WikiLeaks: Who is Bradley Manning?

May 09, 2011

Accusers say he damaged U.S. security. Defenders say whistleblowing is not a crime. But just who is Bradley Manning, the Army private at the center of the WikiLeaks firestorm?

Post reporter Ellen Nakashima wrote about Manning in The Washington Post Magazine. The portrait of his life is the result of interviews with 30 of his friends, relatives and colleagues.

Nakashima was online Monday, May 9 at 12 ET to take questions and comments.

Hi, I'm Ellen Nakashima. I'm looking forward to taking your questions.

In your experience working on secrecy and national security, do you see significant amounts of information that is classified but should not be? Do you come across information that is classified and really needs to be kept secret? Is our secrecy system broken and, if so, what can be doe to fix it?

Thank you  for the question. The short answer is yes, there is far too much information that is classified when it need not be, or classified at too high a level, or simply held back for other reasons - someone deems it part of internal decision-making process. The Obama administration has taken some steps to make information public - we now know the amounts being spent on intelligence gathering in the military and non-military agencies. But according to Steve Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy, during the first year of the Obama administration, new classification activity actually increased over the year before. There is a new declassification center at the National Archives, which should help expedite declassification of historical records.nerally, though there have been promises of reform, the process is a halting one. The resulting lack of public awareness hinders robust debate over issues of national security -from  counterterrorism to cybersecurity-and can hinder the building of public support for an administration's  chosen policy.

Do the contradictions overwhelm you, at times? The vitriolic public statements from (ostensible) leaders of "The Land of the Free" - calling for executions of offenders of 1st Amendments (amongst other crimes)...who were all strangely silent, on the little matter of outstanding justice; regarding a little war recently fought - (some people may have been killed, I think; some blood spilled, perhaps) - an invasion, justified on a pretext that was nothing but a proved conspiracy, to deceive the US public. Do you sit back and just...scream, sometimes?

Bradley Manning's case is highly polarizing. There are those who are convinced he took an act that betrayed his oath as a soldier. There are those equally convinced he took an act predicated solely on conscience. I set out not to judge the act - and I don't have conclusive evidence he did it - but to explore what people, places and events shaped the young man. What confluence of factors were at work in his life that led him to where he is today?

After Bradley Manning's recent transfer to Fort Leavenworth, it's obvious that the way he was being held previously in Quantico was completely improper. Is it too much to expect that there will be any kind of investigation into his previous prison, or have we just forgotten it now that his conditions are better?

I don't know if there will be any further investigation. I do know Manning's attorney was in the process of filing a court motion to get a judge to rule that the Marine brig at Quantico violated his right to due process when Manning was moved. I've linked to the attorney's blog below. It includes a decription of the new detention facility at Ft. Leavenworth, where Manning is now being held pending a possible court-martial. As you noted, the conditions areimproved. He can mingle with other pre-trial detainees, has a larger cell and does not give up his clothing at night.

Your article did not dwell on Bradley's ideas and vision, which I feel would be most important to him, his personal history would be less important. From what I know Bradley sees a world unified by the internet, his is a positive and moral take on the world, he does not appear driven by hostility eg to any economic or political system. Can you expand on what you gleaned about his positive vision, as this may be relevant to the upcoming trial? vicky, from Wales, the county of 's maternal family

I would have loved to have interviewed Pfc. Manning, but he was off-limits to reporters while at Quantico. By speaking to the people around him, and visiting some of the places he frequented, I hoped to gain some insight into his own value system, his ideas and vision, the tensions at play within him. I mentioned that even as a child, he was fascinated by the world of computers and technology. By 12 or 13, he was altering code in computer games. More interestingly, he found computer games an entree into the world of  ideas. He mentioned to his friend, Jordan Davis, the notion that "information wants to be free," the concept that information is a public good without which society cannot make reasoned decisions. The phrase was a rallying cry of information activists, of "hackers" - the term meaning not breaking in to networks to steal information (though that is its popular connotation) but rather finding creative ways to overcome limits, often through computing and technology. Manning embraced the notion, as a youngster, that technology could empower society. Hence his attraction to the hacker space at Boston University and some of the friends he met in Boston. Now according to Jordan Davis, Bradley was also a pragmatist who as an adolescent argued for a strong military and in favor of the U.S.' right to defend its interests overseas, with force if necessary.  He defied labels. He told friends who have visited him in Quantico that while he was appreciative of the support of protesters, he felt miscast as "anti-war." He also was not religious, though his mother attended Catholic church. He shared many deep conversations about atheism with a friend in Boston. He was a complex young man. 

Were you able to interview the female soldier Manning attacked or her chain ofcommand for more details on why that happened?

No, I was not. The Army has given strict orders to personnel not to speak to reporters about the case or the investigation. The Army is withholding its report on the investigation into that incident and more generally whether Manning's chain of command failed to properly discipline him, and whether they should be disciplined for failing to operate a secure information facility in Baghdad - the room where Manning and other intelligence analysts worked on classified material.

Is there a trial date? How will he be tried, civilian or military or both?

To date, no decision has been made as to whether he will go to trial, though it is presumed he will. A panel of psychiatrists has just deemed him competent to stand trial. The next step is an Article 32 hearing - a sort of grand jury proceeding - in which the Army will outline its case against him and his defense will have the opportunity to cross-examine. The convening authority- an independent military officer - will decide on whether to refer the case to court-martial and what the charges will be. If he decides in the affirmative, the case will proceed to trial before a 12-person jury of military members. There is some question about how much of the proceedings will be closed to the public because of the introduction of classified material. Some of these procedural issues could take weeks to settle. My best guess is late summer, early fall for an eventual trial.

Wasn't Bradley Manning's rank Private First Class? If not, what was his rank? The follow-up question is: has does someone of his rank be allowed any potential of access to such sensitive secrets, and since he obviously was able to get access, how secret did we intend to keep them if they could be accessed by someone of his rank?

At the time he was arrested (last May), he was a Private First Class. He had been demoted a rank - from Specialist - after he assaulted the female soldier in his unit.

He had a top secret security clearance, but that alone does not enable access to the full range of material on the SIPRNet - the military's secret-level classified network. There are certain portions of the network that are accessible only to those with a "need to know" based on their job duties. For instance, my understanding is that Pfc. Manning did not have authorized access to the State Department's diplomatic cable database, which was accessible through SIPRNet to individuals with need to know.

In other words, rank does not dictate access. There can be senior military officials who do not have access to certain information because they do not have a "need to know."

The other point is that more than half of the 261,000 cables were actually unclassified. This gets back to the debate over whether the government's secrecy policies need overhauling.

It's easy to say there are too many documents classified. But does Bradley have the right to say nothing should be:? Should WikiLeaks decide? My understanding is that the documents were released en masse, with no careful creading of what they were, what secrets they contained, which important negotiations, etc. or even lives could be endangered, etc. I worked in the Foreign Service and know what while many documents that are classified should not be, there is also sensitive info that shuld be. Should information on police investigatins also be released on a wholesale basis?

You raise an important point. Whoever disclosed the material did not fix on one or two specific abuses and release only the material related to those abuses. Rather, as you note, they did so "en masse," apparently without regard for the parts that did not speak to a particular abuse.  That action would not accord with the traditional notion of whistleblowing.

Why isn't this an open and shut case with maximum punishment applied? The background of Mr. Manning is totally irrelevant. He willfully broke the law. He signed lifetime binding agreements to protect and not disclose classified information to anyone not cleared to receive it. The sheer amount of compromised material is staggering and the damage to national security is serious. He should get life in prison at the very least.

It will be up to the prosecution in a prospective court-martial to prove that Pfc. Manning broke the law - and right now the Army has preferred 22 possible charges. They include willfully transmitting to an unauthorized party information that the leaker knew would harm the U.S. , exceeding authorized access to the SIPRNet to obtain information, and adding unauthorized software to the SIPRNet.  The most serious charge is "knowingly (giving) intelligence to the enemy" or "aiding the enemy," a capital offense. Prosecutors have indicated they will not seek the death penalty if Pfc. Manning is tried and convicted on this charge. But he could still face life in prison. Though it might appear to be "an open and shut case," the Army has taken pains to note that Pfc. Manning is presumed innocent until proven guilty. 

Did you speak to any psychologists or psychiatrists as to the cause of Bradley's episodes of staring and unresponsiveness?

David Charney, a psychiatrist who has consulted on espionage cases, has said such tendencies might be related to Petit Mal Epilepsy. I have not heard anything conclusive.

Are you aware of another case where a president has prejudged the guilt of a soldier under his command? How will it be possible for Bradley Manning to obtain a fair-court martial after such a clear statement from the commander-in-chief of every juror who would hear his case?

I happened to ask a military law expert, Michael Navarre, who is a special counsel with Steptoe & Johnson, this very question. Here was his answer:

"There is a famous decision by the Court of Military Appeals that addressed the issue of unlawful command influence by high ranking officials, including the President, prior to the court-martial of Lt. William Calley for the infamous My Lai shootings. There, the court found that the statements by the president and others were very general and unlikely to influence the members that decided Lt. Calley’s fate."

"I think most military justice practitioners would agree with me when I say that if I were advising the president, I would have advised him that he not comment on Pfc. Manning’s alleged offenses. But the comment can likely be sufficiently cured or dealt with at trial by the military judge through, among other measures, proper instructions to the jury members and questioning of witnesses."

You said that it was your understanding is that Pfc. Manning did not have authorized access to the State Department's diplomatic cable database. How did he get access? Should the Army have noticed the unauthorized access sooner? Are they even sure it's him if he didn't have access?

In fact, Pfc. Manning has been charged with transmitting the cables to an unauthorized person by  "knowingly exceed(ing) authorized access" on SIPRNet.

It is not clear in the charge sheet how he is alleged to have gained that access. The Army also alleges he added unauthorized software to SIPRNet, which might suggest a means.

Should the Army have noticed the unauthorized access? Yes. That is why the Pentagon has undertaken a major effort to strengthen its network security practices. They are stepping up auditing procedures and are piloting software that will detect unusual activity or behavior on the network.

After reading the article, I do wholeheartedly believe that Bradley Manning took an act predicated solely on conscience that betrayed his oath as a soldier. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on perspective) the compulsions of the conscience do not trump the compulsions of the law, and obeying the law.

Thank you for sharing your perspective. Yes, again if the case proceeds to trial, it will be up to a court of law to determine whether Pfc. Manning broke the law. I did not attempt to adjudicate that question in my profile.

In one of his chats with convicted hacker Adrian Lamo, Bradley Manning apparently said, " i want people to see the truth,regardless of who they are...because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public."

There are certainly elements of the tragic in this tale, all around. It is to be hoped some truth will come of the tragedy.

Thank you, everyone, for your questions.

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Ellen Nakashima
Ellen Nakashima covers cybersecurity and intelligence issues for The Washington Post.
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