Unfriendly Fire

Wired’s scoop sets WikiLeaks a-Twitter

When, late Sunday night, Wired reported that Bradley Manning, a young Army intelligence staffer, had been arrested and charged with giving a variety of classified or closely held information to WikiLeaks, the online secret-sharing site didn’t stay quiet.

Someone—likely Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’s founder and primary public face—took to the WikiLeaks Twitter account to warn journalists off against believing the article’s primary source and one of its authors.

Adrian Lamo&Kevin Poulson are notorious felons,informers&manipulators. Journalists should take care. http://bit.ly/chFsGC

Let’s unpack that. Adrian Lamo is an ex-hacker, once convicted on charges stemming from his infiltration of The New York Times’s networks. Most recently, he provided federal investigators with copies of e-mails and chat sessions he had with Manning, in which Manning admitted to leaking information to WikiLeaks. “Kevin Poulson” is actually Kevin Poulsen, the editor of Wired’s Threat Level blog, who coauthored with Kim Zetter the story bringing Manning’s detention to public light. (The tweet’s link takes you to that piece, not to some information demonstrating Lamo’s and Poulsen’s supposed notoriety for informing or manipulation.)

“What’s he citing to call me an informer? No, I’ve never informed on anybody, and I’m no more manipulative than any other journalist,” says Poulsen, with a chuckle.

But there’s no denying the felonious part. In 1994, Poulsen, before entering journalism, was sentenced to 51 months in jail for his own hacking exploits.

“It dates back to about the time that Julian was doing the same thing, coincidentally,” says Poulsen, referencing Assange’s own mid-nineties conviction in his native Australia for hacking. “I’ve been searching my memory for his handle, to see if I can remember having any interaction with him back in the day. Maybe he has some longstanding grudge against me from hacking circles from twenty years ago that I’ve forgotten.”

Poulsen has been reporting on Lamo for about a decade, and has been on the receiving end of Lamo’s tips before.

“As things often do with Adrian, things unfolded slowly and cryptically,” Poulsen says of coming to learn of the ex-hacker’s involvement in Manning’s arrest. “He starts by speaking in generalities and the like, and hinting at some intrigue that on its surface sounds absurd and unlikely. And then, of course, with Adrian it always turns out to be absolutely true.”

So was Poulsen and Zetter’s reporting, which despite WikiLeaks’s warning was never seriously in question. The government confirmed on Monday that Manning had been detained on suspicions of leaking the video.

Assange, or whoever was writing WikiLeaks’s tweets yesterday, followed up the first volley with another:

Did Wired break journalism’s sacred oath? Lamo&Poulson call themselves journalists.Echoes of Olshansky shopping Diaz?

It’s unclear exactly what Assange means by “journalism’s sacred oath,” but presumably it has something to do with exposing or giving up a confidential source. In 2005, Barbara Olshansky, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, received an anonymous letter with a highly sought-after list of names of Guantanamo detainees. According to Wikipedia, “Olshansky suspected the list might have been classified, so she contacted Federal authorities.” That claim is not adequately supported by its citation. Nor is Assange’s claim that Olshansky went “shopping” Diaz: A 2007 New York Times article says that she asked the federal court hearing her Guantanamo cases to take safekeeping of the material, and was instructed to turn it over to law enforcement. They were able to trace the mailing back to Lt. Commander Matthew Diaz, who was convicted and sentenced in military court to six months in prison for improper disclosure of classified information.

WikiLeaks’s Twitter account later doubled down, (again misspelling Poulsen’s last name), tweeting to him and Lamo that “There’s a special place in hell reserved for ‘journalists’ like you and ‘lawyers’ like Barbara Olshansky.” (Zetter, despite being the reporter on the story who unsuccessfully sought comment from Assange before it ran, has escaped WikiLeaks’s Twitter ire.)

Assange has also suggested that, given Poulsen and Lamo’s previous association, Wired may have been “complicit,” presumably in exposing Manning to law enforcement.

Poulsen is quick to dismiss the notion that publicizing Manning’s role was unethical:

I mean, Manning is allegedly Julian’s leaker, not mine. That said, Wired isn’t in the business of working to expose other journalists sources, or WikiLeaks’s sources. We pursued this and we reported on this because the FBI and the Army already had the information. By the time we reported it—by the time we were doing serious reporting on it—he had already been arrested. So we do report on arrests, and we take particular interest when someone is arrested for leaking information.

Indeed, Poulsen told me that Lamo did not provide him with the chat logs around which the article is built until the day after Lamo learned that Manning was in custody.

As for whether Lamo, who after his conviction studied journalism at a local college and whose Wikipedia profile vaguely mentions “editorial work / collaboration” in a variety of small outlets, broke any form of commitment to a source by contacting the feds, Lamo simply says (in response to a Twitter interlocutor) “I was not acting as a journalist.” Lamo did not respond to CJR’s requests for comment.

Correction: This story originally identified reporter Kim Zetter as “Kim Zetters.” CJR regrets the error.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.