But the Army, stretched thin by two wars and in desperate need of qualified intel analysts, ignored these recommendations. In the fall of 2009, Manning left for Iraq with the 10th Mountain's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, a light-infantry unit he would describe as "a bunch of hyper-masculine, trigger-happy, ignorant rednecks." Haunted by fears that he wasn't "masculine enough," as he told a friend, he began to question his gender. On leave in the U.S. during the snowy winter of 2010, he spent a few days dressed as a woman. He called his female alter ego "Breanna."
Beyond these personal issues was the fact that Manning had begun to have serious reservations. "Manning had a reason to believe the U.S. was engaged in activities that violated a number of laws, and so he made a fateful decision to expose illegality," says Thomas Drake, a former National Security Agency official who was indicted under the Espionage Act in 2010 for leaking sensitive information to the press. "That is the classic definition of a whistle-blower, and what has happened to him since is classic retaliation against someone who exposed pathological power run amok."
On a brisk day in late November 2012, Manning, accompanied by his lawyer, David Coombs, arrived at Fort George G. Meade, the stark, brick Army base outside Baltimore, to argue that his detention at the Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Virginia, where he was transferred after two months in Kuwait, amounted to illegal pretrial punishment. A diverse crowd packed the tiny courtroom: a melange of whistle-blower advocates, attorneys, activists – the latter group dressed in black T-shirts inscribed with the word TRUTH. And of the approximately 20 reporters in attendance, only a handful were from the mainstream U.S. media, which largely ignored the proceedings.
Though WikiLeaks had made news all over the planet, Manning had remained an enigma, squirreled away in military detention while his case was all but subsumed by the government's relentless pursuit of Assange. With Manning unable to speak for himself, his story had been relegated to various friends, family, free-speech advocates, human rights activists, lawyers, reporters and soldiers who'd served with him, all of whom contributed to the narrative that painted Manning as a fragile, damaged, weak individual – an emotional basket case who should never have been deployed to begin with, let alone given a top security clearance.
But the Manning who showed up at Fort Meade was not this soldier. Clad in his navy-blue dress uniform, with rimless glasses and short, neatly combed blond hair, Manning did not come off as "effeminate," as he had been so often portrayed. He didn't cry. He didn't even tremble a little bit – not even when, on the first day of his testimony, his lawyer asked him to map out on the courtroom floor a diagram of his cell at Quantico that, when he'd finished, was so tiny that Manning appeared almost large standing in the middle of it. Not even when, on the second day, the prosecutor held up the "noose" Manning had made of a pink bedsheet, and asked him if he remembered it. During one poignant moment, Coombs handed Manning a cardboardlike "suicide smock," like the one he was given to wear in lieu of clothes at Quantico, and asked him to put it on. A stiff blue contraption about 300 sizes too big, it made Manning look like a turtle.
Most of all, Manning seemed very young – a factor easily forgotten amid the larger conversations about government secrecy and WikiLeaks. He'd been just 21 years old when he'd begun perusing classified databases and saw "incredible things, awful things . . . things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington, D.C." They were internal memos laying out the sordid details of the most blood-soaked and morally questionable wars since Vietnam, conflicts whose essential contours were something that Manning, who was 13 when the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan, and 15 when it invaded Iraq, only vaguely understood.
Now he knew. And by every indication, he was horrified. "I want people to see the truth regardless of who they are, because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public," he told Lamo. "I feel, for some bizarre reason, it might actually change something. Or maybe I'm just young, naive and stupid."
It is sometimes difficult to recall, more than a year after the last troops departed Mesopotamia, the huge political, moral and financial morass that was the Iraq War. Launched in 2003 with an optimistic in-and-out strategy, it was an endless, grinding conflict against a resilient insurgency that killed or maimed more than 36,000 troops while costing taxpayers approximately $835 billion. By 2007, the year Manning enlisted, the Army was a study in dysfunction. VA hospitals overflowed with wounded soldiers. Countless more suffered from PTSD. Suicides soared throughout the ranks. With recruitment steadily declining, the Army lowered its standards, accepting more kids with drug, alcohol and physical problems. It recruited record numbers of non-high-school graduates, and even sunk to doubling the "moral waivers" it granted to felons. In 2008, the cost of Iraq was averaging $11 billion per month with no end in sight. By 2009, the bloodshed was such that U.S. forces, under the counterinsurgency strategy of David Petraeus, had turned to paying their former enemies not to attack them.
And yet while the war was a disaster, there was an unstated "prohibition against exposing the myth," in the words of one former high-ranking military official. This silent edict wound its way from the Pentagon to Baghdad, where, over time, it would make its way in the form of a cynical complacency to remote outposts like Forward Operating Base Hammer, where Bradley Manning began his tour in the fall of 2009. By then, recalls Peter Van Buren, a former State Department official who was posted in Iraq, much of what the U.S. was doing had become blatantly transparent. "We'd been at it for years and didn't have much to show for it," he says. "The Iraqis knew that too. They'd learned very quickly that our expectations were very low, and so they played along with the charade. Everyone was winking across the table at one another."
Manning, arguably, wasn't in on the joke. The son of a former Naval-intelligence operator, he had an almost naive belief in American power; he'd wanted to be a soldier since the third grade. A natural with computers, which he'd learned to program when he was eight, he also believed he might be good at the Army – at least the part that didn't require shooting anyone. "I'm more concerned about making sure that everyone – soldiers, Marines, contractors, even the local nationals – get home to their families," he once told a friend. "I feel a great responsibility and duty to people."
A science geek, Manning dreamed of studying physics at Cornell or MIT. But prior to enlisting, he'd spent a few years adrift, working odd jobs, moving from Oklahoma City to Tulsa to Chicago and finally to Potomac, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C, where he worked at Starbucks and spent much of his free time playing an extraordinary amount of Eve Online, the multiplayer sci-fi role-playing game. The Army offered Manning a new life and a way to pay for college, and as draining as it was on him personally, he was, by every account, excellent at his job. A "35 Fox," the Army's code for an intelligence analyst, Manning scrutinized data across a broad spectrum of sources and prepared intelligence briefings for his superiors. A voracious reader, he spent his free time poring over books on physics, biology, international relations, even art history, all of which he believed could inform his analysis and "hopefully," he told a friend, "save lives."
FOB Hammer was a middle-of-nowhere base, situated in eastern Iraq, about a third of the way between Baghdad and the Iranian border. Nine miles square, it had been built for the surge and was fortified by layers upon layers of blast walls and concertina wire to fend off attack. When it rained, the ground turned to peanut butter. When it was dry, soldiers lived in mountains of dust. No matter where you looked, the vista was the same: empty.
Life on the FOB was in some ways a portrait of end-of-the-war ennui. Only a fraction of the 300-odd soldiers at Hammer engaged directly with Iraqis; the rest, like Bradley Manning, never left the base. His world was smaller than a football field, consisting of his double-occupancy trailer, the base chow hall, recreation center and shower trailer and, just a few steps away, his workstation in the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF. In this windowless plywood box of a building, intelligence analysts led a Groundhog Day-like existence working 12-hour shifts, after which they'd eat, sleep, wake up and do it all over again. It was tedious, often boring work, and security was remarkably lax. "Everyone just sat at their workstations watching music videos, car chases, buildings exploding," he later said.
But their access was tremendous: Even low-level analysts could connect to SIPRNet – the Secure Internet Protocol Router used by both the State Department and the Department of Defense to transfer classified data – as well as to another network used by the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. The networks were monitored but mostly for outside intrusion. Manning once asked an NSA official if the agency could find any suspicious activity coming out of the local networks. "He shrugged," Manning recalled, "and said, 'It's not a priority.'"
Manning started off on the night shift, as part of the Shi'a Threat Team, a group of analysts tasked with tracking insurgent supporters of radical Shiites like Muqtada al-Sadr. He did well, earning commendations for his "persistence," and in November 2009 was promoted to specialist. Not long afterward, word began to spread around the FOB that Al Qaeda was publishing "anti-Iraqi literature" at a local printing facility. With help from American troops, the Iraqi federal police raided the place and arrested a group of 15 men they claimed to be insurgents.
But almost immediately after the raid, it became clear to U.S. forces that the men were not Al Qaeda, but political opponents of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom the government wanted to silence. It was an embarrassing moment for the 10th Mountain, whose officers "simply wanted it to go away," as one government official who was there recalls. "Had we done our research, we would have realized that Maliki was a thug who was using us to do his dirty work." For some of the soldiers, particularly those who truly believed they were nation-building, it was a devastating blow. "This was their first encounter with the gap between propaganda and reality," the official adds. "We weren't promoting democracy at all. In fact, this whole democracy thing was bullshit."
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