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March 11, 2013
Private First Class Bradley Manning
A whistleblower hero to some, a traitor to others, Private First Class Bradley Manning faces a life sentence for turning over hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and intelligence reports about the United States’ mission in Iraq and Afghanistan to WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy Web site operated by Australian Julian Assange.
U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is cooling his heels in a military prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, where he awaits a military trial for breaching national security by leaking classified war intelligence. The most serious charges are violating the Espionage Act and aiding the enemy.
Prosecutors preparing to try Manning say they will also introduce evidence showing that Osama Bin Laden himself requested some of the reports Manning is accused of leaking.
If convicted, the 25-year-old Manning—whose trial is set to begin in June 2013—could be imprisoned for the rest of his life.
An Army intelligence analyst, Manning was arrested in Iraq in May 2010 and accused of disclosing hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and intelligence reports—as well as one video of a military helicopter attack. Most of this information was furnished to WikiLeaks, an anti-secrecy Web site operated by Australian computer hacker Julian Assange.
In February 2013, Private Manning pleaded guilty to 10 charges related to the misuse of classified information. The Washington Post reports Manning is expected to be sentenced to 20 years in prison on those charges.
Manning entered the guilty pleas in a crowded courtroom in Fort Meade, Maryland—where he vehemently defended his decision to divulge sensitive documents. The private said he hoped his leaks would prompt a national debate about what he called America’s fixation on “killing and capturing people.”
Yet Manning’s reasons for leaking have been ruled off-limits at his coming court-martial. A U.S. military judge has ruled that the soldier’s motive is not a valid defense. The London Telegraph notes, however, that Manning’s motive could well be considered as a mitigating circumstance at sentencing—if the private seeks leniency after a conviction.
Before looking more closely at the Bradley Manning story, a quick note on quotations: much of the information presented in this article comes from chat logs between Bradley Manning and a variety of conversation partners. These quotes will not be edited for spelling, grammar, or punctuation. To avoid burdensome notes, designations of [sic] will not be included.
Just who is Bradley Manning? He’s a young gay man from a broken home who turned to the Army for a chance to succeed. He became a private who dared to talk back to his superiors—always questioning authority; a hacker, in the pure sense of the word; a leaker—in fact, the largest leaker in history. A whistleblower hero to some, a traitor to others.
Those facts are far less important than the true questions raised by Manning’s story: When is it appropriate for the government to keep secrets? At what point should one—or is one compelled to—release secrets to which one is privy, for the good of the people? What means are justified to do so? And what, if any, should the punishment be for such a leaker? The answers are elusive in their subjectivity, but by examining the story of a young Army private who became a legendary whistleblower, one cannot help but ask such questions.
Before continuing, it is important to distinguish between the terms “hacker” and “cracker.” The phrase “hacker” has colloquially come to mean what the term “cracker” actually encompasses: an individual who uses technological means to access secret information for malicious purposes—for example, stealing credit card information or accessing private e-mail correspondence. A “hacker,” however, is not necessarily accessing such information for untoward reasons, and may even have a noble goal: for example, to help correct a flaw in security programming—or to free information.
Small of stature, Manning was not a particularly athletic child, but he was incredibly bright and excelled in academics to the point that some noted he might be too smart for his own good. Politically aware from a relatively young age, Manning’s belief set was decidedly interventionist during his adolescent years, and, like many teenage boys, he felt drawn to the military.
Manning and his dad, Brian, were not particularly close. The elder Manning was verbally abusive to his family—but the father did introduce his son to the C++ programming language at a very young age, and the two bonded over computers. It was, after all, the 1990s, and the Internet was rapidly emerging as the newest and most intriguing of technologies.
It was not unusual for young Bradley to be overcome with bouts of rage—a trend that would continue through his time in the Army. His home life was far from idyllic, and when Brad was 11 years old his parents divorced. During this tumultuous time, the Internet offered him sanctuary unavailable anywhere else. He learned several more programming languages, and grew quite an affinity for personalizing the programming of the video games he played—his earliest hacks.
In the fall of 2007, after spending years wandering aimlessly (though he finished high school while living in Wales with his mother, he never took the exams necessary to apply to university), Bradley succumbed to his father’s pressure and went to see a military recruiter; he enlisted, seeing the military as his last best chance to get a college education—he wanted to study physics.
From the start, it was far from smooth sailing for Private First Class Bradley Manning. He was chronically tardy, talked back to superiors, and as a result was almost always being berated or ordered to do push-ups. Eventually the Army had enough of Manning, and he was on the brink of being released. But during his time in the discharge unit, he persisted, insisting that he wanted to continue his training. The Army allowed him to, and in 2009, Brad and his unit deployed to Iraq, where he served as an “all source” intelligence analyst. He would be privy to some of the most top-secret information there was regarding the United States’ war efforts.
Manning, stationed at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Hammer, spent his days working in the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) where he analyzed mountains of information regarding the insurgency. The SCIF was less secure than its name would lead one to believe: soldiers made a habit of watching movies or playing games, and—more seriously—writing data to CDs (all of the above being against regulations); this last bit would allow Manning to later smuggle hundreds of thousands of classified documents out of the SCIF on a disc labeled “Lady Gaga.”
Brad did not take what he learned lightly. In a March 8, 2009 chat log, he expressed to a friend, “I’ve got foreign affairs on my mind constantly now. Mexico’s spiraling violence, Pakistan’s instability, North Korea’s rhetorical posturing… blah blah blah. One of the bad parts of the job, having to think about bad stuff.” He began to realize that there was no bright line defining allies and enemies, and the situation in Iraq was actually painted in shades of gray.
Early in Manning’s time overseas, he was assigned a case in which Iraqi citizens were detained for the crime of distributing “insurgent” literature; it turned out the pamphlets were an academic critique of Prime Minister Malaki. Manning would later cite this incident as an early indicator to him that all was not right in the Iraqi occupation: “i had an interpreter read it for me… and when i found out that it was a benign political critique titled ‘Where did the money go?’ and following the corruption trail within the PM’s cabinet… i immediately took that information and *ran* to the officer to explain what was going on… he didn’t want to hear any of it… he told me to shut up and explain how we could assist in finding *MORE* detainees…” This incident struck a deep chord in Manning: “i had always questioned the [way] things worked, and investigated to find the truth… but that was a point where i was a *part* of something… i was actively involved in something that i was completely against…”
Manning’s superiors believed that he might be buckling under the pressure that comes with a high-level security clearance. Due to his emotional outbursts, on more than one occasion—even prior to his deployment—a superior recommended that his security clearance be revoked. But the Army was strapped for skilled analysts, and Manning was allowed to slip through the cracks.
In the meantime, Manning made up his mind.
The leak was easy, once Manning tracked down Julian Assange (or at least, a way to interact online), founder and head “hacktivist” at WikiLeaks, one Web site in a movement to free any and all information—“freedom of information activists,” as Manning called them. Said Manning later, “No one suspected a thing… [I] listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga’s Telephone while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history.”
On April 10, WikiLeaks released perhaps the best known of the three-quarters of a million bits of information it had reaped from Manning’s data mine, the Apache helicopter video titled “Collateral Murder.” The video (which can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rXPrfnU3G0) depicts American soldiers shooting at and killing a dozen Iraqis, wounding others—including two children—in the process, which they carried out as routine.
In May 2010, Manning made contact with Adrian Lamo, a former inmate of the federal government’s correctional facilities (he had a penchant for breaking through cyber security systems to access secret information, though he would typically inform the owner of the system afterward), apparently looking for someone to confide in; Lamo had recently been profiled by Wired magazine, and the troubled private reached out to what he thought was a kindred spirit. Lamo gave Manning every indication that he should be trusted—“I’m a journalist and a minister. You can pick either, and treat this as a confession or an interview (never to be published) & enjoy a modicum of legal protection.”
Manning introduced himself as “an army intelligence analyst, deployed to eastern Baghdad, pending discharge for ‘adjustment disorder.’” It didn’t take much prying to get Manning to open up. He told Lamo of a “database of half a million events during the iraq war” and 260,000 diplomatic cables “explaining how the first world exploits the third, in detail, from an internal perspective.”
Little did he know (though perhaps he should have suspected), but with every line Manning typed he was providing the government with more evidence against him—because Lamo turned on Manning, betraying him—despite his assurances—to the FBI. Lamo’s motives and subsequent shunning by the hacker community could be a subject for an entire article in and of themselves, but the chat logs between him and Manning provide valuable insight into the young private’s thoughts.
Manning told Lamo he had given classified files to a “white haired aussie” (Julian Assange), and referred to the leak of a classified diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks. He even bragged a little: “[Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning, and finds an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format to the public… everywhere there’s a US post… there’s a diplomatic scandal that will be revealed.”
Lamo asked Manning what his ultimate goal was. Manning responded, “god knows what happens now—hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms—if not, then we’re doomed—as a species—I will officially give up on the society we have if nothing happens—the reaction to the [“Collateral Murder”] video gave me immense hope; CNN’s iReport was overwhelmed; Twitter exploded—people who saw, knew there was something wrong… --I want people to see the truth…regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”
Despite often discussing his emotional strife with Lamo and others, Manning was clearly not motivated by blind anger or a need to act out, but by a desire to provide vital information on what actions the government was taking ostensibly on the public’s behalf. He pointed out to Lamo that he “could’ve sold to Russia or china, and made bank,” but he didn’t because “it’s public data […] information should be free—it belongs in the public domain—because another state would just take advantage of the information… try and get some edge—if it’s out in the open… it should be a public good.”
On May 29, thanks in large part to Adrian Lamo, Bradley Manning was placed under arrest.
In July, WikiLeaks published the “Afghanistan War Diaries,” a vast series of logs from the information Manning had provided, and three months later the “Iraq War Diaries” followed. For the most part, the compendium confirmed what the public already knew: the wars were being fought through wastefulness, abuse of power, and systematic lack of oversight. As a result, atrocities occurred, such as the attacks portrayed in “Collateral Murder” and other leaked videos.
The diplomatic cables also leaked by Manning via WikiLeaks were, for the U.S. government, mostly just embarrassing. That said, Amnesty International hails the boondoggle as a primary catalyst for the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi that sparked the Tunisian uprising, and thus the Arab Spring (which, it should be noted, the United States government has publicly supported as a push for democracy).
A statement by Amnesty’s secretary general says, “The year 2010 may well be remembered as a watershed year when activists and journalists used new technology to speak truth to power and, in so doing, pushed for greater respect for human rights. It is also the year when repressive governments faced the real possibility that their days were numbered.”
During this time, the press took a detour on a story about Julian Assange’s Swedish arrest for sexual assault, and the leaker responsible for freeing all that information sat in the Quantico Brig under MAX custody and on Prevention of Injury (POI) watch, which allowed guards to keep him in solitary confinement, under constant and immediate surveillance, and to strip him naked, among other regulations to which other prisoners were not subject. He was kept in restraints, and whenever he was moved from his cell the entire complex would lock down.
The government has taken steps to not only investigate but to punish Bradley Manning, such as seizing the computers of Manning’s friends and supporters, keeping Manning on POI status for an undue period of time despite the numerous psychiatric recommendations, and even subpoenaing Twitter for information regarding users associated with WikiLeaks. Partially as a result, there has been a massive outpouring of support for Manning. Rallies and protests have been held, the Bradley Manning Support Network founded, and funds raised for his defense.
Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, reports on his blog that—beginning in May, 2011—conditions have improved for his client: “PFC Manning is now being held in Medium Custody. He is no longer under Prevention of Injury watch and is no longer subjected to harsh pretrial confinement conditions.”
Far more than what will become of Bradley Manning, a more important question is: what should become of a whistleblower whose alleged criminal behavior opens eyes and—maybe—even sparks a revolution?
The fate of whistleblowers will inevitably become clearer as the Obama administration continues to vigorously prosecute them at all levels—far more, in fact, than any other president in history. What Bradley Manning had to share may just be the tip of the iceberg.
For the Obama administration to play hardball with Manning is right out of President Nixon’s playbook when it came to dealing with the most famous whistleblower in U.S. history, Daniel Ellsberg—who leaked the “Pentagon Papers” in 1971.
The 7,000 pages of classified material the Pentagon official leaked to The New York Times showed that the government had lied to the Congress and the public about the progress of the unwinnable Vietnam War. Charged as a spy, Ellsberg went on trial and faced 115 years behind bars. But the charges were dropped in 1973 because of gross governmental misconduct and illegal evidence gathering. Part of the reason for the dismissal of the charges was based on the break-in at the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist on Sept. 3, 1971, by agents in the employ of the White House.
Ellsberg, who is now one of Manning’s strongest supporters, sees great parallels between his case and the young private’s. As the elder leaker said of his current leaker-hero: “I was that young man; I was Bradley Manning.”
In an interview with CNN, Ellsberg adds: "I was willing to go to prison. I never thought, for the rest of my life, I would ever hear anyone willing to do that, to risk their life, so that horrible, awful secrets could be known. Then I read those logs and learned Bradley was willing to go to prison. I can't tell you how much that affected me."
American University Professor Chris Edelson—a constitutional law expert—agrees: “I do think there are similarities – Ellsberg, for one, said that he thought Julian Assange was receiving much of the same criticism he had received. In terms of Manning, the government's treatment of him seems way over the top. I believe the UN special rapporteur for torture expressed concern over the conditions of Manning's incarceration. I think the case also reflects the Obama administration’s approach to whistleblowers/leakers--i.e., to react harshly.”
Greenwald, Glenn. "The Strange and Consequential Case of Bradley Manning, Adrian Lamo and WikiLeaks." Salon. 18 June 2010. Web.
Hansen, Evan. "Manning-Lamo Chat Logs Revealed." Wired.com. 11 July 2011. Web.
Leigh, David. "How 250,000 US Embassy Cables Were Leaked." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 28 Nov. 2010. Web.
Nicks, Denver. Private: Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks, and the Biggest Exposure of Official Secrets in American History. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review, 2012.
Van Buren, Peter. "Obama's War on Whistleblowers." Mother Jones. 12 June 2012. Web.