Scary Reading Material – Courtesy of Wget

I want to show you how I use my computer.

It was this article that made me want to read some of the transcripts from the Chelsea Manning trial. All the transcripts can be found on this web page, but it’s about 70 PDFs, which isn’t convenient for downloading or searching. You could right-click-save the PDFs one at a time, but that’s tedious and I’m good with computers so I (gleefully) used wget. That’s a tiny program that just downloads files, same as a web browser but with some nifty options. I use it for things like backing up websites; downloading homework assignments; or getting software updated at my job as a programmer for Amazon. And it’s great in a pickle like this.

I opened up a terminal, and here are the commands I ran:

mkdir transcripts
wget -h
wget -r -A.pdf -P transcripts
pdfgrep -ric 'wget|w-get' transcripts | grep -v ':0'

For the millions of software developers, these commands should look totally trivial. For everyone else, they’re pretty opaque, so, line by line, they mean:

  1. Create a new folder named “transcripts” (see Wikipedia page for mkdir)
  2. Open up the help file for wget, because I can never remember how to use it. (see Wikipedia page for wget)
  3. Run the wget program. Tell it to open that web address, look at all the links, download any PDFs and save them in my shiny new “transcripts” folder.
  4. Use grep to search those PDFs for any mentions of “wget” or “w-get”  (see Wikipedia page for grep). The results of that search look something like this:


It turns out that wget, that program I just used to download the transcripts, gets mentioned a lot in the transcripts. It comes up in 19 of the documents. It was mentioned 156 times on the afternoon of July 18. Nine times in the verdict.

I use wget to send NPR podcasts to my music player, so why was this banal program coming up in the verdict of the Chelsea Manning trial?

Chelsea Manning had access to millions of military documents, copied lots of them, and released them to the press. That is indeed a crime, and she was convicted of it. But one of the several nonsense charges against her was that she “exceeded authorized access.” She was accused of “circumventing” or “bypassing” security mechanisms to get the documents, and the evidence used to convict her of this was that she used wget. Even though this program can only download files one already has access to, the court decided that use of wget amounted to hacking government computers, and Manning was convicted of an additional crime that added years to her sentence.

From any technical point of view, this is insane. Without that avenue for argument, the prosecution instead seemed to rely on scaremongering. Here’s an exchange between the defense attorney and a government witness eager to malign:

Q: Now, I just want to talk sort of generally about the big picture about WGet. WGet is a program that’s in open source?
A: Correct.
Q: And it’s not a program that’s known for being synonymous with hackers, correct?
A: It could be.
Q: It could be, but it’s not necessarily?
A: Correct.
Q: It’s used for purposes by a lot of different people?
A: Yes.
Q: And a lot of those people aren’t hackers?
A: Yes.

Then the transcripts are littered with bizarre statements like:

Chief Royer further testified that Wget can be used in spear phishing and social engineering attacks…

I guess the lawyers involved are most familiar with using a mouse, and so to do otherwise must be breaking some kind of rule:

And what WGet does is it bypasses the normal mechanism for access to these cables — click, open, save.


There is this running theme of pointing to computer literacy to make her sound like a hacker mastermind. Like, when I just used wget, I had to open the help file to figure out what options to use (line 2 of the commands). So, apparently, did Manning because that was thrown at her in court.

Manning, after downloading Wget.exe, had to program Wget. [It] did not have a graphical user interface or GUI, therefore it was not as simple as double clicking an icon….
Your Honor, explained here is Prosecution Exhibit 189, page 1. This is the help file Special Agent Shaver testified he extracted from PFC Manning’s computer. When I type in wget -h, this help file displays in an MS dot prompt. Because Wget is a command line tool, it has many options as displayed on page 1 here.
PFC Manning had to research how to program Wget and how to program it in order to harvest the entirety of US SOUTHCOM database of DABs.

I have that same help file on my computer. Millions do. And I, too, have read it. If I had asked the Internet how to use wget, the Internet would have collectively yelled back “rtfm,” and then I’m back to the help file. In Manning’s case, that help file was entered as evidence against her. It is meant to sound like she was overcoming major technical hurdles to get at these military documents, when really, she just read the manual. She was using computers the way the people who use computers use computers. That was sufficiently scary and confusing, and she was convicted of this extra charge.

These transcripts are filled with things like the judge asking for definitions of “webpage,” “website,” and “webserver” — and how those things might be related. The prosecution gets to exploit this ignorance and equate “computer knowledge” with “computer infiltration.” The defendant gets painted as a “hacker,” like an updated version of the “Mad Scientist” trope. And people make important decisions about technology they know nothing about.

And personally, all this has been a nice distraction from studying for the LSATs. But I’m suddenly feeling energetic, and it’s not too late. One more round.

Oh, shit, another Logical Reasoning section. NM. Bedtime.