Then, finally, he heard from Watkins, who “lectured” him: The relationship was really over. “With closure, there’s at least some peace in this rotten world,” Manning wrote on April 30, 2010. But not much. “What do I have left at home—the answer is clearly Nothing.”
On May 5, Manning wrote on Facebook, he “is beyond frustrated with people and society at large.” His master sergeant had removed the bolt from his weapon—again there was concern that he might harm himself or others. He was telling people he was on his way home to be discharged with an “adjustment disorder,” though “gender identity” had also been marked in his file, according to the Washington Post.
Then, on May 21, 2010, Bradass87 popped up on the screen of yet another stranger, Adrian Lamo, a hacker famous for spectacular intrusions. At the time Manning had reached out to Lamo, he desperately needed a friend.
That day, at 11:40 p.m. in Iraq, Bradass87 sent Lamo an instant message on AOL.
“hi,” he began.
Lamo later provided the chat logs to Wired.com, which posted edited versions; Boingboing.net later posted additional excerpts. According to the logs, Manning didn’t take long to make a startling statement: “hypothetical question: if you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time … say, 8-9 months … and you saw incredible things, awful things … things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC … what would you do?”
Lamo seemed to be the perfect confidant for Manning. He was a celebrity in the hacker circles with which Manning identified, and he’d worked on a task force for gay, lesbian, and transgender youth. He’s bisexual. And then, Lamo, like Manning, lived the most vivid parts of life online.
I wanted to talk to Lamo, and after I tracked him down online, he invited me to the Coliseum, a Long Island motor inn where he greeted me at the door of his small room. He wore a half-smile, quipped that he was staying until he exhausted his finances or died, and made a beeline for the bed—he was unsteady on his feet. And then he shut his eyes. And kept them shut for much of our three-hour conversation. He was articulate, even thoughtful, but didn’t seem entirely present. He often paused for 30-second intervals before speaking.
It was only when I asked about his life as a hacker that Lamo seemed to become fully engaged. “It is the one thing I get excited about,” he told me. Lamo is a high-school and college dropout, but as a hacker he thought of himself as a bold explorer of new worlds, a Columbus. His hacks were at once clever and incredibly dumb—and always sensational. “Why not go in and behave like a user and see what can be made to behave differently than expected?,” he explained. Lamo didn’t damage the systems he entered—“I didn’t want to be malicious”—but left behind a quirky signature, as if to say, “I could have hurt you.” At Yahoo News, he edited a couple of stories. Later, he hunkered down at a Kinko’s copy shop for 24 hours and, with nothing but his laptop, hacked so deep into MCI Worldcom’s computer system that he could have fired then-CEO Bernie Ebbers. “I was tempted,” Lamo told me—but he just took a screen shot.
Lamo’s hacks made him famous mostly because he ran to the press after each one. Unfortunately, the FBI turned out to be an avid reader of his press. In 2003, the government arrested him for busting into the New York Times’ computers—Lamo had added his name to the list of op-ed contributors and created several Nexis accounts, mainly to keep up with news of himself. At the time, Lamo was furious at the government. His arrest “strikes a blow against openness,” he said. Hackers rallied around him. As far as they were concerned, his only crime was “that of outsmarting you”—the government.
In the Coliseum Motor Inn, Lamo lit a cigarette, a Camel with a pellet of menthol in the filter, and sucked on it like a straw. Smoking seemed to make him wistful. “[WorldCom] is a long time ago now,” he told me.
Lamo’s life as a hacker had come to an end at 22, and with it, a part of him seemed to die. He’d been sentenced to house arrest rather than prison, but he told me, “I’ve been diagnosed with major depression that largely began after my clash with the FBI.” (Two weeks before Manning reached out, Lamo had been confined to a mental-health facility.)