Suspected Wikileaks Source Described Crisis of Conscience Leading to Leaks
Kevin Poulsen and Kim Zetter
June 10, 2010
On his last full day of freedom before Army CID investigators took him into custody, 22-year-old Bradley Manning pondered what would happen if his secret life as a self-described Wikileaks “hacktivist” were ever exposed.
“What would you do if your role [with] Wikileaks seemed in danger of being blown?” was the question posed by ex-hacker Adrian Lamo, who’d been chatting with Manning online for about five days.
“Try and figure out how I could get my side of the story out, before everything was twisted around to make me look like Nidal Hassan,” wrote back Manning.
Manning, an Army intelligence analyst at Forward Operating Base Hammer in Iraq, doubtless thought it was a hypothetical question. But by that time, May 25, the 29-year-old Lamo had already tipped off FBI and Army investigators, and the former hacker was at that moment working to get more information for the government, which would result in Manning’s arrest the next day.
Manning is being held in pretrial detention in Kuwait, and hasn’t been able to defend himself publicly. His lawyer hasn’t responded to e-mails from Wired.com. But his own words to Lamo describe his transformation from dutiful soldier into a leaker. From his chats, it’s clear that Manning was a deeply unhappy and conflicted man, and his personal problems may have combined with a growing cynicism over U.S. foreign policy. But Manning isolated a key turning point in his regard for the military; he said it was when he was ordered to look the other way in the face of an injustice.
Manning had been tasked with evaluating the arrest of 15 Iraqis rounded up by the Iraqi Federal Police for printing “anti Iraq” literature. “The Iraqi federal police wouldn’t cooperate with U.S. forces, so I was instructed to investigate the matter, find out who the ‘bad guys’ were, and how significant this was for the FPs,” he wrote.
But when Manning had the literature translated, he discovered it was a scholarly critique of Iraq Prime Minister Al-Maliki titled Where Did the Money Go?, he wrote. The document was nothing more than a “benign political critique … following the corruption trail within the PM’s cabinet.
“I immediately took that information and ran to the [U.S. Army] officer to explain what was going on. He didn’t want to hear any of it. He told me to shut up and explain how we could assist the FPs in finding MORE detainees.”
He continued. “Everything started slipping after that. I saw things differently. I had always questioned the [way] things worked, and investigated to find the truth. But that was a point where I was a part of something. I was actively involved in something that I was completely against.”
The Defense Department declined to comment on anything Manning wrote in his chats.
“Any information that was discussed could likely be in the realm of classified information so I wouldn’t be able to go on the record about anything,” said spokesman Major Shawn Turner. “I would be breaking the law myself if I talked about what could potentially be information from classified documents. ”
Manning didn’t say when the arrest of the detainees occurred, but at the time he began communicating with Lamo in late May, he said he’d been digging through classified military and government networks for more than a year.
In late 2009 he discovered the video of a 2007 U.S. Apache helicopter strike in Baghdad that killed two Reuters employees and an unarmed man who drove up to the scene afterward in a van and tried to rescue one of the wounded by pulling him into his vehicle. The man’s two children were in the van and suffered serious injuries in the hail of gunfire.
“At first glance it was just a bunch of guys getting shot up by a helicopter,” Manning wrote of the video. “No big deal … about two dozen more where that came from, right? But something struck me as odd with the van thing, and also the fact it was being stored in a JAG officer’s directory. So I looked into it.”
He found more information about the video and the people depicted in it.
“It was unreal,” he wrote Lamo. “I mean, I’ve identified bodies before. It’s rare to do so, but usually its just some nobody. It humanized the whole thing, re-sensitized me.”
In late January, while on leave in the United States, Manning visited a close friend in Boston and confessed he’d gotten his hands on unspecified sensitive information, and was weighing leaking it. “He wanted to do the right thing,” 20-year-old Tyler Watkins told Wired.com on Sunday. “That was something I think he was struggling with.”
He leaked the video to Wikileaks in February, and it was published online by the organization April 5 under the title “Collateral Murder.”
Manning contacted Watkins to find out how it was being received in the U.S. and was concerned that his effort would have been for nothing. He hoped that exposing the video would help prevent similar incidents from happening again.
He told Lamo that the public reaction to the video gave him “immense hope.”
“CNN’s iReport was overwhelmed,” he wrote. “Twitter exploded. People who saw, knew there was something wrong. I want people to see the truth, regardless of who they are. Because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”
Manning claimed in his chats with Lamo that he sent other data to Wikileaks, including a second video showing the notorious 2009 Garani air strike in Afghanistan — that Wikileaks has previously acknowledged is in its possession but has not yet published — and a database of 260,000 classified State Department diplomatic cables.
“I just couldn’t let these things stay inside of the system and inside of my head,” he wrote Lamo at one point about some of his leaks.
Ethan McCord, a soldier who was seen in the published Iraq video carrying the wounded children from the bombed out van told Wired.com in the wake of the release that he approved of its public exposure.
Manning added McCord as a friend on Facebook after he saw a TV interview with him, never revealing to his fellow soldier that he was behind the leak. He marveled to Lamo about the six-degrees-of-separation nature of his connection to McCord.
“It’s almost bookworthy in itself, how this played. Event occurs in 2007, I watch video in 2009 with no context, do research, forward information to group of FOI activists, more research occurs, video is released in 2010, those involved come forward to discuss event, I witness those involved coming forward to discuss publicly, even add them as friends on FB without them knowing who I am.
“They touch my life, I touch their life, they touch my life again . . . full circle.”
“Life’s funny,” Lamo replied.
McCord told Wired.com this week that he thought Manning was a friend of a friend when he accepted his Facebook friend request, and never communicated with him. When he saw Manning’s name in news stories earlier this week identifying Manning as the leaker, he thought the name sounded familiar and checked his Facebook account.
“It was just kind of shocking to see that, and know that this guy had friend requested me on Facebook,” he says.
He read through Manning’s Facebook page and saw someone who seemed overwhelmed with frustration.
“There’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s just angry, McCord said. “There’s so many things that are like, wow, he’s in a dark place at the moment. I don’t know if it was the Army or what.”
McCord says he still supports Manning leaking the video and doesn’t think he should be punished for it, but was “a little distraught” over news that Manning might have released other sensitive information, such as the classified State Department cables.
“[The video] didn’t show anything that was top secret or anything else like that,” he said. “But if he was leaking secrets and stuff that could potentially take the lives of other soldiers or civilians, then I don’t stand behind that. … There’s a thin line between responsibility and just being reckless and endangering.”
In early May, Manning was demoted from Specialist to Private First Class after punching a colleague in the face during an argument. “Something I never do . . . !?” he told Lamo.
“It was a minor incident, but it brought attention to me,” he said. At this point, his life, which was already in turmoil, began to unravel as his career began to implode.
He told Lamo, “I’m isolated as fuck. My life is falling apart, and I don’t have anyone to talk to.”
He described being overwhelmed by personal issues and stresses that were quickly piling up. He indicated he was “self-medicating like crazy” during his off-work hours.
“I had about three breakdowns, successively worse, each one revealing more and more of my uncertainty and emotional insecurity.”
Manning loved his job and told Lamo that he had received a number of award recommendations and commendations for work that led to “the disruption of ‘Former Special Groups’ in the New Baghdad area.” He had helped identify previously unknown enemy support zones and his analyses helped the Army identify and target insurgent leaders in the region.
Watkins, Manning’s friend, told Wired.com that Manning was very good at his job and struggled with the decision to leak the Iraq video.
“By doing that, he put his career in immanent danger,” Watkins said. “He had put a lot of work and effort into doing his job well and is very good at what he did. To do this, and to get caught, basically kills any chance of career advancement. … It’s not something career-wise and personal-wise that you necessarily bounce back from.”
Manning told Lamo that he wasn’t so much afraid of getting caught and facing the consequences of his actions but “of being misunderstood, and never having the chance to live the life I wanted to.”
Looking beyond the Army, he hoped to get a job in graphics design, web development or even intelligence analysis or domestic and international politics.
But he also seemed to sense the unlikelihood of this if he were ever caught for leaking.
“I think I’m in more potential heat than you ever were,” he wrote Lamo.
He said that Julian Assange had offered him a position at Wikileaks. But he said,” I’m not interested right now. Too much excess baggage.”