What turned a conscientious schoolboy from a comprehensive in Wales into the forgotten man of the WikiLeaks affair?
Jordan Davis doesn’t have the words. He wants to write a letter to a friend in need, but something is stopping him. It should be no problem. He has the address — Inmate Bradley Manning, Marine Corps Brig, 3247 Elrod Avenue, Quantico, Virginia 22134, USA — and he has the will. But the sentiments and the sentences somehow evade him.
In the past, he and Manning could talk about anything. They have been close since they attended kindergarten together — indeed, as part of a tight-knit gang who grew up in the tiny American heartland town of Crescent, Oklahoma, they were privy to each other’s childhood secrets. For instance, when the 13-year-old Manning decided to tell his friends that he was gay, Davis was one of the first people to whom he turned.
But now it’s difficult. Manning, a 23-year-old, 5ft 2in US Army private with blond hair and an impish grin, is wasting in prison, accused of siphoning hundreds of thousands of sensitive documents from military computer networks while stationed in Iraq, and passing them to WikiLeaks, the whistleblowing website. He is charged with leaking the series of cables that make up the recent Cablegate release by WikiLeaks — a quarter of a million diplomatic documents detailing what America and its allies’ diplomats really think about foreign powers — and the Collateral Murder video, shot through the sights of an American Apache helicopter as it guns down civilians in Iraq, including two Reuters employees, in 2007. Other material suspected to have originated from Manning has formed the basis of the Afghan and Iraq War Logs, two massive, and at times devastating, accounts of allied ambition and failure in those theatres.
Manning comes to trial in the New Year. If convicted, he faces 52 years in prison. Several Republican politicians — including the 2008 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee — have even called for his execution.
“What do you say to someone in his situation?” asks Davis. “I think what I’d like to say is this: I know he broke rules, protocols and laws, but I think, ethically, what he did was right. And I’d like to tell him to be strong, and that, hopefully, there will be actual justice — that things will come out the way that, morally, they should do. Here’s a guy who may have to spend the rest of his life in prison. He’s a smart guy, he’s got a lot of potential, and it would just be a real shame for him to have his life wasted for doing the right thing.”
There might be another reason why Davis has struggled to choose the right words. To him, Inmate Bradley Manning is still flesh and blood, the same guy with whom he used to play video games after school. The rest of the world sees his friend differently.
To those who have followed the recent parade of high-profile releases from WikiLeaks, Manning is either a superhero — the greatest whistleblower since Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam war — or a traitor; a saint or a devil. Mostly, however, he has been forgotten.
WikiLeaks, meanwhile, has had quite a year. Formed in 2006 under the leadership of the thin-skinned Australian hacker and conspiracist Julian Assange, and with the assistance of dozens of tech-savvy volunteers around the world, it has always had the capacity to break important stories. In its first three years, its scoops included evidence of extra-judicial killings and corruption in Kenya; a full list of BNP members in Britain; and the Climategate emails, detailing academic meddling in environmental data.
The genius of WikiLeaks is in its structure. Because its material is hosted on servers in different countries, the website has published leaks from anonymous sources without being muzzled by any one country’s privacy laws. Indeed, when WikiLeaks’ material is booted off servers — as has happened in the last month — supporters can create “mirror” sites around the world to keep the information accessible.
Its success is also a product of its ambition. As its slogan, “We Open Governments”, and Assange’s increasingly self-important public appearances confirm, the organisation holds itself in high regard.
However, it was only this year that WikiLeaks became a global player. Its harrowing Collateral Murder video, which shows two Reuters employees (Namir Noor-Eldeen, a photographer, and Saeed Chmagh, a driver and camera assistant) and other non-combatants killed by the gung-ho crew of an American helicopter in 2007, has now been watched by more than 14m people. The data in the Iraq and Afghan War Logs, meanwhile, have put the inner workings of the American military and intelligence apparatus on public display, and the Cablegate diplomatic memos have laid bare the foreign-policy objectives of America and its allies for all to see.
To put it another way, WikiLeaks would be nothing without Manning. Without his vast leaks, Assange would not have his scoops; nor would he be enjoying the attentions of the world’s media and intelligence services; nor would America be considering charging him with espionage; nor would he be in a position to announce, as he recently did, the coming of “a new world, where global history is redefined”. Assange might also argue that he would not be the subject of a rape inquiry in Sweden — a case he claims is politically motivated, and for which he was arrested and jailed in London earlier this month, pending extradition.
Manning grew up in Crescent, Oklahoma, an unremarkable gathering of 1,300 souls and 15 churches — “more pews than people”, as its most famous son described it — whose major landmark is a stop sign on the highway that splits the town in two. For the first 13 years of his life, Manning lived here with his father, Brian, his mother, Susan, who is Welsh, and his older sister, Casey, in a two-storey house with a swimming pool. Brian had spent five years in the US Navy in the late 1970s, and met Bradley’s mother while deployed at Cawdor barracks in Wales. When Brian left the navy, he brought his wife back to Crescent, and took a job at Hertz Rent-a-Car in Oklahoma City.
As a boy, Manning was always, say his friends, wickedly smart. “I’d describe him as brilliant,” says Davis, who works as a photographer near Oklahoma City. “At school, he was really into science and history and computers. He always had views about the world. He was, believe it or not, kind of Republican in his outlook. Very pro-America, pro-army. Fiscally, rather than socially, conservative. I remember him writing a story when he was in third grade [about eight years old] about how a dictator had got his hands on all the oil in the Middle East — and the US had to go and free up all this oil. It was kind of a Gulf war story.”
Was he popular? “I wouldn’t say popular — it was a small school and he didn’t get on with everybody,” says Davis. “Sometimes he’d get picked on. But he wasn’t particularly unpopular either. Me and him and some others, we kind of just did our own thing.”
His personality is unique, extremely unique. Very quirky, very opinionated, very political, very clever, very articulateWhen Manning was 13, life became complicated. His father walked out on his mother, who decided to move with Bradley back to Wales. Before he left Crescent, Manning told his closest friends about his sexuality. But when he began his new life in the Pembrokeshire town of Haverfordwest, he could not find the courage to tell his new classmates that he was gay. He was struggling enough to fit in as the only American in the village.
“He stuck out,” remembers James Kirkpatrick, one of his closest friends at Tasker Milward school in Haverfordwest. “An American at a Welsh school is always going to stick out, isn’t he? And his personality is unique, extremely unique. Very quirky, very opinionated, very political, very clever, very articulate. He could be quite anxious and frustrated, and people used to bully him a little bit to try and get a reaction out of him…
“He never told me he was gay — I don’t think he told anyone. There was one boy in our year who everyone knew was gay, and he got absolutely tormented for it. I think Bradley must have seen that and thought, no thanks.”
Another classmate, Laura Watts, remembers a “really, really quiet” boy, but one who was prone to flashes of exhibitionism. In Manning’s final year at the school, aged 17, the sixth-formers organised a charity Christmas show, dressed up and did silly acts. Manning performed a striptease on stage in front of the whole school. “He got down to his boxers,” says Watts. “It was really funny.”
Kirkpatrick says he was drawn to Manning for the same reason the bullies were repelled. “He was so different and interesting,” he says. “I’d come from Germany, where my old man was in the army, so I was interested in different cultures, and I think that’s where me and Bradley connected. We’d mess about on computers at his house after school. I used to love going round there — his mum used to cook brilliant beefburgers.”
Manning’s expertise with computers was, to use his friend’s word, “awesome”, and he was determined to put it to use. Leaving sixth form at Tasker Milward early, Manning returned to Oklahoma City to work for a software firm called Zoto, and to live with his father. Pretty soon, Bradley moved out. (In 2008, as a new army private marching against the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gays in the US military, Bradley told a local reporter that “I was kicked out my home” for being gay.) In any case, the newly homeless Bradley lodged first with his friend Davis in Tulsa, and then with his aunt, Debra van Alstyne, on the outskirts of Washington, DC, taking odd jobs where he could. By September 2007, Manning needed direction. He joined the army — a move he had talked about since he was eight years old — and undertook basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. The following August, he graduated as an army intelligence analyst and was stationed in Fort Drum, in upstate New York.
“I was a little worried about Bradley joining the army,” says Davis. “I think he underestimated the culture of the military. I thought he wasn’t going to have as much fun as he thought he was going to. I thought it might be difficult for him having to not say he was gay. He’s kind of a small guy, and I’m sure people picked on him a little bit.”
Davis kept in contact with Manning throughout his training. Did he ever talk about having problems? “At first, not so much, but as time went on, he had a few more. He obviously had a rough time, but it didn’t seem to be, like, on the verge of destroying him.” In late 2008, while in upstate New York, Bradley started dating a musician named Tyler Watkins, who introduced him to a group of like-minded computer experts and “hacktivists” based around the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. According to Manning’s Facebook wall at this time, he was blissfully happy — one typical posting was “Bradley Manning is cuddling in bed tonight!” In October 2009, Manning was posted to Iraq, to begin work as a specialist intelligence analyst at Contingency Operating Station (COS) Hammer, east of Baghdad. It was there that he made a new online friend named Julian Assange.
Flash forward to May 21, 2010. After an introductory email, Manning has just initiated an instant message chat with a man he has never met — a well-known former hacker from Sacramento, California, named Adrian Lamo. The next day, Manning, writing from a computer in COS Hammer, and using the online handle Bradass87, begins to unravel.
He types: “hypothetical question: if you had free reign [sic] 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?… things that would have an impact on 6.7 billion people… say a database of half a million events during the iraq war… from 2004 to 2009… with reports, date time groups, lat-lon 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, in detail, from an internal perspective?”
Lamo encourages Manning to continue.
Manning: “let’s just say someone I know intimately well, has been penetrating US classified networks, mining data like the ones described… and been transferring that data from the classified networks over the ‘air gap’ onto a commercial network computer… sorting the data, compressing it, encrypting it, and uploading it to a crazy white-haired aussie who can’t seem to stay in one country very long.” A little later, Manning admits, “I can’t believe what I’m confessing to you.”
No doubt Lamo experienced some disbelief himself. If what Manning said was true, he had just admitted to the largest leak of confidential material in American history, to a total stranger, on an unencrypted chat service. Within three days of beginning this online conversation, Lamo called an ex-boyfriend who had previously worked in military intelligence, Timothy Webster, to confirm whether Manning was telling the truth. Lamo repeated a code phrase to Webster that Manning had used in order to establish his bona fides. “Tim’s response was: never repeat those words again,” says Lamo. “At that moment, I knew that Manning wasn’t just bullshitting me.”
Lamo took the decision to turn him over to the authorities, because “I knew that, unless stopped, he was going to continue to leak, and continue to endanger lives”. Through Webster, Lamo informed military intelligence, who also informed the FBI. Lamo was taken to a Starbucks in Sacramento, where he spilled his extraordinary story to two federal agents. Manning was arrested on May 26.
Why had Lamo been singled out? At the time of these chats he was 29 years old, and a well-known operator in hacking circles. Nicknamed “the Homeless Hacker” for his habit of couch-surfing his way through life, he initially worked for online companies detailing gaps in their security, without taking payment.
He made his name by breaking into the New York Times website in 2002 and adding his name to the list of op-ed contributors. The newspaper’s top brass was not amused. Lamo was arrested and given a two-year suspended sentence. He says he has now given up hacking to concentrate on paid work: online security consultancy and public speaking.
Lamo is an unsettling character. Earlier this year, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital when the loss of his antidepressant medication triggered a period of erratic behaviour. He was subequently diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. Indeed, attempting to secure an interview with him for this article was like trying to nail jelly to a wall. He would disappear for weeks at a time, only to re-emerge as if nothing untoward had occurred. When we did speak, his amused drawl was often punctuated by long pauses and cryptic aphorisms. His email sign-off – a line from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: “We shall write to you, as time, and our concernings shall importune” – is characteristic.
On paper, he seems an unlikely confessor. But Kevin Poulsen, a Wired magazine journalist who has reported on “the Homeless Hacker” for a number of years, and who was given the scoop on the confessional chat logs, believes Manning’s decision to unburden himself to Lamo was not as random as it appears: “It wasn’t a coincidence. He picked out a former hacker who had not been financially motivated and who had some kind of idealism behind what he was doing, and who — at least publicly — appeared to be a supporter of WikiLeaks [Lamo had once given a small donation to the website]. He seemed to be a kindred spirit. He was looking for somebody to talk to who might have some kind of understanding of what he was going through. And he chose Adrian.”
Lamo believes there may have been another reason. “The fact that it’s well known in computer security circles that I’m bisexual would have created a kind of connection,” he says. “A belief that, as part of the ‘Velvet Mafia’, I would not inform on him.” So why did he? “I get approached by people on pretty much a daily basis confessing to crimes,” he says. “I don’t turn them in, because most of them are crimes of curiosity and have no real impact on people’s lives or livelihoods. It’s when someone comes to me and says, ‘Hi, my name’s Brad, and I’d like to tell you about my state treason’ that the issue becomes fuzzy. I believed he was leaking stuff that was endangering lives.”
For “snitching”, Lamo has become an outcast among hackers. At the 2010 Hope (Hackers on Planet Earth) conference, he was lambasted by the crowd for turning Manning in. Many supporters of WikiLeaks have accused him of being a paid government informant, a charge he counters vigorously. “I categorically deny it,” Lamo says. “I have not received money of any kind from the government, and I have refused offers of money as a source.” Lamo will admit that he “had an offer” from the government to do intelligence work, but “it’s been on hold ever since the Afghan War Logs were released. Anyway, I don’t intend to profit directly from this. If that were my motivation, I would have said, ‘Hey, I know about someone who’s leaking classified documents, and I’m not telling you until you pay up.’ ”
Is his offer to work for the government still on the table? “I suppose yes would be the most succinct answer,” he says.
What was Manning’s motivation in all of this? The chat logs reveal that the young soldier was upset and lonely, and dealing with complicated personal problems. Before his arrest he was demoted from Specialist to Private for assaulting a fellow soldier. He was, he says, “self-medicating like crazy… a total f***ing wreck”. Moreover, it has been suggested that, at the time of the leaks, Manning was questioning his gender identity.
In a revealing section of the chat logs, released by the website BoingBoing.net, Manning discusses a “transition” he is about to make, and that his “CPU is not made for this motherboard” — a geeky but rather beautiful metaphor. The CPU is a computer’s central processing unit, or its “brains”, and the motherboard is the system it is connected to, or its “body”. These passages have suggested to some observers that Manning was considering a sex change. Indeed, he talks about being willing to face life imprisonment, or even the death penalty, “if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me… plastered all over the world press… as boy” [sic].
More significantly, Manning was struggling with weighty ethical issues. He tells Lamo, “I guess I’m too idealistic”, before describing his shock at the bogus arrest of 15 Iraqis for printing “anti-Iraq literature”.
At one point, Manning discusses why he has not sold his information to the highest bidder. “I could have sold to Russia or China and made bank,” but didn’t, “because it’s public data… it belongs in the public domain… information should be free… because another state would just take advantage of the information… try and get some edge… if it’s out in the open it should be a public good.” He signs off this section with, “I’m crazy like that.”
In other words, Manning leaked the information because he thought it was the right thing to do. Discussing his decision to forward material to “WL” (WikiLeaks), he tells Lamo: “god knows what happens now… hopefully worldwide discussion, debates and reforms… if not… than [sic] we’re doomed… as a species… I will officially give up on the society we have if nothing happens.”
Motivation is one thing, execution another. How did Manning manage to leak such a vast trove of material? It was, apparently, easy. As a low-level intelligence analyst, he had security clearance to view databases such as SIPRNet, on which most of the information he is alleged to have leaked was stored. He claims to have uploaded classified documents on to CDs while pretending to listen to Lady Gaga, and then transferred that information to WikiLeaks. While he may have leaked some of the documents over the internet, it seems unlikely that he uploaded the biggest files from Iraq, because his base in the desert would have had a slow satellite internet connection. So what was the process?
“The belief is that, in the case of the larger files, they [the CDs] were hand-delivered back to the United States to someone who then made a physical hand-off to WikiLeaks,” says Lamo. One “hand-off” is believed to have taken place in Boston, in January 2010, where US military investigators are now looking for his fellow conspirators. A close eye has been kept on Manning’s friends. For instance, on November 3, David House, a 23-year-old MIT researcher who helped to set up the Bradley Manning Support Network, and who has visited Manning a number of times in prison, was arrested at the Mexican border, interrogated, and had his laptop and camera seized by federal agents.
However, if Manning was leaking during his time in Boston, he kept quiet about it. One MIT student, who claims no allegiance to WikiLeaks, or any part in the alleged leak, and has asked for his name to be withheld, remembers meeting Manning during that period through mutual friends. “He seemed like a good kid,” he says. “Sharp, very curious and interested in just about everything. We ended up talking for about 20 minutes, about the history of the KGB and the cold war — nothing about WikiLeaks. He didn’t strike me as the leaking type at all. I saw none of the anger or resentment you’d expect. If there was any inner turmoil, he kept it extraordinarily well bottled up, though of course maybe I missed it because I didn’t think it particularly important to pay close attention.”
There is a greater question prompted by this story. What was the role of WikiLeaks? It should be said that Manning was not exposed by any flaw in WikiLeaks’ system, but by his own big mouth. Moreover, WikiLeaks claims that it never knows who its sources are. Unlike traditional media, who generally check stories from whistleblowers by establishing the reliability of both the source material and the source, WikiLeaks says it achieves greater journalistic purity by only checking the veracity of a leaked document. “Journalism,” says Assange, “should be more like science.”
Indeed, when two WikiLeaks representatives — James Ball and Kristinn Hrafnsson — appeared at the Frontline Club in London shortly after the recent Cablegate release, they both suggested that they had no idea whether Manning was the person who leaked these documents. But someone at WikiLeaks has a good idea.
In the chat logs, Manning claims to have had conversations with Assange over a period of months. He also says that “long-term sources do get preference” because their “material… is easy to verify”, and suggests he had a hotline to Assange. In the logs that are publicly available, it seems there was a relationship between Manning and Assange. But of what nature? Only 25% of the chat logs have been made publicly available.
Lamo claims that in the remaining sections — redacted, as he said, for security and privacy reasons — the substance of that relationship becomes plain. “As far as I know, they never met in person,” says Lamo. “And I’ll be straight with you — Manning sought out Assange. But once Assange had Manning, he coached him to produce the results he wanted… Dropping hints as to what kind of data would be interesting, or would work well. Do you imagine that [Manning] would happen to decide on these particular sensationalistic documents by himself, for WikiLeaks? He would have to be pretty savvy for a 22-year-old in order to understand how to maximise the impact.”
He continues: “I believe Manning was coached, and honestly I believe that’s his best defence. I don’t think he’s the person who deserves to be punished the most. I believe the people who encouraged him to act, enabled him to act, assisted him in acting, and propelled him to continue to act, are the ones who should be sitting in Quantico right now.”
Lamo, of course, may be overstating the case. Since he delivered Manning to the authorities, Assange and his supporters have called him every name under the sun, and he, in turn, may harbour grievances against the website. But common sense tells you that a repeated and valued source for WikiLeaks might need some encouragement and instruction along the way. And with that advisory role come certain responsibilities. (They might have suggested to Manning, for instance, not to reveal his criminal history to a stranger over unencrypted chat – although, if he is as clever as everyone says he is, Manning should have known that himself.) Wikileaks’ greater responsibility, say Manning’s friends, is to provide legal assistance.
The website has promised, since Manning’s arrest, that — despite claiming it has no idea whether he is the source of its recent scoops — it would assist with finding and funding his lawyers. So far, there is no proof that it has done so. Manning appointed his own counsel, a lawyer from Rhode Island named David Coombs, independently of WikiLeaks. And, apart from encouraging its supporters to donate to the Bradley Manning Defense Fund, the website itself has yet to put its hand in its pocket.
In early September, WikiLeaks said it had given the Wau Holland Foundation, a non-profit organisation in Germany which handles the bulk of WikiLeaks’ financial affairs — permission to make a “substantial donation” to the legal kitty. But on September 23, Coombs wrote: “I have not received a sizeable donation from any organisation.” At that point, Manning had been in jail for nearly four months.
At the Frontline event in December, however, Hrafnsson rebuffed his detractors, saying that WikiLeaks had made a “substantial” payment to Manning’s legal costs. His claim was untrue. Ten days ago, a spokesman for the Defense Fund, Jeff Paterson, said “WikiLeaks has yet to make a contribution”, despite its public assurances. At the time of writing, the fund had raised around $90,000 (£57,000) from around 1,200 contributors. Meanwhile, WikiLeaks — which, despite its much-trumpeted belief in transparency, has not published a breakdown of its finances — had raked in around $1m this year, before PayPal and MasterCard refused to process donations to the website. Moreover, it has wasted no time in establishing its own fund for the legal defence of Assange, its embattled editor-in-chief. What to make of this apparent stinginess?
Certainly, one former WikiLeaks associate makes the observation that money flows into the organisation and trickles out. John Young, a 74-year-old New York architect, runs his own disclosure website, Cryptome.org, which predates Assange’s website by a decade.
He helped WikiLeaks in its early days, but severed ties because he believed there was an overtly commercial aspect to the organisation.Young says that is costs around $100 a month to run Cryptome. He became sceptical of Wikileaks’ motives when he heard activists discussing a target of $5m to run the site. “I objected to that kind of money,” he says.
“It made [WikiLeaks]sound suspicious… I just happen to believe that this kind of service should not be a money-making operation. And, at least, I didn’t want to be associated with a money-making operation, and so I was booted off the mailing list.”
Whatever the reality of WikiLeaks’ finances, it seems that the organisation was well placed to do more for its most prominent source. Why hasn’t it? Jordan Davis, who supports what WikiLeaks does “in concept”, says: “It seems to me that this Julian fellow had his heart in the right place, but he’s gotten kind of egotistical. It’s all gone to his head. I feel like they’re less interested in helping Bradley and more interested in embarrassing the United States. I know Bradley has a lawyer, but I don’t know how big a part they played in that. As far as I can tell, they didn’t. It just doesn’t seem like they’ve done a lot to support him.”
This year, WikiLeaks has shaken the worlds of journalism, politics and diplomacy to their boots. Whether or not one agrees with its methods, or its style, one cannot deny its impact. But with its heady rise, it’s easy to see how people — one person in particular — can be left behind. It is cleaner and more convenient for WikiLeaks to claim that it does not know who its sources are, or to say it has no idea if Manning leaked material to them — but in this case, it leaves a bad taste.
To those who know and love him, Bradley is anything but anonymous. Before his arrest, his friends remember him in all his conflicted humanity — a sharp, anxious, funny, hot-headed and principled young man who was wrestling with the mucky reality of the world around him. Now, that mucky world has swallowed him whole.