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

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


"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, " - 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.

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