Who is Bradley Manning?

Jun 3, 2013

In May of 2010 an American soldier named Bradley Manning was arrested in Iraq and accused of leaking hundreds of classified documents and secret diplomatic cables to the publisher of Wikileaks, Julian Asange. Manning was held, in solitary confinement, at a military prison in Quantico, Virginia for nine months.  His clothes and glasses were taken away, and he was subject to what a United Nations observer called cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

Now, after more than three years, Manning’s trial is set to begin at Fort Meade in Maryland, but the public knows little about this person at the center of global controversy.  We asked Sandy Hausman to tell us more about Bradley Manning.

Bradley Manning 2012
Credit Wikipedia

In a world that relies on fast-paced news programs and tweets to help us understand current events, Bradley Manning remains a mystery.  And no wonder.  He’s in prison - not available to reporters or talk show hosts.   His lawyer has refused to do interviews, saying Manning deserves an attorney who’s focused on what happens in court.

Some critics have been quite vocal, casting Manning as mentally unstable and reckless.  Robert Turner is co-founder and director of the National Center for Security Law at the University of Virginia.

“He apparently grew up in a dysfunctional home and he was very short - five-foot one or two, 100 pounds, and was bullied and so forth, and I feel sorry for him for all those things, but that’s no excuse for giving away hundreds of thousands of secrets.  To me that’s the equivalent of walking through a military base and just tossing grenades through windows.  In fact, not long before he started giving away secrets,  he got unhappy and he flipped over a table and broke some computer equipment.  Y’know he just was having a tantrum.”

But there is another source that offers a different view.  While he was stationed in Iraq, Manning chatted online with Adrian Lamo, a celebrated computer hacker who had broken into networks at the New York Times, Yahoo and Microsoft.  

“Here you have companies who, on one hand, have paid millions of dollars for this network infrastructure, and they can’t even be bothered to think of a good password.”

But Lamo, who has Asperger’s syndrome, was considered a grey hat - not out to do harm.  He would contact his victims to explain what they should do to secure their networks.  When he learned the FBI was investigating him, Lamo turned himself in.  That’s when some critics suspect he went to work, covertly, for the federal government - a claim Lamo has denied, but he was the one who reported Manning to federal officials, and in a story broadcast by Al Jezeera, he wears a baseball cap bearing the word “Snitch.”

In his correspondence with Manning, Lamo said he was both a journalist and a clergyman- someone obliged by a professional code to keep confessions secret.  He told Bradley that he was bi-sexual, perhaps strengthening their cyber-bond.

We asked actor Ahmad Helmy to read from the Manning-Lamo chat logs, where -- after some initial small talk -- Brad told his story.

" I was born in central Oklahoma.  My dad was a manager of computer programmers at Hertz.  My mother was British - married father while he was stationed at an air force base in southwest Wales.  I was short - still am, very intelligent - could read at three and multiply and divide by four.  Very effeminate and glued to a computer screen at these young ages. I played Sim City, the original, obsessively.  Grew up in a highly evangelical town with more church pews than people, so I got pretty messed up in school - girlie boy, teacher’s pet, etc.  Home was the same - alcoholic father and mother.  Mother was very nice but very needy emotionally.  Father was very wealthy, lots of nice toys - computer stuff, but abusive.  My favorite things growing up were reading my encyclopedia, watching PBS, building with legos and playing with my dad’s hand-me-down computers.  I lived in the middle of nowhere, so I had no neighbors to hang out with.  I was a science fair buff -- won grand prize in my town three years in a row.  I didn’t like getting beat up or called gay - didn’t really know what gay was, but I knew it was something bad.  Around this time, in middle school, my father - in a drunken stupor, got angry with me, because I was doing some noisy homework while he was watching TV.  He went into his bedroom, pulled out a shotgun and chased me out of the house.  The door was deadbolted, so I couldn’t get out before he caught up with me, and I proceeded to fight him, breaking his nose, and made it out of the house.  My father let off one or two shots, causing damage but injuring nobody, except for the belt-lashing I got for making him shoot up the house.  I went to school the next day, and my teachers noticed the wounds and got social workers involved.  He immediately stopped drinking, and my mother filed for divorce.

Eventually, he and his mother would move to England.  Manning spent four years in school there before returning to the United States and enlisting in the army - hoping to get the money he needed for college. His computer skills were greatly prized, but he struggled with gender identity, had trouble adjusting to military life and expected to be discharged.  Instead, the military sent him to Iraq, where he spent long hours reading classified information and writing to Adrian Lamo.  

“I’m very isolated -- lost all of my emotional support channel -- family, boyfriend, trusting colleagues. I’m a mess. I’m in the desert, with a bunch of hyper-masculine trigger happy ignorant rednecks as neighbors, and the only safe place I seem to have is this satellite Internet connection, and I already got myself into minor trouble, revealing my uncertainty over my gender identity.  I’m sorry, I’m a total mess right now (and little does anyone know, but among this “visible” mess, there’s the mess I created that no-one knows about yet.”

“Hypothetical question: if you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time… say, 8-9 months… and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC  -- say a database of half a million events during the Iraq war… from 2004 to 2009… with reports, locations, casualty figures…  Or 260,000 state department cables from embassies and consulates all over the world, explaining how the first world exploits the third, … what would you do?”

“Let’s just say someone I know intimately well, has been penetrating US classified networks, mining data like the ones described, and uploading it to a crazy white haired Aussie who can’t seem to stay in one country very long.  The crazy white haired dude is Julian Assange. In other words, I’ve made a huge mess.”
“Hilary Clinton, and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning, and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format to the public -- almost criminal political back dealings -- everything from the buildup to the Iraq War during Powell, to what the actual content of “aid packages” is: for instance, PR that the US is sending aid to Pakistan includes funding for water, food, clothing… That much is true, it includes that, but the other 85% of it is for F-16 fighters and munitions to aid in the Afghanistan effort, so the US can call in Pakistanis to do aerial bombing instead of Americans potentially killing civilians and creating a PR crisis.”
“It’s important that it gets out.  I feel, for some bizarre reason it might actually change something.”

So is Manning an angry, careless young man who divulged secrets and endangered lives without serious thought - or a crusader for ethical conduct by a government founded on a pledge of free speech and an administration elected on promises of transparency. The upcoming trial may offer details on which a military court and history will judge.