Media, Politics

‘What would you do?’ – Bradley Manning’s back in the headlines

‘What would you do?’ – Bradley Manning’s back in the headlines

For the last nine months, Wikileaks source Bradley Manning has been held in solitary confinement and subjected – according to leading legal experts – to unconstitutional and immoral treatment. He hasn’t yet confessed to a relationship with Julian Assange, and now the US authorities have announced he’ll be moved to more comfortable facilities. What makes Manning tick? And more importantly, what lies in store for him at the trial? By KEVIN BLOOM. 

“If you had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months, what would you do?” This was the question posed to Adrian Lamo on an AOL chat thread in May 2010. The person who asked it went by the handle “Bradass87,” but Lamo, a former hacker convicted in 2004 for breaking into the New York Times computer network, had no idea who he was communicating with. All he knew was that the guy on the other side of the thread was “an army intelligence analyst, deployed to eastern Baghdad, pending discharge for ‘adjustment disorder’.”

Why did Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old US army intelligence analyst, contact – and effectively confess all to – a person he’d never met? There are a number of potential answers, although the most obvious one is that Manning must’ve badly needed to tell someone about his role as a Wikileaks source. Less than two years before, while waiting at an army base in New York for posting to Iraq, his boyfriend had introduced him to the Brandeis University hacker community; by the time he got to Baghdad, his belief that information needed to be free was well-formed. Also, he was lonely and unhappy at Forward Operating Base Hammer; a small man (48 kilograms at 1.57 metres tall) and gay to boot, he didn’t stand much of a chance in the macho world that was the US armed forces in the field. If nothing else, the decision to tell Lamo was an attempt to take some power back, to “show them” what he could do.

It was, of course, a mistake. The very essence of the Wikileaks security strategy is that the organisation does not know the identity of its sources – neither the site’s founder Julian Assange nor anyone in his direct employ has yet pointed to Manning as the “leaker” in the explosive case of the 250,000 United States diplomatic cables that began seeing international publication in November 2010. Had Manning not acted on his (all too human) desire to take credit for his actions, it’s highly unlikely he would have spent the last nine months in “maximum custody” solitary confinement at the Marine Corps Brig in Quantico, Virginia. Had he not, on a whim, sent encrypted emails to Lamo and then accepted the invitation to chat on AOL’s instant messaging service, he probably wouldn’t have found himself under a prevention of injury (POI) order, wearing just his underpants and flip-flops, subjected to a visual check every five minutes.

Because Lamo, although he’d reportedly promised Manning anonymity during the chats, went directly to the FBI with his information. The irony was that Manning had chosen Lamo as a confidante because of a profile of the latter that appeared in Wired magazine in May 2010, a piece that began with the following words: “Last month Adrian Lamo, a man once hunted by the FBI, did something contrary to his nature. He picked up a payphone outside a Northern California supermarket and called the cops.” The crux of the piece was that Lamo, who’d called the police to report a stolen backpack containing his anti-depressants, had been sent for psychiatric evaluation by those selfsame policemen; after weeks of observation by the California mental health authorities, he’d been diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder, put on new medication, and apparently become much more socially functional. Whatever it was in the piece that made Manning think he could trust Lamo, there must have been some sort of recognition there – a feeling, perhaps, that he’d found a kindred spirit. 

Photo: Arian Lamo. (Wikipedia)

Like Lamo, Bradley Manning was the quintessential teenage outsider. At school in the United States he was introverted and withdrawn, and when he moved with his mother to her hometown in Wales – his parents divorced when he was 13 – he was mocked for his American accent and mannerisms. The moment of upheaval, according to Denver Nicks writing in the journal This Land, provides a critical insight to his personality. “[Manning], still effectively a boy, had few friends, and his family had all but fallen apart. In a time before Facebook and sustained long-distance friendships, he was leaving his two best friends for what could easily have been the last time… He didn’t need to tell them he was gay in order to confess a hidden affection, to explain a behavior or even to allow his friends to know him better – in a short time he would be gone. And yet, presumably for no other reason than that he was who he was and wanted to live honestly in his own skin, he felt compelled, in a conservative, religious town, to confide in his friends that he was a homosexual. Not only must it have taken tremendous courage for such a young man, it displays a crucial aspect of Brad’s personality. As his Facebook profile still says today, ‘Take me for who I am, or face the consequences!’”

The consequences of Manning’s behaviour for the United States diplomatic corps have been near catastrophic, but for the man himself they’ve been equally bad. In a letter published in the New York Review of Books this year, two prominent legal minds – one from Yale Law School and the other from Harvard Law School – argued that Manning is being detained in conditions that are unconstitutional and immoral. “The sum of the treatment that has been widely reported is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment and the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee against punishment without trial,” they wrote. “If continued, it may well amount to a violation of the criminal statute against torture, defined as, among other things, ‘the administration or application…of… procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality.’”

It now seems as if the US authorities have realised they’ve gone too far. As reported on 19 April, Manning will soon be moved from his tiny cell in Quantico – where he’s been languishing for 23 hours a day – to a “more comfortable” facility in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Whether it was the NY Review letter, which contained a further 300 influential signatures, that caused the about-face is hard to say: Manning has recently become a cause célèbre for dozens of organisations and individuals.

Amongst the strongest critics of his treatment at the hands of the US authorities has been Amnesty International, the world’s premiere human rights organisation, which in January wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates denouncing the conditions of his detention as “unnecessarily harsh and punitive” and “in breach of the USA’s obligations under international standards and treaties.” Amnesty upped its denunciations in March when, incredibly, the authorities forbade Manning from wearing even his underpants at night and forced him to appear naked for morning inspection – as scores of commentators asked at the time, has anyone ever killed themselves using just a pair of briefs? (Indeed, if Manning was a suicide threat, as his jailors claimed, why wasn’t he placed on full “suicide watch” instead of POI, the level below?)

And things went from bad to worse for the Defense Department when, in late March, responding to a peaceful protest outside the brig in Quantico where Manning was being held, the authorities arrested thirty activists. Amongst those detained was none other than Daniel Ellsberg, the man responsible for leaking the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War almost 40 years ago. Some people were clearly having flashbacks to the Nixon administration, because by 20 April the online action site – whose subscribers number over 8 million – had collected more than 528,000 signatures for their campaign to “end the torture, isolation and public humiliation of Bradley Manning”.

So where to now for Private Manning? Well first, of course, it’s off to Fort Leavenworth, where the Defense Department will presumably go easier on him in an attempt to halt the snowballing criticism. Then the matter will head to trial, which is probably going to be more of a public relations challenge for President Obama than the detention. The thing is, Manning is not a spy; like Ellsberg was, he’s a member of the US security apparatus who genuinely believed he was following his conscience when he turned whistleblower. Still, on 2 March the US military unveiled an additional 22 charges against him, including the offense of “aiding the enemy” – which is punishable by death. The army has implied that it won’t be going for the maximum and will instead seek life imprisonment, and even Ellsberg, who’s saluted Manning for his “courageous act of civil disobedience,” agrees that the prosecutors will get their wish.        

That said, with the move to Fort Leavenworth, Manning has effectively beaten the United States Defense Department at their own game – the goal of the authorities has allegedly been to extract a confession pertaining to Assange’s role in the affair, and despite his treatment so far the young man hasn’t uttered a word. While centrists and conservatives insist that he’s a criminal who’s endangered many lives and therefore deserves whatever’s coming to him, to thousands on the left Bradley Manning is a hero. The world is a more transparent and evolved place because of what he did, this faction argues, and it’s the question he posed to Lamo that proves his worth: if you had such unprecedented access to classified networks, what would you do? DM

Read more:

Main photo: Bradley Manning (Wikipedia)


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.