Lamo, Manning and Doing Right

Adrian Lamo: 'The way it played out seems like something that could only happen in a movie.' Photograph: Jennifer S Altman/Washington Post/Getty Images

Adrian Lamo: ‘The way it played out seems like something that could only happen in a movie.’ Photograph: Jennifer S Altman/Washington Post/Getty Images

Adrian Lamo is dead. The death is confirmed, although the circumstances aren’t yet released. Lamo was just 37 years old; it wasn’t old age.

Lamo was a hacker of some skill. In 2001-2003, he broke into a lot of digital places, including the New York Times, Microsoft and Yahoo.1 He was eventually arrested and plead to one felony count of computer crimes. He was sentenced to six months of home detention and two years of probation. Despite his conviction – even while serving his modest sentence – he continued to advise and communicate with other hackers. Partly, it was because he saw himself as a spiritual advisor; Lamo was ordained a minister in the Universal Life Church.

Famously, in 2009 Lamo was contacted by Chelsea Manning.2 Manning — using the handle “bradass87” — told Lamo that she had leaked classified material. She introduced herself as an Army intelligence analyst, and within 17 minutes, without waiting for a reply, alluded to the leaks. Lamo replied several hours later. He said: “I’m a journalist and a minister. You can pick either, and treat this as a confession or an interview (never to be published) & enjoy a modicum of legal protection.” The next day, Manning admitted she was the source of the WikiLeaks files that were to become the Afghan War Diary, the Iraq War Logs and the notorious and shocking Baghdad helicopter attack (“Collateral murder”) video. Reading the chat logs between Lamo and Manning you can’t help but see Manning’s naiveté and Lamo’s encouragement of Manning’s confidence.

Three days later, despite Lamo’s assurance to Manning, Lamo met with the authorities and, the next day, Manning was arrested. Lamo claimed he believed Manning was endangering lives. It might have even been true. But the circumstances – the assurance of confidentiality and the outright betrayal of those assurances – and the outright evil and corruption shown in the documents Manning released to Wikileaks put Lamo on the wrong side of history. Lamo’s own ambivalence and self-serving excuses didn’t help his case.

WC isn’t the only one critical of Lamo’s conduct.  Glenn Greenwald, then of Salon, wrote that Lamo lied to Manning by turning Manning in, and then lied after the fact to cover up the circumstances of Manning’s confessions.

it’s impossible to judge the impact of the Manning affair and its fallout on Lamo, but it seems to have been considerable. Much of Lamo’s life is shrouded in a factual fog he helped create: mental illness, substance abuse, death threats, nasty domestic relations cases. There’s a documentary, Hackers Wanted, a documentary film focusing on Lamo’s life as a hacker, but it has never been formally released. There are rumors of a book, Ask Adrian, but it’s never been formally published. He often held Q&A sessions on Quora, where he had a kind of genius for apparently revealing personal information without doing so. You can find lots of Lamo-penned articles on the web, ranging from self-righeous to defensive to apologetic, sometimes wandering between the three in the same article.

Ambiguous, deceptive, self-deceptive, and dead far too young. R.I.P. Adrian Lamo, 1981-2018.


  1. NBC News agreed to film Lamo hacking a computer network. Lamo chose to hack NBC’s own network, and, with the cameras rolling, broke in less than five minutes after starting. NBC lost its nerve and never ran the video. 
  2. Manning was born Bradley Manning, and suffered from acute gender identity disorder. While in federal custody, Manning announced she was choosing to be female and, in 2014, legally changed her name to Chelsea Manning. WC will follow the consensus and refer to Manning as “Chelsea” even though for most of these events she generally used “Bradley.”