PFC Bradley Manning: Hero, Zero or Somewhere In-Between?

By J Brooks Spector 23 August 2013

As the verdict on PFC Manning is handed down and sentencing completed, the next phase of Manning’s life begins. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a moment to dissect just exactly what motivated this low-ranking private to release all this interesting, but ultimately not so top-secret information.

A couple of years ago, after Julian Assange’s Wikileaks began distributing that vast electronic treasury of secret documents and video footage he secretly obtained from Pfc. Bradley Manning, this writer was on a debate on one of South Africa’s radio stations with a representative of the American Embassy. The embassy representative insisted, pursuant to instructions from Washington, no doubt, that the information released could easily endanger the lives of confidential sources such as human rights advocates, or even the country’s diplomats themselves.

In response, this writer argued the real issue was serious embarrassment. Most of what was in this data dump seemed to be what embassy officers knew (or didn’t), what they had heard from friends and contacts and – most important of all – the wild goose chases they sometimes embarked on. Human rights advocates who were thorns in the side of an authoritarian regime certainly weren’t being “outed” by someone reading about them in a heretofore-secret embassy telegram. After all, it is in the fundamental self-preservationist instincts of an authoritarian regime to watch such people, to track their whereabouts and to be very aware of which international NGOs and embassies they discussed their affairs with while being watched.

PFC Bradley Manning was ultimately the source of the massive collection of materials Julian Assange distributed on his Wikileaks website. And all of it came from a huge digital download of secret cables and video files Manning had easy access to, even though he was only a very low-level, and very inexperienced intelligence analyst.

There are several astonishing facts associated with this massive data dump. The first of these was that a soldier holding the army’s second lowest rank, and just above that of a raw recruit, after all, could have access to such vast amounts of carefully guarded classified material. The second was that there were vast reservoirs of such material, virtually all of it instantly accessible by just about anybody holding security clearance, having access to a computer and linked to a secure Internet connection.

And there are two more key elements. In the wake of the experience of 9/11, an increasingly large, sprawling intelligence community was created to handle the growing demands to combat terrorism through the manipulation of information. Soon enough there were many thousands more intelligence and analysis staffers at work, as well as thousands more private contractors on the job, like the now-equally famous (or infamous) Edward Snowdon. Concurrently, and crucially, the sturdy walls that had existed for years between traditionally separate silos of information in the government were now increasingly being brought together on the theory that the more an analyst could see, the more likely it was he or she would find that elusive needle in a haystack and connect the dots to find that secret, nefarious plot.

For decades, the watchwords defining separation of information in that world of sensitive, compartmentalized information was “need to know”. Now, suddenly, the new idea was that intelligence analysts could tap into powerful synergies from a newfound ability to survey all that information pouring into the system. But such a momentous change in the management of the system also left the door wide open for somebody like Bradley Manning (together with Julian Assange) to do what he did.

Of course, there have always been secrets, just as there have been spies to ferret them out, as well as betrayers of secret information. And there have always been many different motivations for such betrayals. For some, it’s commitment to a cause, for others money, or perhaps an ideological conversion. During World War II’s Project Manhattan (the massive program to develop an nuclear bomb to end the war) Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, together with a number of others, passed on American nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union because of their deeply felt belief in the need to help the Soviet Union match America’s military capability, as well as their admiration for the socialist dream. In this way, their motivations seem to have been very similar to that infamous British quartet of traitors, Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt. Of course, once the Rosenbergs had been caught, a deeply outraged government, now increasingly aroused to the growing Cold War competition with the USSR, found the couple guilty of spying and executed them in 1953.

Meanwhile, over in Moscow, throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, in response to what seems to have also been a real ideological conversion, Russian military officer Oleg Penkovsky provided vital information about Soviet strategic military capabilities to the West, including key background about the emplacement of Russian missiles in Cuba. That is, until he was caught, underwent a show trial and was executed.

Of course there is also the case of Aldrich Ames, the career CIA officer who betrayed entire networks of American agents (and Soviet officials in their pay) operating inside the Soviet Union in exchange for something very simple and easily understood – lots and lots of money for a fine lifestyle well beyond the base pay packet of a mid-level CIA field officer. Once he was finally caught, Ames was tried and sentenced to a prison for life.

There is yet another motivation. Back in 1971, in the midst of the Vietnam War, Pentagon consultant Daniel Ellsberg secretly photocopied the entirety of a multiple volume secret study commissioned by the American secretary of defence that examined how America had ended up in the quicksand of that war. He then gave all this material to The Washington Post and The New York Times, both of which promptly published virtually the entire collection, at the risk of fines and prison terms for their editors and journalists. Ellsberg, of course, had acted not for money or out of any newly discovered loyalty to Vietnam, and certainly not out of secret allegiance to international socialism. Rather, he had found his motivation in the psychology of the whistle-blower: feeling so strongly about a government (or corporate) misdeed the whistle-blower releases information to bring the spotlight onto those mistakes, all in an effort to generate a course correction, even at personal risk to himself.

And so where is Bradley Manning to be found amidst all these possible motivations? For many people around the world, Manning has become the newest whistle-blower protean hero. He is a man who, at great personal cost, has shed purifying sunlight onto grave American military and governmental misdeeds, or worse, in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the process he just happened to give future researchers a veritable treasure trove of information about the conduct (and misconduct) of American foreign policy.

Following the verdict, 30 years imprisonment on a number of charges (but not, crucially, a violation of the Espionage Act that could have led to a death sentence, but which was set aside by the trial judge), Manning wrote in a statement, “The decisions that I made in 2010 were made out of concern for my country and the world that we live in.” In so doing, he chose to clothe himself in the mantle of the persecuted whistle-blower. And just to hammer it home in case Manning himself wasn’t clear enough, his attorney, David Coombs, added, “The time for the president to protect whistle-blowers rather than punishing them is now. The time for the president to pardon Pfc. Manning is now.

The thing is, unlike the Rosenbergs, Ames or Penkovsky, despite the vast volume of what Manning helped release to the world, it does not seem he gave away any vital national secrets. Just a great national red face. Presumably, there was no strategic missile guidance data, no secret missile targeting information, no ultra-secret information about nuclear capabilities or how to manufacture the next generation of warheads, no roster of secret agents embedded deep inside the Chinese politburo, the Russian president’s office or other nations’ trade ministries, and no manuals for short circuiting cyber security in the Pentagon, Langley or Ft. Meade among the material released. If that had been the case, almost certainly the military justice system would have thrown that book at him. Instead, there seems to have been reams and reams of embassy rumour reporting, speculation on al-Qaeda operatives in South Asia, summaries of talking points and polling data, plus, of course, that vast reservoir of video footage monitoring drone craft bomb runs. The very things that got everyone so worked up in the first place.

Most probably this is because even with all the access Manning managed to achieve, it still seems unimaginable the US Government would have put all of its intelligence and technological crown jewels within easy access for any US Army private, anywhere in the world. In spite of all the information sharing in the US intelligence community there must still be a universe of top secret, sensitive, compartmentalized, no foreign dissemination, very close-hold information.

But then, just as this writer was verging on being swayed by the idea Manning might really have a legitimate claim to the title of whistle-blower, even though he never denied releasing the classified material by the truckload because he wanted to protect the country from government mistakes, along comes a real surprise. Manning has announced he is actually a woman trapped in a man’s body, and that he wanted to carry out the surgical transformation needed to make this a physical reality. Clearly his army time (and perhaps well before that) had been a profoundly unhappy one for him personally. And so one is left with still another possible motivation, this time, one rooted deeply within the realm of psychology. For Manning, was there also a need for some kind of deeply personal statement, in which everything done with Wikileaks, in addition to that Ellsberg-style moment, was also a masked cry to a cold and generally inattentive world, “Hear me. See me.  Recognize me”? And now we have. DM

Photo: U.S. Army Private First Class Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier convicted of giving classified state documents to WikiLeaks, is pictured dressed as a woman in this 2010 photograph obtained on August 14, 2013. Lawyers for Manning sought to show during a sentencing hearing on Tuesday that the Army ignored his mental health problems and bizarre behavior. Manning’s violent outbursts and his emailing a supervisor this photo of himself in a dress and blond wig with the caption “This is my problem” were signs the gay soldier should not have a job as an intelligence analyst, defense attorney David Coombs told the court-martial. REUTERS/U.S. Army/Handout


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