“I will talk to you on camera under one condition: I won’t give you an address of where I live, and all driving directions must be over the phone, nothing can be written in a computer.” These were Adrian Lamo’s words in response to my request for an interview. The 29-year-old Colombian-American ex-hacker gave alleged Wikileaks source Private Bradley Manning over to authorities. Ever since then he has become one of the most hated figures in cyberspace, receiving all types of threats, with “different degrees of credibility” according to him.
I meet him in his small studio apartment. The place was a total mess, and he apologised – there were boxes and books on the floor, clothes, food and bottles of alcohol, a small scale (to weigh his pet leopard-gecko) and a poisonous type of cactus from Africa.
He had a baseball cap with the word “snitch” written across it, and told me that “some people were advertising that I was a federal informant so I felt it was my civic duty to have it broadly displayed, like: warning snitch approaching.” There was a moment of silence and then he said, “It’s a joke.” Throughout the interview there were several of these awkward moments. He denies ever working for the government as an informant.
Lamo says he has Asperger, a mental condition known as the “geek syndrome.” Every time he is asked a question, he has to think about the answer first and then he responds in a monotone voice, always politely, with a slightly superior tone (he asked me why and how I had been assigned to interview him).
I asked if he regretted or felt any guilt for having turned in Bradley Manning to the authorities, especially after additional charges were added to his indictment, which basically mean that he could spend life in a military prison or even face the death penalty. He said he regrets that Manning is worrying about the potential punishment, but he doesn’t think he will get the death penalty: “Historically we don’t execute our spies in America.” I insisted that for the military, the charge of “aiding the enemy” is very serious, and that one of the potential verdicts of the court martial is the death sentence. He replied that as a soldier, Manning knew the consequences:
I think he did a brave yet stupid thing and he dishonored the oath he took to his country.”
When I commented about the reports of inhumane and degrading treatment that Manning has been subjected to according to his lawyer, he said that he did not believe them to be true.
He explains that when Private Manning allegedly confessed himself the source of the WikiLeaks, providing them the cable gate documents and a video of US soldiers killing 12 civilians in Iraq, he made himself a witness and he had to hand him to the authorities, not only for being a witness, but because there was information there that put people at risk.
I asked for precise examples of information that he considered of national security but he said he could not talk about it. The Pentagon recently said that no one has been directly harmed by the WikiLeaks documents.
I took no joy in it, it was not the right choice, it wasn’t the wrong choice, there was no right or wrong choice,” he says, adding, “I wish I could have been a friend to Bradley.”
Many wonder if they were friends at all.
The accounts of how both came into contact have been the source of much skepticism. Lamo says Manning reached out to him, due to common experiences – at 22 Adrian Lamo was arrested for computer intrusion after it became known that he had hacked The New York Times website.
Ironically Manning was also 22 when he was captured and sent to the Quantico military base. What most people fail to realise is that, for better or worse, the only person who knows Bradley Manning’s inner struggles and motivations is Lamo. As he chatted for days via encrypted messages, both men shared and confided in each other. Lamo says that he no longer has the transcripts of the conversations, a web magazine (Wired) selected what to publish and what to edit.
“Wired has the entirety of the logs the bulk contains material that is a conversation between two people with a lot in common, one a young man in Iraq who is very troubled by the whole situation there, who has personal issues and needed to talk to someone, who needed a friend.”
Watch the full Q&A here:
Lamo’s conclusion is that whistle blowing should be done in a responsible manner, through legal paperwork. This seems very contradictory for someone who once hacked websites only to get publicity. He admits Private Manning had good intentions – allegedly, the soldier told him that he saw crimes being committed by his own country and wanted to shed light on them. He says that Manning was someone who wanted to make the world a better place but didn’t know how, and that if he could go back in time he would hand him to authorities again.