The worsening journalistic disgrace at Wired

At the heart of the WikiLeaks/Manning saga lies the efforts of a self-proclaimed journalist to conceal the truth

Topics: WikiLeaks,

The worsening journalistic disgrace at WiredKevin Poulsen and Bradley Manning

(updated below – Update II [Reply to Wired here] – Update III)

For more than six months, Wired‘s Senior Editor Kevin Poulsen has possessed — but refuses to publish — the key evidence in one of the year’s most significant political stories:  the arrest of U.S. Army PFC Bradley Manning for allegedly acting as WikiLeaks’ source. In late May, Adrian Lamo — at the same time he was working with the FBI as a government informant against Manning — gave Poulsen what he purported to be the full chat logs between Manning and Lamo in which the Army Private allegedly confessed to having been the source for the various cables, documents and video that WikiLeaks released throughout this year. In interviews with me in June, both Poulsen and Lamo confirmed that Lamo placed no substantive restrictions on Poulsen with regard to the chat logs:  Wired was and remains free to publish the logs in their entirety.

Despite that, on June 10, Wired published what it said was only “about 25 percent” of those logs, excerpts that it hand-picked. For the last six months, Poulsen has not only steadfastly refused to release any further excerpts, but worse, has refused to answer questions about what those logs do and do not contain. This is easily one of the worst journalistic disgraces of the year:  it is just inconceivable that someone who claims to be a “journalist” — or who wants to be regarded as one — would actively conceal from the public, for months on end, the key evidence in a political story that has generated headlines around the world

In June, I examined the long, strange and multi-layered relationship between Poulsen and Lamo, and in that piece raised the issue of Wired‘s severe journalistic malfeasance in withholding these chat logs. But this matter needs to be revisited now for three reasons: 



(1) For the last six months, Adrian Lamo has been allowed to run around making increasingly sensationalistic claims about what Manning told him; journalists then prominently print Lamo’s assertions, but Poulsen’s refusal to release the logs or even verify Lamo’s statements prevents anyone from knowing whether Lamo’s claims about what Manning said are actually true.

(2) There are new, previously undisclosed facts about the long relationship between Wired/Poulsen and a key figure in Manning’s arrest — facts that Poulsen inexcusably concealed.

(3) Subsequent events gut Poulsen’s rationale for concealing the logs and, in some cases, prove that his claims are false.

Much of the new evidence cited here has been found and compiled by Firedoglake in three valuable indices:  the key WikiLeaks-Manning articles, a timeline of the key events and the various excerpts of the Manning/Lamo chat logs published by different parties.

* * * * *

Poulsen’s concealment of the chat logs is actively blinding journalists and others who have been attempting to learn what Manning did and did not do. By allowing the world to see only the fraction of the Manning-Lamo chats that he chose to release, Poulsen has created a situation in which his long-time “source,” Adrian Lamo, is the only source of information for what Manning supposedly said beyond those published exceprts.  Journalists thus routinely print Lamo’s assertions about Manning’s statements even though — as a result of Poulsen’s concealment — they are unable to verify whether Lamo is telling the truth.  Due to Poulsen, Lamo is now the one driving many of the media stories about Manning and WikiLeaks even though Lamo (a) is a convicted felon, (b) was (as Poulsen strangely reported at the time) involuntarily hospitalized for severe psychiatric distress a mere three weeks before his chats with Manning, and (c) cannot keep his story straight about anything from one minute to the next.

To see how odious Poulsen’s concealment of this evidence is, consider this December 15 New York Times article by Charlie Savage, which reports that the DOJ is trying to prosecute WikiLeaks based on the theory that Julian Assange “encouraged or even helped” Manning extract the classified information.  Savage extensively quotes Lamo claiming that Manning told him all sorts of things about WikiLeaks and Assange that are not found in the portions of the chat logs published by Wired:

Among materials prosecutors are studying is an online chat log in which Private Manning is said to claim that he had been directly communicating with Mr. Assange using an encrypted Internet conferencing service as the soldier was downloading government files. Private Manning is also said to have claimed that Mr. Assange gave him access to a dedicated server for uploading some of them to WikiLeaks.

Adrian Lamo, an ex-hacker in whom Private Manning confided and who eventually turned him in, said Private Manning detailed those interactions in instant-message conversations with him.

He said the special server’s purpose was to allow Private Manning’s submissions to “be bumped to the top of the queue for review.” By Mr. Lamo’s account, Private Manning bragged about this “as evidence of his status as the high-profile source for WikiLeaks.”

Wired magazine has published excerpts from logs of online chats between Mr. Lamo and Private Manning. But the sections in which Private Manning is said to detail contacts with Mr. Assange are not among them. Mr. Lamo described them from memory in an interview with the Times, but he said he could not provide the full chat transcript because the F.B.I. had taken his hard drive, on which it was saved. . . .

It has been known that investigators were looking for evidence that one or more people in Boston served as an intermediary between Private Manning and WikiLeaks, although there is no public sign that they have found any evidence supporting that theory. . . .

“At some point, [Manning] became satisfied that he was actually talking to Assange and not some unknown third party posing as Assange, and based on that he began sending in smaller amounts of data from his computer,” Mr. Lamo said. “Because of the nature of his Internet connection, he wasn’t able to send large data files easily. He was using a satellite connection, so he was limited until he did an actual physical drop-off when he was back in the United States in January of this year.”

Lamo’s claim — that Manning told him that he physically dropped off a disk with classified information to WikiLeaks’ “intermediaries” in Boston — is nowhere to be found in the chat logs released by Poulsen. And while there are a couple of vague references in the chats to Manning’s interactions with Assange, there is also little in the released portions about Assange using an “encrypted Internet conferencing service” to talk to Manning or specially creating a ”dedicated server” for Manning to use.  Yet here is Lamo, on the front page of The New York Times, making these incredibly inflammatory accusations about what Manning supposedly told him — accusations that could implicate both WikiLeaks and numerous individuals in the Boston area, including MIT students who (due at least in part to Lamo’s prior accusations) have been the subject of WikiLeaks-related probes by the FBI.

Whether Manning actually said these things to Lamo could be verified in one minute by “journalist” Kevin Poulsen.  He could either say:  (1) yes, the chats contain such statements by Manning, and here are the portions where he said these things, or (2) no, the chats contain no such statements by Manning, which means Lamo is either lying or suffers from a very impaired recollection about what Manning said.  Poulsen could also provide Lamo — who claims he is no longer in possession of them — with a copy of the chat logs (which Lamo gave him) so that journalists quoting Lamo about Manning’s statements could see the actual evidence rather than relying on Lamo’s claims.  Any true “journalist” — or any person minimally interested in revealing the truth — would do exactly that in response to Lamo’s claims as published by The New York Times.  

But manifestly, those descriptions do not apply to Kevin Poulsen.  It’s been almost two weeks since Savage wrote his story in which he prominently pointed out that Wired has the evidence — but has not released it — which would confirm whether Lamo is telling the truth about these vital matters, and Poulsen has said nothing.  Moreover, I sent Poulsen an e-mail two days ago — here — expressly asking whether or not the chat logs contain what Lamo says they contain about WikiLeaks and Boston-area “intermediaries,” and he has ignored the inquiries.  This is not the behavior of a journalist seeking to inform the public, but of someone eager, for whatever reasons, to hide the truth.

Making Poulsen’s behavior even more inexcusable is that, back in July, Lamo admitted to the New York Times‘ Elisabeth Bumiller that he has “no direct evidence” that anyone helped Manning obtain the classified information:

Mr. Lamo acknowledged that he had no direct evidence that Private Manning had help. He said he based his belief on information from people who knew Private Manning, not on his contact with the soldier himself. Asked if Private Manning had ever told him of any WikiLeaks assistance, Mr. Lamo replied, “Not explicitly, no.”

But now that Savage is reporting that the DOJ needs to prove that WikiLeaks actively helped Manning, Lamo pops up to make the exact opposite claim: namely, that Manning explicitly told him in these chats that he had help from Assange and from WikiLeaks “intermediaries” in Boston.  Critically, as Marcy Wheeler documented, the government — in its Charging Document against Manning — has not accused Manning of transmitting the 260,000 diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks because it likely had no evidence that he did so.  Nor is there any evidence that WikiLeaks conspired in any way with Manning.  All of these critical gaps are now conveniently being filled in for public consumption by Lamo’s accusations — based on assertions about what Manning told him in these chats.

There is one person who could immediately confirm whether Lamo’s claims are true:  Kevin Poulsen of Wired.  Yet he steadfastly refuses to do so.  Instead, he is actively concealing the key evidence in this matter — hiding the truth from the public — even as that magazine continues to employ him as a senior editor and hold him out as a “journalist.”   For anyone who cares at all about what actually happened here, it’s imperative that as much pressure as possible be applied to Wired to release those chat logs or, at the very least, to release the portions about which Lamo is making public claims or, in the alternative, confirm that they do not exist.

* * * * *

Poulsen’s concealment of the key evidence is rendered all the more bizarre by virtue of previously undisclosed facts about Wired‘s involvement in Manning’s arrest.  From the start, the strangest aspect of this whole story — as I detailed back in June and won’t repeat here — has been the notion that one day, out of the blue, Manning suddenly contacted a total stranger over the Internet and, using unsecured chat lines, immediately confessed in detail to crimes that would likely send him to prison for decades. 

More strangely still, it wasn’t just any total stranger whom Manning contacted, but rather a convicted felon who is notorious in the hacking community for his dishonesty and compulsive self-promotion, and who had just been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital three weeks earlier (notably, Poulsen’s May article on Lamo’s hospitalization began with this passage:  ”Last month Adrian Lamo, a man once hunted by the FBI, did something contrary to his nature. He picked up a payphone outside a Northern California supermarket and called the cops” — of course, a mere three weeks later, Lamo would “call the cops” again, this time to turn informant against Bradley Manning).  Add to all of that the central involvement of Lamo’s long-time confidant, Poulsen, in exclusively reporting on this story and one has a series of events that are wildly improbable (which doesn’t mean it didn’t happen that way).

But now there are new facts making all of this stranger still, and it all centers around a man named Mark Rasch.  Who is Rasch?  He’s several things.  He’s the former chief of the DOJ’s Computer Crimes Unit in the 1990s.  He’s a “regular contributor” to Wired.  He’s also the General Counsel of “Project Vigilant,” the creepy and secretive vigilante group that claims to gather Internet communications and hand them over to the U.S. government.  Rasch is also the person who prosecuted investigated and criminally pursue Kevin Poulsen back in the late 1980s and midearly-1990s and, thus helping to put him in prison for more than three years (added:  see the post here, near the bottom, regarding Poulsen’s objections to this sentence and the evidence that supports it).  As detailed below, Rasch also has a long and varied history with both Poulsen and, to a lesser extent, Lamo.  And — most significantly of all — Rasch is the person who put Lamo in touch with federal law authorities in order to inform on Manning:

A former top U.S. Justice Department prosecutor helped to turn over an alleged Wikileaks source to the FBI and Army intelligence, CNET has learned.

Mark Rasch, previously the head of the Justice Department’s computer crime unit who is now in private practice in the Washington, D.C., area, said during a telephone interview that he identified investigators who would want to know that an U.S. Army intelligence analyst in Kuwait may have handed over sensitive documents to the world’s most famous document-leaking Web site. . . .

Lamo contacted Chet Uber, a computer security specialist and the founder of a group called Project Vigilant. Uber then contacted Rasch.

“I got a call from Chet saying Adrian has a guy he’s been chatting with online who has access to classified cables,” Rasch said. “So I found him people in the intelligence community and law enforcement community he could report it to.”

Let’s consider what this means based just on these facts.  First, for the first several weeks after the story of Manning’s arrest, it was Wired that was exclusively reporting on the relevant facts by virtue of Poulsen’s close relationship with Lamo.  Yet at no point — through today — have Poulsen or Wired ever bothered to disclose that the person who “helped to turn over [Manning] to the FBI and Army intelligence” is (a) the same person who (added: helped) put Poulsen is prison for several years, (b) a regular contributor to Wired and (c) a long-time associate and source for Poulsen.  Just on journalistic grounds, this nondisclosure is extraordinary (Poulsen even wrote a long article about Uber’s role in pressuring Lamo to inform to the Government without once mentioning Rasch).  As Poulsen was writing about this Manning story all while working closely with Lamo as he served as FBI informant — and as Poulsen actively conceals the chat logs — wouldn’t you want to know that the person who played such a key role in Manning’s arrest was the same person who investigated and criminally pursued prosecuted Poulsen and regularly contributes to his magazine?

Then there’s the way that these facts make this already-strange story much stranger still.  It isn’t just that Manning — when deciding to confess to these crimes over the Internet to a total stranger — just happened to pick a convicted felon (Lamo) who spent little time in prison given the crimes of which he was convicted.   Beyond that, Lamo, at the time Manning contacted him, was working with this group — Project Vigilant — whose self-proclaimed mission is to inform federal authorities of crimes taking place over the Internet, and whose general counsel is the former head of the DOJ’s Computer Crimes Unit.  If that’s really what happened, that’s some really, really, really bad luck on Manning’s part: to randomly choose someone to whom to confess who was not only once under the thumb of DOJ authorities, but who was working at that very moment with a federal-government-connected group and the DOJ’s former top computer crimes prosecutor.  To describe that as improbable is to understate the case (but again, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen: improbable events do sometimes occur).

Beyond all of this, Poulsen has a long history with Rasch even beyond the fact that Rasch criminally investigated prosecuted him.  Poulsen’s first job the year after his supervisory release ended when getting out of prison was with Security Focus, the same entity for which Rasch also regularly wrote.  Although it was Poulsen who almost always and exclusively wrote about Lamo’s exploits, in 2003, Poulsen was unable to do so because he had been subpoenaed by the DOJ was, as Rasch’s reporting at the time made clear, highly likely to be subpoeaned by the DOJ in connection with Lamo’s prosecution, and it was thus Rasch who took up the slack to write about Lamo for Security Focus.  Moreover, Rasch has been a long-time source for Poulsen going back to 1999 and 2001, including when Poulsen was writing about Lamo, and was also Poulsen’s source repeatedly for articles he wrote at Wired.  Rasch has also been a regular source for Wired‘s Kim Zetter, who was Poulsen’s co-author on the Manning articles (on November 29, an ABC News story on Manning featured Rasch as an “expert” analyzing the accusations without any disclosure of the key role he played in Manning’s arrest).

Back in June, WikiLeaks — citing this comment at BoingBoingsuggested that Poulsen was not merely a reporter writing about Lamo’s informing on Manning, but was an active participant in helping that to happen and was even himself a government informant.  Poulsen vehemently denied that both to me (without my even asking) and in an interview he gave to The Columbia Journalism Review.  Part of the problem here was Poulsen’s own doing: when he first broke the story about Manning’s arrest, he not only failed to disclose the fact that he had been speaking to and meeting with Lamo before Manning’s arrest (while Lamo cooperated with the government), but actively misled readers about that fact by including this sentence in his first article: “‘I wouldn’t have done this if lives weren’t in danger,’ says Lamo, who discussed the details with Wired.com following Manning’s arrest.” In fact, Poulsen had extensively spoken with and even met with Lamo before Manning’s arrest.

As I wrote back in June and as is still true, there’s no evidence to support that specific “informant” accusation against Poulsen.  Poulsen has done good journalism in the past in exposing government wrongdoing (while at Wired, he also worked to locate various sex criminals online who were then prosecuted by a local computer crimes unit).  

But what is incontrovertibly true is that a Wired contributer — who just so happens also to be Poulsen’s criminal investigator prosecutor and long-time source — played a key role in putting Lamo in contact with government authorities in order to inform on Manning.  Poulsen never mentioned any of that, and — even once Rasch’s role was publicly reported — never once disclosed his multi-faceted relationship to Rasch in all the times he’s written about Manning and WikiLeaks.  What’s also true is that while many convicted hackers had very rigid restrictions placed on them when leaving prison (Kevin Mitnick, for instance, was originally barred from using the Internet entirely), Poulsen not only quickly began writing online as a journalist about the hacker world, but did so at the very same publication — Security Focus — that also repeatedly published articles by his criminal investigator prosecutor, Mark Rasch.

What makes all of this particularly critical is that we still have no real idea how and under what circumstances Manning and Lamo actually began speaking.  Lamo repeatedly claimed — and Poulsen and others repeatedly “reported” — that those two began speaking when Manning contacted Lamo in a chat.  But Lamo told me something much different in the interview I conducted with him in June: that before chatting with him, Manning had sent Lamo several encrypted e-mails which — Lamo claims — he was never able to read before turning over to the FBI because he was unable to find his encryption key.  Between Lamo’s alleged inability to describe these initial e-mails and Poulsen’s ongoing refusal to publish the chat logs, the evidence of how Manning and Lamo came to speak and what was said is being actively hidden (and Marcy Wheeler raises several compelling reasons why it seems Lamo was cooperating with government authorities as he spoke to Manning before the time he and Poulsen claim that cooperation began).

* * * * *

When I first wrote back in June about Wired‘s concealment of these chat logs, the excuses Poulsen gave were quickly proved to be false.  Poulsen told me that the only portions of the chats that Wired was concealing were “either Manning discussing personal matters that aren’t clearly related to his arrest, or apparently sensitive government information that I’m not throwing up without vetting first.” But after that, The Washington Post‘s Ellen Nakashima quoted from the chat logs and included several parts that (a) Wired had withheld but (b) were not about personal matters or national security secrets; see this analysis here of what was disclosed by the Post, Wired and others.  (Nakashima and the Post refuse even to say whether they possess all the chat logs.  When I asked Nakashima several months ago, she referred my inquiry to a corporate spokeswoman, who then told me:  ”We don’t discuss the details of our newsgathering.” But I focus here on Poulsen because of his central role in these events, his long-standing relationships with the key parties, and the fact that — unlike the Post, which obviously has nothing to do with journalism — I actually expect better of Wired). 

But even if one back then found Poulsen’s rationale persuasive for concealing 75 percent of the chat logs, circumstances have clearly changed.  For one, WikiLeaks has now published hundreds of thousands of documents, including almost 2,000 diplomatic cables; thus, at least some of the “sensitive government information” in the chats over which Poulsen was acting as self-anointed Guardian has now presumably been publicly disclosed.  More important, Lamo has spent months making all kinds of public claims about what Manning supposedly told him as part of these chats — claims that are not found in the chat excerpts released by Wired.  Those subsequent public statements by Lamo create an obligation for Poulsen either to release the portions of the chats that Lamo is describing or confirm that they do not exist (and thus reveal that his close, long-time ”source,” Lamo, is lying or significantly misremembering).

Whether by design or effect, Kevin Poulsen and Wired have played a critical role in concealing the truth from the public about the Manning arrest.  In doing so, they have actively shielded Poulsen’s longtime associate, Adrian Lamo — as well as government investigators — from having their claims about Manning’s statements scrutinized, and have enabled Lamo to drive much of the reporting of this story by spouting whatever he wants about Manning’s statements without any check.  This has long ago left the realm of mere journalistic failure and stands as one of the most egregious examples of active truth-hiding by a “journalist” I’ve ever seen.

 

UPDATE:  Evan Hansen, the Editor-in-Chief of Wired.com, says on Twitter that Poulsen is “on vacation” but that Wired will post a response to this article tomorrow.  What they ought to do, at the absolute minimum, is post the portions of the chat logs about which Lamo had made public statements or make clear that they do not exist.  And here’s Poulsen’s response on Twitter, posted just now:

Finally, here’s yet another photograph — taken after this well-noted one with Kevin Mitnick (and posted to Lamo’s Facebook page on June 9, 2010, one day before Wired published the chat logs) — of Pouslen together with his “source,” the government informant Adrian Lamo:



 

UPDATE II:  Wired has replied to this here.  My response is here.  I also specifically reference those replies in one sentence above about Mark Rasch’s involvment in Poulsen’s prosecution.

 

UPDATE III:  I received an email from Poulsen claiming there are three additional factual inaccuracies.  In order:

(1) Poulsen states that his “first job when getting out of prison in June 1996 was with California Peace Action, not SecurityFocus, which was not founded until 1999″; he says he began working at Security Focus the year following his end of supervised release, not his release from prison.  I’ve modified the language to reflect this. 

(2) Poulsen states:  “I was never subpoenaed in connection with Lamo’s prosecution, nor was I ever told to expect a subpoena.”  But his own Security Focus colleague at the time, Mark Rasch, reported — under this headline:  ”The Subpoenas Are Coming!”– that “The [FBI] recently sent letters to a handful of reporters who have written stories about the Lamo case . . . warn[ing] them to expect subpoenas for all documents relating to the hacker,” and that the FBI affidavit discussing Lamo’s charges is ” is rife with references to articles written by Security Focus reporter Kevin Poulsen.”  Indeed, so close was the Lamo-Poulsen relationship that when when at least one journalist was subpoenaed in connection with the Lamo invesitgation, the Government sought to discover not only his communications with Lamo, but also with Poulsen.   That Poulsen did not expect a subpoena relating to Lamo seems quite implausible based on his own outlet’s reporting at the time.  Nonetheless, I’ve modified the language to reflect Poulsen’s statement that he never actually received a subpoena.

(3) Poulsen states he was subject to the same computer restrictions as Mitnick upon release from prison.  Noted, though that contradicts nothing I wrote.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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