Adrian Lamo, Wikileaks, and what it means to be a patriot

Adrian Lamo, Wikileaks, and what it means to be a patriot

Summary: Life is full of little decisions. What to make for dinner. What color T-shirt to wear. Whether it's time to mock Apple fans again. You know, those little, simple decisions of daily life.

TOPICS: Security

Life is full of little decisions. What to make for dinner. What color T-shirt to wear. Whether it's time to mock Apple fans again. You know, those little, simple decisions of daily life.

But for Adrian Lamo, the decision was whether or not to call the U.S. Government and turn in a U.S. Army intelligence analyst. Adrian made the right decision.

Here's the cast of characters. First, there's Adrian Lamo. We in the tech sphere got to know him some years ago for his hacking exploits, back when he broke into the New York Times and eventually turned himself in to authorities.

Then there's U.S. Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, who apparently passed classified secrets on to Wikileaks, the Web site that publishes pretty much anything explosive it can get its hands on.

Finally, there's Australian Julian Assange, the founder and operator of Wikileaks, who moves around a lot and is not exactly on the top of the U.S. Government's Christmas card list.

Manning (the Army intelligence analyst) did some very bad things. He leaked classified information he had access to as part of job. This information included a video of a U.S. helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed several civilians. Far worse, he is also thought to have leaked upwards of 260,000 classified State Department diplomatic cables.

Let's be clear here. Manning, who's all of 22 years old, broke the law in a big way and is being punished. He's currently under arrest in Kuwait.

Adrian (the American hacker) got sucked into the story when Manning contacted him about the documents he'd stolen. Apparently, Manning read a profile of Adrian in Wired and thought him a kindred spirit. Manning was wrong. Manning is a traitor. Adrian is not.

That's why Adrian Lamo made the tough decision to contact the government. In doing so, he did exactly the right thing, but at a cost to his reputation as an outside-the-law hacker. Since this story broke, Adrian has received numerous death threats and is in regular contact with the FBI over protective measures.

Then there's Julian Assange, one of the key people behind the infamous Wikileaks Web site. The U.S. government is looking for him. They're still trying to recover the missing diplomatic documents and, apparently, Assange is on the run.

Next: Examining the moral and ethical issues »

Examining the moral and ethical issues

On one hand, the moral and ethical issues of this story are about as simple as they come. An Army intelligence analyst leaked secrets, those secrets need to be recovered, and the leaker must be punished. Lamo's a hero and Assange is a bad guy.

But there's also another side to this, one that's ethically murky but equally worth consideration. Wikileaks provides a brave and necessary function in our society: they shine light on information that was once hidden in the dark. In many cases, maybe this information should be visible, because we often can't right wrongs until we know about them.

And then there's the soldier, Manning. On one hand, soldiers must follow orders. They must uphold the requirements of their superiors. But what happens when those orders are illegal or horrifying, as they were, for example, in Nazi Germany? Then, the real right action for soldiers is to stand up against those orders, to fight for their fellow citizens, and right the wrongs being perpetrated.

Did Manning think he was righting some wrong? After all, there's been considerable debate about the Iraq war and our conflict in Afghanistan is now the longest war in American history.

If Manning thought he was righting some wrong, is he still a traitor? Or is he a hero? To some in the anti-war movement, Manning is a hero. The reality, though, is he's a young man who made the wrong decision.

Make no mistake, it was the wrong decision. Manning is not a hero. By his actions, he's put American lives at stake, potentially derailed worldwide diplomatic efforts, and could cause a war to take a new and potentially even more deadly direction.

What about Julian Assange and Wikileaks? Here, it's a little less clear, because Assange isn't an American citizen nor an American soldier. The purpose of Wikileaks is noble, but with that noble purpose comes responsibility.

If Assange (and his Wikileaks cohorts) believe that anything can and should be posted to Wikileaks, then they're wrong. Some secrets should be kept secret, for the benefit of our civilization. If, for example, we have Americans embedded with terrorist cells, searching for missing fissionable material, "outing" them would not only put those patriots at risk, but potentially entire populations.

It would be wise for Wikileaks to cooperate with American authorities. First, we make potent allies -- and even more potent enemies. But even more to the point, if Wikileaks wants to continue its noble purpose, then it must make value judgments and moral and ethical decisions. To do otherwise wouldn't be noble, it'd simply be fostering chaos for the purpose of fostering chaos.

Finally, Adrian Lamo did exactly the right thing. Adrian's had a difficult life these last few years and I'm sure he would rather he was never placed in the position Manning put him in. But given the emails that arrived on his laptop that fateful day, there was nothing else Lamo could have done, or could have done better.

Tough choices. I'm thinking I'll wear my red, white, and blue T-shirt today.

Topic: Security


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • RE: Adrian Lamo, Wikileaks, and what it means to be a patriot

    It is a matter of fact that most American's have lost faith in their politicians. They are not interested in the spin that is often used by one party or another to obscure the truth and proceed into unimaginably expensive wars (for example). They are more than capable of looking at the FACTS and making their own determination on what is right and wrong. It is the very reason why the press is supposed to be held with such high esteem; it is there to help the public become as informed as possible. But legal hurdles exist that prevents them from doing their job. That is where Wikileaks (and it's informants) come in. Although I agree with you that outing intelligence agents by name is dangerous as it can get people killed. It is to Wikileak's benefit to not allow that to happen. At the end of the day, as Daniel Ellsberg has suggested, the majority of classified information is classified to avoid embarrassment or the divulging of questionable actions that are taking place on behalf of the American people. And for that reason, Manning is a hero and not the villain in this particular situation for elucidating the true machinations behind U.S. foreign policy.
    • RE: Adrian Lamo, Wikileaks, and what it means to be a patriot

      @trelayne As a former intelligence analyst for the Army, let me correct Daniel Ellsberg. He is full of crap. While the intelligence might only really need classified for a few weeks, it is information you cannot let the enemy have. When you get your ass onto the battlefield, we can see if you are so willing to declassify everything about what you are doing.
      • RE: Adrian Lamo, Wikileaks, and what it means to be a patriot

        @MadWhiteHatter. Being from army "intelligence", everyone knows you're going to spew the party line. So I won't argue with a religious convert except for this one point. If Ellsberg had leaked those documents years earlier, thousands of America's finest never would have died for a cause---that in the end---was put into motion by a madman who sent orders from the comfort of his home. What was that about asses on the battlefield? History will remember Ellsberg and Manning as patriotic heroes.
    • RE: Adrian Lamo, Wikileaks, and what it means to be a patriot

      @trelayne First off, Adrian did the right thing. Class act.

      Manning may have had a valid reason for wanting this outed. I don't know for sure. He should be punished regardless. If a private citizen got their hands on this, I would have expected no less. He is under contract not to divulge this information. If I did the same with secret company information where I work, I would be fired and prosecuted. He deserves no less.

      Lastly, I don't see how you can hold wikileaks responsible. They are under no obligation to filter anything, other than fear of lawsuit. They weren't under contract to protect this or even should they have needed to check for it's legality. I wouldn't have done it but it's more of an ethical thing than legal.
      • RE: Adrian Lamo, Wikileaks, and what it means to be a patriot

        @20kwfence Actually, Adrian did what he did because he has Aspergers. Many people with Aspergers have difficulty putting themselves in the position of others. It's called "mind-blindness" in the literature. Having been diagnosed at such a late stage in his life, he clearly did not have the guidance he needed to make moral decisions. For example, "Aspies" (despite high expertise in a small set of subject matters) tend to get coldly logical when they are presented with moral situations that challenge them beyond what they are capable of processing. In this case, Lamo could not really comprehend Manning's motives for the leak. Despite Manning's best efforts (and this is common among Apies), Lamo could not understand intuitively the injustices Manning witnessed on the field and in diplomatic files---at least not in the way most would. It was through this severely limited lense that Lamo made his decision. Lamo will live with this for the rest of his life.
    • RE: Adrian Lamo, Wikileaks, and what it means to be a patriot


      Of all the classified information in existence, I'd guess that maybe 2% is classified for PR reasons. First of all, classification guidelines are normally developed well in advance of the generation of classified information. Those guidelines aren't remotely based on how embarrassing or incriminating the information is, nor are they prescient enough to be prepared for whatever boneheaded mistake a soldier or politician is going to make next. Without those guidelines, the information would be out there before it could be classified - once the information is out in the wild, classifying it doesn't do all that much good. It's only truly a leak if it was classified BEFORE it ended up on a wiki somewhere, and it's only classified before it becomes public if there is a classification guideline that says the information must be protected.

      PR might (very rarely) play a role is why something is not DE-classified, but it's much more likely that something wasn't declassified simply because there wasn't time, money, or motivation to determine if it was worth the risk of putting the information out into the wild. It's a horrible idea for someone without the proper authority to decide for himself to "unofficially declassify" (leak) classified information, as that someone is almost definitely missing part of the picture that explains why the information needed to be protected in the first place. Releasing classified information is a crime for a reason, a very, very good reason. Bradley Manning belongs in jail.
      • RE: Adrian Lamo, Wikileaks, and what it means to be a patriot

        @zeblonite 2% ? You serious? A LOT of stuff is classified for reasons other than pure national security. Well, you can draw all sorts of long bows with that. Like how it might make people more upset with you if they knew the mistakes and bad decisions being made - that could affect national security.
        There is a bad bad bad culture within governments in your country and mine (Australia) in which all sorts of stuff is covered up under the guise of national security. If I stuff up at work or do something wrong on purpose, people will almost certainly find out and that's a good thing - it keeps me in line if ethics and personal standards might not. While Manning did break the law I have a fair bit of respect for him and I think his actions will be copied by many more and will contribute to a positive change in government culture. He will suffer and so will others like him but exposing wrong doing is everyone's duty mate - wouldn't you agree?
        Maybe next time the Whitehouse is asked to examine material before it gets published they will respond differently. And maybe in time less bad things will be done in the name of yours and my countries.
        John in Brisbane
    • RE: Adrian Lamo, Wikileaks, and what it means to be a patriot

      @trelayne The kid leaked classified info. He is a criminal. He is certainly not a Daniel Ellsberg. The Pentagon Papers scenario is not comparable to this incident except in very broad strokes. Manning is no hero by a long shot. For one thing, the public opinion of the US Citizenry by and large will not be impacted one iota by the release of anything Manning had his hands on. We all recognize that there are terrible consequences when errors are made by those with heavy firepower. There is an inclination to want to cover your butt, but it is not up to the lowly analyst to make decisions about the dissemination of operational information.

      Because of Ellsberg there are processes in place, along with a healthy bit of suspicion on the part of the public, that eventually illuminate the ugly events that happen from time to time. Manning should have kept it to himself.

      He deserves punishment to the fullest extent of the law.
      • it is not up to the lowly analyst?

        well well well, who else would follow up on such an incident, with which I mean that the helicopter crew shot to death some, sorry, no MANY, innocent people.

        It is not that Manning just leaked about everything he would find. And what he leaked has no tactic or strategic importance, except for theis helicopter crew and their superiors for covering up such a disgusting deed.

        Tell me one, only one, example for that the military has brought to real justice their own soldiers?

        And what do you mean by "when errors are made by those with heavy firepower"?
        These were no errors, if you shoot at anybody who moves on the ground, including people who want to attend to the wounded.
        If you follow the comments of the helicopter crew you know that this was cold, brutal, reckless murder by animal like soldiers of the United States.
        Have they been punished "to the fullest extent of the law"?

        And by the way, Obama promised, to run a much more open government. Well, here we have another example that the great saint is just a normal, almost sub average, guy with the most simple instincts.
  • What if Manning had leaked only the video footage?

    There are two elements to what Manning took/leaked. The video was about one particular incident, and while it may have been "classifed" it certainly did not expose any technical capabilities. The world already knew that US gunships in Afghanistan can kill from a distance. The video *did* show a particular incident, one that the military command might not want public for non-technical reasons. I have no problems with that video being leaked, as it will likely result in lives being saved.

    The diplomatic cables is a different matter, I feel. These will be a "big picture" bit of background, and while there will almost certainly be information that is classified simply because it can embarrass the government, there will be others that are secret to preserve lives, and because important diplomatic initiatives are at risk.

    Anyway, I just think you need to separate the two elements, because the ethics are clearer for one than the other.
    • Master Joe Says..You're Wrong

      @snberk341 Classified information is classified information. It is nto necessary to separate the two because they were both CLASSIFIED pieces of information. What exactly si contained in a classified document or video or whatever else does not change the meaning of the word CLASSIFIED. Don't start this debate of what is acceptable and what isn't based on the nature of the material. Classified is classified is classified. It's not one person'd ecision to determine whether or not information should be classified or not. And, what this young man did was take it upon himself to let classified information into the general public's view. Whether or not you agree with the information leaked or not is totally unimportant to this whole issue. It's NOT YOUR DECISION.

      To give an example people might relate to, let's say you were accused of cheating on your wife. Now, the person that accused you had only told you that they believed you were doing so, and confronted your wife. That person later chose to leak this information to someone else, who spread the word like a wildfire. Would you be mad? Does it matter if you really cheated on your wife or not? No. The fact that it happened is bad enough all by itself. The difference here is that tis information is protected by law, and leaking it is not just unethical, but also illegal. It doesn't matter if it was a video of the top generals of the US armies playing with imaginary unicorns in a field of daisies on a sunny day, and talking about rainbows for a half hour. Why? Because it was CLASSIFIED. I feel like I'm beating a dead horse here, but you are clearly missing the point. The video and the rest of the information all fall under the classified umbrella, and are tehrefore all the same, sharing that common link.

      As for thsoe who have made death threats against Adrian for this, what an absolute embarassment to themselves. You can try and come up with a million justifications for how they are thinking or what logic they are using or blah blah blah, but it all boils down to adults (assuming they are) acting like children, stupid children at that. It's those people that we definitely need less of in society. The good news is that, just like the rest of us, they will one day die.

      --Master Joe
      • Unethical according to whom?

        @MasterJoe The professional trade association of army specialists who handle classified information?
        If the release of the video allows the public to see what's really going on in the war and make better and more informed decisions about it, then it will have done a lot of good.
        Are you making the assumption that ethics are defined by the wishes of the US government?
        Would you sit in a chair and shock someone in another room because somebody in a lab coat was standing there telling you to do it? Wait, don't answer that.
      • 'Classified' is not carte blanche


        I don't agree that keeping something secret just because it's "classified" is always correct. By your logic, if an army - any army - started killing civilians deliberately and called that action "classified", then no soldier should go public? Because that is what you seem to be saying.
      • Master Joe is Correct!


        Classified is classified. Sounds like a cop-out, but it's not. Single-handedly deciding something shouldn't be classified is arrogant as can be. There's a good chance you don't know all the reasons something needs to be protected. You don't know what you don't know.
      • Killing innocent people is murder and remains murder

        If the deeds of these helicopter pilots and their attitude had not been so outrageous, I would agree, but with the same argument of your's, basically "the law is the law", every dictator sends anybody he wants into prison or executes them.

        This is 2010 and a government's decision often enough is not right, in the sense that it is in the best interest of the people, but only in the interest of saving some higher up's face.

        This is by the way also missing in the lead article. There is no mentioning what this disgusting helicopter crew did.

        And have they ever been brought to justice?
        Or does the legal system of the United States permit THEM to kill anybody they want to, but if someone makes this incident public, this is forbidden by law?
      • RE: Adrian Lamo, Wikileaks, and what it means to be a patriot

        @MasterJoe right so you never question why things are the way they are? You never think that somewhere, someone is making a bad decision? You have never thought that someone in a position of authority was behaviour improperly? Are you satisfied that there are effective means in place for people to raise concerns? And do you think that the word CLASSIFIED comes down from god on a heavenly gold plated stamp with virgin's blood for ink? Were you the inspiration for Forrest Gump?

        We need a military full of disciplined, loyal people. But a leak like this is a sign that things are going wrong. Or do you think this helicopter incident was a one-off and that Manning is the only person in the US army who ever worried that something was being covered up? I guess life really is like a box of chocolates.
        John in Brisbane
    • RE: Adrian Lamo, Wikileaks, and what it means to be a patriot


      I agree with other comments. Being "classified" does not mean anything to me. All I know is that someone thinks I shouldn't be reading something. And I seriously doubt that most classified materials have anything to do with nuclear launch codes, who's a covert spy, etc.. And all that BS about methods? Give me a break. If the U.S. government has methods that are "oh so special", they would have plugged the BP oil spill by now. What a load of baloney..
      • RE: Adrian Lamo, Wikileaks, and what it means to be a patriot

        @trelayne I'm pretty sure I would not want you handling any business for my company, making decisions for my family, and sure as hell would not depend on you in a fight.
      • RE: Adrian Lamo, Wikileaks, and what it means to be a patriot

        @trelayne yeah this last 10 years has been a bit of a wake up for me - growing up on stories of US exploits, especially the space program, the first gulf war, nuclear science etc, I had a pretty high opinion of US competence. But the response to 911 and random things like the flooding of New Orleans has shocked me - I now think the US is getting bogged down and losing its way. And while the US can rightly be accused sometimes of acting more like owners than leaders, we all need the US to succeed. Is your system truly self correcting? Or is it broken now? Its not looking so good right now I am sorry to say.
        While BP can shoulder a fair bit of the gulf accident blame, for things to drag on like they have done, a bunch of people had to be asleep at the wheel. Why are potentially dangerous but crazily profitable activities like that going on without adequate safeguards?
        John in Brisbane
  • I have to agree, conflating the video and the cables muddies the waters

    The helicopter attack was a tragedy, but in war it's impossible not to have people die that shouldn't. Doesn't make it right, it makes it *inevitable*.

    There *might* have been operational reasons to keep the video hidden. But maybe it was to avoid diplomatic "embarrassment. If that's the case it wasn't treason to reveal it. The military needs to take responsiblity when they kill civilians. If nothing else it makes sure this doesn't happen any more often than humanly possible.

    The cables leaked, well, that's another matter. Depends on what was in them, but unless they fall in the same category as the video (and from the sheer mass of them I doubt they do) then that's stepping over the line and they'll end up killing him for it.

    Treason in time of war is a capital offense.

    But to the author I say don't dilute your message by conflating the gray with the black. It serves no one well.