Hacker Who Betrayed Bradley Manning Betrays Himself

by Laurence Miall on January 4, 2013Comments Off on Hacker Who Betrayed Bradley Manning Betrays Himself

Yesterday The Guardian newspaper published a feature on Adrian Lamo, the former computer hacker turned FBI informant who entrapped Private Bradley Manning through a lengthy series of online chats.  Manning now sits behind bars, charged with disclosing classified information (via Wikileaks,) and “aiding the enemy” – i.e. The Terrorists. His “crimes” are punishable by death or life in prison.


The War on Terror is the gift that keeps on giving to those true enemies of freedom, the American government. As 2013 is still dawning on the world, it’s encouraging to think of the near future as a blank slate upon which we will write our destinies. But the autocrats in Washington have been forging ahead with their own plan for our destinies at least since September 11, 2001. Their vision of our future calls for more surveillance, more arms manufacturing, more drone attacks – in short, more freedom for the planet’s power elite to oppress, torture, maim and kill, and less freedom for ordinary citizens to express themselves, keep an eye on what their governments are up to and to curb the excesses of State power.

It’s hard to get this far in an article on this subject without thinking of George Orwell. Dear reader, it took me over 200 words to do so, and many of you probably beat me to it. In Orwell’s Airstrip One, citizens are essentially enlisted as backline troops in Oceania’s permanent war against Eurasia and Eastasia. They are, in fact, pseudo-citizens, because their civic obligations are reduced to mindlessly parroting government propaganda and acting out their hatred for the enemy.

Populations of this sort, fearful of freedom, are easily to manipulate.

Our own reality is just as disturbing because we’re living it, not only reading about it. As Orwell knew well, the case for government secrecy is always easier to make in times of war. “Loose lips sink ships” was a line made famous from its repeated use during World War II by the United States Office of War Information.  (The original line was, in fact, “loose lips might sink ships,” which, for its concession to contingency, is almost refreshing compared to the overheated rhetoric of those who claimed Manning and Wikileaks were basically guilty of killing innocents.)

“Loose lips sink ships” is purportedly the principle that informs the American government’s prosecution of Manning, and, it would seem, the decision of Lamo to reveal Manning’s identity to the US Department of Defense. Manning had to be stopped (and made an example of) because leaking information about the United States’ conduct in the War on Terror jeopardized the success of that same war.

Lamo has made a rather remarkable personal journey, then, because in his hacker days, far from aiding American interests, he openly undermined them and was convicted  as a result. In The Guardian interview, Lamo acknowledges that when he started communicating with Bradley Manning, he saw the younger man as similar to himself. He writes, “At the time of our conversations, Bradley Manning was 22 years of age – my own age when I made the choice to surrender to federal authorities. I saw someone very familiar that day, and suddenly felt very old.”

Let’s suspend disbelief for a moment and say that the War on Terror is a just war and Lamo sees it as his moral duty to not imperil it. He must therefore stop Manning. In his own law-breaking days, Lamo surrendered to federal authorities.  Did he give Manning that chance? Did he try to convince Manning to give himself up? No, he did not. In fact, he told Manning that he was a journalist and an ordained minister – in other words, he lied by saying he was trustworthy – so that Manning would keep communicating with him.

Lamo knew at this time that Manning could face the death penalty if his identity as a whistleblower was revealed. Lamo looked at this younger version of himself and chose death as that person’s possible fate.

In my books, moral compromises don’t get much worse than this. You have enough imagination to see yourself as the other, but choose the path of cruelty, not empathy. Leaving aside all considerations of the War on Terror, what Lamo did to Manning is simply not how humans should treat each other.

The Guardian gave Lamo plenty of latitude to make his “confession,” so to speak. Lamo has an entire article to present his case. Please read it. Commenters have called it gibberish. That’s being charitable. The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington also conducted an online interview with Lamo. The section that, to my mind, best reveals Lamo’s detachment from his own moral self is here:

Ed Pilkington: By telling Manning you would protect him (whether or not he accepted your offer) didn’t you make pact, a vow, that couldn’t be broken? If I tell a source of mine that I will protect his or her identity, I mean it.

Adrian Lamo: The two choices aren’t fungible. They’re distinct things, each with their own set of boundaries. In each case the law relating to privilege has exemption for exigent situations as the conscience sees them.

Ed Pilkington: So tell me, honestly, in yourself, what were you thinking, feeling knowing that you might at that moment be sending a man to his death?

Adrian Lamo: To a greater or lesser extent, we all do things in life that we don’t really want to. We might avoid it when possible, but we can’t do it all the time. The very definition of irresponsibility is avoiding unwelcome choices wholesale. I’m sure I had feelings about it at the time. But now, over two years later, I can’t tell you what that was like.

For more on the Lamo-Manning travesty, read Glenn Greenwald.