WikiLeaks 'Snitch' Hacker Faces Wrath of His Peers
The 29-year-old Lamo was once a star of the hacker community, having broken into computer systems at The New York Times, WorldCom and Microsoft (and earned two years' probation in the bargain). But that all changed in May, when he snitched on a fellow hacker, Pfc. Bradley Manning, who allegedly leaked classified material to the website WikiLeaks -- most notably a video showing a U.S. helicopter strike on civilians and reporters in Baghdad.
Manning is now detained in Kuwait facing a possible 52 years if convicted on all counts, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is in hiding and the hacker community is in an uproar over Lamo's perceived act of treachery.
Meanwhile, the traitor himself spent the weekend at the HOPE conference in New York calmly dodging spitballs and scrolling through his hate mail. His Facebook page is full of vitriol, each post answered with a quip from Lamo. (Why don't you f**k off and join the circus? says one. Are they hiring? comes the reply.) Perhaps it's the Asperger's, but the most hated hacker on the planet doesn't appear to be nearly as flustered as he might.
"I'm thinking of making a book of it all," he said. "The kind you pick up at the counter of Borders."
Breaking the Code
On Sunday afternoon, Lamo took part in a panel discussion at the hackers' conference, enduring a barrage of comments like "You committed treason!" and "You belong in Guantanamo!" He responded to them all in his slow, deliberate manner, often with a wry smile.
He said he wished Manning had never contacted him, and that he believed that the classified information Manning wanted to leak would have led to a greater loss of life. But he still supported WikiLeaks, an assertion that prompted many a cry of "Bullsh*t!" in the audience. Lamo just smiled -- "I respect your right to your opinion."
"It's not as bad as I thought it would be," he said afterward. "Quite a lot of people have expressed their support."
"A lot" might be stretching it, though. According to Emmanuel Goldstein, who organized the panel discussion, 90 percent of the conference was anti-Lamo.
"Hackers are renegades, but in the good sense," he said. "We're the kind that breaks into a system to expose the evil that's inherent within it. And that's something that was obvious in this case. Many of us see Manning as a national hero."
Ethics are a big deal among hackers, who pride themselves on values like the freedom of speech and information and a healthy mistrust of authority. "To live outside the law," Bob Dylan famously wrote, "you have to be honest" -- and by the standards of the community, Lamo had broken several rules.
"He violated one of the most basic tenets," Goldstein said, "and that's not to go to the authorities with an issue, but to handle it internally."
Furthermore, Lamo had sided with the U.S. government over WikiLeaks, an institution that "embodies all that is sacred to the hacker mentality," as 2600: The Hacker Quarterly puts it. WikiLeaks is held in such esteem that Assange, until he was forced into hiding, was intended to be the conference's keynote speaker. (Ultimately he was substituted by WikiLeaks' Jacob Appelbaum, who called for Lamo to be shunned.)
Lamo, however, doesn't trust WikiLeaks. "I have serious questions," he told me afterward. "I think they've posted, like, 13 leaks this year and they get a lot more than that. There are also rumors of unexplained sources of funding -- it would be the perfect cover for a commercially based foreign intelligence service as opposed to a state-operated one." (These rumors, he said, stem from a WikiLeaks volunteer.)
Lamo also came under fire for taking a stand in defense of the United States, as patriotism is something of a dirty word in the hacker community. As one conference attendee from Norway scolded him, "We are internationalists -- you should focus on an international point of view, not an America-centric one."
But Lamo unashamedly characterized America as a force for global good, and a free country. "We have the freedom to hold this conference and talk about things that to the uninformed would sound threatening," he told the audience. "And that's not something that you get in a lot of places."
He added he wished that WikiLeaks would focus its attention on oppressive regimes, rather than the U.S. "Is anyone here being oppressed right now?" he asked with a grin. The crowd yelled back, "Yes!"
Hacker Against Hacker
Then there's the matter of Lamo's personal betrayal of Manning.
Evidently the 22-year-old Army intelligence analyst was something of a fan. He knew a lot about Lamo when he contacted him on May 21, and no doubt he believed he was reaching out to a kindred spirit.
But Lamo quickly became concerned by the amount of classified material Manning had lifted. "My first reaction was, 'Holy fracking crap, 260,000 [diplomatic] cables!' " And the way Manning described the chaos he intended to wreak, Lamo said, did nothing to assuage his fears: Everywhere there's a U.S. post, there's a diplomatic scandal that will be revealed. ... It's open diplomacy. Worldwide anarchy in CSV format.
Fearing such a breach would jeopardize national security, Lamo passed on what he knew to his ex, who happened to work for Army counterintelligence. His suspicions were apparently confirmed.
"Their [Army counterintelligence's] immediate response when I related the code name for one of the operations was 'Never say those words again,' " Lamo told me. "Literally, 'Forget you ever heard those words.' And when I met with two federal agents to discuss them, they had me write it down on a piece of paper rather than say it aloud."
Lamo and Manning chatted for only five days, but for the last three, Lamo was secretly cooperating with federal agents. While he regrets not being a better friend to Manning, he said, "the needs of the many" trumped "the need of the one to have a friend."
As it happens, Lamo was uniquely qualified to lead Manning on. All hackers are adept at manipulation: They play roles when they penetrate security systems -- it's called social engineering, and it often involves pretending to be someone else entirely. Consequently, manipulation and betrayal are not uncommon among hackers.
Nevertheless, Lamo's destruction of Manning left a bitter taste at HOPE. At the end of the conference Goldstein tried to focus on the positives, such as the basic civility of the hacker community, given the intensity of feeling.
Indeed, the only challenge to HOPE's security team came not from Lamo's angry peers, but rather when federal agents tried to apprehend WikiLeaks' Appelbaum after his keynote address. ("I don't know what they did -- if they dressed someone up as Appelbaum or what -- but he got away," Goldstein said. "Everyone followed him out of the building after the speech, and then it turned out it wasn't him!")
But the facts remained: While Manning languished behind bars, Lamo posed for pictures, unmolested. Within a day, he would be back in San Francisco, where he lives, waiting to testify if called.
And in the meantime, perhaps, that book of hate mail?
He laughed. "Actually no," he said. "I think if I monetize it, I might get more than just mail!"
* * * *
* * * *