Wired, Wikileaks and the Hacker-Journalist Complex

On June 6th, Wired.com published a report that military intelligence analyst Bradley Manning had been arrested for allegedly leaking the famous 2007 Apache helicopter attack video to Wikileaks. Now Wikileaks and others are questioning Wired's involvement in the story.

The post on Wired's Threat Level blog was a great scoop and a thrilling read: It detailed how 22 year-old intelligence specialist Bradley Manning contacted a former hacker named Adrian Lamo via IM—"he sensed a kindred spirit in the ex-hacker"—to confess that he was the one who leaked the Apache video and a quarter million sensitive State Department cables to whistleblowing website Wikileaks. After chatting with Manning for a few days, Lamo turned him in. He told Wired: ""I wouldn't have done this if lives weren't in danger."

But Lamo's claim to be motivated by concerns for national security appears to be undermined by a long history of desperate attention-seeking, as detailed today by Salon's Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald writes that "Lamo is notorious in the world of hacking for being a low-level, inconsequential hacker with an insatiable need for self-promotion and media attention". And apparently, Lamo's need for attention has been fulfilled for years by Wired Senior Editor Kevin Poulsen—one of the two authors of the Manning post. Poulsen, himself a former hacker, has written a slew of fawning articles on Lamo's hacking exploits, essentially becoming Lamo's de facto PR guy, according to Greenwald.

Here's how it worked in the Manning case: Manning first contacted Lamo by IM on May 21st. On May 24th, Lamo called Poulsen to let him know about the potential story, but witheld details. Lamo began working with the feds to nab Manning. On May 26th, Manning was arrested. The day after Lamo learned of Manning's arrest, he told the whole story to Poulsen, who drove miles to pick up a zip drive with the chat logs, according to the CJR. Poulsen wrote the post and published June 6th.

We see here how Lamo functions essentially as an informal stringer for Poulsen. Lamo told the BBC that he had even told Manning he was a journalist. That Lamo then turned on his source is a pretty blatant violation of journalistic ethics, but never mind; Poulsen gets his story and Lamo gets his name in the papers.

In typical hyperbolic fashion, Wikileaks has been Tweeting allegations that this means Wired was in collusion with Lamo and, thus, the US government. Really, what's going on doesn't differ much from any source-journalist relationship.

But Wired's role is indeed colored by Poulsen's strong relationship with Lamo—and the fact that Lamo turned Manning into the authorities. When hackers come to the media with, say, evidence of a massive iPad security flaw, they usually demand some sort of anonymity. Manning didn't have this option, since, technically he wasn't speaking with a journalist. But the fact that Lamo presumably intended from the beginning to dish to Poulsen complicates things.

The exact role of Wired in this—and the extent to which Lamo misled Manning to think he was a journalist—could presumably be answered by looking at the full chat logs Lamo gave Poulsen. But Poulsen told Greenwald that Wired didn't release the full transcript because it detailed "personal matters" or sensitive government information. Bullshit. Poulsen and Lamo have been working as an informal hacker-journalist unit for years. It's time to get some Wikileaks-style transparency on how it all works.