Famed Hacker Lamo Scorned for Blowing Whistle on Classified Leaks
By SAM STANTON
July 14, 2010 "Sacramento Bee" - - CARMICHAEL, Calif. - On a weekday afternoon, Adrian Lamo sat quietly in the corner of a Starbucks inside a Safeway, tapping on a laptop that requires his thumbprint to turn on and answering his cell phone.
The first call, he said, came from an FBI agent asking about a death threat Lamo had received.
The second was from a Domino's pizza outlet. One of his many new enemies had left his name and number on a phony order.
The third was from Army counterintelligence, he said.
In other circumstances, it might be easy to dismiss his claims as delusional.
He is an unassuming 29-year-old who lives with his parents on a dead-end street in Carmichael and was recently released from a mental ward, where he was held briefly until doctors discovered his odd behavior stemmed from Asperger's syndrome.
But Lamo is also the most famous computer hacker in the world at the moment, the subject of national security debates and international controversy -- and a target of scorn in the hacker community that once celebrated him.
Lamo first gained notoriety in 2003, when he was charged with hacking into the New York Times computer system, essentially just to prove he could.
He has re-emerged in the spotlight following his decision in May to tell federal agents he had reason to believe an Army private in Iraq was leaking classified information.
Lamo said the information was going to WikiLeaks.org, a website based in Sweden that publishes information about governments and corporations submitted by anonymous individuals.
The soldier, Pfc. Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old intelligence analyst who was stationed near Baghdad, is reportedly being held by the Army in Kuwait while the case is investigated.
Lamo said Manning contacted him online after reading a profile of him on wired.com, which first reported Manning's arrest and Lamo's involvement. Manning, he said, bragged about leaking classified military information to WikiLeaks, including the so-called "Collateral Murder" video of a U.S. helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed several civilians in 2007. That video appeared on WikiLeaks in April.
Lamo said Manning also claimed to have leaked other materials to the website, including 260,000 U.S. classified diplomatic cables.
"I couldn't just not do anything, knowing lives were in danger," Lamo said. "It's classified information, and when you play Russian roulette, how do you know there's not a bullet in the next chamber?"
"I am not a traitor," he added, "and I wouldn't harbor a traitor."
Lamo's allegations brought swift action from the government. He said he has met several times with the FBI, National Security Agency officials and Army investigators, huddling with them at a Starbucks, a diner and other area locales.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said during a media briefing last week that investigators are trying to determine what impact the release of the cables could have.
Lamo's decision to go to authorities has made him a hero in some corners. But the sentiment has not been unanimous.
WikiLeaks has reviled him on Twitter, calling him a "notorious" felon, informer and manipulator.
The website also tweeted that allegations Manning has provided it 260,000 classified cables "are, as far as we can tell, incorrect."
Since the story broke, Lamo has been the target of profane online postings and, he says, dozens of death threats. It is an odd position for Lamo, whose exploits have been chronicled over the years online, in print and in films.
He has been a nomad for much of his life, often labeled the "homeless hacker."
Born in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Arlington, Va., Lamo moved to his father's native Colombia when he was 10. The family returned to the United States a few years later, settling for a while in San Francisco.
"He has an enormous curiosity to see how things work," said Douglas Keachie, a former computer science teacher at Lowell High School in Sacramento who gave Lamo his first -- and only -- formal computer training before kicking him out of class for infesting class systems with impenetrable viruses. "He's an unsung genius as far as I can tell."
Lamo said he taught himself much of what he knows about computers, starting out on a Commodore 64 his father bought when Lamo was about 7.
After high school, he found himself in the midst of the 1990s dot-com boom in the Bay Area, paying $2,000 a month in apartment rent and providing computer security services for a legal assistance group.
Lamo enjoyed moving about without anyone knowing where he was, "at first out of sheer paranoia, and later justified paranoia."
During his travels he indulged his insatiable curiosity by hacking into the computer systems of some of the largest corporations in the world, and then telling them about it to alert them that they were vulnerable.
He never asked for money to help identify the weaknesses, he said. "That would have been crossing a line," he said. "That never would have felt right."
And then he ran into the New York Times, whose computer system he says he hacked into in February 2002 from a Kinko's in downtown Sacramento. Federal prosecutors in New York filed computer fraud charges against Lamo that could have netted him 15 years in prison.
Lamo eventually took a plea deal that placed him on 30 months probation and levied a $64,938 fine.
Lamo now offers himself up as a computer security consultant and spends a great deal of time on his laptop inside the Safeway Starbucks.
"I only take jobs which have 'hack value,' jobs that are interesting," he said.
He takes offense when his life is summed up as "hacker," saying that does not capture his curiosity about "complex systems, social ones, ecological ones, interpersonal ones."
"More than anything, I'm an observer," he said.
(E-mail reporter Sam Stanton at sstanton(at)sacbee.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.