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MIT students, alumni, and affiliates have been caught up in the recent brouhaha about disclosure of classified military documents by Private First Class Bradley E. Manning.

The New York Times reported Friday that Army Intelligence investigators were said to be focusing on Manning’s acquaintances in Cambridge, but it appears that investigators were only here around Friday, June 18, and have not focused on those people in some time.

The association with MIT people appears to be grossly overblown, and one 23-year-old recent graduate who was interviewed by Army Intelligence said that the only correspondence he had with Manning was an e-mail discussion on a large MIT mailing list where Danny J. B. Clark asked for advice on security and theft prevention in a storage unit at nearby Metropolitan Storage Warehouse in May. Manning was carbon-copied on the original e-mail and participated in the thread.

The student said that thread was the only communication he had with Manning since an “equally benign” discussion in January.

Clark’s initial e-mail and the entire thread were quite innocuous, and began asking, “Can anyone recommend a hard-to-pick-but-not-insanely-expensive padlock?,” addressing his inquiry to the mailing list and carbon-copied to several MIT individuals and to Manning.

The storage unit had no connection to Manning.

Some of the MIT people appear quite concerned about any association with Manning, especially with the recent suggestion by Representative Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) that Manning deserved the death penalty.

Others who were e-mailed by Manning in the same thread were more blasé. Max Van Kleek ’01 said in an e-mail, “Sadly I have no closer connections to manning =} i love being close to controversy but not in it :).”

Van Kleek was not visited by the FBI or Army intelligence, he said, but pointed out he now lives in England.

Christian J. Ternus ’11, who also was in the To: field of Manning’s e-mail, said he was not aware of having been approached by the Army, FBI, or anyone else about Manning.

Clark, who is associated with MIT independent living group Pika, said he was a friend of Manning’s.

Manning “is definitely interested in making a positive impact on the world,” Clark said. Clark said his opinion was formed prior to Manning’s deployment to Iraq.

Manning had visited Clark and Pika last summer, and several students remembered him.

“He seemed very intelligent,” said Yan Zhu ’11, a Pika resident. “I would not be surprised he would have the technical knowledge,” she said, referring to Manning’s

Zhu expressed concern that Manning was being treated unfairly in the public eye. “Myself and Danny and the other MIT students that I know are all very supportive of Bradley Manning right now and of his cause,” she said.

Clark wrote on his Facebook wall Sunday that “a good approximation of my current feelings regarding the majority of the television news media” was a clip from the finale episode of season four of the television show Babylon 5, “Deconstructing of Falling Stars,” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PA-omGPUwBE.

“One hundred years in B5’s future, we have the usual downplaying. But an old and secluded Delenn makes a final stunning appearance.

You do not wish to know anything. You wish only to speak. That which you know, you ignore because it is inconvenient. That which you do not know, you invent.’

The one comment underneath Clark’s wall post is from Adrian Lamo, the man who turned in Manning to the authorities.

“OK, differences aside, you get massive points for this reference. ♥,” Lamo said.

Adrian Lamo, the hacker

Lamo, a computer hacker who this year traded instant messages with Manning, said in a telephone interview Friday with The New York Times that he believed that WikiLeaks was in part directing Manning and providing technical assistance to him in downloading classified information from military computers. Military officials would not confirm Lamo’s claim. Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, did not respond to a Times e-mail seeking comment.

Lamo is cooperating with the Army and has a strained relationship with WikiLeaks. Last month, WikiLeaks denounced Lamo along with a Wired News reporter, Kevin Poulsen, who broke the story about Manning’s arrest, as “notorious felons, informers and manipulators.”

As Lamo characterized it in Friday’s interview, Manning “was to a great extent manipulated by WikiLeaks.” Lamo, who had extensive e-mail exchanges with Manning before reaching out to the authorities, said he believed that “there is at least one co-conspirator but probably more.”

Lamo said that he believed that a person with ties to WikiLeaks had helped Manning set up encryption software that would have allowed him to e-mail small bits of classified data outside the military computer system without detection. According to Lamo, the small bits were meant to attract the notice of Assange.

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

In one e-mail that Manning sent to Lamo in May, the private described his role with WikiLeaks as “a source, not quite a volunteer.”

Student denies assisting Manning

The Boston Globe reported Sunday that a former MIT student met Manning at MIT in January, when the Manning was on leave, and that the student later exchanged “as many as 10” e-mails with Manning about security issues, The Globe said.

“I categorically deny that I had any role in helping Manning leak anything,” the former student told The Globe.

That student told The Globe he knows people who work for WikiLeaks, but said never met or communicated with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Students sympathetic to WikiLeaks

WikiLeaks’ idea of free information dissemination appears to resonate with many MIT students, and with the culture of free information that pervades the Institute.

Steve Howland ’11, Chairman of The Tech, said in a statement: “A member of The Tech’s staff approached us in late 2009 to see how we might best support WikiLeaks and its mission. A mirror server was briefly and informally considered on a Tech mailing list, but when legal concerns were raised the idea was not pursued. The Tech had no direct contact with Manning or any member of WikiLeaks.”

Charges against Manning

The Army has charged Manning with disclosing a classified video of a U.S. helicopter attack to WikiLeaks, as well as more than 150,000 classified diplomatic cables. Military officials said Friday that the private was also the main suspect in the disclosure to WikiLeaks of more than 90,000 classified documents about the Afghan war, some of which were published by The New York Times, the German magazine Der Spiegel and the British newspaper The Guardian.

A military official acknowledged Friday that Army investigators were looking into whether Manning physically handed compact discs containing classified information to someone in the United States. Manning, an intelligence analyst who was deployed over the past year in Iraq with the 2nd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division at a remote base east of Baghdad, visited friends in Boston during a home leave in January.

Investigators believe that he exploited a loophole in Defense Department security to copy thousands of files onto compact discs over a six-month period. In at least one instance, according to people familiar with the inquiry, Manning smuggled highly classified data out of his intelligence unit on a disc made to look like a music CD by Lady Gaga.

Boston focus

One of the civilians interviewed by the Army’s criminal division, who asked for anonymity so that his name would not be associated with the inquiry, said Friday that the investigators’ questions led him to believe that the Army was concerned that there were classified documents in the Boston area.

“I was under the impression that they believed that perhaps Bradley had used friends in Cambridge as a mechanism for moving documents,” he said.

The civilian also said that the Army had offered him “a considerable amount of money if I were to keep my ear to the ground and be an in with them with WikiLeaks.” He said that he had turned the Army down and that he had no connection to WikiLeaks. The other civilian also said in an interview Friday that he had no connection to WikiLeaks.

The first civilian said it appeared from the questioning that Army investigators “are trying to build a network among Bradley’s friends to infiltrate WikiLeaks.”

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates denounced WikiLeaks on Thursday for endangering lives because it included the names and villages of Afghan informants in the documents released. He has asked the FBI to assist in the Army inquiry. Unlike the military, the FBI can prosecute civilians.

For MIT students, it was just about a storage space

Van Kleek suspected he was cc’d on the e-mail thread involving Manning because of his storage unit at the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse.

“It would be VERY HARD getting anything out of my extremely overpacked storage unit,” he said. “I’ve boobytrapped it with a VERY LARGE STUFFED ANIMAL that will promptly fall onto the head of any unsuspecting person who tries to open the unit.”

This article contains reporting from The New York Times Syndicate / News Service, as well as reporting by Tech staff.