The Trials of Bradley Manning

He was a tortured gay soldier who exposed the darkest secrets of the U.S. military – and he has been paying the price ever since

Bradley Manning is escorted away from a hearing in Fort Meade, Maryland.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
March 14, 2013

In June 2010, about two weeks into his military detention at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, Bradley Manning, the 22-year-old Army private accused of leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks, was taken from the air-conditioned tent where he'd been living, barracks-style with a handful of other inmates, and placed in a cage. No explanation was given; the reasons for this abrupt transfer, which occurred several weeks before any official charges were filed against him, still remain unclear. He would spend more than a month in this contraption; an eight-by-eight-foot cube – nearly identical to those used at Guantánamo – made of steel grid panels and equipped with a bunk, stainless-steel sink and an attached toilet. Human contact, other than with base psychiatrists and guards who would shake down his cell several times a day, was almost nil. On a "reverse sleep cycle," he was woken at 10 p.m. and sent to bed around one or two the next afternoon.

Thus removed from the normal rhythms of the world, Manning, who'd already been in a fragile, emotional state before his arrest, very quickly and visibly began to deteriorate. He was found one night "screaming, shaking, babbling, and banging and bashing his head into the adjacent wall," according to official documents. He had fashioned a noose out of bedsheets, "but it was pointless," he later said, noting there was nowhere to hang it. By the second week of his confinement, Manning had spent so much time in his cage that he had come to believe that he might languish there forever. "My days were my nights and my nights were my days, and after a while it all blended together and I was living inside my head," he said. "I just remember thinking, 'I'm going to die. I'm stuck here in this animal cage, and I'm going to die.'"

And so began Manning's journey through the exceedingly murky realm of military pretrial detention, a nearly three-year ordeal punctuated by months of legalized torture, not unlike what enemy detainees endured at Guantánamo Bay. Though not the standard treatment for U.S. soldiers, even those accused of war crimes, Obama administration officials deemed it "appropriate" for Manning, who, in many regards, "ceased to be a 'soldier' from the moment he crossed the line and revealed the secrets of the war," observes Kristine Huskey, the director of the Anti-Torture Program at Physicians for Human Rights. "In doing that, he became, in effect, the 'enemy.' And once you're the enemy, you can be subject to treatment that is not for people on our side."

Did the Mainstream Media Fail Bradley Manning?

A former intelligence analyst, Manning was arrested on May 27th, 2010, at his base in eastern Iraq. Army investigators searched his computer, finding evidence of thousands of State Department and military communiqués and encrypted chats between Manning and an account associated with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Manning would ultimately be accused of the biggest leak of government secrets in U.S. history – a massive disclosure, hundreds of times larger than the Pentagon Papers, composed of more than 700,000 U.S. intelligence documents including: a July 2007 video of a U.S. Apache helicopter attack on Iraqi civilians, in which 18 people were killed; nearly 500,000 reports from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; more than a quarter of a million diplomatic cables from U.S. embassies around the world; and 779 documents pertaining to Guantánamo Bay.

Though none of the material was "top secret" (the Apache helicopter video, in fact, wasn't classified at all, nor were more than half of the cables), it was nonetheless a damning and, at times, a highly embarrassing portrait of U.S. might and diplomacy, exposing night raids gone terribly wrong; missile strikes mistakenly targeting children; countless checkpoint shootings of Iraqi civilians; widespread torture conducted by the Iraqi forces with the tacit approval of U.S. troops bound by an official yet previously undisclosed policy of noninterference; and rampant corruption on the part of U.S. allies in Afghanistan, Pakistan and many Middle Eastern nations.

It was by any estimation a staggering breach, painting aportrait of a myopic military culture that, as one former State Department official puts it, "was so intent on keeping the enemy out, I don't think anyone possibly imagined that someone would do something from inside a base."

Matt Taibbi: WikiLeaks Was Just A Preview: We're Headed for an Even Bigger Showdown

It was also, as Manning told it, easy. "I listened and lip-synced to Lady Gaga's 'Telephone' while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history," he confided to Adrian Lamo, a hacker who Manning contacted and gave a breathtakingly candid confession. "Pretty simple and unglamorous…. No one suspected a thing."

Manning now stands accused of 22 violations of military law, eight of which fall under the Espionage Act, an arcane 1917 statute against sharing information with unauthorized sources that was previously used to indict spies like Aldrich Ames, who pleaded guilty in 1994 of selling secrets to the Soviets. Using the Espionage Act to go after leakers has been a signature move of the Obama administration, part of what some view as a larger "war on whistle-blowers" that signifies a stunning reversal from the president's original stance of bringing greater transparency to government. Since Obama first took office in 2009, his administration has brought six prosecutions for leaking national security secrets – more than all the past administrations combined. Of them, Bradley Manning is the only member of the U.S. military and the only person to be placed in pretrial detention. He is also the only person to be charged with "aiding the enemy" by, as the charge sheet reads, "wrongfully and wantonly" causing U.S. intelligence to be published on the Internet, where enemies of the United States might see it.

At a pretrial hearing in December 2011, Maj. Ashden Fein, the government's lead prosecutor in the case, argued that because Manning had read Army reports showing that Al Qaeda and other enemies of the United States used WikiLeaks, he thus "knowingly," if indirectly, provided them with classified information. Whether Manning intended to help Al Qaeda or any other foe is, the government argues, immaterial. "If somebody stole a loaf of bread to feed her family, she still stole the loaf," one of the government prosecutors, Capt. Angel Overgaard, said in January.

In pursuing this line of prosecution, constitutional experts say the government is treading on dangerous ground. "Using the aiding-the-enemy charge in a typical leak case without any evidence that the person had a real intent to give information to the enemy is unprecedented," says Ben Wizner, the director of the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. "Manning hasn't been accused of doing this because he wanted to help Al Qaeda; they just say he put it out there, and any reasonable person would assume that Al Qaeda would have access to it – well, sure, and so would millions of other people."

From the moment he was arrested, Manning was denounced as a traitor. Fox News, unsurprisingly, described him as a "rogue GI." Mike Huckabee argued that "anything less than execution is too kind." The liberal establishment was equally disdainful, ignoring the notion that Manning, a self-described "idealist," was motivated by conscience, seizing instead upon the fact that he had emotional problems. He was "troubled," said The Washington Post; he had "delusions of grandeur," reported The New York Times. "He wasn't a soldier," a recruit who'd been at basic training with Manning told The Guardian. "There wasn't anything about him that was a soldier."

To be sure, Manning was an atypical soldier. Standing just five feet two, "tiny as a child," as one colleague described him, Manning was a relentless questioner. He wore a custom dog tag identifying himself as a "humanist." He had a pink cellphone. He was all but openly gay. Raised in Crescent, Oklahoma, a town with "more pews than people," as he put it, he'd come out to his friends at 13, but since joining the Army in 2007 had lived under multiple layers of secrecy, thanks to the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Boot camp had been a misery. Bullied relentlessly, he suffered anxiety attacks, got into fights, even peed on himself (more than once). At Fort Drum, New York, where Manning was posted with the 10th Mountain Division, he was unable to adapt to military discipline and would often scream back at superiors. He "hated messing up," as one of his supervisors said, and was plagued by feelings of failure, taking any criticism as a personal slight. He flew into uncontrollable rages, yelling, crying and throwing chairs, then became sullen and withdrawn. His behavior was so erratic, several of his superiors suggested he not be deployed.

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