"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Last night, Wired posted a two-part response to my criticisms of its conduct in reporting on the arrest of PFC Bradley Manning and the key role played in that arrest by Adrian Lamo. I wrote about this topic twice — first back in June and then again on Monday. The first part of Wired‘s response was from Wired.com Editor-in-Chief Evan Hansen, and the second is from its Senior Editor Kevin Poulsen. Both predictably hurl all sorts of invective at me as a means of distracting attention from the central issue, the only issue that matters: their refusal to release or even comment on what is the central evidence in what is easily one of the most consequential political stories of this year, at least.
That’s how these disputes often work by design: the party whose conduct is in question (here, Wired) attacks the critic in order to create the impression that it’s all just some sort of screeching personality feud devoid of substance. That, in turn, causes some bystanders to cheer for whichever side they already like and boo the side they already dislike, as though it’s some sort of entertaining wrestling match, while everyone else dismisses it all as some sort of trivial Internet catfight not worth sorting out. That, ironically, is what WikiLeaks critics (and The New York Times‘ John Burns) did with the release of the Iraq War documents showing all sorts of atrocities in which the U.S. was complicit: they tried to put the focus on the personality quirks of Julian Assange to distract attention away from the horrifying substance of those disclosures. That, manifestly, is the same tactic Wired is using here: trying to put the focus on me to obscure their own ongoing conduct in concealing the key evidence shining light on these events.
In a separate post, I fully address every accusation Hansen and Poulsen make about me as well as the alleged inaccuracies in what I wrote. But I’m going to do everything possible here to ensure that the focus remains on what matters: the way in which Wired, with no justification, continues to conceal this evidence and, worse, refuses even to comment on its content, thus blinding journalists and others trying to find out what really happened here, while enabling gross distortions of the truth by Poulsen’s long-time confidant and source, the government informant Adrian Lamo.
The bottom line from Hansen and Poulsen is that they still refuse to release any further chat excerpts or, more inexcusably, to comment at all on — to verify or deny — Lamo’s public statements about what Manning said to him that do not appear in those excerpts. They thus continue to conceal from the public 75% of the Manning-Lamo chats. They refuse to say whether Lamo’s numerous serious accusations about what Manning told him are actually found anywhere in the chat logs. Nor will they provide the evidence to resolve the glaring inconsistencies in Lamo’s many public tales about the critical issues: how he came to speak to Manning, what Lamo did to induce these disclosures, and what Manning said about his relationship to WikiLeaks and his own actions. Every insult Wired spouts about me could be 100% true and none of it changes the core fact: Wired is hiding the key evidence about what took place here, thus allowing Lamo to spout all sorts of serious claims without any check and thus drive much of the reporting about WikiLeaks.
To defend this concealment, Hansen claims that they “have already published substantial excerpts from the logs.” But the parts they are concealing are far more substantial: 75% by their own account, and critically, the person who played a key role in hand-picking which parts to publish and which parts to conceal is the person whom BBC News accurately describes as “Mr Lamo’s long-term associate Kevin Poulsen.” Poulsen claims he “either excerpted, quoted or reported on everything of consequence Manning had to say about his leaking,” but that begs the key question: is everything — or anything — that Lamo has been claiming about Manning’s statements found in the chat logs or not? Why won’t Wired answer that question? Below, I set forth what Lamo has claimed that is not in the chat logs and why it is so vital to know if it’s there.
Hansen’s defense principally relies on a total strawman: that I’m calling for the full, unedited release of the chat logs. Hansen insists that Wired cannot do this because of privacy concerns for Manning. He titles his response ”The Case for Privacy,” and claims ”that the logs include sensitive personal information with no bearing on Wikileaks.”
But neither I nor anyone else I’ve read has called on Wired to indiscriminately dump the chat logs without any redactions or regard for Manning’s privacy. Back in June — once Poulsen’s claims that they were withholding only private information and national security secrets was proven false by The Washington Post‘s subsequent publication of chat excerpts that fell into neither category — this is what I called on Wired to do:
Wired should either publish all of the chat logs, or be far more diligent about withholding only those parts which truly pertain only to Manning’s private and personal matters and/or which would reveal national security secrets. Or they should have a respected third party review the parts they have concealed to determine if there is any justification for that. At least if one believes Lamo’s claims, there are clearly relevant parts of those chats which Wired continues to conceal.
Then, on Sunday, I noted several important events that transpired since I wrote that June article: most prominently the fact that Wired‘s source, Lamo, had spent six months making all sorts of public claims about what Manning told him that are nowhere in the chat excerpts published by Wired. Moreover, the disclosures by WikiLeaks gut Poulsen’s excuse that Wired‘s concealments are necessary to protect national security secrets (an excuse Hansen did not even raise). As a result of those developments, this is what I wrote on Sunday that Wired should do:
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. . . . 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.
For anyone who wants to defend Wired here, I’d really like to know: what possible excuse is there for their refusal to do this? Even if you trust Poulsen — despite his very close and long relationship to Lamo — to conceal some parts of the chats on privacy grounds, what justification is there for Wired‘s refusal to state that either (a) Lamo’s claims about what Manning told him are supported by the chat logs (and then publish those portions), or (b) Lamo’s claims are not found in the chat logs, thus proving that Lamo is either lying or has an unreliable recollection? While Adrian Lamo runs around spouting all sorts of serious accusations about what Manning supposedly told him that are not found in Wired‘s excerpts — claims which end up in the world’s largest news outlets — and while he issues one contradictory claim after the next about these events, how can anyone claiming to be a journalist not inform the public about whether those stories are true? For Wired defenders: what justifies that obfuscatory behavior, that refusal to say whether Lamo’s claims are true or false based on the chat logs?
Hansen says that they have no ”obligation to chase down every story on Manning, correct any errors, and refute any reporting that we disagree with.” Nobody said they did. But Lamo is hardly some arms-length source they once used for a story. Wired repeatedly boasts of its breaking stories in the Manning case; Lamo’s long, close relationship with Poulsen is the only reason they were able to do so. When Lamo was involuntarily hospitalized in May, the person he called was Kevin Poulsen. They’ve been closely interacting in various capacities for more than a decade. When Lamo makes accusations about what Manning told him on the front page of The New York Times and in other leading media outlets, any actual journalist in a position to do so would either present the evidence that those claims are true or make clear that it is false. And certainly when a Wired journalist in possession of those chats is asked in response to Lamo’s claims whether the chat logs confirm or negate what he said, anyone minimally interested in the truth would answer, if not write about it.
That’s the crux of the issue. For Wired to confirm that Lamo’s public statements are false would be to impugn the integrity of Poulsen’s friend and his close and valued source. They allow Lamo to run around making all kinds of false claims about what transpired between him and Manning even as they sit on the evidence that proves those claims are false. And they refuse to reconcile Lamo’s numerous contradictory statements by showing the public the evidence they have that would resolve them. That falsehood-enabling behavior is the precise opposite of what a journalist ought to be doing.
* * * * *
I have no doubt Wired will find some supporters for this “conceal-the-facts” position. Journalism in the United States has become at least as much about preserving secrets as it is uncovering them. Reporters routinely grant anonymity to government officials to spout all sorts of falsehoods — from the gossipy to the consequential — while shielding those officials from accountability. Numerous media stars for years knew the key facts of the Libby case but withheld them even as they purported to “report” to the story. The New York Times sat on the NSA story for a year — until Bush was safely re-elected — because the President told them not to publish it. The revered Tim Russert admitted that he considers all conversations with government officials “presumptively confidential” — even in the absence of an off-the-record agreement — and only discloses what they authorize him to disclose.
That’s what so much “journalism” now is: a means of shielding secrets from the public — usually to protect friends and the agendas of “sources” to ensure further access. Ironically, it is that very mentality — the Cult of Secrecy that American journalism has become — that gave rise to the need for WikiLeaks in the first place. We’re a society in which media and political elites keep secrets compulsively with one another — doing that is one of the hallmarks of membership in those circles — and there are thus plenty of people trained to believe that Good, Responsible People keep substantive secrets from the public. It’s the same mentality that has spawned the hostile reaction to WikiLeaks: people are happy — grateful even — when institutions keep substantive information from them. Hence: I want the Government to act in the dark and keep me ignorant about most of what it does; similarly: Wired is acting responsibly by refusing to tell us whether Adrian Lamo’s claims about Manning are true or false or to resolve the multiple contradictions he’s publicly affirmed.
That’s not what I think journalism is. There are very serious questions that remain unresolved and unanswered about the entire Bradley Manning incident. Wired is in possession of key evidence that could shed light on much of it. But they refuse to disclose it, describe it, or even answer questions about it. Only someone with a very warped understanding of what journalism is supposed to be would defend that.
* * * * *
One can see how significant Wired‘s concealment of this evidence is by simply looking at (1) the numerous claims Lamo has made about what Manning told him in these chats that are not found anywhere in Wired‘s excerpts, and (2) the multiple contradictions about the key events which Lamo has spouted.
To begin with, consider this passage from a Wired article on June 10, 2010, by Poulsen and Kim Zetter: ”[Manning] said that Julian Assange had offered him a position at Wikileaks. But he said, ‘I’m not interested right now. Too much excess baggage’.” That passage is found nowhere in the Wired chat excerpts. Is it there? Did Manning say he was offered a job at WikiLeaks? If he did, given that Wired itself is writing about it, can we read that excerpt? What justification is there for withholding it?
Or consider one of the towering mysteries here: why and how did Manning come to choose Lamo — supposedly a total stranger, someone who just happened to be working with a vigilante group that informs the Government about Internet crimes — to contact out of the blue and confess his crimes? In his June interview with me, Lamo claimed that Manning found him through a Twitter search of the term “WikiLeaks” and found a pro-WikiLeaks tweet from Lamo:
GREENWALD: One of the things that I find weird and difficult to understand about this whole episode is how he found you and why he decided to find you, so can you just walk me through that first encounter. Like how did he make contact with you and what did he say and how did the whole thing, how did the whole conversation, come about?
LAMO: Absolutely. I understand that he tracked me down as a result of. . . He was searching for “Wikileaks” on Twitter and saw that in the recent leak of my documentary and people had asked, “Hey where should we send money if we download this?” And I initially said, for lack of a better answer, “Send it to the director. He’s the one who spent his time on it.” And the director said, “No. I don’t want to be compensated for that. It’s problematic.” And I said, “Okay, well send it to Wikileaks because they support similar principles to what are discussed in the documentary. That is to say, curiosity for the sake of curiosity and freedom of information.” And it was a result of that that I popped up on his radar.
GREENWALD: I’m sorry, you were having that discussion on your Twitter feed or where?
LAMO: Yes, on Twitter [unintelligible at 03:05].
GREENWALD: And he was, how did he see that?
LAMO: By searching for “Wikileaks,” the term.
GREENWALD: And then your account came up basically?
LAMO: That is correct. . . .
GREENWALD: Right. And how do know that that’s how he found you?
LAMO: Because that’s what he proffered to me when I asked him how he had come across my identity.
GREENWALD: And he told that in the chats that you two were having, the IM chats?
LAMO: That’s correct. . . .
That’s a critical claim from Lamo: that Manning told him he found Lamo through a random Twitter search for the term “WikiLeaks.” Lamo explicitly told me that Manning narrated this story in the chats. But nothing like that is in the excerpts Wired published. Indeed, there is nothing in Wired‘s excerpts about how Manning found Lamo or why he chose to speak with him. Is there anything in the chat logs confirming Lamo’s claims about how and why Manning contacted him? For Wired defenders: What possible justification is there for Wired to refuse to publish that portion or to confirm that it does not exist? Do you not think that’s a very relevant fact to know about this story: how Manning found Lamo and why he contacted him?
Beyond that story from Lamo, he has also given conflicting claims about how Manning found him, telling CNET (and others) that “he thinks Manning contacted him after reading a Wired article [from May, by Kevin Poulsen] about Lamo being diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, after a stint in the hospital for depression.” He also told The Washingtonian that “Lamo read from what he says were transcripts of the instant-message exchange he had with Manning. The young solider contacted Lamo first after reading a profile about him in Wired magazine.” But he told me expressly that Manning never mentioned that article, saying only that he found him from Twitter (“GREENWALD: Did he ever say that he had read that article? LAMO: No, he never mentioned it“).
At least as important is the question of when Manning and Lamo first began communicating, and what was said. Lamo told multiple news outlets that Manning, without any prior warning or notice, suddenly contacted him on May 21 via AOL chat. As but one example, Yahoo News on June 9 reported after interviewing Lamo: ”Lamo says Manning contacted him via AOL Instant Messenger ‘out of the blue’ on May 21.”
But Lamo told me a completely different story about how Manning first began communicating with him. He told me that Manning sent him a series of emails before they ever chatted, and it was as part of that email exchange that Lamo told Manning to contact him on AOL chat:
GREENWALD: And so the first contact he made with you, was that be email or was that some other way?
LAMO: [Sound of rustling papers] First contact was by email.
GREENWALD: And can you tell me generally what he said?
LAMO: I can’t unfortunately. It’s cryptographically impossible since he encrypted it to an outdated PGP key of mine.
GREENWALD: So were you unable to understand what he said in that first email?
LAMO: Correct. First, second, and third at the very least. I get a lot of random email and the hassle of decrypting it even if I had the key would be enough to push it back about a week or so in my “to read” stack. . . .I ignored it for the first couple of hours and then I received a few subsequent emails and then I finally replied, “Hey I can’t read your emails encrypted to a PGP key I no longer have access to. Why don’t we chat via AOL IM instead?”
GREENWALD: Right, so you gave him your IM address?
On this most critical question, Lamo can’t even keep his story straight. First he says that Manning just contacted him by chat “out of the blue.” Then he says that Manning sent him a series of emails and Lamo told him to contact him on chat and gave him his chat name. He also claims — incredibly for a self-proclaimed hacker — that he could not access his own emails because he lost his encryption key and thus has no idea what these emails, containing pre-chat communications between Lamo and Manning, even say. Yet, even according to what Lamo told me, Wired concealed much of the critical portions where those two began chatting on the first day about how they came into contact; that would shed vital light on what their relationship actually was and how they really found each other.
Then there’s the issue of what Lamo told Manning to induce him to describe the leaks in which he was allegedly involved. About this important question, Lamo tells a long, detailed story about how he promised Manning to keep completely secret their conversations on the ground that Lamo is both a “journalist” and a minister, but that Manning (depending on whom Lamo is talking to) expressly rejected that offer or just failed to accept it. Here’s what Lamo told me about that:
GREENWALD: Did, was there a point early on in the conversation when you told him that you were a reporter?
LAMO: Yes there was, and I offered him the opportunity to be protected by a reporter-source relationship, and that I could potentially work work him into a piece for 2600 or a story, rather a part of a book idea that I’ve been working on about my relations with the hacker community, that to say specifically the people who have come to me and the various aspects that they’ve illuminated. And didn’t take me up on it.
GREENWALD: Did he reject it?
LAMO: I asked him, “Do you want it to be this way, or do you want it to be this way?” And he didn’t respond to either. I also told him that I was an ordained minister and if he wanted it could be a confession but that requires an allocution in the affirmative.
GREENWALD: So early on in the conversation you had discussions with him about the fact that because you were a journalist you could offer him protection, confidentiality protection, as a source?
LAMO: Under the California reporter shield law, not federally but yeah–
GREENWALD: I know, but you talked about that with him?
LAMO: That is correct, and he gave no indication whatsoever that that was something that he was interested in.
Lamo made similar claims to CNN on August 4, 2010: ”Lamo confirmed he told Manning the soldier’s online conversations could be protected under the California shield law because it could be seen as a conversation with a journalist.” But he told something much different to Yahoo News on June 9: ”In an interview with Yahoo! News, Lamo says that he spelled out very clearly in his chats with Manning that he wasn’t affiliated with WikiLeaks or acting as a journalist,” and said that in response to Lamo’s offer of confidentiality, “Manning refused.” And he told BBC News on June 8 that Lamo and Manning jointly decided that there would be no journalist-source relationship: ”I did tell him that I worked as a journalist. I would have been happy to write about him myself, but we just decided that it would be too unethical.”
None of that — not a word of it — is in the Wired excerpts. Is that really how Lamo induced Manning to trust him: with betrayed promises of journalist-source or minister-penitent confidentiality? Did this subject even come up? Is anything Lamo is saying here remotely true? Wired could make those critical facts known in one minute: by publishing the excerpts where this happened or confirming that Lamo fabricated the story. For Wired defenders: what possible journalistic justification exists for their withholding of that information?
I could spend the rest of the day — literally — documenting bizarre facts in this story and contradictory assertions from Lamo about the most serious of matters. Just by herself, Marcy Wheeler — who has repeatedly proven herself to be one of the most thorough forensic examiners of raw data in the country — has raised all kinds of serious questions about when Lamo really began working with federal authorities, unexplained discrepancies in the Wired chat logs, and whether Lamo received actual classified information from Manning beyond the chats. Beyond that, FDL’s large readership has spent the last week compiling virtually every interview, press account and document involving Lamo and has pointed to multiple contradictions and unanswered questions that go to the heart of how Lamo claims to have become an informant who turned in Manning, including strange claims like this from Lamo, in a June 6 interview on CBC Radio:
[Manning] also also mentioned to me a top secret operation that the Army for lack of a better word freaked out over when I mentioned it to them. They would not even say it out loud, they wrote it on paper and showed it to somebody else when discussing it . . . . It was when I initially confirmed through a friend of mine who had experience in military counterintelligence and had him virtually blanche — or at least I imagined over the telephone — when I mentioned the operation, that I knew that I had to act.”
Yet despite how alarmed they were by how sensitive this information was — and despite the Obama DOJ’s well-documented harsh crackdown on all leaks — the FBI and Army Intelligence officials simply let Lamo keep copies of the chat logs and freely hand them out to Wired‘s Kevin Poulsen in order for Poulsen to publish whatever he wanted without input or influence from those agents? Very little about what Lamo, Poulsen and Wired claim here makes sense. The chat logs — or at least Wired‘s confirmation about what is in them — is the only thing that could clear any of this up.
* * * * *
Wired‘s principal goal in responding to what I wrote was to raise all sorts of questions about my motives. My motive could not be any clearer or more obvious. Bradley Manning is being incarcerated in extremely oppressive conditions and charged with crimes that could send him to prison for the rest of his life. The DOJ is threatening to do the same with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, based largely on statements they want to extract from Manning.
The chat logs that Wired has but is withholding — and about which they are refusing to comment — are newsworthy in the extreme. They cannot but shed substantial light on what really happened here, on the bizarre series of events and claims for which there is little evidence and much cause for doubt. I expect government officials to shield the truth from the public and to conceal key evidence and facts. But those who claim to be journalists should not be aiding in that effort. Wired is doing exactly that.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)