What Kind of Man is Bradley Manning?

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Bradley-Manning_2579181bIs Bradley Manning a traitor or a whistleblower? This question has permeated the media all week, since a military judge acquitted him on Tuesday of the charge of aiding the enemy. While Manning is now free of his most serious charge, he still faces the prospect of serving up to 136 years behind bars. With the whirlwind of opposing opinions of the man dominating news cycles, it can be tough to know what to believe.

Who is Bradley Manning?

PFC Bradley Manning is a 25-year old United States Army soldier who grew up in a comfortable home in Crescent, Oklahoma with his American father and Welsh mother. He was the quintessential nerd – small in stature (as an adult, he reached only 5 feet 2 inches tall), and displayed advanced abilities in science and with computers. He won the grand prize three years in a row at the local science fair and won the statewide Quiz Bowl during the sixth grade.

According to Private: Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks, and the Biggest Exposure of Official Secrets in American History (2012), Manning always had a “mind of his own” and was openly opposed to religion – he would remain silent during the part of the Pledge of Allegiance that refers to God. He began questioning his sexual orientation when he was 13 years old, which was also around the time his parents divorced.

Manning in the Army

Given his pipsqueakedness, it seems rather interesting that Manning decided to enter the Army, but he did so nonetheless. Six weeks into basic training, he was sent to the discharge unit after he was allegedly bullied – he was picked on for his small stature, mental instability and sexual orientation. Manning often fought back, screaming back at the drill sergeants when they berated him. His fellow soldiers began calling him “General Manning.”

Ultimately, the decision to discharge him was revoked, he restarted basic training and graduated in April 2008. After moving to Arizona to train at Fort Huachuca to become an intelligence analyst, he received Top Secret security clearance. This clearance, combined with the digitalization of classified information and the government’s policy of sharing it, gave Manning access to troves of material. At one point, he was reprimanded for describing on YouTube the interior of the sensitive information facility where he worked.

Eventually, Manning found himself deployed to Forward Operating Base Hammer, near Baghdad, in October 2009. There, he had access to a SIPRNet (the Secure Internet Protocol Router Network) and JWICS (the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System). The following month, he was promoted to Specialist, and soon made his first contact with WikiLeaks. In November, as we all know, the website posted 570,000 pager messages from the 9/11 attacks.

Why did he do it?

While some claim he did it for the sake of American freedom and others say to help terrorists, the evidence seems to indicate Manning acted out of emotional distress. The Army’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy clearly was taking its toll on him – the same month he spoke to WikiLeaks, he wrote to a gender counselor that he felt female and was contemplating having a sex change (One might wonder, if this became a factor in President Obama’s decision to revoke the DADT policy). Many of his fellow soldiers, including his then-roommate, did not accept him for being gay. To top it off, he also worked more than 14 hours a day in a security room with low lighting.

To be sure, Manning was bothered by the information he was required to analyze each day. One video he came across showed the killing of unarmed civilians and two Reuters journalists by as U.S. Apache helicopter crew in Iraq, which was later released on WikiLeaks. Several other documents, such as the Afghan War Diary, the Iraq War Logs and embarrassing U.S. diplomatic cables illuminated many of the human rights abuses by U.S.-funded contractors and foreign militaries, as well as the role that spying and bribes play in international diplomacy.

Bradley Manning, a traitor?

While no one can argue the shamefulness of the documents Manning released, many claimed the U.S. would pay for the leaks in blood. Surely, the Taliban and al Qaeda would jump on the information to murder U.S. soldiers and innocent civilians?

Well, as it turns out, no.

During Manning’s hearing, Brig. Gen. Robert Carr, who was in charge of the response to the leaks, said that there were no deaths that could be attributed to the leaks. He also noted that since the names did not appear in Arabic, it was unlikely that U.S. enemies would have figured out who they really were, anyway. The general also said that some of the contacts could not be found, others had died before the WikiLeaks disclosures and others had been insurgents rather than cooperators with coalition forces.

A popular example of how the leaks resulted in innocents dying was that of an alleged murder of an Afghan man at the hands of the Taliban. In reality, the man was not even named in any of the released documents.

Bradley Manning, a hero?

There is no doubt that the government keeps certain things secret for a reason, but has it overstepped its bounds? After all, in a democracy the government is supposed to be, in theory, held accountable for its actions both at home and abroad? Even though war is hell and there is bound to be collateral damage, how can we call ourselves a free society when we let people get away with murder?

These are probably some of the questions the conflicted Manning was asking himself before he decided to talk to WikiLeaks. And he also must have known what the consequences would be for his actions.

For the first 10 months of his incarceration following his arrest, Manning was locked up in solitary confinement and denied meaningful exercise, social interaction, sunlight and on several occasions he was forced to be completely naked. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, soldiers are promised fair treatment and a speedy trial – Manning was denied this.

We will leave it to history to determine if Manning is a hero or not, but it is safe to say that he views himself as one.

A new age of intelligence

After 9/11, the American people gave the government free reign to do whatever needed to be done to prevent another attack from happening, even if this meant sacrificing liberties (like privacy). Uncle Sam wasted no time, passing the Patriot Act, invading two sovereign nations, and engaging in untold covert operations around the world.

But it seems that this Golden Age for intelligence agencies is coming to a close – as it should. While we undoubtedly need an intelligence-gathering infrastructure to prevent and counter foreign and domestic threats, do we really need 16 separate agencies with little to no public oversight to be safe?

People like Edward Snowden, the ex-NSA contractor that recently leaked details of top-secret U.S. surveillance programs brought to light the government’s spying programs, think the government has gone too far. And perhaps it has.

A large part of the blame lies in our own ambivalence. In order to hold the government accountable, we me hold the government accountable. We need civic engagement, intelligent debate and a collective will to not only ensure the survival of our democracy, but to make sure the government behaves, both publicly and privately, in a manner that adheres to our common beliefs of decency.

Otherwise, what the heck are we trying to protect?

About Mike Hower

Mike Hower is a writer, thinker, and strategic communicator most interested in the intersection of sustainable business and policy. Currently based in Washington, D.C., he is a graduate research fellow at The George Washington University, where he is pursing a masters degree in Media & Public Affairs and researching the impact of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) on sustainable development. He is hopelessly addicted to travel and has a borderline unhealthy obsession with his golden retriever, Gerico.
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