After a blizzard blanketed the mid-Atlantic in early 2010, a 22-year-old soldier home on leave in Potomac, Maryland, braved the storm in hopes of locating an internet connection that, unlike the one at his aunt’s house where he was staying, hadn’t been severed by nearly two feet of snow.
When Private first class Bradley Manning made it to a Barnes & Noble book store outside of Washington, D.C, he unpacked his laptop, logged on to the complimentary Starbucks Wi-Fi, and searched for some files he had burned onto a disc back in Kuwait before Christmas. It was in that shop, surrounded by comic books and minimum-wage-earning baristas, that the slight and bespectacled soldier uploaded classified and unclassified military files to the website WikiLeaks, an action that remains the target of both a CIA probe and a grand jury investigation three years later – and that yesterday landed Manning in court in Fort Meade, Maryland, where he pleaded guilty to ten criminal charges and will now likely serve 20 years in prison. "I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information,” Manning said yesterday in court, “this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general.”
The government’s case – and public opinion about the young soldier’s act – has hinged on the assertion that Manning’s leak put the United States in danger by making sensitive military information public. The files leaked by Manning include the now infamous "collateral murder" video of an Apache helicopter attack in Iraq, in which US soldiers mistake a group of journalists and civilians for insurgents and kill them; US diplomatic cables about the collapse of three major financial institutions in Iceland; files on detainees in Guantanamo; and portions of Iraq and Afghanistan war logs. “They capture what happens [on] a particular day in time,” Manning said about the war logs.
Manning was captured by American officials in May 2010 – after he’d gone back to Kuwait to continue his service in an intelligence centre – when the ex-hacker turned goody-two-shoes Adrian Lamo, who had been in communication about the files with Manning via email, tipped off the FBI. Manning was then accused of an onslaught of charges related to allegations that he supplied material to WikiLeaks. Since then, Pfc. Manning has been imprisoned without trial for over 1,000 days. Only during Thursday’s testimony, though, did he own up to those crimes and explain to the world, in his own words, why he willingly released materials that have changed history – if not in the way Manning had originally intended.
When he finally finished reading the 35-page statement prepared for the court Thursday afternoon, a handful of supporters and members of the press seated before a closed-circuit stream of the testimony across the Army base erupted in applause. The only other time they ever heard the soldier speak at length was this December when he testified to the conditions he endured while jailed in a military brig after first being detained. His treatment there was so egregious that the presiding judge, Col. Denise Lind, agreed to take four months off of any eventual sentence handed down.
Even though Pfc. Manning stands to face upwards of 20 years in prison for charges of leaking classified information, he still faces the possibility of far more serious penalties, including espionage, and after his case is formally court-martialed beginning in June, he could be sent away for life. Because he gave classified information to WikiLeaks and, thus, the world, the government says he sent that intelligence into the ether and helped aid anti-American terrorists. The government could legally execute the soldier, now 25, if they convict him on that charge.
When Pfc. Manning finished high school, he entered the armed forces with the “hope of obtaining both real world experience” and, ideally, for help with college tuition, he said during his testimony. Once overseas, though, he said he learned something he couldn’t believe.
"I began to become depressed with the situation we became increasingly mired in,” Manning said yesterday. “We,” referring to the military, “became obsessed with capturing and killing human targets” to the exclusion of other concerns.
This was evident, said Manning, in the “collateral damage” video that he has long been accused of submitting to WikiLeaks but only finally admitted to on Thursday. The private said that only days after uploading the Iraq and Afghan war logs, he learned of an incident from three years earlier in which US servicemen onboard an Apache helicopter in Iraq opened fire on civilians, killing two journalists from Reuters in the process. Through his own research, Pfc. Manning learned that Reuters asked for the US government to give them footage filed from the chopper, but 12 months later, their attempts had failed.
“Reuters had requested a copy of the video under the Freedom of Information Act,” Manning said, because they “wanted to view the video in order to be able to understand what had happened”.
“I [also] wanted to learn what happened,” he added to the court, and the fact that no one would voluntarily release the video troubled him further. He thought the world – especially Reuters – deserved to know the truth. “It was clear to me the event happened because the aerial weapons team misidentified the Reuters team as a potential threat,” he said. But they were “not a threat, but good Samaritans”.
On February 21, 2010, Pfc. Manning uploaded the video and some related documents to WikiLeaks from his base in Iraq. It was neither the first nor the second time he had shared sensitive material with the site, but was one of a handful of moments during early 2010 where he supplied the whistleblower organisation with files.
“I hoped the public would be as alarmed as me about the conduct of the aerial weapons members,” he testified. The video, he said, showed the world what war really is, something he believed few others were capable of doing: It showed “people struggling to live in the pressure cooker environment of what we call asymmetrical warfare”.
Searching databases for files, Manning explained how he also found State Department memos in March of that year that he said explained what was really going on. The cables “documented backdoor deals and seemingly criminal activity” that he never thought the country he swore to protect would engage in.
But if Manning wanted to inspire debate and reflection amid US government officials, the opposite has happened. Manning may have become a hero to some yesterday by admitting his crimes and explaining his actions, but he’s also become a martyr in what appears to be an increasingly intense war waged by the US government against free-information advocates. Manning’s saga has spawned a hunt in the US against those who share secrets, and in the four years of Barack Obama’s presidency, more Americans than ever before have been charged under the Espionage Act or similar statutes for leaking intelligence. Pfc. Manning is the first to become well-known for his trials, but he won’t be the last.
“I thought these cables were the perfect example of a need for more open state diplomacy,” he said on Thursday, before the day in court ended, and he was sent back to his cell. “I believed the public release of these cables would not damage the US. However, I did agree that the cables might be embarrassing.”