When Wikileaks published the video of a 2007 helicopter assault in Baghdad, it created a momentary storm of controversy over the rules of engagement in war zones. Momentary indeed; eight days later, Stephen Colbert managed to conduct a surgical takedown on the dishonest presentation of the video that Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange used. All it proved in the end is that tagging along with RPG-carry terrorists in a war zone is a bad, bad, bad idea for journalists concerned about their personal safety.
Today, though, it might also prove that leaking classified data is a dangerous pastime, especially if you don’t choose your friends more carefully than Army Specialist Bradley Manning did. His contact, a former hacker, blew the whistle on Wikileaks’ source:
When Army Spec. Bradley Manning reached out to a stranger online — to tell him about the reams of classified documents he had obtained — he was looking for an ally.
Instead, his new contact, Adrian Lamo, turned him in.
On Monday, the U.S. military said it had detained Manning, an intelligence analyst from Potomac, for allegedly disclosing classified information. Officials said they were investigating whether Manning, 22, had leaked documents to Wikileaks.org, a secretive three-year-old Web site that allows whistleblowers to publicize sensitive material globally. …
Lamo, 29, a former hacker, acknowledged in an interview that he had informed authorities about Manning — and said he had done so in the name of national security. The files were said to include scores of classified State Department records, as well as video footage of a controversial helicopter attack that killed Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters employees, in 2007.
It proves something else, too. It proves that the Obama administration actually does take leaks and classified material seriously. This is the latest in a series of arrests in leak probes, although in Manning’s case, they didn’t have to do much digging after Lamo dropped a dime on Manning.
Having worked in the defense industry for a few Cold War years and having had some non-exotic security clearances, I have found these kinds of cases both fascinating and familiar. Manning fits a profile of a security risk, someone who has become disaffected, somewhat arrogant, and … rather stupid. People breach classified material usually for two reasons: profit or protest. Manning falls squarely into the latter:
Manning reportedly said that he had come across documents and that he thought they contained “incredible things, awful things . . . that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington, D.C.”
“If you had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months, what would you do?” Manning asked.
Lamo said Manning felt mistreated by the military and wanted the Army to see “the futility” of its computer-security measures. He told Lamo how he once walked out of a classified document room at Forward Operating Base Hammer with data that he had copied onto a CD labeled as Lady Gaga music.
Manning told Lamo he had already leaked a video depicting a 2009 airstrike in Afghanistan that Wikileaks had acknowledged it had in its possession; a classified Army document evaluating Wikileaks as a security threat; and a previously unreported breach of 260,000 classified U.S. diplomatic cables.
Anyone working with classified material knows the penalties for disclosure, whatever the motivation. They also know the proper way to report abuses or crimes. The first step is the chain of command. If that doesn’t work, then there are other channels, including making contact with Congress. There isn’t a step labeled “Call the New York Times” or “Publish on Wikileaks.” There are a lot of reasons why those processes aren’t included in DISCO regs, but primarily it’s because an Army specialist (or a tech writer) doesn’t have the knowledge of the full scope of the classified programs to determine whether a release will endanger national security. That is the ultimate reason for securing information, and everyone with a security clearance knows it.
But if that’s foolishness, then this from Wikileaks is sheer stupidity:
A spokesman for Wikileaks declined Monday to say whether Manning had been a source and said the group was launching its own review into whether an arrest of a whistleblower violates laws in Sweden and Belgium, two countries in which the site operates.
Yes, that could certainly be relevant, if the leak happened in Sweden or Belgium. Manning leaked it while in a theater of war that didn’t include either of those two countries, and the laws he broke were American. Given the cerebral candlepower of everyone involved, it’s amazing that they managed to get this far without accidentally publishing Manning’s name before now.
Update: Fixed misspelling in headline.