Editor’s note: This story was published in March 2013, several months before Chelsea Manning came out as transgender.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
Manning was one of the first soldiers to learn of the fiasco, having been ordered to investigate the “bad guys” after the raid. “It turned out they had printed a benign political critique titled ‘Where Did the Money Go?’ following a corruption trial within the prime minister’s cabinet,” he said. Shocked, Manning “immediately took that information and ran to the officer [in charge] to explain what was going on.” The officer told him to “shut up,” he said. “He didn’t want to hear any of it.”
Manning knew the 15 Iraqis were doomed. The Iraqi police were known to torture their prisoners, while the U.S. military looked the other way. Manning couldn’t. “That was a point where I was actively involved in something that I was completely against,” he said. “And completely helpless.” From then on, “everything started slipping. I saw things differently.”
According to the government’s charges, Manning made his first contact with WikiLeaks in November 2009, either just before or not long after the detainee incident. He would ultimately say he made direct contact with the “crazy white-haired Aussie” otherwise known as Julian Assange, though whether he spoke directly to Assange is unknown. “I’ve talked to Julian many times, but I’ve also talked to other guys too who were also ‘Julian,'” says one hacker who’s worked with WikiLeaks. “You can never be sure who is who.”
Among the first things Manning leaked was a 17-minute video, which was titled “Collateral Murder.” The video, taken in 2007, depicts Apache helicopters firing on unarmed civilians who appear to be mingling with insurgents in the street. The wounded crawl away and are shot dead. A van appears to retrieve the bodies; there are kids inside. They are shot, too. The crew banters back and forth as if they’re playing Call of Duty. “Look at those dead bastards,” one says. “Well,” remarks another, “it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.”
Manning had watched the video in the SCIF – these kinds of films played routinely and were watched by dozens of people. “At first glance, it was just a bunch of guys getting shot up by a helicopter…. . . . No big deal,” he said. “But something struck me as odd with the van thing…. And also the fact that it was being stored in a JAG officer’s directory.” So Manning dug deeper, eventually tracking down the date of the incident and the GPS coordinates, and coming up with a story from The New York Times discussing the death of two Iraqi journalists among 16 killed in a clash with “Shiite militias.” “It was unreal,” Manning said. “It humanized the whole thing. I just couldn’t let these things stay inside my head.”
“Collateral Murder” was released on April 5th, 2010, at a WikiLeaks press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Within days, it had gone viral – a graphic snapshot of 21st-century soldiering run amok – and was held up by media organizations worldwide as documentation of a war crime.
Manning, meanwhile, had the surreal experience of watching the reaction to his leak from the confines of his base. He was amazed when several of the perpetrators of the attack issued mea culpas, and he friended a few on Facebook without them having any idea who he was. But the crushing routine of the FOB, made worse by his isolation and gender-identity crisis, weighed on Manning. Between December 2009 and May 2010, the period Manning was allegedly in contact with WikiLeaks, superiors noticed a drop-off in both his performance and his mental state, culminating with an incident on May 7th, 2010, when he was found curled up on the floor of the SCIF in a fetal position, having carved the words I WANT into a chair. A few hours later, Manning punched a superior in the face. “I’m tired of this!” he said, as his target, Spc. Jihrleah Showman, pinned him to the ground.
The following day, Manning was demoted back to private first class, removed from his job as an analyst and assigned to the supply room as a clerk. Already miserable, he was now as marginalized as he’d ever been. For Manning, it seemed as if the “only safe place,” as he put it, was the Internet.
One lonely night, looking for connection and having reached out to strangers online before, he e-mailed a 29-year-old security consultant named Adrian Lamo. A once-handsome Colombian-American with a prescription-drug habit, Lamo had become famous in the early 2000s as the “homeless hacker,” a digital savant who, having dropped out of high school in San Francisco, traveled the country on a Greyhound, sleeping on friends’ couches or in abandoned buildings, downing handfuls of amphetamines and using his battered Toshiba laptop to troll through the databases of corporate behemoths like Yahoo, AOL and MCI WorldCom – after which he’d helpfully explain to the companies’ system administrators how to plug the holes he’d found.
Lamo’s career as a “security do-gooder” ended abruptly in 2002, after he, then 21, hacked The New York Times and notified the company to point out its security flaws. The Times was not amused. In 2004, after a lengthy FBI investigation, Lamo pleaded guilty to computer crimes, for which he was given a sentence of six months under house arrest.
Other hackers regarded Lamo with a mix of curiosity and distrust. “No one can really pinpoint anything particular that he’d done, at least since he’d stopped actively hacking,” says Griffin Boyce, a Web developer who knows Lamo. “He took otherwise-secret activities and was fairly open about them; that made people nervous. It’s incredibly foolish to speak to the media about doing something illegal.” Within many circles, the consensus was that Lamo, desperate for recognition, might do virtually anything for publicity.
But Bradley Manning knew none of this. All he knew was that Lamo, who was openly bisexual, had starred in a 2003 documentary, Hackers Wanted, which focused on Lamo’s travails with law enforcement; he also knew, from Lamo’s tweets, that he supported WikiLeaks. Hackers Wanted had never been released, but in May 2010 it leaked online. Shortly afterward, Lamo received a message from a stranger.
“Hi,” wrote aperson named “bradass87.” “How are you? I’m an Army intelligence analyst, deployed to eastern Baghdad, pending discharge for ‘adjustment disorder.’. . . …I’m sure you’re pretty busy . . .… [but] if you had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day, 7 days a week for 8-plus months, what would you do?”
Lamo notified the authorities, and over the course of the next several days, he surreptitiously logged their chats. Manning, believing he was speaking confidentially, let loose. He explained the WikiLeaks submission process and said he’d talked with Assange numerous times. He went into depth about lack of security at his FOB and how easy it was to steal information. “The culture bred opportunities,” he said. He referred to himself as a “mess,” and spoke of his disillusionment – “I don’t believe in good guys versus bad guys anymore only [in] a plethora of states acting in self interest.” He often seemed like he was having a nervous breakdown.
Lamo would later say that he was afraid Manning’s leaking could put American lives at risk. “Brad was detailing his last-ditch vision of an effort to save the world from itself,” Lamo says. “I was seeing my own worst-case scenario of long ago play out: the arbitrary scattering of data that was at best hopelessly subjective and at worst prone to misuse. Truth is an elusive, personal thing,” he adds. “Brad confused facts with truth. You can’t convince people of a truth they don’t want to see.”
On May 25th, Lamo met with government agents at a Starbucks near his house in Carmichael, California, and handed over the logs of his chats, providing investigators with the crux of their evidence against Manning. Two days later, a week after initiating contact with Lamo, Manning was stopped by Army CID agents while at work in the supply room at FOB Hammer, escorted into a conference room and handed a piece of paper explaining his legal rights. After a brief hearing before an Army magistrate in Baghdad, he was remanded into the custody of the United States military, pending trial. The agony of Manning’s Army career was at an end. But the real torture was yet to come.
On July 25th, 2010, two months after he was arrested, the extent of Manning’s ambitions to expose the dark side of American wartime conduct became apparent when WikiLeaks published the “Afghan War Diary.” Manning described the six-year archive of secret military communiqués as “one of the most significant documents of our time, removing the fog of war and revealing the true nature of 21st-century asymmetric warfare.” The New York Times broke the story the following day in a front-page article depicting the logs as presenting a bleak portrait of the Afghan war, “in many respects more grim than the official portrayal.” Five days later, Manning was removed from his cage at Camp Arifjan and put on a commercial charter bound for the United States. Now the highest-value U.S. military detainee in recent history, he was incarcerated at the Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Virginia, where he would pay for his sins.
For decades, soldiers awaiting court-martial had been detained in Quantico brig, a low-slung brick building situated among the elms on one of the country’s most illustrious Marine outposts. The Baltimore Sun once referred to it as “the world’s most well-behaved prison.” But its resources had been halved by recent downsizing, leaving it unable to adequately support long-term detainees, let alone someone of Manning’s stature. There were no permanent mental-health counselors or treatment programs: Those in need of psychiatric care were left to see the base psychiatrist, whose duties spread across a 58,000-acre campus.
Manning’s incarceration came in the wake of years of scandal over military-detention policy. Nearly 200 detainees have died in U.S. military custody during the War on Terror, among them, seven alleged “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay and two other mysterious deaths at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan that were later proved to be murders. Though harsh interrogation practices stopped under Obama, curbing suicide – be it of foreign detainees or of U.S. service members – was now one of the military’s top priorities.
Making sure that nothing happened to Bradley Manning would become a fixation for Quantico officials, notably Lt. Gen. George J. Flynn, who commanded all operations on the base from his office at the Pentagon. In the spring of 2010, a Navy captain named Michael Webb had killed himself while detained at the brig. Flynn urged his staff to make sure this didn’t happen again. “It would be good if you impressed upon all who come in contact with Pvt. Manning the absolute necessity of keeping a close watch on him,” he wrote to base officials. “His life has completely fallen apart, which makes him a strong candidate (from my perspective) to take his life.”
It was into this hypervigilant environment that Manning arrived on the warm night of July 29th, 2010, exhausted, having traveled nearly 24 hours from Kuwait via Manheim, Germany. Fearing he’d be sent to Guantánamo, he was initially “elated,” he said, to be in the United States, in a “brick-and-mortar building with air conditioning, hard floors and running water.” This changed when Manning was taken into a darkened room, where several Marines began a verbal onslaught he called a “shark attack.”
“Face the bulkhead!” Manning had no idea what a bulkhead was. Marine terms were different from Army terms, as was also true with rank. A private first class, Manning was now a lance corporal to the Marines. To not know these distinctions was cause for “correction,” which meant more attacks. After this harsh indoctrination, Manning could barely think. “Basically, everything I did was wrong,” he said.
One of the questions Manning was asked was whether he wanted to commit suicide. It was a fair question: Manning had been put on suicide watch in Kuwait, after making two nooses in his cell. But after talking to a psychiatrist, who put him on anti-anxiety medication, he’d stabilized. Now he felt fine, he told the guards, who didn’t seem to believe him. They pressed him about what happened in Kuwait again and again: If you’re fine, then why were you on suicide watch?
Finally, after repeatedly trying to answer the questions to their satisfaction, Manning picked up a pen and, with the Marines standing over him demanding he answer conclusively whether he was suicidal, wrote the phrase: “Always planning, never acting.” It was sarcastic, he later explained, and maybe a little clueless. It would also define his fate.
The military does not use the term solitary confinement, preferring “administrative segregation” to describe the form of isolation that Manning, because he was deemed a suicide risk, endured. At Quantico, he was installed in a six-by-eight cell with no window or natural light and spent no less than 23 hours per day in an area the size of an exceedingly small closet. Although regulations state that any discipline administered must be “on a corrective rather than a punitive basis,” he spent his waking hours, from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m., forced to sit on the edge of his bed, back straight, in what, after many hours, could be seen as a stress position. He was not allowed to lie down or lean his back against the wall. His glasses, without which he couldn’t see, were taken away, leaving him to spend the first few days in a fuzzy oblivion. The brig ultimately returned his glasses, but they were his only accessory: Manning was not allowed toiletries or any other possessions; even pen and paper were only given to him one hour per day to write letters. Though he could read, he was allowed only one book or magazine at a time – but never a newspaper – and if he put the book down to rest his eyes, or was spotted not “actively reading,” it was taken away.
There were several guards charged with what they called “Manning Watch” and whose instructions were to check on Manning every five minutes, 24 hours a day. Constant observation and frequent interruption were well-worn tactics widely used on detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as at Guantánamo. “It’s sleep deprivation, basically,” says Brandon Neely, a former Army MP who was posted at Guantánamo. It was also broadly acknowledged, and condemned, by human rights monitors, as a form of punishment.
At Quantico, these abuses were considered part of “suicide prevention.” To ensure he didn’t harm himself, Manning had neither sheets, nor a pillow, and had to relinquish his clothes at night. He was required to sleep on his back, with his head facing the observation booth, directly in the path of a florescent light – if he rolled over, or tried to sleep on his side, a guard would correct him. His arms had to remain above the tear-proof “suicide blanket” he was given, which felt like sandpaper. If his arms inadvertently crept under his blanket when he was asleep, the guards would wake him. Once, trying to untangle himself, he got stuck in the oversize-yet-unwieldy suicide smock and needed assistance to get out of it.
For the first five months of his confinement at Quantico, Manning was allowed just 20 minutes a day of “sunshine call,” during which he was taken from his cell in full restraints and led either to an exercise yard or a small rec room. There, held up by guards to prevent Manning, who weighs just 105 pounds, from toppling over, he’d walk, very slowly, in a figure-eight pattern. When he was done, he’d be returned to his cell to sit in isolation, for there were never any inmates housed nearby – ostensibly out of concern, one brig official later testified, for other detainees’ sense of patriotism.
Soon after arriving at Quantico, Manning began meeting with Dr. William Hocter, the base psychiatrist, who recommended he be taken off suicide watch after a week. Navy regulations specifically state that once a psychiatrist deems a prisoner to no longer be at risk, he or she shall be removed from suicide watch. At Quantico, however, the officer in charge of the brig, Chief Warrant Officer James Averhart, chose to ignore this directive, later explaining that, in his view, the word “shall” did not mean “right now,” but rather “when I’m satisfied.” Averhart waited nearly a week to abide by Hocter’s recommendation. That August, he took Manning off suicide watch and placed him in “prevention of injury” watch, a status that may be arbitrarily imposed by brig officials without a psychiatrist’s agreement. Despite his psychiatrist’s continued recommendation that he be taken off, Manning remained on POI for the next nine months.
Manning’s downgrading to a POI – or suicide-risk-lite status – gave him a few more privileges. Now, instead of a suicide smock, he had shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops to wear during the day (though he still had to relinquish all but his underwear at night). Otherwise, his treatment was much the same: Meals were in his cell, on a plastic tray, with a metal spoon. Exercise in his cell, even sit-ups or push-ups, was forbidden, in the fear that he would injure himself. When he showered, a guard stood outside “with a line of sight on me,” he said. When using the toilet, in full view of the guards, he had to request his toilet paper in formal Marine fashion: “Lance Corporal Bradley Manning requests toilet paper!”
Hocter was appalled. In his 20-year career treating patients at military and civilian prisons, including Guantánamo, the Navy captain had never seen any detainee held with such unremitting security as Manning, nor had his recommendations ever been so consistently disregarded. “It wasn’t good for Manning, and it just wasn’t clinically appropriate,” he testified. “If they had a specific reason [why] he had to be watched that closely, it wasn’t known to me, and it wasn’t psychiatric.”
Hocter sought a second opinion in Dr. Ricky Malone, a prominent forensic psychiatrist from Walter Reed, who concurred with his conclusions. “I didn’t think Manning needed suicide precautions…. . . . I saw no reason for safety precautions,” he later said. In fact, he added, “If I was treating him in my clinic, I’d only be seeing him one or two times a month.” Brig officials thanked the psychiatrists for their “input” and did no more.
If Manning had been a tough fit for the Army, the Marines regarded him as if he were from another planet. Half the size of most MPs, with thick, military-issue glasses that almost swallowed his face, he was an utterly unfathomable nerd who pored over Scientific American and kept a stack of books in an adjacent cell, among them George W. Bush’s memoir, Decision Points, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War and two works by Emmanuel Kant. He rarely spoke, but when he did, he launched into soliloquies about evolution and man’s use of the brain. He made faces in the mirror. He plucked his eyebrows with his glasses. He played peekaboo. Sometimes, he’d wage what looked like imaginary sword fights with imaginary characters or lift imaginary weights. Sitting on his bed, cross-legged, he’d contort his legs into what the guards seemed to think were uncomfortable, even dangerous, positions that were actually yoga poses. At other times, he danced around his cell as if he were at a rave. Once, to the guards’ horror, he even licked the bars of his cell door.
“Dancing is not technically exercise as far as they were concerned,” Manning said in court. “Since it wasn’t unauthorized, I figured I could do it.” His imaginary weight lifting was, he explained, resistance training. Sword fighting was an escape. “I tried to do anything to stay awake,” he said. Making faces in the mirror was a regular part of his day. “It was sheer, complete, out-of-my-mind boredom. The most entertaining thing in there was the mirror,” he said. “At least you can interact with yourself.”
But the MPs, notably Manning’s official minder, Master Sgt. Craig Blenis, didn’t get that. Manning was too quiet – a sign to Blenis that he might be plotting something. Then there was the issue of his gender. Blenis had intercepted a letter Manning had written in which he’d signed his name “Breanna Elizabeth.” That, in Blenis’ view, was clearly “not normal.”
Stuck in this Kafka-esque labyrinth of psychiatrists who said Manning wasn’t suicidal, MPs who insisted he was, and commanders whose only interest, as one senior base official, Col. Robert Oltman, admitted during a heated argument with Hocter, was that Manning not die “on my watch,” Manning appealed directly to the classification-and-assessment board to reconsider his status. He was given a hearing, during which Manning’s intake statement, “always planning, never acting,” was the focal point. Manning tried to explain that he’d felt pressured by the Marines who were standing over him at the time.
“So you just lied?” The guards were incredulous. Manning stammered that he didn’t know if it was a false statement. “I was told to put something down, and I put something down without thinking about it.”
“If we can’t trust you [were] telling the truth at that time, how can we trust that you are telling the truth now?” one Marine said. “How can we believe what you say, ever?”
By the extreme standards set by the War on Terror, Bradley Manning was not technically “tortured.” His treatment – isolation, suicide watch, minimal exercise – was arguably, and unfortunately, not much different from what many prisoners endure throughout the American penal system, including those in pretrial detention. One editorial in the New York Daily News made note of this fact – “Hardly waterboarding,” the paper said. “Hardly electrodes on the genitals. Hardly beatings. Hardly burns.”
The real measure of torture, however, is far more nuanced. Manning was, if not officially, then effectively, in solitary confinement, which is perhaps the most devastating form of torture: designed to break the spirit and punish. By the winter of his incarceration, the lack of sunlight and clothing and ability to lie down or lean back like a normal human being – not to mention the daily humiliation of having to ask permission, in a sense, to publicly go to the bathroom – had taken its toll. His world was his cell. Gradually, Manning began to feel as if he were mentally slipping backward into “that lonely, dark, black hole of a place” he’d been at in Kuwait.
Seven months into his isolation, Manning told Master Sgt. Brian Papakie, the second in command of the brig, “I don’t understand. I’m not doing anything to harm myself.” And yet his appeals had gone nowhere. He ran down a list of ways he could hurt himself if he really wanted to: throwing himself against the wall, drowning his head in the toilet, jumping up and down until he had a heart attack. He’d done none of these. “If I really wanted to hurt myself, I could use my underwear or flip-flops.”
To Manning, the comment was a moment of frustrated sarcasm. But to the Marines who ran the brig, it was a threat. That night, Manning was told to give up his underwear and flip-flops, as well as the rest of his clothes. He spent the night under his suicide blanket, naked.
Manning woke before reveille to find that his clothes, which were usually delivered to him on his feed tray, weren’t there. He usually stood for the morning count in his boxers and shower shoes, a blanket wrapped around him. This morning, as even his underwear was missing, he’d have to stand without any clothes at all. He grabbed his blanket and attempted to put it in front of his genitals. “Is that how you stand at parade rest, Detainee Manning?” a guard barked at him.
Manning dropped the blanket and for the next three minutes stood stark naked, feet shoulder-width apart, hands clasped behind his back, facing the entrance to his cell. As the duty brig supervisor made his rounds, Manning snapped to attention. The supervisor stopped, looked at him and moved on. Several minutes later, Manning was given back his prison uniform.
Manning was forced to relinquish his clothes for the next three nights. On March 4th, 2011, news of Manning’s forced nudity had been leaked to The New York Times. When the piece reached the desk of Lt. Gen. Flynn, he felt blindsided. “It would be good to have the leadership have a heads-up on these things before they are read!” he furiously e-mailed Quantico’s commander irate. However, Flynn didn’t ask that Manning be given back his clothes. None of the senior brass, in fact, seemed concerned with Manning’s treatment. From the MPs guarding the brig to officials at the Pentagon, the attitude was, as one former general notes, one of “callous indifference.”
This, in many minds, underscores the dangers of officially sanctioned enhanced interrogation techniques. “In my view, the participation of the military in these confinement and interrogation procedures has had a very corrosive effect over time,” says Dr. Stephen Xenakis, a retired Army brigadier general and psychiatrist who is a strong opponent of torture and other harsh interrogation practices. “I’m seeing these kinds of gratuitous and directionless, malicious acts and attitudes for no particular purpose. It shocks me.”
The former chief prosecutor of the Guantánamo military commissions, retired Air Force Col. Morris Davis, agrees: “This whole ‘gloves off, you’re either with us or with the terrorists’ attitude that percolated down from the president to the privates on the front lines undermined the foundations of our military.” The question today is whether these practices, which Davis notes, “legitimized the unacceptable as the new normal,” created a mentality that filtered down to affect other military detention procedures. “It becomes much easier to conduct or condone abusive treatment when you’ve spent years in an environment where everyone is either an ‘us’ or a ‘them,'” Davis says, “and where ‘by any means necessary’ is the baseline.”
The U.N.’s special rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, would ultimately conclude that the U.S. government was guilty of “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” toward Bradley Manning. A similar conclusion was drawn by some 250 prominent lawyers, law professors and legal scholars, including Obama’s longtime mentor and former adviser, Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe, who in April 2011 signed a letter published in The New York Review of Books denouncing Manning’s treatment as “illegal and immoral,” violating the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, and the Fifth Amendment’s ban against pretrial punishment. They also offered a stinging reproach to President Obama, who, they noted, “was once a professor of constitutional law and entered the national stage as an eloquent, moral leader. The question now, however, is whether his conduct as commander in chief meets fundamental standards of decency.”
On April 20th, 2011, after months of public pressure and negative press, Bradley Manning was transferred to the Joint Regional Correctional Facility at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where, after an extensive interview with the base’s mental-health counselors, he was placed in medium custody. After nearly a year of isolation, he would serve out the rest of his pretrial detention with inmates to talk to, housed in an 80-square-foot cell, with a large window providing natural light, a bed and a toilet. He was given a mattress, sheets and a pillow. He could write letters whenever he wanted and was given back all of his personal effects: books, clothing, letters, legal materials, pens, paper, toiletry items – including soap, toilet paper and a razor – and his clothes. In December, during her testimony at his pretrial detention hearing, the commander of the Joint Regional Correctional Facility, Lt. Col. Dawn Hilton, stated that since he arrived at Leavenworth, Manning has exhibited no significant mental-health or behavioral issues. She described him as a “typical” detainee.
Manning’s pretrial detention hearing last December went on for nearly three weeks. On January 8th, 2013, Col. Denise Lind, the military judge who is hearing Manning’s case at Fort Meade, ruled that a portion of his treatment at Quantico was “excessive” and did amount to illegal pretrial punishment. Lind gave Manning less than four months off his eventual sentence, but she did not throw out the case as his lawyers had requested. This ruling, though offering a small victory for the defense, served to uphold the government’s central argument that whatever Manning may have endured at Quantico was justified in service to the far more important goal of keeping him alive so he could stand trial.
On June 3rd of this year, Manning is scheduled to return to Col. Lind’s courtroom, where, after repeated delays, he will finally begin court-martial proceedings. Now 25 years old, he will by then have been in detention for more than 1,000 days – long enough, his attorney has argued, for the Empire State Building, which took only 410 days to construct, to be built, torn down and built again. Manning’s defense believes that the sheer amount of time he has been in detention violates the speedy-trial rule, an argument that, so far, has gone nowhere. Nor has the defense’s insistence that Manning’s idealistic intent – not to mention the fact that he had held back truly “sensitive documents,” leaking only those he felt would do no harm – be taken into consideration when considering his guilt. The even broader question of whether the documents he leaked should ever have been “classified” at all, a conversation Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense, told me is vital for the country to have, will also not be discussed at trial.
Last November, Manning offered to plead guilty to a subset of the charges, effectively accepting responsibility for being the source of the WikiLeaks documents, though not conceding he aided the enemy. Judge Lind has impressed upon the government its burden to prove that Manning knew, conclusively, that he was aiding Al Qaeda when he leaked the documents. Without this proof, which many legal experts say may be tough to establish, the aiding-the-enemy charge will likely fall apart.
The other charges against Manning, however, will likely stand. The government’s case is built on some 300,000 pages of forensic evidence: a gigantic trove that prosecutors say details, down to the minute, Manning’s activities. The chat logs between Manning and the entity believed to be Julian Assange – in which the two discuss the procedures for uploading classified materials to WikiLeaks – may be particularly damning in what many believe is a Justice Department campaign to indict Assange for espionage.
Later this year, the American government’s long campaign against Bradley Manning will conclude with a probable judgment that will send him to prison for decades, if not for the rest of his life. Like all the hearings before it, his trial will take place under a thick cloak of secrecy, monitored by military censors, with no public access to court documents, and covered by a sparse and largely independent media. The larger news outlets, like much of the American public, have long moved on from the WikiLeaks saga – just as they lost interest in the war whose abuses Manning exposed. On December 18th, 2011, the last 500 U.S. troops quietly left Iraq, ending an almost nine-year military engagement.
But for Manning, the war, and its consequences, must live on. “We’re human… and we’re killing ourselves… and no one seems to see that,” Manning wrote Lamo in one of their online chats. “It bothers me.” He then referenced author Elie Wiesel, whose belief that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference hit home. “Apathy is far worse than the active participation,” said Manning. “I prefer a painful truth to any blissful fantasy.”
This story is from the March 14th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.