Feds involved in Manning prosecution enter hackers' crosshairs

In public chat rooms, WikiLeaks' supporters plot retribution against investigator, technical expert.

A government-hired forensics specialist and an Army investigating officer could face online backlash from WikiLeaks supporters who are unhappy with this week's prosecution of a U.S. soldier accused of releasing confidential government files to the anti-secrets website, a computer engineer affiliated with hacktivist group Anonymous said.

"They both are being talked about pretty heavily as possibly problems that need to be dealt with," said Gregg Housh, an Internet activist who follows Anonymous. He stays away from taking part in the conversations to avoid being arrested but follows the plotting on public chat rooms, Housh said. He could not speak to any exact plans against either man yet.

Mark Johnson, a ManTech computer forensics expert who works for the Army's computer crime investigative unit, reportedly recovered from Pfc. Bradley Manning's laptop communications with a chat room user identified as Julian Assange, the operator of WikiLeaks. Manning faces 22 charges for allegedly disclosing hundreds of thousands of sensitive military and diplomatic documents that the government says jeopardized lives and U.S. foreign relations.

Separately, Lt. Col. Paul Almanza, an Army reservist presiding over this week's hearing who works for the Justice Department in his civilian life, refused to remove himself from the trial despite conflict of interest concerns stemming from the fact the department is trying to prosecute Assange on the grounds he instructed Manning to leak the files.

Johnson and Almanza present challenges to Manning's defense and the viability of a website viewed by activists as a whistleblowing instrument.

Hacktivists are debating how to react to the proceedings. They are mulling over what type of digital salvos, if any, are necessary, as well as whether they should wait for a verdict or the most menacing target to appear, according to Housh. "There haven't been attacks yet but there are a lot of discussions about what to do," he said.

At the end of the hearing, Almanza will recommend whether Manning should be court martialed.

In late 2010, Anonymous allegedly unfurled Operation Payback, a series of computer attacks that hobbled PayPal and MasterCard sites when they stopped processing donations to WikiLeaks. The loosely organized collective also purportedly brought down the site of the Swedish Prosecution Authority, which has charged Assange with sex crimes.

An Army Criminal Investigation Command official said, "we take all threats against our personnel in investigative activities very seriously." Justice officials declined to comment. ManTech officials could not be reached for a response.

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described Gregg Housh as a spokesman for Anonymous. The story has been corrected.