD: And then your account came up basically?
LAMO: That is correct… .
GREENWALD: Right. And how do know that that’s how he found you?
LAMO: Because that’s what he proffered to me when I asked him how he had come across my identity.
GREENWALD: And he told that in the chats that you two were having, the IM chats?
LAMO: That’s correct… .
The documentary Lamo references is “Hackers Wanted,” an officially unreleased ninety-minute film from 2007 focusing on his hacking career. On May 20, 2010, Kevin Poulsen, the Wired writer who, with the cooperation of Lamo, would break the news of Manning’s arrest early that June, reported on the magazine’s Threat Level blog that a pirated version of the film had surfaced on the Internet on Tuesday, May 18.
And again, the just-released chat logs give plenty of reason to believe that Lamo came to understand that Manning had found him because of an Internet search, perhaps on Twitter—because it seems that’s exactly what Manning wrote. From the logs:
(10:38:37 AM) firstname.lastname@example.org: I’ve been a friend to Wikileaks—I’ve repeatedly asked people who download Hackers Wanted to donate.
(10:38:44 AM) email@example.com: And donated myself.
(10:38:49 AM) bradass87: i know
(10:38:59 AM) bradass87: actually how i noticed you
(10:39:20 AM) firstname.lastname@example.org: Whether I’ve given material, isn’t material. Semi-pun intended.
(10:39:28 AM) bradass87: during my usual open source collection [twitter, news.google.com, etc.]
(That bracketed text appears in the original, along with many other instances where Manning typed part or all of a particular instant message within brackets.)
So, to review, we have Manning writing that he came to “notice” Lamo while searching open sources, specifically mentioning Twitter as a place he had searched. While the precise chain of call-and-response can be obscured in Internet chat logs, the simplest explanation is that Manning wrote that he was aware of Lamo’s solicitation for donations in relation to the film (“i know”) and that that was “actually how i noticed you.”
And just where did Lamo solicit these donations? Just the day before this chat took place, Lamo had indeed sent a tweet calling, as he said in both his June 2010 conversation with Greenwald and in this chat transcript, for downloaders of “Hackers Wanted” to donate to WikiLeaks. It looks like Lamo also posted a call for people who downloaded the pirated documentary to donate to WikiLeaks in the comment section of Poulsen’s May 20 post on the film.
Based on the logs, Lamo was incorrect to say, as he did in his interview with Greenwald, that Manning “proffered” the Twitter explanation only after he asked why Manning had contacted him.
But a plain reading suggests that he did offer it up. It seems worth underlining that this interaction, this phrase (“actually how I noticed you”), is the only indication we have from Manning on how he came to find Lamo—and, in its essentials, it supports the most detailed account that Lamo has given.
Greenwald, in his post, claims that single-sentence reports in CNET and in The Washingtonian that Manning contacted Lamo “after” reading a profile of him that Poulsen also published on May 20 contradict what Lamo said in their interview. Greenwald is right that neither of these brief mentions bring up the possibility of the Twitter searching that their conversation had featured in relative detail. But this isn’t necessarily contradictory information; the fact that something happened “after” something does not necessarily mean it happened “because” of something.
And it seems almost certain that Manning, who in the logs suggested he was slowly downloading and watching “Hackers Wanted,” would have read Poulsen’s profile of Lamo before this chat. The profile was published just the day before Wired says the chats started. In the just-released logs, Manning brags of having scoured classified networks for information on Lamo. If he took that step, why not try Google? Well, before the exchange on donations and Twitter searches, Manning writes that he had started to “familiarize myself with whats available in open source” on Lamo, meaning what was available on the open Internet.
The chat logs make no specific mention of the profile. But it is hard to believe that Manning wouldn’t have already read it, and not hard to believe, given the timing of their chats and Manning’s plain interest in Lamo, that Lamo would have assumed he had already read it. That would mean that, from Lamo’s point of view, Manning likely reached out to him “after” reading the profile.
Why does any of this matter? In past writing on the case, Greenwald has implied that the concept that that Manning “just happened to pick” Lamo as someone to contact and confess to is hard to believe. The supposition that their first contact was less than random, that it may have had some designed origin, is a key part of a mosaic (advanced in the past by Greenwald) that the ready storyline—Manning almost-randomly finds Lamo, Lamo rats out Manning—is incomplete, misleading, and concealing of something darker, perhaps something having to do with Lamo’s interaction with government-affiliated computer security experts.
We know that Manning reached out and confided in people online he didn’t know more than once. Steve Fishman’s profile of Manning, published earlier this month in New York magazine, quoted heavily from another set of chat logs between a gay rights activist and Manning. They show Manning (isolated, seemingly depressed, and closeted at work) contacting a total stranger whose YouTube account he stumbled across to confide and discus his gender identity—a conversation that, under the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell regime, carried some risk. If it is easy to believe Manning contacted and confided in this person after believing he’d found a sympathetic soul, should it be so hard to believe he approached Lamo in the same way?
This, granted, is a shadowy thicket. Lamo’s personal history and the fact that he has earned wide mistrust by betraying Manning’s confidence gave some reason not to rely on Lamo’s version of events as the only guide. But given that we now have the words of Bradley Manning on how he came to find Lamo, and they support Lamo’s previous, most detailed account, that simple explanation is becoming easier to believe.