What Killed Adrian Lamo, The Hacker Who Turned In Whistleblower Chelsea Manning? Adrian Lamo was a hero in the hacker community for years. Everything changed when he began exchanging messages with U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.

The Mysterious Death Of The Hacker Who Turned In Chelsea Manning

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DINA TEMPLE-RASTON (HOST): This is I'LL BE SEEING YOU, a four-part series about the technologies that watch us from NPR. I'm Dina Temple-Raston, and today we're looking at the life and mysterious death of one of the world's most famous hackers, Adrian Lamo. And our story starts with the discovery of a body.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1 (911 OPERATOR): 911 Wichita.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Requesting a dispatch for commercial medical alarm.

TEMPLE-RASTON: This is the actual 911 call that came in on March 14 of last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK, and tell me exactly what happened.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It just got this on 54 Room 222, alert by medical.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How old is the patient?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Don't know - don't have any information on them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Patient male or female?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Are they breathing?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Don't know.

TEMPLE-RASTON: All the caller seemed to be sure about was that something bad had happened and someone needed to get there quickly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Call back if anything changes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you.

TEMPLE-RASTON: This was probably one of the few moments in Adrian Lamo's life when he was truly anonymous because before all this happened, he was a hacking rock star.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SCREEN SAVERS")

LEO LAPORTE (TELEVISION HOST): You know him as the guy who hacked Yahoo, AOL, Time Warner, MCI WorldCom, Microsoft and very famously, the New York Times. Adrian Lamo, one of the most celebrated hackers in the world today, welcome to "The Screen Savers."

TEMPLE-RASTON: "The Screen Savers" was an old cable television show all about technology. It aired in the late '90s and early 2000s, and the host was a guy named Leo Laporte.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SCREEN SAVERS")

LAPORTE: Do you define yourself as a hacker? Do you consider yourself a hacker?

ADRIAN LAMO (HACKER): It's not a term that I try to sell myself as.

LAPORTE: Yeah.

LAMO: People use hacker to mean a lot of different...

LORRAINE MURPHY (JOURNALIST, FRIEND OF ADRIAN LAMO): He definitely had an original approach to things.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Lorraine Murphy writes about hacking, and she knew Adrian for years.

MURPHY: The hacker mindset is all about looking at something and going, how can I use this for something it wasn't intended to? Or, how far can I push this before it does something unpredictable? He definitely had that.

TEMPLE-RASTON: She says that because Adrian came to the hacking community so early, he was a bit of an inspiration, even a hero of sorts. People asked his advice, they wanted his approval, and he had almost a cult following.

MURPHY: He's like the Tony Robbins of the hacking world. It's one thing to be gifted at hacking. It's another thing to be able to tell a world of civilians that the thing exists and you are good at it, and Adrian had both of those.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Adrian Lamo was born in Boston, but he grew up outside Bogota, Colombia. His early hacker's resume tracks like that of just about every hacker I've talked to. He got a hand-me-down Commodore 64 as kid. He hacked into computer games. He played with viruses on floppy disks. Floppy disks - remember those? And eventually, he began tapping into strangers' phone lines and finding ways to spoof the phone company to get free long-distance calls. When his family moved to California, that only made it easier to pursue his interest in computers.

After that, what we have is a persona Adrian Lamo carefully created. He thought of himself as an ethical vigilante, a gray hat hacker, a self-styled Robin Hood of the early Internet. And like Robin Hood, he took aim at the king - one of the largest internet providers in 2001, a company called MCI WorldCom. MCI would say later that Adrian slipped in through a security hole. He'd found a piece of bad code that allowed him to fool the network into thinking that he belonged there. But according to Adrian, the hack itself was even simpler than that.

He got into MCI by guessing passwords. As it turns out, the company had set up temporary passwords for employees based on Social Security numbers. Adrian simply Googled some employees, quickly found their Social Security numbers online, and a short time later, he was inside the network. Getting into these networks, he told anyone that would listen, was incredibly easy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAMO: Some of the companies that you do business with every day had passwords that were simple dictionary words, names of animals.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Adrian explained how he broke into MCI in an unreleased documentary that he started. It was called "Hackers Wanted."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAMO: Anyone at all with this information could have connected to each and every router that handled the data for Bank of America, Ford, Chrysler, NASA. There were very detailed...

TEMPLE-RASTON: We hear about things like this all the time now, but back when Adrian was saying all this, people were just starting to realize how unsafe the Internet was. Adrian was foreshadowing the future, warning that once bad actors figured out how easy it was to get into network systems, no one would be safe.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SCREEN SAVERS")

LAPORTE: You may remember Adrian Lamo. He's been on the show before.

KEVIN ROSE (TELEVISION HOST): Been on the show a couple of - real nice guy.

LAPORTE: Wonderful guy - he's a hacker but a kind of a gray hat hacker.

TEMPLE-RASTON: "The Screen Savers" show again...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SCREEN SAVERS")

ROSE: Right. He doesn't steal any information. He doesn't take anything and use it for bad. He's a good hacker.

LAPORTE: Well, I'll give you an example.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Back when Adrian and his friends were cracking into computer networks, the goal was just to see if they could. What they were looking for was bragging rights, tinkering in order to learn.

MURPHY: Adrian was never really monetized. He was not motivated primarily by money. Media, fame - that sort of thing motivated him.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Here's Lorraine Murphy again.

MURPHY: He wanted to be a household name.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Some of the hacking tools Adrian helped develop back then are still being used by the hacker community today. What made Adrian a little different from the others around him, though, is that he saw darker forces forming. He could imagine a day when technologies would goose-step out of the pages of science fiction into our daily lives, and these technologies would allow governments, bad actors, even companies to watch us without our knowing. But Adrian went too far when he hacked into the New York Times.

The way it all unfolded would sound familiar to anyone who was in the hacking underground at the time. Adrian was very good at figuring out passwords, either getting someone to unwittingly give him one or guessing at default passwords that hadn't been changed. That's how he got into the internal server at the Times. He gave himself administrator credentials and a login and a password for their LexisNexis account. Then he played a little joke. He added himself to the paper's internal database of experts and listed himself as an expert in hacking. Pretty funny in a hacker kind of way, but The New York Times didn't exactly see the humor in it. The newspaper pressed charges, and in August 2003, the FBI issued a warrant for Adrian's arrest. A reasonable person could ask, why does it seem these hacks keep on happening? Lorraine Murphy says part of it has to do with the way Web sites are designed.

MURPHY: Well, when you have a Web site, you need to be able to let people into it, like, under the hood into the engine to tinker with it. That's everybody from the reporters who have to be able to put up information to the IT guys who have to be able to work on the actual machinery of the Web site.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So that's the first part. A Web site is always being updated, so the system has to be open, and Adrian took advantage of that. The second part is more fundamental. Most of the code that holds Web sites together is problematic. It's buggy, which means it's full of mistakes, full of holes, which makes it really easy for hackers to get in.

Here's an amazing fact. Back in Adrian's day, commercial software like Windows XP contained 20 to 30 bugs for every thousand lines of code. That means there could have been close to a million bugs in that operating system alone. And the problem is better now. The latest version of Windows operating system, Windows 10, is thought to have about five bugs per thousand lines of code. The more surprising thing is that you don't need to be a coding genius to find those bugs. You can actually buy software that finds them for you.

MURPHY: You can buy those programs on the dark web, and you can buy them in plain sight. There are Facebook groups that sell this kind of code. Facebook keeps trying to shut them down, but I've been in one for years and years.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So let's say you're a hacker just starting out. All you have to do is download the software, get the code for some Web site you want to hack and then run the program and see what it does. You don't need to code anything. Those overseas scammers trying to steal your personal information, they aren't computer geniuses. They just know where to buy the cheap sniffer programs - kind of brilliant, and at the same time, kind of scary. Adrian was known to buy the odd sniffer program to save time, but what he was really good at was social engineering...

MURPHY: Which is more or less the con man skill set. He was very good at impersonating people, impersonating entire groups. He was great at creating personas and getting you to believe the persona.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In real life, Adrian could be socially awkward and anxious, but on the Internet, he was bold, taking on the darker forces of corporate America. One of the most popular cartoons in New Yorker Magazine history ran in 1993. It was a drawing of a dog sitting on a chair behind a keyboard and a computer screen, and he's chatting to another dog sitting beside him, who's watching him type. On the Internet, he says, nobody knows you're a dog - which, if you think about it, is one of the things we love about the Internet. We can be whoever we want to be. Certainly, that was one of the things that Adrian loved.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SCREEN SAVERS")

LAPORTE: There is a big story just breaking now.

ROSE: Right now...

LAPORTE: We wanted to bring it to you. We've got an exclusive scoop on this. Things have turned bad, I guess, for Adrian Lamo because...

TEMPLE-RASTON: What had turned bad was the New York Times hack we just talked about. Adrian was charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a cybersecurity law which, at the time, had been rarely enforced. The act codified the computer equivalent of trespass. You didn't need to steal anything or be actively malicious to run afoul of it. Just gaining unauthorized access to a system and having a company decide to press charges was enough to trigger it. Adrian pleaded guilty to a felony and was sentenced to six months of home detention and two years probation. His conviction was a reminder to the wider world that hacking was now seen as a clear and present danger. To the hackers themselves, it signaled that they could no longer crack into internal servers with impunity. The world was changing. Adrian, for his part, acted contrite...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SCREEN SAVERS")

LAMO: I do think that there are some lines that I stepped over in my access. I want to take responsibility for this.

LAPORTE: Sure.

LAMO: I want to put it behind me.

TEMPLE-RASTON: ...But not so humbled that he couldn't resist poking fun at the whole episode.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SCREEN SAVERS")

LAMO: On a tangentially related note, the U.S. marshals actually let me retake my mugshot until I thought I looked pretty, so...

LAPORTE: You're kidding. Really?

TEMPLE-RASTON: And Adrian was pretty - olive skin, light eyes, dimples, kind of impish - and his mugshot was pretty, too. He was half-smiling, looking a little smug. And it says something about Adrian that he expected that story to turn out completely differently.

MURPHY: He was really appalled that he didn't get a job offer out of that, actually.

TEMPLE-RASTON: What job was he expecting, IT analyst?

MURPHY: Well, security consultant.

TEMPLE-RASTON: OK.

MURPHY: Literally the pipe dream of every, you know, best kid in the drama club at high school is to go to Broadway. The pipe dream of every skid in every hackerspace in the world is to get a paid job from a major corporation as a security consultant, and all you do is sit there all day and find their weaknesses.

TEMPLE-RASTON: OK, that might not be what everyone or every skid in the notoriously anti-establishment hacking community wants, but the fact that Adrian wanted that kind of job so badly shows how much of a white hat he aspired to be right up until the time he died. Our show today is about the mysterious death of a hacking pioneer, Adrian Lamo. I'm Dina Temple-Raston, and you're listening to I'LL BE SEEING YOU from NPR. After the break, how does one man go from computer hero to hacking pariah?

ANDREW BLAKE (FRIEND OF ADRIAN LAMO): People hated him. He couldn't log onto any sort of Internet platform without instantly getting some sort of hate directed toward him.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Stay with us.

TEMPLE-RASTON: This is I'LL BE SEEING YOU from NPR. I'm Dina Temple-Raston. And on the show today, we're investigating the mysterious death of one of the world's most famous hackers, Adrian Lamo. And as you'll hear, the deeper we dug into this, the weirder it got. It began as a story about an unexpected death, and then it became something else - a story not just about hacking in the Internet but about how hacking has evolved. It's gone from kids doing something slightly subversive to global syndicates trying to alter the course of history. And most people didn't notice that change until this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I got a black vehicle under target. It's arriving right to the north of the mosque.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yeah, I would like that. Over.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's from a classified military video that was leaked back in 2010. It was filmed from the gun sights of an American helicopter in Iraq. It was all shot in black and white and runs for about 39 minutes. You're hearing actual conversations between the pilots of two Apache helicopters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Hotel 26, this is Crazy Horse 18.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The helicopter is flying over a residential neighborhood. And from the camera's viewfinder, you can see low cinderblock buildings and some palm trees and a mosque. Then the camera angle shifts, and it zooms in on a handful of men walking down the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I have individuals with weapons.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: ...Four radio.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Yep, he's got a weapon, too.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: All right, we got a guy with an RPG.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I'm going to fire.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You're clear.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: All right, firing.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And then everything changes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Light them all up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Come on, fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Keep shooting.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE) TEMPLE-RASTON: We know now that this was live footage of a terrible mistake, and the weapons the pilots thought they saw weren't weapons at all. It was actually a camera with a telephoto lens. The men they thought were the enemy were actually reporters - Namir Noor-Eldeen, a Reuters photographer, and his assistant and driver, Saeed Chmagh. Twelve people were killed in the assault. The video, when it was released, raised questions about civilian casualties and American rules of engagement in Iraq. And it focused the world's attention on three things - the little-known organization called WikiLeaks, the young Army intelligence analyst who leaked it and, rather improbably, Adrian Lamo.

Now, if you don't remember the story, this is how it unfolded with a few new details. About two months after the helicopter video went viral, Adrian got an instant message from Chelsea Manning. She began by telling him that she had a copy of a documentary Adrian is starred in on her desktop. So Adrian thought it was going to be just another conversation from a fan. And then, all of a sudden, it wasn't. Manning started talking about her family, how hard it was to be in Iraq, about her gender identity issues and how she had to hide them from people she was working with. I know all about creating a persona, Adrian wrote. And then Manning went a step further - I think I'm in more potential heat than you ever were. How so, Adrian asked. And then she told him, told him about how she'd passed the now-famous helicopter video to WikiLeaks, along with hundreds of thousands of classified State Department cables.

She'd been in touch with a crazy white-haired Aussie who can't seem to stay in one country very long. She was talking about Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks. He's fighting extradition from the U.K. to the U.S. now. I can't believe what I'm telling you, Manning wrote. Adrian couldn't believe it either.

GLENN MORROW (COUSIN OF ADRIAN LAMO): I don't think he anticipated, when he started, the gravity of what Manning was actually saying.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Glenn Morrow, Adrian's cousin. And they were close. He and Adrian had talked about all this while it was happening, and he remembers Adrian saying that, at first, he thought Manning was just another hacker looking for affirmation.

MORROW: When you reach a sort of critical mass of fame, you just have so many people come out of the woodwork, so many, you know, people wanting to share something they've discovered or something they've done.

TEMPLE-RASTON: But the Manning conversation was about breaking the law, not in the ambiguous way that Adrian was used to but in what seemed to him a very black-and-white way. Manning had leaked classified documents. Adrian quizzed her about what she downloaded, and Manning said she didn't really look at what they were. She just passed them along. The more Manning revealed, the more unsettled Adrian became. So he made a choice, and his choice altered the course of his life and Manning's, too. He called the authorities.

MORROW: Once it became clear that it was such a serious thing that had happened, I don't think he could stand by and really live with the implications of just sitting on it.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Chelsea Manning was arrested within days. Adrian thought he'd be celebrated as a patriot. Chelsea Manning was in a war zone, vacuuming up classified documents and distributing them. To Adrian, it didn't seem like a close call. Here's Lorraine Murphy, again.

MURPHY: And it backfired, spectacularly, on him.

TEMPLE-RASTON: What Adrian hadn't fully understood was how people in the hacker community would react. He was sure he could make them see how he had no choice but to turn Manning in. Weeks later, he crashed headlong into the reality of what he had done at a New York hackers' conference called HOPE.

MORROW: Hope stands for Hackers on Planet Earth.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Glenn Morrow went with him, and they rather naively thought it would be a great opportunity to meet people. It sounds crazy now, but it hadn't occurred to either one of them that Adrian's decision to turn in Manning would hijack the conference.

MORROW: The first day at the conference, there was a lot of people, you know, yelling out snitch, at least one occasion that I recall of somebody spitting in his direction.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And then the organizers hastily put together a panel they called Informants - Villains or Heroes?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Should we avoid the controversy, or should we dive right into it? I say, of course, we dive right into it. We confront this thing head on, right?

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: With that, I'd like to introduce Adrian Lamo. And we'll let him say his piece, ask some questions and hopefully learn something. Adrian.

(BOOING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: All right, you can boo. Go ahead.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The audience was clearly against Adrian. One after another, people came to the microphone to berate him for violating the unwritten rules of hackerdom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: I think we need to be clear about what's acceptable to do and what's not acceptable to do. And I think you [expletive] up huge.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: I see what you have done as treason.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: I think you belong in Guantanamo.

TEMPLE-RASTON: As the group saw it, Adrian had broken the hacker code.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK ABENE (HACKER): As soon as you make up your mind to choose a side, politically speaking, you cease to be a hacker.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's a guy named Mark Abene, better known as Phiber Optik. He was a high-profile hacker in the 1980s and 1990s and an icon of sorts. He made clear he thought Adrian had crossed a line. Hackers were supposed to be faintly subversive, not law enforcement informants.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ABENE: You had a choice, and you made the wrong choice. You could've simply walked away, and none of this would've happened.

LAMO: I could have, but I wouldn't have been able to live with myself.

(APPLAUSE)

ABENE: I disagree.

MORROW: It was a little tough for me to hear. Everybody knew who he was. And up until that point, Adrian had been, you know, a hero. In the culture, you know, the worst thing you could be was a snitch.

TEMPLE-RASTON: It didn't help matters that all this happened at a time when hackers were just beginning to consider the moral implications of what they were doing.

MURPHY: And in the early days, the hackers did not think that there were rules when it came to websites. It was the Wild West. It wasn't against the law to hack a particular website for years and years and years.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Adrian had forced the community to address fundamental questions, like what did ethical hacking really mean? If you cracked into someone's system but you didn't do any damage, was that OK? And if someone tells you they're leaking classified information, are you obliged to say something? They all wanted hacking to remain a force for good, but they weren't quite sure how to make that happen.

After the conference, there was no ambiguity about how the community felt. Adrian was shunned. He received death threats. Fake bombs were mailed to his parents in California. Rumors went around that Adrian was actually a spy, ratting out fellow hackers to the government.

BLAKE: People hated him. He couldn't log on to any sort of Internet platform under his actual name without instantly getting some sort of hate directed toward him.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Andrew Blake is another longtime friend of Adrian's.

BLAKE: Even when Adrian would do something with the absolute best of intentions, as soon as anyone realized that it was Adrian Lamo who did it, they didn't want anything to do with it.

LAUREN FISHER (EX-WIFE OF ADRIAN LAMO): He used to say that I like to believe in a world where things can happen, even if I have to do them myself. He just liked to make the extraordinary happen.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Adrian's ex-wife, Lauren Fisher. This is the first time she's talked publicly about her marriage to him. And the reason why we're talking to her is because all these rumors about Adrian working for the government may have started with something she and Adrian did years before he'd ever heard of Chelsea Manning. They started a business together in 2008, and they called it Reality Planning.

FISHER: Reality Planning was a go at getting him to have a sort of a la carte system where you could ask him to test your website or test your company. It was all very vague, but it was really just to get him back into the PR spotlight. And it kind of worked.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Kind of worked because someone contacted them about speaking at a computer expo in Europe. Adrian was going to get them to pick up business-class airfare. He wanted a luxury hotel. But almost before they got out of the gate, there were unexpected complications from the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: We have a hold in our system on your passport application. I need to know whether or not you are still on probation...

TEMPLE-RASTON: This is an actual voicemail they got at the time. Fisher had saved it, and it was about the felony conviction we mentioned earlier for hacking The New York Times.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: We have information indicating that you had some kind of legal matter or something going on. So give me a call if you have any questions. Have a good day.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The Europe trip, speaking engagements, being in the spotlight once again - that never happened. Fisher says there were lots of things that didn't go their way back then. Anxiety often got the better of Adrian. Sometimes, he wouldn't leave the house for days. Fisher says it was around that time that she first heard Adrian mention something called Project Vigilant. She overheard him talking to people on Skype about a project that would use his hacking skills for good, something that would put him back on top.

FISHER: It was just kind of like Reality Planning, though. It was just all vague and - but it seemed a bit - for me, it seemed a bit more - it seemed bigger, obviously. And it seemed more secret.

TEMPLE-RASTON: All she knew was that it had something to do with a part of the Internet called the dark web. Beyond that, Adrian didn't seem to want to talk much about it. The secrecy was in keeping with the two Adrians she was always trying to keep up with.

FISHER: There were times where we would be together, and he would be in the Adrian Lamo persona. We would go to a 2600 Hacker - the monthly meet up, you know, in San Francisco.

TEMPLE-RASTON: We'll talk about 2600 in a minute.

FISHER: And he liked to shine in his Adrian Lamo kind of persona. But there was also the times where he was just - the walls were down completely and he wasn't the Adrian Lamo that he himself made himself believe that he was, you know?

TEMPLE-RASTON: And when that happened, he medicated, looking for some little door within himself that would control his anxiety.

FISHER: It was body hacking, trying to contain all the different feelings and keep them in check.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Valerian root, vitamins - the list was as long as your arm, and at some point - no one is quite sure when - that list included an herbal supplement called kratom. Traditionally, it's used in lighter doses for stress and anxiety. Kratom, which is legal in most states, made it easier to socialize, which just kept getting harder for Adrian.

BLAKE: Hello?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Hey. Andrew?

BLAKE: Hello?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Are you there? Can you hear me?

BLAKE: Yeah. I'm the only one home all day today.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Andrew Blake, a friend of Adrian's, and he helped Adrian out with a couch and a meal and a place to stay over the years. And he was well aware of Adrian's kratom use.

BLAKE: He used to get it mailed in envelopes as just a fine powder. It's kind of like a flower, like a dust. And he didn't explain that kratom was supposed to work on the same brain receptors that opioids did.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Blake told me that Adrian had given him kratom for Christmas, but he never got around to using it.

BLAKE: Adrian would get it in, like, a big bag, and I'm looking to see if I could find one in, like, our pantry.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So it's important to understand that hackers like Adrian look at drugs a little differently than most of us do. Early hacker conferences, like something called HoHoCon, were drug-addled and alcohol-soaked affairs. Attendees would party so hard they would get banned from hotels.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOUGLAS BARNES (MEMBER, ELECTRONIC FRONTIER FOUNDATION): As a result of things that happened last night, I want everyone to repeat after me. I want to talk to my lawyer.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Drugs weren't just a way to have fun. They were seen as a way to expand abilities. Adrian saw them as a way to expand his powers, too. On drugs, he felt invincible. He was a super coder.

MURPHY: He took those drugs, and he did a lot of remarkable things. We would never have heard of him if he hadn't done these remarkable things.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Lorraine Murphy first met Adrian on Facebook.

MURPHY: I'm in over 600 Facebook groups. One of them I joined - and I was delighted to join - was called 2600.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Facebook's 2600 group grew out of a magazine of the same name, 2600: The Hacker Quarterly. It was founded back in 1984 and had become like a bible for people who were testing the security of computer systems. It was full of technical information and invitations to meet up with other hackers around the world.

MURPHY: I'm not a programmer, but it was really interesting to me what they were doing and how they explained it. And it sort of became my job to explain hacking in plain English, so I learned enough to follow along.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And eventually, she followed along so well they made her moderator for the group, and the person she reported to was Adrian. They knew each other for years, and Murphy liked Adrian but still was suspicious of him.

MURPHY: The claim was that Adrian was using the group to spy on people, and I'm like, they're public Facebook posts, dude. Anyone can read them. I don't think he's using it to spy on people. What he was doing was using Facebook to find people to spy on.

TEMPLE-RASTON: People to spy on later. She always believed that Adrian was working for the government.

MURPHY: He told me at one point that his job was to provide intel on non-Americans operating outside the United States.

TEMPLE-RASTON: He never actually revealed precisely who he worked for.

MURPHY: He never said, but either the U.S. government or a contractor who is reporting to the U.S. government.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Was Adrian a government agent? Was the Manning episode the beginning of a long, secretive relationship between Adrian and the intelligence community? Certainly, conspiracy theorists thought so, so when the coroner listed his cause of death as undetermined, they went wild.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: This guy's got a lot of history.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: This is very curious, folks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: It seems to suggest that this person was literally a government agent.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: This guy was offed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: Something out of Jason Bourne...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: And you didn't even know that he died.

TEMPLE-RASTON: There were lots of other questions. What was Adrian doing in Wichita, and why did police find him in the Shady Brook Senior Apartments if he was only 37 years old? Those close to Adrian had questions, too. His father was suspicious, and he wondered, among other things, where had all his son's computers gone? Hackers who were still talking to Adrian wondered why he disappeared from the Web a week before he died. That was way out of character. Were his killers cleaning a crime scene or moving the body?

Then, during the autopsy, something else a little odd, something the local medical examiner had never seen before - on Adrian's left thigh under his clothes, there was a sticker with a name and an address.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: Do you typically find stickers on dead bodies?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: That was a first for me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: Did you look to see if there was anything under it?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: Yes. We took the sticker off. There was nothing under it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: No needle marks or anything like that?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: No.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The sticker read, Adrian Lamo, Assistant Director, Project Vigilant. Was Adrian trying to tell the world where to begin investigating?

MURPHY: I mean, the last conversation we had was basically - homeless in Wichita is what he said to me. I said, how are you doing? He said, homeless in Wichita but better than a lot of people.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Our show today is about the mysterious death of a hacking pioneer, Adrian Lamo. I'm Dina Temple-Raston, and you're listening to I'LL BE SEEING YOU from NPR. After the break, we dig into the conspiracy theories that have swirled around the death of Adrian Lamo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAMO: I can't come to the phone right now due to connectivity issues, distraction or my death.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's an old voicemail greeting of his.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAMO: If I'm dead, I'm telling you that I love you from beyond the grave. You should consider this moment rather unique. Thank you, and have a wonderful day.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Stay with us.

TEMPLE-RASTON: From NPR, this is I'LL BE SEEING YOU, a four-part series about the technologies that watch us. I'm Dina Temple-Raston, and on today's show, we're investigating the death of a famous hacker, Adrian Lamo. He died of undetermined causes last year, and anyone following the story would have been pulled into a world of conspiracy theories. To search for what really killed Adrian Lamo, we had to go to where it happened - Wichita, Kan.

When we started our investigation, we could see how the conspiracy theories developed. I mean, why was he in a senior living facility? Was it a safe house? Had the government put him there? And what about the sticker they found on Adrian's body and the mysterious words printed on it? Project Vigilant - did that had anything to do with his death? The answers had to be in Wichita, and right when we got there, we found out that Adrian's characterization of his time in Wichita began with a lie.

He had told Lorraine Murphy and some of his other friends that he was homeless, but he wasn't. For most of the time that he was in Wichita, Adrian Lamo was living with Debbie and Bill Scroggin, parents of a friend of his who had taken him in. They lived in a single-story ranch house on five acres at the end of a dirt road.

DEBBIE SCROGGIN (FRIEND OF ADRIAN LAMO): Hi. I'm Debbie. Come on in.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Right away, Debbie told us living with Adrian could be weird. He was up a lot at night, wandering around in the dark.

SCROGGIN: I could hear him, and I'd see this little flashlight going down the hall. And he always slept either on the couch, and if he slept on the bed, it was always on top of it.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Sometimes, he'd just pile up his clothes and sleep on top of them like he was preparing for a quick getaway. And then there were the mysterious packages that arrived on the doorstep.

SCROGGIN: He used our mailing address.

BILL SCROGGIN (FRIEND OF ADRIAN LAMO): Did not use his real name. Most of the stuff that came would be to Adrian Alfonso.

SCROGGIN: Alfonso...

SCROGGIN: His middle name.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And while he didn't seem to have a paying job, he was hard at work in the basement.

SCROGGIN: Doing some research that had to do with the dark web, hacking into ISIS stuff...

TEMPLE-RASTON: And he seemed to suggest that he was in Kansas on a secret assignment for Project Vigilant.

SCROGGIN: It might have had something to do with the Department of Homeland Security, but I can't say that for sure.

TEMPLE-RASTON: There were DHS stickers on nearly all of his notebooks downstairs, which seemed kind of weird. Why would you have DHS stickers on everything if it was supposed to be a secret?

SCROGGIN: But yeah, I think in his own mind, he worked for this country, and you know what?

SCROGGIN: I do believe that he kind of thought that he was an agent in some way.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Was he working undercover for Project Vigilant? What was Project Vigilant? A man named Chet Uber incorporated the company in Florida in 2011. Chet Uber was on the other end of the line of those Skype calls Adrian's ex-wife Lauren had overheard. We dug up the company records, and it had nine corporate officers and directors. Adrian was one of them, and we started calling the others.

DUANE JOHNSON (FORMER CHIEF RESEARCH OFFICER, AMES LABORATORY): Hello. Duane Johnson.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Duane Johnson was listed as their chief technical officer, but here's the thing. Before we called him, he says he'd never heard of Project Vigilant. We sent him the incorporation papers, and Johnson says he thinks he knows how they came up with his title.

JOHNSON: It was using a title that was closely related to my title at the time. I was chief research officer of a laboratory.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Not just any laboratory - he was the chief research officer at the Ames Laboratory, one of the Department of Energy's national labs.

JOHNSON: I'm not sure how they chose me, but certainly, it was misappropriated with some kind of intent.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So from the outset, right at the time of incorporation, there was something a little off about Project Vigilant. Other officers or directors we called had heard of Project Vigilant, but they declined to speak on the record because they had signed nondisclosure agreements. Some of them were former government officials from the Justice Department and DHS, and just as we were about to give up, a former NSA official named Ira Winkler called us back.

IRA WINKLER (PRESIDENT, SECURE MENTEM): Hi. I'm Ira Winkler, president of Secure Mentem and author of...

TEMPLE-RASTON: Winkler is a delightfully geeky guy who helps companies beef up their cybersecurity by probing their systems for vulnerabilities. It sounded a little like what Adrian used to do, but Winkler does it legally. Winkler said he met Chet Uber at a hacker's conference and he asked him to be part of this company. Winkler said he'd be happy to help, and it was that informal. He said he was made director of intelligence, and Adrian was supposed to pass anything he discovered along to him. The idea was to use hackers like Adrian to find bad people on the dark web and then use Project Vigilant as a vehicle to tell the authorities.

WINKLER: It was supposed to look for illegal, immoral actions on the Internet that pertained to foreign intelligence, terrorism, child exploitation.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Which more or less tracked with what Debbie and Bill Scroggin had told us. Getting to the dark web isn't as hard as it sounds. All you have to do to start is download something called Tor, which stands for the onion router. Tor is basically a Web browser, and the only thing you need to know about it is that it allows you to move around anonymously on the Web. It drags branches behind your digital footsteps so people can't tell where you're going or where you've been. The dark web itself isn't illegal, but not surprisingly, some people want to take advantage of its anonymity to do things they aren't supposed to do, like trafficking in porn or recruiting for ISIS.

I logged on and found something called the Darknet Heroes League. It says it's a marketplace for drugs and it sells pot and opioids and benzos and steroids, among other things. And to give you an idea of what I'm seeing, it looks like the Web did 20 years ago. Remember when the fonts were all irregular, and there were shabby pictures with misspelled links beneath? It's like that. And the sellers here are actually rated, like eBay or Amazon, and they offer bargains.

But if Adrian ever discovered anything criminal during his trips to the dark web, he never passed it along. Winkler said he never received anything from him. In the end, he said...

WINKLER: What Project Vigilant did was absolutely nothing as far as I can tell.

TEMPLE-RASTON: If it had a mysterious connection to the government, aside from listing former government officials as officers and directors, we couldn't find it. Adrian did get money from the government, but it was from the Defense Department just reimbursing him for travel expenses related to his testimony at Manning's court martial. The official documents we saw said that Adrian's relationship with the U.S. government ended in July 2011. As for the mystery of how Adrian wound up in a senior living facility, that was a lot easier to solve. The Scroggins sent him there.

About a year before Adrian died, Bill Scroggin had come across an old camera and set it up in his office. He put it on motion activated.

SCROGGIN: Kind of like fishing for catfish on trotlines. You put the bait on there. And you come back, and you check it four or five hours later and see if you've got anything.

WINKLER: The fish he caught was Adrian, slipping into the office with his flashlight. Scroggin said he was looking for some medications he could steal. It had happened before, and now he was caught on camera doing exactly that.

SCROGGIN: The temper I - got a hold of me, and I literally blew up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCROGGIN: And then in here is your computer, your books...

TEMPLE-RASTON: Debbie helped Adrian pack up, and he secretly recorded it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCROGGIN: Socks, underwear, your meds.

LAMO: (Unintelligible).

SCROGGIN: I'm sorry, Adrian.

TEMPLE-RASTON: He went to a nearby homeless shelter, and then Debbie found him an apartment. It happened to be in that senior living facility. It turns out anyone with low income could qualify to live there. I saw some of Adrian's tax returns. He was declaring less than a thousand dollars a year in income. He was on public assistance, and the Scroggins helped him out with the rest.

SCROGGIN: We gave him a coffeemaker. We gave him some furniture. But I was like, Adrian, don't you want to buy a new mattress, a bed? No, the couch is fine. So he didn't even have a bed in his apartment.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The manager of Shadybrook Senior Apartments is the one who found Adrian's dead body lying on a pile of clothes in the bedroom. She pulled the medical alert cord in the apartment to call 911. It was typical of the calls that came in from a place like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17 (911 OPERATOR): 911 Wichita.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The alert, with so few details, was a metaphor for what Adrian's life had become.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #18: Don't know. Don't know. Don't know. Don't have any information on them.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Investigators found an apartment in complete disarray - huge piles of trash, dirty dishes, pills and powders everywhere. The medical examiner took photographs and then loaded Adrian's body into a van. Debbie Scroggin called Adrian's father and then went out to the apartment to tidy it up a bit before he arrived.

SCROGGIN: One of the things I did that I probably shouldn't have done is I threw away all the empty - his prescription bottles and all of those things.

TEMPLE-RASTON: She told us that Adrian called his father only when he had good news, when he'd learned to make lasagna or to tell him about Christmas presents. She didn't want Adrian's father to see how Adrian was living or how many pills he was taking.

SCROGGIN: He said where's his medications? I was like, oh, I don't know. Somebody may...

TEMPLE-RASTON: She was trying to protect him, and in a way, protect Adrian, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGES")

PHIL OCHS (SINGER): (Singing) Sit by my side. Come as close as the air.

TEMPLE-RASTON: There were only a handful of people at Adrian's memorial service. This is music from a video Adrian's father made for the occasion.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGES")

OCHS: (Singing) And wander in my words. Dream about the...

BLAKE: I was the only one of Adrian's, like, friends that was there.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Andrew Blake again.

BLAKE: No one his, you know, his age, no one who knew him, you know, besides his father for more than a few years. And just knowing that had I not gone that no one besides the people in Kansas and his father would have been there, like, that baffled me.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Blake said Adrian wasn't so much forgotten as unforgiven.

BLAKE: I think just people tended to associate Adrian with the Adrian who snitched on Manning, not the Adrian who did a whole bunch of cool other stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGES")

OCHS: (Singing) ...The pictures that I play of changes.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So by now, we understood what Adrian was doing or not doing for Project Vigilant, how he ended up in Wichita and why he was living in a senior apartment. But we still hadn't ruled out murder. Even the local medical examiner's office stopped short of doing that.

SCOTT KIPPER (DEPUTY MEDICAL EXAMINER, SEDGWICK COUNTY, KS): There are some things that can be done to a body that leave minimal or no findings at autopsy.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's deputy medical examiner Scott Kipper.

For example?

KIPPER: Things that I would rather not discuss on the radio.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You don't want to discuss it on the radio show because you don't want to give anybody any ideas?

KIPPER: That's correct.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Dr. Timothy Rohrig is the county's chief medical examiner, and he began reading through the list of chemicals he'd found in Adrian's bloodstream.

TIMOTHY ROHRIG (CHIEF TOXICOLOGIST, SEDGWICK COUNTY, KS): Phenazepam, etizolam, flubromazepam, Benadryl, chlorpheniramine, citalopram, gabapentin.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The coroner's list didn't surprise Debbie Scroggin.

SCROGGIN: He would overmedicate because his anxiety was so high. There were times where he would supplement just to come up to have dinner. And he'd fall asleep in his food, literally it - face down in his food.

TEMPLE-RASTON: About a month before Adrian died, the FDA came out with an alert - a warning, really - against mixing benzodiazepines with kratom. It had been linked to dozens of deaths. Dr. Rohrig said Adrian had a handful of what he called designer benzos in his system, some of which weren't available by prescription here in the U.S.

ROHRIG: The most common way of getting these particular ones was basically off the Internet. You can order them and have them shipped to whatever address you want.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Debbie Scroggin figured there were lots of pills and supplements coming into the house in those packages addressed to Adrian Alfonso. Adrian had left a voice note to himself just hours before he died. He was clearly in pain.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAMO: I really hurt a muscle, so it's hard for me to move around. Agonizing pain from a twisted leg, period.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Because kratom isn't regulated by the FDA, it's impossible to tell if Adrian was ingesting potent doses of it on one day and weak doses the next. It can change that much from batch to batch.

BERTHA MADRAS (PROFESSOR, HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL): It's a strange drug. It has some of the characteristics of pure opioid, which means it can cause sleeplessness. It can...

TEMPLE-RASTON: Dr. Bertha Madras is a professor of psychobiology at Harvard Medical School and a former member of the president's commission on combating drug addiction and the opioid crisis. While she wouldn't say exactly what killed Adrian Lamo, she did say that people who were mixing things like kratom with benzos and other natural supplements were essentially conducting their own human experiments.

MADRAS: They have no clue what they're putting into their body and what the consequences could be.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So this is where all the evidence pointed us. Hacking may have killed Adrian Lamo, but it wasn't the Internet kind. His body hacking, the constant intake of pills and powders and liquids, is likely what did him in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAMO: Hey. This is Adrian. I'm not ignoring you on purpose.

TEMPLE-RASTON: This was the last voicemail Debbie Scroggin received from Adrian a few days before he died.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAMO: I had trouble with my phone. Give me a ring or a note when you can. My phone service is active again. Love you. Bye.

TEMPLE-RASTON: It offered a clue. Hackers had noticed that Adrian hadn't been on the Internet the week before he died, and that seemed suspicious, but there was a simple answer. He hadn't paid his cell phone bill, and he used his cell phone to get online. In retrospect, as we retraced Adrian's steps during the last two years of his life, it's clear that there were no assassins lying in wait, no government officials eager for a briefing. Adrian was profoundly alone. After he turned in Manning, the hacker community went one way, and Adrian went another.

And if you look at all we uncovered, it's easy to imagine that Adrian's last night went something like this. After spending some time on the computer and having dinner, he took something to help him relax and maybe ease some of that muscle pain. He went into the bedroom, laid down on the clothes, curled up and just stopped breathing. It wasn't a murder or a suicide. It was an accident.

And that left us with just one unsolved mystery - that address label they found on Adrian's thigh. It read Adrian Lamo, Assistant Director, Project Vigilant, 70 Bates Street, Washington, D.C. So we looked up the property records of the place - who owned it, any renters. Project Vigilant wasn't registered there, but there was one name I did recognize.

BLAKE: That's an address that I lived at for a brief time, and Adrian stayed with me occasionally off and on.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Adrian's friend Andrew Blake, the one who went to the funeral. He didn't even know the sticker existed until he read about it in the autopsy report.

BLAKE: That's when I laughed, and that's actually the first time in the weeks after his death where I actually kind of felt a little bit of closure. It almost felt like a joke from Adrian to me, maybe just like a signal.

MURPHY: That Project Vigilant sticker - I think maybe it was where he put his hopes, and it didn't go anywhere, so maybe he just wanted to be reminded of that.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And we have an epilogue here. A couple of months ago, we reached out to Chelsea Manning. She's being held in a detention center in Alexandria, Va., for refusing to testify against that crazy white-haired guy she told Adrian about, Julian Assange. Through her lawyer, I asked her if she forgave Adrian, and she said there was nothing to forgive. In a handwritten note that she passed to us, she wrote, I've never had any ill will toward Adrian at any time. And then she added, I'm more mad at the government for using him.

Adrian, had he lived, probably would have been a witness for the prosecution in the Assange case to talk about what Manning had told him about that crazy white-haired guy, and Adrian at last would've been back where he wanted to be - back in that public spotlight.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SCREEN SAVERS")

LAPORTE: You know him as the guy who hacked Yahoo, AOL, Time Warner, MCI WorldCom, Microsoft and...

TEMPLE-RASTON: I'LL BE SEEING YOU is written or reported by me, Dina Temple-Raston. Our producer is Adelina Lancianese, and she scored our show, too. Special thanks to NPR's investigations team, the NPR story lab and to Josephine Wolff of Tufts University. In our next show, AI and elephants - the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Until then, I'm Dina Temple-Raston, and I'll be seeing you.

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