In early June 2010 security pro Chet Uber got a phone call from Adrian Lamo, a well-known hacker he had worked with for a year in a volunteer-run intelligence organization. Lamo had received classified documents from a U.S. Army intelligence analyst named Bradley Manning and wanted advice about what to do. Uber told Lamo to turn Manning in.
“Put it in a bag, take it off your computer, wipe your drive and I’m going to call you back in 10 minutes,” Uber said he told Lamo, recalling his brush with Manning whose documents revealing secret details of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were eventually published on Wikileaks, setting off a U.S. government investigation and leading to Manning’s arrest on July 29. Uber recalled the incident during a press conference at the Defcon security conference in Las Vegas on Sunday.
After Lamo called him, Uber contacted the U.S. Department of Defense and set things up with the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigation for Lamo to report the documents. He then called Lamo back and told him how to do that.
“I used my connections to make sure that the three-letter agencies knew about it,” said Uber, who directs Project Vigilant, a volunteer-run effort to dig up intelligence on “bad actors,” such as terrorists and drug cartels. Lamo has worked as a volunteer with the group since 2009, providing “adversary characterization,” which helps its members understand the different types of computer intruders that they may be dealing with.
In an e-mail inteview, Lamo confirmed Uber’s account. “Mr. Uber was, among a few others, an instrumental voice in helping me to come to my ultimate decision” to contact the authorities.
Uber does not know how WIkileaks obtained the documents, but said they came from another source. Wikileaks has not confirmed that Manning was the source of the documents, but has offered to defend him in court.
Uber said he came forward Sunday because he was disturbed by the characterization — particularly strong in the hacker community — of Lamo as a “narc.”
“He did a patriotic thing. He sees all kinds of hacks and stuff every day. He was seriously worried about people dying,” he said. “Someone put him in a bad position. Brad should have never given him those documents.”
It was not an easy decision for Lamo, Uber said. “He was very apprehensive. He likes Brad. Brad and he had a kinship, he told me.”
Lamo could have destroyed the documents, Uber thinks he essentially had no choice because the military standard for destroying secret documents is so high. “He would run the risk of possessing those documents if they found fragments in his garbage can.”
Lamo, who earned fame as the so-called homeless hacker, had previously been convicted on federal charges of breaking into the computer systems of companies such as The New York Times and Microsoft.
Robert McMillan covers computer security and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Robert on Twitter at @bobmcmillan. Robert’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org