By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2010; A01
When Army Spec. Bradley Manning reached out to a stranger online -- to tell him about the reams of classified documents he had obtained -- he was looking for an ally.
Instead, his new contact, Adrian Lamo, turned him in.
On Monday, the U.S. military said it had detained Manning, an intelligence analyst from Potomac, for allegedly disclosing classified information. Officials said they were investigating whether Manning, 22, had leaked documents to Wikileaks.org, a secretive three-year-old Web site that allows whistleblowers to publicize sensitive material globally.
"The Department of Defense takes the management of classified information very seriously because it affects our national security, the lives of our soldiers, and our operations abroad," the U.S. military command in Iraq said in a statement.
Lamo, 29, a former hacker, acknowledged in an interview that he had informed authorities about Manning -- and said he had done so in the name of national security. The files were said to include scores of classified State Department records, as well as video footage of a controversial helicopter attack that killed Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters employees, in 2007.
A spokesman for the State Department acknowledged an investigation but said he was not aware of any unauthorized disclosure.
Manning, who had been serving in Iraq with the 10th Mountain Division, is being held in Kuwait. He has not been charged. A woman who answered the door at the home of his aunt, whose address Manning provided on his voter registration form, declined to comment.
The case, first reported by the Web site of Wired magazine, underscores the uncertainties and risks -- both for the government and the whistleblower -- in an age in which sensitive material can be shared globally and with the click of a mouse. Every click can leave a trail, and information can be shared with ease with virtually anyone.
Although Manning had traded e-mail and instant messages with Lamo, the two had never met.
"That's almost the worst part," Lamo said in a phone interview from Sacramento. "He just wanted somebody to talk to, somebody he could confide in, and I wish to God he had left it to that instead of going on to discuss classified material with me."
The case follows a string of episodes involving the prosecution of officials for the leaking of sensitive government documents. In April, a former senior executive with the National Security Agency was indicted for allegedly retaining classified information. Last month, a former contract linguist for the FBI was sentenced to 20 months in prison for leaking secret documents to a blogger.
A spokesman for Wikileaks declined Monday to say whether Manning had been a source and said the group was launching its own review into whether an arrest of a whistleblower violates laws in Sweden and Belgium, two countries in which the site operates.
The spokesman, Daniel Schmitt, said Wikileaks typically does not know the identities of the people who send documents and photos to the Web site. But he said the organization maintains that it is illegal to prosecute someone for trying to expose government corruption or injustice.
"We believe the person behind the leak, whoever it is, is protected by law," Schmitt said.
The helicopter footage from Iraq was the latest controversial posting by Wikileaks. It generated significant attention for the group, which publicized the video through a Web site called Collateral Murder.
Manning's aunt, Debra Van Alstyne, told Wired that her nephew recently disappeared from contact but had called over the weekend. She said he gave her his Facebook password and asked that she post a message on his behalf.
The message said: "Some of you may have heard that I have been arrested for disclosure of classified information to unauthorized persons. See CollateralMurder.com."
Much of Manning's Facebook page has since been blocked.
On Monday, relatives of the civilians killed in the gunship attack in Iraq criticized Manning's detention. "Justice was what this U.S. soldier did by uncovering this crime against humanity," said Nabil Noor-Eldeen, whose brother, Namir, was one of the Reuters employees killed in the strike. "The American military should reward him, not arrest him."
Lamo said Manning had contacted him out of the blue one day in late May. Manning had read a profile of Lamo in Wired.com and thought he might appreciate what he had done.
In 2003, Lamo had gained notoriety after infiltrating the New York Times' computer system, a crime for which he later served house arrest.
Manning reportedly said that he had come across documents and that he thought they contained "incredible things, awful things . . . that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington, D.C."
"If you had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months, what would you do?" Manning asked.
Lamo said Manning felt mistreated by the military and wanted the Army to see "the futility" of its computer-security measures. He told Lamo how he once walked out of a classified document room at Forward Operating Base Hammer with data that he had copied onto a CD labeled as Lady Gaga music.
Manning told Lamo he had already leaked a video depicting a 2009 airstrike in Afghanistan that Wikileaks had acknowledged it had in its possession; a classified Army document evaluating Wikileaks as a security threat; and a previously unreported breach of 260,000 classified U.S. diplomatic cables.
He was upset at the Army and Army policies, as well as with U.S. foreign policy, Lamo said.
Lamo said he agonized over whether to report Manning. In the interview, Lamo noted that he had been arrested for hacking into the Times' Web site. "I've been in shackles and been manhandled by guards," he said. "So it's not like I'm sitting in some ivory tower here."
Ultimately, Lamo said, he decided that the material -- which he was told included information about a "covert military operation" -- was too sensitive.
On his Facebook page Sunday night, after Manning had been detained, Lamo said he was "heartsick" for the specialist and his family. "I hope they can forgive me some day for doing what I felt had to be done."
He added: "I've never turned anyone in before, and don't plan to again. But he was like a kid playing with a loaded gun. Someone was bound to get hurt."
Staff researcher Julie Tate and staff writers Joby Warrick and Maria Glod in Washington and correspondent Leila Fadel and special correspondent Jinan Hussein in Baghdad contributed to this report.