Bradley Manning, the Person: The Making of the World's Most Notorious Leaker

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Transcripts of chats with Adrian Lamo give us new insight into the making of Manning's conscience

ManningCC-Post.jpg

"hi," he said. "how are you?"

That's how it all started. WikiLeaks' elevation to international geopolitical phenomenon. The State Department's embarrassment. Bradley Manning's detention. Adrian Lamo's public shaming by the hacker community. Julian Assange's assumption of the role of global supervillain. The reevaluation of what journalism is or should be in the age of Big Data.

That greeting was the first thing that supposed WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning said to Adrian Lamo, who turned him in. Manning goes on to confess in quite specific terms what he'd done, which was to exfiltrate hundreds of thousands of documents from an intelligence system known as SIPRNET on rewriteable CDs and send to Julian Assange, who he calls a "crazy white haired aussie who can't seem to stay in one country very long."

There are a lot of interesting tidbits in the chat logs Wired just released from supposed details about a 45 million-strong botnet to the hidden network of queer activists within the military to new details on how Lamo gained Manning's trust. I'm sure other sites will pull out those details.

What I want to focus on is Bradley Manning the person. Throughout the chats, he refers to himself as a "ghost" or "ghostly," and in the WikiLeaks affair, he's been precisely that. While Assange, Lamo, and a host of other figures have gotten top billing, Manning's been held in military detention under rough conditions that even former State Department spokesman PJ Crowley called "counterproductive" and "stupid."

He was the conscience that sparked these international controversies. He was the human being who felt he had to speak out. And he was a very confused young man in an incredible amount of psychological pain. I want to flesh him out, to unghost him a little for you. If we, as a country, are going to imprison Manning for what he's done, we owe it to him to understand him. If we, as a country, are going to hold him in conditions that the United Nations wants to investigate, we owe it to him to try to figure out why he did what he did.

The chat logs make for psychologically grueling reading. One because Manning is obviously hurting and *we know things turn out for him* but two, the argot of internet chat makes the whole thing feel breezy and disjointed. So, I'm laying out Bradley Manning's story here, using his own words wherever possible, in a format that's easier to follow and digest.

Bradley Manning was born in central Oklahoma and grew up in Crescent, north of Oklahoma City. Manning saw it as a "highly evangelical" town, though self-reported stats don't show it to be particularly religious. His father was a programmer with Hertz, so there were a lot of gadgets around to play with. Manning was, by his own estimation short, "very effeminate" and "very intelligent," and all three traits were obvious from a young age. He "could read at 3 and multiply / divide by 4." He loved computers and was "glued to a computer screen" as a kid, "obsessively" playing the original SimCity.

By kindergarten, he'd already become a target for harassment both at school and at home. Kids called him a girly boy or a teacher's pet. His father was an alcoholic and abusive, Manning tells Lamo. Manning the boy retreated into learning things. "My favorite things growing up were reading my encyclopaedia, watching PBS (the only channel i could get on my TV) building with lego, and playing on my dad's hand-me-down computers." He participated in science fairs, but also figured that if he became an athlete, he might get picked on less. He joined sports teams.

In middle school, his parents got divorced after a particularly ugly incident.

"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... so my mother (also wasted) threw a lamp over his head... 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"

His teachers noticed his wounds and "social workers got involved." His mother filed for divorce and attempted suicide. After she got better, she got custody of Manning and went home to her hometown in Wales in the UK. School became less of a priority and Manning tried to get a startup going, "AngelDyne.com - Pembrokeshire's finest online network." It didn't really work out. At that point, his mother started having strokes and Manning managed to get back to the States after accidentally stumbling through the July 7 bombings in London.

During this period, Manning had come to grips with the fact that he was gay. "Sexual orientation was easy to figure out." He joined the Army in October 2007 anyway, despite the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy then in effect. It appears he found some support among other people in the armed forces who supported the repeal of that (odious) policy.

Still, it was an isolated life, particularly after he got shipped off to Baghdad in late 2009. The desert was terrible.

"here, its hot, dry... and fucking hot. [double emphasis on hot] its also rather dusty. i'd prefer the heat over the peanut butter that forms when it rains. i grow 3 inches in height when it rains here," he wrote. "its a desert, but the ground is slightly fertile here... its a fine silt that forms clay. 'fertile crescent.' vegetation is sparse... an odd mixture of deciduous and tropical trees and shrubs. and usually keeled over slightly, from wind erosion."

He took the whole experience in but it didn't help.

Manning had lost his "emotional support channels" and was stuck "with a bunch of hyper-masculine trigger happy ignorant rednecks as neighbors." That was particularly bad because Manning was struggling with another revelation about himself: he was transsexual. As he told Lamo, "the only safe place i seem to have is this satellite internet connection."

It's here that Manning's personal drama began to intersect with the world's. He'd "loved" his job at times, despite it all, but one day he saw this happen:

was watching 15 detainees taken by the Iraqi Federal Police... for printing "anti-Iraqi literature"... the iraqi federal police wouldn't cooperate with US forces, so i was instructed to investigate the matter, find out who the "bad guys" were, and how significant this was for the FPs... it turned out, they had printed a scholarly critique against PM Maliki... 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 the FPs in finding *MORE* detainees...everything started slipping after that... i saw things differently. i had always questioned the 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 conscience started to turn against the war in which he was involved. Suddenly, the network he was sitting on became a possible tool to do good for the world. "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... what would you do?"

We think we know what Manning did. And we think we know he acted out of conscience based on the statement above and several other hints from the chat logs. He found the machinations of first world governments "exploiting" third world ones to be disgusting, and he really wanted to change how the world worked. He hoped "worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms" would result from the release of the documents he passed on.

Now, here's the big question: more than a million people had access to the documents Manning did. None of them decided to leak the documents. Sure, some of them couldn't have pulled it off technically (without getting caught). But clearly Manning's mind and conscience was also working in a different way from the rest of the people with access. If the Iraqi Federal Police incident was the trigger, he still had to be receptive. I think the newly released portions of the chat logs actually give us some insight into the making of Bradley Manning.

"i guess i could start electrolysis as soon im back in the states... even before im outprocessed," he wrote. "still gonna be weird watching the world change on the macro scale, while my life changes on the micro." Like most people, he couldn't help seeing his own life woven through the bigger story. His electrolysis was on the same scale as threatening the most powerful government in the world's concerns. That feels off, something like getting hungry on September 11, 2001, and yet people got hungry on September 11, 2001.

If I can be allowed a little psychological extrapolation, it's not hard to see Manning's private dilemma -- his feelings of being an outsider, of being powerless, of being weak -- letting him sympathize with the targets of powerful US organizations like the State Department and military. And the solution to his gender identity problem was the same as the one for geopolitics: everything had to come out. Secrets were corrosive at all levels.

In January of 2010, Manning was allegedly in the process of leaking the many, many documents to Julian Assange's organization. At the same time, he was also publicly cross-dressing for a substantial period of time while on leave.

"i went on leave in late january / early february... and... i cross-dressed, full on... wig, breastforms, dress, the works... i had crossdressed before... but i was public... for a few days," he wrote. "i blended in....no-one knew. the first thing i learned was that chivalry isn't dead... men would walk out of their way and open doors for me... it was so weird. i was referred to as "Ma'am" or "Miss" at places like Starbucks and McDonalds (hey, im not a fancy eater)."

Manning finally felt like himself, like he didn't have to hide anything. "i mean, i dont think its normal for people to spend this much time worrying about whether they're behaving masculine enough, whether what they're going to say is going to be perceived as 'gay'... not to mention how i feel about the situation..." he wrote. "for whatever reason, im not comfortable with myself... i mean, i behave and look like a male, but its not 'me'"

It's incredible to think that as Manning was allegedly passing off the biggest data leak in US government history, he was experimenting with a different kind of transparency and public display of previously secret information. He rode the Acela. He went into gas stations to buy cigarettes. He did normal things.

A few months later, after Lamo told military officials he knew about Manning, Manning was arrested and he's been held ever since. He's awaiting a trial to find out if he'll be court-martialed.

The last thing he said in the chat logs was, "ive seen far more than a 22 y/o should."

Image: Creative Commons.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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