Spies, WikiLeaks, and hackers, oh my!

A U.S. intelligence analyst has been arrested for spilling secrets to WikiLeaks, and now the whistle-blowers are on the run

It's like a Hollywood thriller. A military spy is arrested, betrayed by someone he thought to be a comrade in arms -- a brilliant yet mentally disabled hacker. A journalist is on the run, hunted by the authorities who want to know what he knows. All it needs is a love interest and Matt Damon, and I think we can get this greenlit. (When I get through with this blog post I'm going to have my agent call Spielberg and set up a lunch.)

But first, the backstory.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Read up on Cringely's long-standing coverage of Wikileaks' travails, from its economic struggles to its fights with Swiss banks, the Church of Scientology, and, now, the U.S. military.

Last April whistle-blower site WikiLeaks published a disturbing video of a 2007 U.S. military attack in Baghdad in which a dozen civilians were killed. It also published a confidential Department of Defense report that enumerated several ways U.S. intelligence agents could put WikiLeaks out of business, which I wrote about here last March. That report discussed the possibility of the WikiLeaks source being an employee of the U.S. military. It turns out the report was right.

Those documents, as well as some potentially far more serious ones, appear to have come from that very source the report alluded to: U.S. Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, who was arrested earlier this month for espionage and is being held right now in a Kuwait prison.

We know this thanks to Wired News' Kim Zetter and Kevin Poulson, who reported on Manning's identity last week. Thanks to Wired we also know who turned Manning in: legendary hacker Adrian Lamo.

Lamo became famous for breaking into the New York Times' network back in 2002; he also broke into Yahoo News and posted fake stories there. He got caught for the former offense and copped a plea with the feds to avoid doing time. Last month, Wired revealed that Lamo has Asperger's Syndrome, which would account for his extraordinary hacking abilities and apparent lack of social skills. It may have also played a role in how he acted in this incident.

Needing someone to talk to (or maybe just wanting to brag), Manning approached Lamo a few weeks ago, thinking he had found a kindred spirit. After Manning told Lamo he'd stolen 260,000 confidential State Department cables and sent them to WikiLeaks, Lamo contacted the authorities. He then spent more time chatting with Manning online, trying to draw information out of him at the request of the feds.

Now Lamo is receiving death threats -- and a lot of media attention -- for revealing a source, even though he's not a reporter. His reason? He felt Manning posed a serious threat to U.S. security.

WikiLeaks spokes-human Julian Assange has canceled several public appearances in the United States, fearing that he will be detained. (I think he's probably right.) But he's also using this incident to raise funds for the struggling organization. Yesterday he sent out an email that read in part:

WikiLeaks a small organization going through enormous growth and operating in an adverserial, [sic] high-security environment which can make communication time consuming and the acquisition of new staff and volunteers, also difficult since they require high levels of trust.

To try and deal with our growth and the current difficult situation, we want to get you to work together with our other supporters to set up a "Friends of WikiLeaks" group in your area. We have multiple supporters in most countries and would like to see them be a strong and independent force.

This episode raises all kinds of questions, none of which have very clear, satisfying answers.

Is Manning a true whistle-blower or an ordinary spy? Is he closer to Daniel Ellsberg or to Christopher Boyce (whom you may remember from "The Falcon and the Snowman")? It seems from this vantage point he started out as Ellsberg and ended up more like Boyce.

Does Julian Assange have those 260,000 cables Manning claimed to have sent him? So far Assange has only issued some vague denials via Twitter. Can he please stop being so damned coy about it and just tell us?

Was Adrian Lamo right in flipping on Manning? Did his Asperger's play a part in that?

Was Wired right in revealing the alleged source of these leaks? Journalists are supposed to protect the confidentiality of sources. Though Manning was not one of its own sources, Lamo was. Apparently he and former-hacker-turned-reporter Poulsen are friends. Did Lamo understand that he was putting himself in jeopardy by talking to Poulsen and not securing an agreement to keep his identity secret? Did Poulsen take advantage of Lamo's condition to get him to reveal this information?

It's a hot, sticky mess any way you look at it. And once again WikiLeaks and its operations are called into question.

As I've said before: In an age where news-gathering organizations are either being pared to the bone or sucked into the maw of corporate conglomerates, WikiLeaks serves an extremely useful purpose. It's a cheap, easily accessible, hard-to-squelch outlet for news that powerful people don't want you to hear.

But it's also ripe for manipulation, and the material it handles on a daily basis requires the ultimate in editorial judgment and discretion, which we haven't always seen from WikiLeaks. If Assange had 260K confidential cables in his possession, and some of those cables would put U.S. operatives in mortal peril, would he withhold that info? That's a question only WikiLeaks and Assange can answer. So far, he isn't talking.

Hopefully we'll get answers to at least some of these questions, before Hollywood steps in and sugarcoats everything.

What do you think? Who's the hero, who's evil, and who will play them in the movie? E-mail me: cringe@infoworld.com.

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