WikiLeaks: From Wales to a US jail, via Iraq, the story of Bradley Manning

·   David Leigh and Luke Harding,     

Activists from CodePink, a US anti-war group, demonstrate in support of Bradley Manning outside the FBI headquarters in Washington last month. Manning is being held at a military base in Virginia, 30 miles from the capital Photograph: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

After the punishing heat of summer, Iraq in November is pleasantly warm. But for the men and women stationed in 2009 at Camp Hammer, in the middle of the Mada'in Qada desert, the air was forever thick with dust and dirt kicked up by convoys of lorries that supplied the capital – a constant reminder that they were very far from home.

One of those was Specialist Bradley Manning, who had been sent to Iraq with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division a few weeks earlier. About to turn 22, he was the antithesis of the battle-hardened US soldier beloved of Hollywood. Blue-eyed, blond-haired, with a round face and boyish smile, he stood just 5ft 2in tall (1.57m) and weighed 105 pounds (48kg).

But he hadn't been sent to Iraq because of his bulk. He was there for his gift at manipulating computers. In the role of intelligence analyst Manning found himself spending long days in the base's computer room poring over top-secret information. For such a young and relatively inexperienced soldier, it was extremely sensitive work. Yet from his first day at Hammer he was puzzled by the lax security. The door was bolted with a five-digit cipher lock, but all you had to do was knock on it and you'd be let in. His fellow intelligence workers seemed to have grown bored and disenchanted from the relentless grind of 14-hour days, seven days a week. They just sat at their workstations, watching music videos or footage of car chases. "People stopped caring after three weeks," Manning observed. It was a culture, as he later described it, that "fed opportunities".

For Manning, those opportunities are alleged to have presented themselves in the form of two dedicated military laptops which he was given, each with privileged access to US state secrets. The first laptop was connected to the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet), used by the department of defence and the state department to securely share information. The second gave him entry to the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS), which acts as a global funnel for top-secret dispatches.

That such a low-level serviceman could have had apparently unrestricted access to this vast source of confidential material should surely have raised eyebrows. That he could do so with virtually no supervision or safeguards inside the base was all the more astounding. Manning was about to embark on a journey that, it was subsequently claimed, would lead to the largest leak of military and diplomatic secrets in US history.


Born on 17 December 1987, Bradley Manning spent the first 13 years of his life in Crescent, a small town in the middle of a rural breadbasket, just north of Oklahoma City. Manning benefited from its small-town intimacy, but also suffered from the narrow-mindedness that went with it.

He lived outside town in a two-storey house with his American father, Brian, his Welsh mother, Susan, and his elder sister, Casey. His parents had met when Brian was serving in the US navy and stationed at the Cawdor Barracks in south-west Wales.

From his father, who spent five years in the navy working on computer systems, Bradley inherited two important qualities: a fascination for the latest technology, and a fervent patriotism. His father was by all accounts a strict parent. Neighbours reported that Brian's severity contributed to Bradley growing introverted and withdrawn. Such introversion deepened with puberty and Bradley's dawning realisation that he was gay. Aged 13, he confided his sexuality to a couple of his closest friends at Crescent school.

The entry to teenage years was a tumultuous time. In 2001, just as Manning was beginning to come to grips with his homosexuality, his father returned home one day and announced he was leaving his mother and the family home. Within months, Manning's life in Crescent had been uprooted, his friendships torn asunder, and his life transplanted 4,000 miles to Haverfordwest in south-west Wales, where his mother decided to return following the bitter break-up.

In Wales Manning had to acclimatise to his new secondary school, Tasker Milward, which, with about 1,200 pupils, was the size of his old home town. Perhaps as a means of reviving his self-esteem, he grew increasingly passionate about computers and geekery. He spent every lunchtime at the school computer club, where he built his own website.

"He was always doing something, always going somewhere, always with an action plan," says one former classmate, Tom Dyer. Manning would "come across as a little bit quirky and hyperactive". Dyer also notes that by the age of 15 Manning had begun to formulate a clear political outlook. When the invasion of Iraq happened in March 2003 they would have long conversations about it. "He would speak out and say it was all about oil and that George Bush had no right going in there." That political sensibility developed further when, at the age of 17 and having left school, he was packed off back to Oklahoma to live with his father.

Soon after his return, Brian Manning threw his son out of the house, having discovered he was homosexual. Homeless, jobless, Bradley rambled around for a few months, moving from place to place, odd job to odd job. After a few months of aimlessness the solution came to him: Bradley Manning would follow in his father's footsteps and volunteer for the US military. He enlisted in October 2007, and was put through specialist training for military intelligence work at Fort Huachuca in Arizona. Upon graduation in August 2008 he was posted to Fort Drum in upstate New York, awaiting dispatch to Iraq, armed with the security clearance that would give him access to those two top-secret databases.

His experience of life in uniform was at times disillusioning. On top of feeling like a menial, there was Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the unhappy compromise thrashed out by the Clinton administration in 1993 that allowed gay personnel to serve in the military but only if they remained in the closet. Though Manning must have been aware of the restrictions when he enlisted, he quickly became infuriated and distressed by the policy. The motto he attached to his Facebook profile said it all: "Take me for who I am, or face the consequences."


In the seven months Manning spent at the Contingency Operating Station Hammer in Iraq, there was one seminal moment that appears to have ignited Manning's anger. A dispute had arisen concerning 15 Iraqi detainees held by the national Iraqi police force on the grounds that they had been printing "anti-Iraqi literature".

The police were refusing to work with the US forces over the matter, and Manning's job was to investigate and find out who the "bad guys" were. He got hold of the leaflet that the detained men were distributing and had it translated into English. He was astonished to find that it was in fact a scholarly critique against the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, that tracked the corruption rife within his cabinet.

"I immediately took that information and ran to the officer to explain what was going on," Manning later explained. "He didn't want to hear any of it … he told me to shut up and explain how we could assist the [Iraqi] police in finding MORE detainees." Thereafter, "everything started slipping … I saw things differently." According to what he said later, slowly, surely, Manning began edging his way towards a position that many have denounced as traitorous and abhorrent, and others have praised as courageous and heroic. He was starting to think about mining the secret databases to which he had access, and dumping them spectacularly into the public domain.

As he contemplated what route to use, his eye was caught, he says, by an exercise run by WikiLeaks on Thanksgiving 2009, about a month into his tour of duty in Iraq. Over a 24-hour period, WikiLeaks published a stream of more than 500,000 pager messages that had been intercepted on the day of the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington in the order in which they had been sent. It provided an extraordinary picture of an extraordinary day. Manning was even more impressed, because with his specialist knowledge he knew that WikiLeaks must have somehow obtained the messages anonymously from a National Security Agency database. And that, he said, made him feel comfortable that he, too, could come forward to WikiLeaks without fear of being identified.


On 21 May Manning started sending messages to Adrian Lamo, a notorious American hacker who himself had been sentenced to two years' probation for having hacked into computers in a range of enterprises including the New York Times. Manning made contact with him the day a piece appeared in Wired magazine sympathetically quoting Lamo on his own recent diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome, his depressions, and his experience of psychiatric hospitalisation.

According to Lamo's version, published in Wired, in that first chat Manning, who was using the pseudonym Bradass87, volunteered enough information to be easily traced. (The logs have been further edited here, for clarity.)

"I'm an army intelligence analyst, deployed to eastern Baghdad, pending discharge for 'adjustment disorder'," Manning began. "I'm sure you're pretty busy. If you had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day, seven days a week for eight-plus months, what would you do?"

The next day he started to blurt out confessions. "Hypothetical question: if you had free rein over classified networks for long periods of time, say, eight to nine months, and you saw incredible things, awful things, things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC, what would you do? Things that would have an impact on 6.7 billion people, say, a database of half a million events during the Iraq war from 2004 to 2009 … or 260,000 state department cables from embassies and consulates all over the world, explaining how the first world exploits the third, in detail, from an internal perspective?"

Lamo prompted him: "How so?"

"Let's just say 'someone' I know intimately well has been penetrating US classified networks, mining data like the ones described, and been transferring that data from the classified networks over the 'air gap' onto a commercial network computer: sorting the data, compressing it, encrypting it, and uploading it to a crazy white-haired Aussie who can't seem to stay in one country very long."

He went on: "Crazy white-haired dude = Julian Assange. In other words, I've made a huge mess … Hillary Clinton and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format, to the public … it's beautiful, and horrifying, and it's important that it gets out. I feel for some bizarre reason it might actually change something."

Two days later, Lamo took the initiative in contacting Manning again. He did not tell the young soldier that he had already turned him in to the US military. Lamo subsequently said he thought it was his patriotic duty: "I wouldn't have done this, if lives weren't in danger. He was in a war zone, and basically trying to vacuum up as much classified information as he could, and just throwing it up into the air."

Lamo asked Manning how he managed to move the data across from the private server. "Funny thing is, we transferred so much data on unmarked CDs. Everyone did … videos, movies, music, all out in the open … I would come in with music on a CD-RW labelled with something like 'Lady Gaga', erase the music, then write a compressed split file. No one suspected a thing … listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga's Telephone while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history … weak servers, weak logging, weak physical security, weak counter-intelligence, inattentive signal analysis – a perfect storm. <sigh> Sounds pretty bad huh? … well, it SHOULD be better! It's sad. I mean what if I were someone more malicious? I could've sold to Russia or China, and made bank!"

Right after Lamo denounced him, Manning was arrested, and flown out of Iraq to a military jail at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. A few weeks later he was charged with "transferring classified data on to his personal computer and adding unauthorised software to a classified computer system in connection with the leaking of a video of a helicopter attack in Iraq in 2007", and "communicating, transmitting and delivering national defence information to an unauthorised source and disclosing classified information concerning the national defence with reason to believe that the information could cause injury to the United States." Later, he was flown back to the US and has been imprisoned since at the Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia. Although he has not been tried or convicted, he is being made to suffer under harsh conditions. He spends 23 hours a day alone in a 6ft by 12 ft cell, with one hour's exercise in which he walks figures-of-eight in an empty room. According to his lawyer, Manning is not allowed to sleep after being wakened at 5am. He is allowed books, and late in 2010 asked to be sent Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.

Manning's friends say he is being subject to near-torture in an effort to break him and have him implicate Assange in a conspiracy charge. David House, one of only two people allowed to visit Manning, says he has witnessed the soldier's deterioration, both mental and physical, over the months of incarceration. "Each time I go, there seems to have been a remarkable decline … he has huge bags under his eyes and his muscles have turned to fat. The US army says it prods him every five minutes for Manning's own welfare. Because he is potentially suicidal, they say he has been placed under a prevention of injury order.

Manning may well be recalling what he told his interlocutor in the chat logs: "We're much more subtle, use a lot more words and legal techniques to legitimise everything. It's better than disappearing in the middle of the night, but just because something is more subtle, doesn't make it right."

Hacker culture

It was through his first serious boyfriend that Manning became introduced to the world of Boston hackers. The boyfriend in question was Tyler Watkins, a self-styled classical musician, singer and drag queen. They met in the autumn of 2008 while Manning was still stationed at Fort Drum. Watkins was a student of neuroscience and psychology at Brandeis University outside Boston. Manning would regularly make the 300-mile journey from Fort Drum to see him, and in so doing became acquainted with Watkins' wide network of friends from Brandeis, Boston University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the birthplace of computer geekery that has been described as the "Mesopotamia of hacker culture". For Manning, it was an introduction to a new way of thinking.

Typical of the new attitudes he was exploring was the "hackerspace" attached to Boston University that he visited in January 2010 while he was on leave back in the US and visiting Watkins. Known as Builds, it is a 21st-century techy version of a 1960s artists' collective. It is part-computer workshop, part-electronics laboratory, part-DIY clinic. What unites these activities is the hacker culture to which everyone subscribes. For Manning, it was an entrιe into a way of thinking that was worlds apart from the small-town conservatism of Crescent or the buttoned-down rigidity of Fort Drum.