Why Wouldn't Bradley Manning Want to Meet the Bold Star of 'Hackers Wanted'?

There are a lot of unanswered questions in the case of Bradley Manning, the intelligence analyst who was arrested last May, allegedly on information supplied by ex-hacker Adrian Lamo. It is widely believed that Manning is responsible for the leak of over a quarter million diplomatic cables to the WikiLeaks organization. This belief rests largely on the contents of chat logs between Lamo and Manning, excerpts of which were published in Wired magazine, on boingboing and in the Washington Post starting in June of last year.

One of the most interesting of those unanswered questions — right after exactly how long is he going to be held in isolation, without a hearing? — concerns the first contact between Bradley Manning and Adrian Lamo. Of all the people in the world, why did Manning, a troubled and idealistic (and tiny — 5’2″ and 105 pounds, according to the Post) young guy, choose Adrian Lamo as a confidant?

Glenn Greenwald, Marcy Wheeler at FireDogLake and others have been pounding their heads against this question for many moons now. But there is a possible reason for this first contact that’s been overlooked, a reason alluded to by Lamo in his interview with Greenwald last June.

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 [emphasis mine] 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.

Here is an odd coincidence: the hitherto-unreleased documentary in question, Hackers Wanted, was leaked to torrent sites on May 20th, 2010, the very day before Lamo says Manning first contacted him, according to Wired. Is it too much to suppose that Manning watched the documentary, which has nothing at all to do with WikiLeaks directly, but has everything to do with Adrian Lamo’s views on freedom of information and politics?

(On the question of how Manning contacted Lamo, Lamo’s own account contradicts other accounts, as well as his own. Jonathan V. Last’s version goes like this: “In May 2010, [Kevin] Poulsen wrote a story for Wired.com about Lamo’s having been institutionalized for Asperger’s syndrome. The piece was read by Private Manning in Iraq and it struck a chord; he immediately reached out to Lamo and initiated a series of online chats and emails.” That story was also published May 20th — five-and-a-half hours after Wired posted about the documentary In any event, “Manning never mentioned that article,” said Lamo, and Lamo then has alternately said he was contacted by Manning first via IM but then said he was contacted at first by email. But let us return to why.)

It is not the least bit surprising that few journalists have penetrated the mysteries of Hackers Wanted, written and directed by Sam Bozzo, because it is a terrible, terrible awful horrible movie. Only an abiding obsession with the WikiLeaks story could persuade a hapless citizen to endure it. But I am glad I did, because at the very end Adrian Lamo says a number of things that might shed new light on why Bradley Manning first contacted him.

The movie was produced by Trigger Street, the production company of Dana Brunetti and Kevin Spacey; Spacey narrates. Brunetti had been unwilling to release Hackers Wanted; he told the San Francisco Examiner that “while he wanted a film that explored the hacker ‘spirit,’ the version he was given would not have reached the broad audience he envisioned. ‘The current cut of the film is like watching paint dry.’” He had been talking to another director about recutting and releasing it when it was leaked onto The Pirate Bay. (No word on the identity of the leakers; it’s possible that Brunetti is simply too busy to pursue them, since he is also the producer of The Social Network, which came out not long after Hackers Wanted was leaked; if his Twitter feed is any indication, he is spending most of his days flying around accepting awards.)

The focus of Hackers Wanted is meant to be the “grey hat” hackers who bust into the computer systems of companies and government agencies in an effort to reveal security flaws. Instead of “grey hat” hackers, however, the real focus of this movie is the genius, and the saintliness and public spirit of Adrian Lamo. Bozzo compares Lamo to Pythagoras, to Feynman, to Socrates, to Galileo. I mean it! Literally! He zooms into Galileo’s eye and it turns into Adrian Lamo’s eye. At another point, there is a psychedelic halo spinning around Lamo’s head. You just have to burst out laughing at this movie, and at all the wrong times.

That’s not the worst of it though. The worst is the sadistically interminable voiceover, especially in the Geniuses Throughout History bits, which is full of pompous, illiterate, hopelessly weak reasoning that lurches around in tone somewhere between Sven Birkerts and Yoda. Here’s the opening line:

“Man has been and will always be simultaneously fascinated [sic] and terrified of the unknown.”
Or how about:

“They outcast [sic] Pythagoras, and insisted that an invisible man [sic] in a chariot with flying horses dragged the sun across the sky each day.”

(Bozzo rails against those dumb Greeks for failing to recognize the genius of Pythagoras, who may indeed have supposed that the earth was a sphere but let’s face it, the guy thought everything was a sphere, what with the panicky insistence on everything being mathematically exact and symmetrical; he also thought that the earth was in the center of the universe, with the giant “sphere of the fixed stars” revolving from east to west, and then the sun, moon and planets closer in, but going the opposite way. Which is a little bit less far-fetched, maybe, than the myth of Helios, but not much.)

Some of the famous hackers interviewed in the movie are flat-out wonderful to watch, notably John Draper (known as “Captain Crunch” owing to his use of toy whistles for phone phreaking) and Steve Wozniak, who rides down the hall on a Segway and gives the dorky and quite thrilling history of the Homebrew Computer Club. There are legitimately great moments in Hackers Wanted, but it’s the movie equivalent of a huge dry choke-producing scone with two or three delicious raisins in there.

I must say, also, that I developed a lot of respect for Adrian Lamo’s inventiveness and chutzpah, watching the movie. The description of his hacking into the Yahoo! News site is just great. He managed to gain access to the publication pages just by reasoning out how they did stuff, using no code at all, nothing more than web browser, and began by changing just the punctuation of “U.S.” on a Yahoo! News story. Then he hit “publish” and boom! there it was, his new page. He had complete control of Yahoo! News for a bit, there. It’s a cracking tale. Also super interesting is the story of Lamo’s turning himself in to the Feds in 2003, mainly for hacking into the New York Times.

And at the end of this movie, which became available on May 20th, and news of which was all over the place if you were a hacker, Adrian Lamo says the following about his own arrest for computer crime.

In terms of the message that this sends, I understand the government’s point of view, at least I think I do. I understand that they feel the need to send a message that crime can’t be tolerated no matter how well-intentioned it is and I think that in some ways they are unable to look beyond that message. I don’t think they necessarily see the social impact of what they do. I believe that they’re well-intentioned in wanting to prevent crime, and wanting to prevent damage but in the way that they’re going about it, I believe that ultimately it’s not going to achieve the goals that they think it will. It certainly strikes a blow against openness; it strikes a blow against people’s ability to stumble across something and report it in good faith.

I’m not a saint and what I did was illegal no matter how well-intentioned I did it but the fact that what they’re essentially saying is that it doesn’t matter if you come clean, it doesn’t matter if you don’t profit; it doesn’t matter if you do no damage, it doesn’t matter if you cooperate, it doesn’t matter if you discourage others from doing harm; we’re still going to come after you. What does that leave people with? If they’re going to come after me no matter what, then why exercise restraint, why exercise good faith, why be honest? But I hoped and believed that I could do it in a way that would set a precedent that would allow people to come forward in good faith to try and do the right thing to let them believe that maybe motives did matter, that it wasn’t all black and white.

Less than a month later, Lamo would be attempting to defend his betrayal of Manning to Glenn Greenwald:

LAMO: [stammering] I’ll bet you either ten bucks or a beer at a hacker conference that [Manning] doesn’t do more than six months.

GREENWALD: Oh, I’ll take that bet, and we can do both ten dollars and the drink, and if you ever want to add any value to that bet, just let me know, and I’ll just have a standing agreement that I accept.

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo: The Macho of the Dork and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.