WikiLeaks has ushered in a new age in whistleblowing: Modern leakers such as Chelsea Manning - who's story is the focus of our current episode - expose huge amounts of confidential information. But can these mega-leaks really influence the actions and policies of governments?

Hosted By

Ran Levi

Born in Israel in 1975, Ran studied Electrical Engineering at the Technion Institute of Technology, and worked as an electronics engineer and programmer for several High Tech companies in Israel.
In 2007, created the popular Israeli podcast, Making History, with over 10 million downloads as of Aug. 2017.
Author of 3 books (all in Hebrew): Perpetuum Mobile: About the history of Perpetual Motion Machines; The Little University of Science: A book about all of Science (well, the important bits, anyway) in bite-sized chunks; Battle of Minds: About the history of computer malware.

Episode transcript:

The Whistle Blowers

Hello, and welcome to the 2nd season of Malicious Life – I’m Ran Levi.

Leakers and truth-tellers (Whistleblowers) have always been an integral part of the complex game played by governments and media in democratic countries. But if there’s something that has changed in the modern era, it is the vast amount of information a potential whistleblower is exposed to in the workplace, and, therefore, the vast amount of information which he or she can expose to the public. Digital databases have made document creation and storage simple and easy, so the number of documents we produce has increased accordingly. For example, Time magazine reports that the number of confidential documents produced by the US government has increased since 1996 from 5.5 million to more than 54 million documents in 2009. I don’t know how many classified documents Mark Felt – “Deep Throat” – leaked to the press in Watergate, but I’m pretty sure it’s far less than the one million and eight hundred thousand documents revealed by Snowden, or the eleven and a half million documents revealed in the so-called The Panama Papers exposure of 2016.

The question that interests me, and which we will discuss in this episode, is what effect this mega-leakage of the millions and millions of classified documents has had on the behavior and decision-making of governments in the modern era. Do such huge exposures have a significant impact on our governing bodies? Or perhaps the leak of one ‘explosive’ document has the same effect, more or less, as leaking a million documents does.

The example on which this episode will be based is not Edward Snowden’s: I will devote a separate episode in Malicious Life to his story. For this episode, I chose another story, almost as famous but much more interesting, in my opinion: the story of Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, a story interweaving the U.S government, rogue hacker and ideologies – and the greatest leak in world history.

Adrian Lamo

Manning’s story begins with another hacker. Adrian Lamo was born in the United States in 1981 to a family of immigrants from Colombia. Lamo was very interested in computers, but did not get along well in the conventional educational frameworks and did not finish high school. This attitude might have been aided by the fact that, when Lamo was a child, his family frequently moved between cities, and Lamo changed schools many times. When he was about seventeen, his parents moved again, this time from San Francisco to Sacramento. Lamo decided that this time he’d stay behind. He slept on friends’ couches, and when he could not find a free couch he spent the night in abandoned houses and closed factories.

Adrian Lamo - Malicious Life Podcast

Adrian Lamo

Lamo developed a special affection for information security, believing that many companies’ Web sites and information systems were not properly secured, putting personal and sensitive information at risk. Another hacker might have been tempted to exploit these security vulnerabilities in his favor, or perhaps tag the matter as ‘someone else’s problem’ and forget about it, but not Lamo. When Lamo was 13 years old, a group of bullies threatened and robbed him at a train station, and but no one around him helped. This traumatic experience affected Lamo deeply, and he vowed never to turn away when he saw something wrong. So he wanted to help organizations and companies fix their security vulnerabilities, but he also knew that in practice no company would listen to the suggestions of a homeless 17-year-old who did not finish school, however talented he might be.

So Adrian Lamo approached the problem differently. If he found a security vulnerability in a company’s computer system, he exploited it and broke into the company’s internal network. Only when he found some confidential and sensitive information did he contact the company’s managers and present the material in his possession, as proof of the danger of ignoring the vulnerability. Lamo broke into the computers of some of the largest and well-known companies in the world: Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft, WorldCom, and others. He didn’t try to hide his identity, and most of the time it was not even necessary. Most of the companies he approached may not have been happy to hear about the security vulnerability he disclosed, but the managers often realized that he had done them an important and useful service. A number of companies, such as WorldCom and Excite, publicly thanked Lamo. In some cases, Lamo was even offered a reward for the information he brought, but he says he never accepted money, and that such payment would be contrary to his ideology.

The media was drawn to Adrian Lamo like a butterfly to a flame. His romantic character seemed straight out of a Hollywood film: an adolescent teenager breaking into ultra-secure computer networks with a battered laptop by day and struggling to survive in the streets of the big city by night. Magazine articles and interviews with Lamo appeared in many newspapers and television programs, and he was given the nickname ‘The Homeless Hacker’. One reporter wrote: “Lamo is a strange combination of Robin Hood and a Cowboy […] He’s the wandering samurai, Angry Max, and the hacker with the golden heart … ”

In reality, however, Lamo was not held in high regard among other hackers–actually, many of them scorned him. The security vulnerabilities which he used to penetrate the enterprise networks were very basic, such as default passwords that no one bothered to change. Of course, the fact that these were basic security vulnerabilities did not detract from their perilous potential, but this sort of “hacking” doesn’t require exceptional skill.

Either way, Lamo’s romantic public image did not provide him with perfect protection. In 2003, he broke into the New York Times computer network. He located the newspaper’s database which held the contact details of experts in various professional fields with whom the journalists consult during their writing, and in an act of mischief, he entered in his own details as an expert. This, by itself, probably would not have been considered so terrible, but Lamo had made another fatal mistake: he used the services of another site and paid for it from the New York Times account. in other words, he stole money from the newspaper.

When New York Times executives discovered the breach, they were not amused at all. Not only did they not thank Lamo for exposing the vulnerability, they also filed an official complaint against him. Adrian Lamo was arrested by the FBI and put on trial. He was sentenced to six months of house arrest and was required to compensate the Times for $70,000. Lamo told the judge that he regretted the incident, he promised never to hack into computer networks again and even said he wished to find “normal” work in a computer store. Lamo may have been serious when he promised to live a more “normal” life, but as we shall see later, fate had other plans for him.

Julian Assange

Compared to Julian Assange, Lamo’s turbulent childhood can be described as almost boring… Assange was born in Australia in 1971, and his father abandoned the family when he was a baby. His mother remarried, but this marriage also fell apart. His mother later became involved with an Australian cult known to abuse children, and for years thereafter she and Julian wandered across the great country trying to evade the other cult members. Assange has replaced thirty-seven (!) schools.

Julian Assange - Malicious Life Podcast

Julian Assange

When he was about 16, Assange received his first computer, and not long afterward he joined an Australian hacker group that broke into US military computer networks. At the age of 21, he was arrested, and he admitted to twenty-one counts of hacking, but the punishment he received was fairly light: a modest fine and a good behavior bond. Assange abandoned criminal activity, but not the computer world, and in 1993 founded an Internet service provider called the “Suburbia Public Access Network”.

The Church of Scientology is one of the most vilified religions–or sects, depending on whom you ask–in the world. In 1993, an anti-Scientology website was created at an Australian university. In response, the Church filed libel suits and other legal threats against the operators of the site – and also against Assange’s company, which provided its Internet connectivity service. This event reinforced Assange’s belief that he already held, that freedom of expression and freedom of information are fragile and require constant protection. In the years that followed, he developed an idea: massive leaks of classified information as a way to fight corrupt and oppressive regimes.


The media, in its various forms, has always assumed the role of ‘the watchdog of democracy’, but Assange identified one basic weakness: if a person leaks confidential information to a journalist, the government can put pressure on that journalist or news outlet to reveal the source’s identity. The fear of such pressure persuades many potential leakers to think twice before turning to a journalist on their own initiative.
To combat this problem, Assange, together with a small group of other activists, established Wikileaks in 2006. Wikileaks is a site that publishes press reports, but unlike most traditional news channels, it also publishes the largely classified documents that are the sources of these reports. In media interviews, Assange emphasizes the fact that Wikileaks is a journalistic website and not just a digital bin that holds classified documents:

“I founded an Internet company in Australia in 1993. From that day I was a publisher, and sometimes a journalist. There is a deliberate attempt to redefine what we do not as a legally protected publication in many countries or as a journalistic activity, which is also protected in various forms – but as something that is not entitled to protection, such as hacking into computers, thus separating us from other forms of journalism and its legal defense. This is done intentionally by some of our opponents. “

The documents that appear on WikiLeaks mostly come from people in the business or public sector who have access to classified information and who decide, for their own reasons, to disclose it to the public. The unique thing about Wikileaks is how leakers are given total anonymity: even Assange and his colleagues don’t know the identity of the people who provide them with their information! In other words, Wikileaks acts as a screen between the whistleblowers and those who may want to pursue them.

Wikileaks' Logo - Malicious Life Podcast

Wikileaks’ Logo

And when it comes to the amount and volume of information exposed, Wikileaks is undoubtedly the world’s leading journalistic outlet. More than 10 million classified documents have so far been revealed on the site: from those exposing a major corruption scandal in Kenya, to a petroleum scandal in Peru, to a financial scandal in Iceland, to embarrassing disclosures about Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and France, among others. The documents uploaded to Wikileaks have been extensively cited and have appeared in more than 100 leading media outlets around the world.

Assange has been criticized quite a bit, of course, especially about the implications of exposing information about individuals. At least in one case, the Taliban in Afghanistan announced that they would settle accounts with Afghans whose names appeared in classified documents as collaborators with the US military. As a result of this criticism, WikiLeaks’s staff are now removing from the documents they publish the names and other identifying details of people who do not play a significant role in the exposed affairs, to protect their identities.

In 2010, Wikileaks published its biggest and most dramatic story–one that brought it, and Julian Assange, to the attention of the entire world. This success, however, came with a price tag. That price was paid by Julian Assange, Adrian Lamo, and the man responsible for one of the biggest leaks in history.

Bradley Manning

Bradley Manning was born in the United States in 1987, on an isolated farm in Oklahoma. Both his parents were alcoholics, and young Bradley suffered from severe neglect. According to a relative, Bradley ate nothing but milk and baby food until he was nearly two years old. His sister, only ten years older than him, changed his diapers and cared for him as best she could.

Despite his loneliness and neglect, Manning was a good student in school, although he suffered from behavioral problems and in later years found it difficult to hold steady jobs. Bradley was very interested in computers, and in 2007 he decided to enlist in the US Army to get a scholarship for undergraduate studies in this field. Many of his acquaintances raised an eyebrow when he decided to enlist–his behavioral problems did not suggest a high match for military discipline–but Manning had another reason, both personal and secret, to join the army. Manning was a homosexual, and he also had serious misgivings about his gender: he felt he was a woman trapped in a man’s body. He hoped that the masculine and macho military environment would somehow “cure” him of these feelings.

As might be expected, not only did the military environment not help him overcome his identity problem, but his mental state also became significantly worse. Manning suffered constant harassment from other soldiers for his sexual tendencies and felt more isolated and alienated than ever before.

Bradley Manning during his Military service - Malicious Life Podcast

Bradley Manning during his Militray service.

After the initial training, Manning joined an intelligence unit that collected and analyzed information received from many US military arms. Manning liked to work with computers and enjoyed the technological aspects of the job, but he still suffered from loneliness and depression, especially since he was stationed in faraway Iraq.

In 2009, Bradley Manning first heard of Wikileaks, and on occasion even used information published on the site as part of his intelligence work. He began visiting the site regularly. His initial motivation was to find out where the site was getting its information from, but that was soon replaced by a completely different motivation: Manning conducted anonymous chats with the volunteers who operated the site, and WikiLeaks became a refuge from his loneliness. At the same time, he began to believe that the United States was losing its moral conscience in the Iraq War. He was exposed to countless incidents of American soldiers killing innocent civilians–accidentally or even deliberately–that the United States government concealed from its citizens.

Collateral Damage

One of the most prominent examples of such incidents was a video that Manning received, of an attack by an American military helicopter in Iraq in 2007. In the video, which was filmed from the helicopter and accompanied by a recording of the communications between the pilots and the ground forces, the pilots appear to fire missiles and shells at a group of suspected terrorists in one of Baghdad’s suburbs.

In retrospect, it became clear that despite the fact that there were indeed armed terrorists among the group, most of those photographed were civilians. More than 12 innocent people were killed in the incident and many were injured, among them quite a few children.

A frame taken from the video 'Collateral Murder' - Malicious Life Podcast

A frame taken from the video ‘Collateral Murder’

What bothered Manning was not the attack itself or the shooting at civilians – he saw hundreds, if not thousands, of similar videos before – but the behavior of the American soldiers, and the reaction of the US government. He thought the helicopter pilots sounded too jubilant during the attack, too bloodthirsty. They made jokes and jest at the expense of the people they were shooting at and seemed to enjoy every moment.

Two of the people k led in the incident were Reuters photographers. The Helicopter pilots mistakenly identified the video cameras they carried on their shoulders as RPG launchers. Reuters asked the US authorities to access the video footage of the incident to find out what happened and how its photographers were killed – but the United States refused the request (presumably due to public relations concerns) and reportedly even lied to Reuters and said the incident was not documented.

These and other cases convinced Manning that he had to expose what was happening in Iraq and Afghanistan to the American public and that this transparency would help the United States maintain its moral backbone in the long run. When he returned from Iraq in 2010, he tried to contact the Washington Post and the New York Times, but both ignored him. Manning turned to Wikileaks, told the site’s operators about the information he had, and passed on hundreds of thousands of classified documents: diplomatic telegrams, intelligence documents, and videos like the one of the attack in 2007.

The publication of the classified documents leaked by Bradley Manning was a defining moment in the history of Wikileaks. Media outlets around the world, from Al Jazeera to Fox News, discussed the content that appeared in them, and the site received unprecedented exposure. Among the leaked documents were thousands of diplomatic cables from American embassies with personal and embarrassing information about world leaders, reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, testimonies about the secret prison in Guantánamo Bay, and more.
Central attention was given to the video of the helicopter attack, which Julian Assange called ‘Collateral Murder’, a wordplay on ‘collateral damage’, the term used by the military to describe civilian casualties during military action. Some commentators have speculated that this was the biggest and most serious leak of government data in world history, in terms of the public image and intelligence damage caused to the United States.

No Soulmate

All the talks Manning conducted in 2010 with Wikileaks were completely anonymous. Manning did not know whom he was talking to, nor did they have a shred of identifying information about him. Later, Manning said he was convinced that the person who spoke with him was Julian Assange himself, but Assange categorically denied the claim. At this point in time, Bradley Manning’s identity was completely protected and confidential, as Assange intended. Unfortunately for Manning, a terrible error of judgment made this immunity suddenly irrelevant.

Even after delivering the classified documents to Julian Assange, Bradley Manning found no peace of mind. He sought a human connection to dispel his deep solitude: someone to share with him the dilemmas about his sexual identity, with an anti-establishment orientation like his. He found Adrian Lamo. Lamo was Manning’s soulmate, or so it seemed to Manning at the time. They each had traumatic upbringings. Lamo was bisexual, and active in several gay and transgender organizations. He also got into trouble with the FBI and was even punished for it. Lamo was the hacker with the heart of gold; Mad Max and Robin Hood, all in one package. Adrian Lamo would understand–truly understand–what Manning was going through. In May 2010 Manning contacted Adrian Lamo via the Internet, and the two began chatting. Manning revealed to Lamo that he was the one who leaked the now infamous secret documents to WikiLeaks.

But Manning had no way of knowing that the person he had seen as a sort of soulmate had crossed enemy lines and was now part of the establishment. In 2003, Adrian Lamo promised the court that he would change his ways and find a normal job like everyone else. In reality, however, sometime between 2003 and 2010 he joined a secret government organization called Project Vigilant. The organization’s members are hackers and information security researchers who collect a variety of information from the Internet and hand it over to the US intelligence agencies.

Adrian Lamo told his father about Bradley Manning, who in turn shared the information with Lamo’s boss at Project Vigilant. Lamo decided to cooperate with the authorities and reveal the chat’s transcripts after his manager pressured him heavily, despite a firm promise he had made to Manning that he would never do such a thing. Less than 48 hours later after Lamo’s reveal, Bradley Manning was already jailed in solitary confinement in a detention camp in Kuwait.

A Heavy Price

Each of the three major players involved in the affair paid a heavy personal price. Bradley Manning was charged with spying and assisting the enemy and was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison. At the time of his arrest, Bradley Manning began sex change treatments, and today he is a she: Chelsea Elizabeth Manning. In 2017 President Obama annulled Chelsea’s sentence and she was released, but many in the United States still see her as a traitor who risked the security of the United States and its soldiers.

Chelsea Manning - Malicious Life Podcast

Chelsea Manning

Adrian Lamo, who was once considered a star in the hacker subculture, has become a figure venomously hated by many social activists. In media interviews, he explained that he had betrayed Manning because of the oath he took to defend his country and because Manning leaked documents that could put US military personnel in danger.

WikiLeaks’ meteoric success also had a painful impact on Julian Assange’s life. The media began publishing unflattering articles describing him as having an inflated ego. In 2010, an arrest warrant was issued against Assange by the Swedish government on suspicion of his having raped two women. Assange claimed, as expected, that the accusation was a plot intended to allow Sweden to extradite him to the United States. The fear of being extradited led Assange to lock himself inside London’s Ecuadorian embassy, which agreed to give him asylum. He has remained there since 2012. The rape charges have since been dropped, but Assange is still afraid of leaving the embassy for fear he will be arrested by British police.

In recent years WikiLeaks has published several documents they call ‘insurance files’. These are encrypted files that contain hundreds of gigabytes of data that, according to speculation, could cause the US government diplomatic headaches, or might even be of real risk to national security. WikiLeaks hinted that if Julian Assange were arrested, it would release the passwords to the files. But despite these insurance files and the diplomatic immunity he enjoys in the embassy – for now, in any case – it is clear that the constant tension and anxiety do not benefit Assange. Judging from recent pictures, Assange looks as if he had aged thirty years in the past five years.

The Effects of Exposures

So did Manning’s exposure pay off? Has the information she disclosed – or any other information disclosed by Wikileaks over the years – resulted in any real change in policy of the United States or any other government?

This is a difficult question to answer. In some relatively rare cases, one can discern the immediate effects of such exposures. In Iceland, for example, there used to be laws that allowed the government to silence and censor the media. In 2009, when WikiLeaks published documents pointing to clear corruption in the country’s economic elite, the censored television channels could not tell about it, so they turned their viewers directly to WikiLeaks itself. The exposure led to an uproar, and indictments were filed against many senior officials. Changes are now being made in the Icelandic law to allow greater freedom of expression.

The documents leaked by Chelsea Manning were probably part of what sparked the Arab Spring in 2010. One of the diplomatic cables revealed by the leak was a report by the US ambassador to Tunisia about the corruption that had spread in the Tunisian regime. The ambassador attended a dinner with the son-in-law of the Tunisian president and described in a telegram how he and the other guests enjoyed an ice cream flown in especially from France, and that the president’s son-in-law is raising a tiger who gets four fresh chickens a day – more than what many of the country’s citizens eat in a month. This exposure aroused great anger in Tunisia and undoubtedly contributed to the stormy demonstrations which then caused a chain reaction in the entire Middle East.

But even in the case of Tunisia, it is difficult to assess the exact role played by the leak within the broader fabric of the protest. The exposure did not land on the Tunisians like a bolt of lightning: the reasons for the revolution in Tunisia were much older and deeper, of course, and rage over government corruption had been bubbling for many years. Substantial social change is rarely the result of a single act, but is almost always part of a prolonged process.

It is also difficult to say whether the US government has changed any of its policies or practices following Manning’s exposure. The American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were the focus of public criticism long before Manning, and her leaks mainly helped convince the already convinced. Those who believed the United States was wrong in its Middle East policy saw the video clips and reports as supporting their claims. For those who believed that such involvement was an essential part of American foreign policy, what these documents revealed was taken as no more than ‘necessary evil.’ After all, you can’t make an omelet without cracking some eggs. The army and the government, however, denied almost all of the leaked reports and claimed that they presented a distorted and one-sided picture of reality. For example, an official military report claimed that the Collateral Murder video is missing about twenty minutes of footage showing the helicopter fighting armed terrorists prior to the incident. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said of Manning’s leaks:

“Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for US foreign policy? I think fairly modest. “

It seems, therefore, that such large-scale leaks do not have a proportionately greater effect in the short term than do the smaller leaks we know of from the past. But if there is anything to be said about the great leaks of the modern age, is that their geo-political range of influence is greater than ever: in the past the effects of an exposure were usually limited to one country or to two-state relations, but Wikileaks exposures have a worldwide impact. The Panama Papers, for example – financial documents that were leaked in 2015 – were featured by no less than 107 media outlets from 80 different countries, and the diplomatic cables that Manning leaked have affected the relationship of the United States with dozens of countries around the world.

It seems that, despite the huge amount of classified documents exposed by whistle blowers of the 21st century, it is not certain their practical impact on foreign policy and relations is much greater than similar leaks of the past. It is possible, however, that we will see their effects in the longer term – whether on social change, encryption technologies, privacy legislation, or other global movements. Only time will tell.