In the summer of 2009, Bradley Manning’s unit, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, was preparing to deploy to Iraq. Brad returned to D.C. for the Fourth of July, and on July 7 he departed for Fort Polk, the sprawling army post in the middle of Louisiana, where his unit spent several weeks at the Joint Readiness Training Center. JRTC was the army’s pre-deployment clearinghouse, at which soldiers were running realistic-as-possible simulations of life in the field in Iraq. Once back from “the swamps,” as Brad called his time at JRTC, he described the experience to Danny Clark, a new friend he’d made through his boyfriend, Tyler.
“I think I’ve just realized the outrageousness of the situation I am in,” he said.
“More so than it has been before?” Danny asked.
“I’m living under DADT [Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell], making huge progress in my intel job, but I have a micromanaging bulldyke as my first-line supervisor who absolutely loves the army, but has no intel talent whatsoever.” Brad’s attitude was again clashing with military culture.
“She’s trying to push all this ‘hooah, hooah’ army, ‘Everyone is a soldier and needs to do this, this, and this’ on me, while I’m questioning the policies of the military. And because of my emotional situation I was strongly recommended to see the chaplain,” Brad said. “Yet he’s not at all very religious, knew exactly what secular humanism was, and we talked about my situation, and how it ties in with humanist-atheist philosophy.
“Pretty boy (me), questioning military because oppressed by bulldyke, went to see religious person who talked about the whole thing from a reason-philosophy standpoint. Is that not absolutely hiliarious xD”
“That’s pretty good,” Danny said. “The swamp-training was hard on you? Last time we talked you seemed to be doing pretty well emotionally.”
“No, it went amazingly well for me. I accomplished much. But she’s destroying everything intel-wise for some ‘soldiery’ crap, destroying the pre-deployment intel process.” Brad seemed genuinely, if presumptuously, concerned about his unit’s readiness. “Everyone is suffering,” he said, “but this old-style military tradition is possibly killing soldiers in the future, since we’re not going to be prepared when we arrive now. Instead of doing my job like I was doing this morning, the focus has shifted to doing inspections, making sure I can recite military propaganda, clean up the office, and do nothing until I’m told to do something.”
While Brad expressed his frustrations with the military to Danny, he didn’t reveal to him anything near the degree of his alienation. By August, his behavior had deteriorated so far that his supervisor Sergeant Adkins said he showed signs of “instability” and referred him to a mental health specialist for anger management issues. Unable to confide in his army-appointed therapist due to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, however, Brad went to only one initial counseling visit. He sought therapy on his own off base, but even that was ineffective. Instead, Brad confided in friends back home. “His emotions could turn on a dime,” said Jason Edwards. “When he called from Fort Drum it was bad. When he called it was basically just this kind of screaming and crying, and there wasn’t a lot that he would say that was terribly coherent.”
Concerned that he could be “a risk to himself and possibly others,” according an official statement issued later, Adkins considered leaving Brad behind when the unit deployed. But there was a shortage of intelligence analysts in Iraq, and Brad’s temperament was showing improvement. The army weighed the risks of deploying Brad Manning with his unit, and the exigencies of a protracted war won out in the calculus.
Among the stresses in Brad’s life was a growing concern about his relationship with Tyler. “He doesn’t talk to me much anymore =L ,” he told Danny in a chat online on August 8. “Maybe I’m just being needy, but he is the only thing I have that I care about.”
But Tyler wasn’t the only thing weighing on his mind. He saw himself as a deep-inside player in the intelligence world, and the heaviness of the responsibility was not sitting well.
“I have this increasingly awful feeling,” he said in the same conversation. “It comes from the realization that I am a trusted government employee with the highest security clearance. I know too much.”
“Have you talked to many people that have been deployed before?”
“Yes, I have. That and I’ve seen the public affairs responses to potential questions if media asks. But media knows that it won’t look good if it starts to question the military’s handling of war. God I know too much.”
“Really, *the* highest?”
“Yes. TS/SCI. With a need to know for almost everything involving foreign policy,” Brad said. “I’m the only damn person that’s smart enough to know which resources are available to me, that research not only military, but other-government-agency reporting. I’m so far deep rooted in reality I cannot escape.” Brad was exaggerating his level of access to government secrets, but not by much.
Contrary to the image promulgated in spy movies, the American federal government’s system for handling state secrets is an inexact, patchwork scheme of obscure origins. Regulations for the handling of sensitive information in matters of state were inherited or implemented from the time of the American Revolution onward, but in general, issues requiring the utmost secrecy were simply handled on what later generations would call a “need-to-know basis.” The basic structure of the military’s modern system of classification appears to come from the First World War, when the American Expeditionary Force had to coordinate its activities with the French and British armies. Borrowing from its allies, the Americans instituted ad hoc restrictions on information controlled up to the highest level, “Secret.” Further changes came over the years, including instituting the “Top Secret” designation during the Truman era.
Brad had been given a TS/SCI security clearance, short for Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information, and he was correct, in one sense, to say it was the highest-level designation available. The SCI clearance level restricts information into compartments, access to which is granted on an individual, need-to-know basis. Though he was a lowly private in the chain of command, the digitization of classified communications and the government’s 21st Century information-sharing initiatives conspired to give him unprecedented access to state secrets. Brad and others in his position had more government secrets at their fingertips than enlisted men and women of any earlier era. There was, of course, plenty of information “involving foreign policy” for which Brad Manning did not have a need-to-know clearance, but his access to the State Department communications through JWICS was remarkable enough on its own.
“I don’t know if you can imagine the pressure,” Brad said. It had become a familiar yarn, Brad playing on his own vanity to tease out frustrations in his military life. It’s clear he’d become intoxicated by the glamour of his ability to peer behind the curtain of state secrecy, but his misunderstanding, or misrepresentation, of his level of access had become a burden as well.
“Nope, not really. The fear is if you are captured it could be really bad?” Danny said.
“I wont be captured. But if I were to be, I’m one of the few military personnel considered a liability. I’m strategically worth more dead than tactically alive.”
As the date of Brad’s deployment approached, his plans for the future were very much on his mind. “I’m not sure how my life is going to pan out over the next 26 months,” Brad said after initiating a chat online with Zach Antolak, on August 1, 2009, two months before he was scheduled to deploy. “Two months pre-deployment, 12 months of Iraq, and another 12 months of recovery and garrison, all assuming I don’t get discharged under DADT. But the moment I leave the military, I’m planning on breaking out in all directions.”
“Man, stay safe in Iraq,” said Antolak.
“I’m an analyst, I shadow a brigade commander,” Brad said. “Also, the Shia majority in the location we are going doesn’t want to screw around with the U.S. They’re stockpiling fresh weapons, because the moment we leave, they plan on removing Sunnis out of the region to the southeast and northeast of Baghdad.” As usual Brad seemed to carry a sense of responsibility for the outcome of the war incongruous with his humble rank. “I’m trying to figure out a way to prevent a civil war the second we leave.”
During his pre-deployment months, Brad chatted often with his new friend Danny Clark. In one conversation, Danny asked Brad what he’d like to do on a perfect leave—in a couple months he’d be en route to the Middle East, with no leave to be taken.
“I’d like my family and friends to get together in one location ideally,” he said, “and meet each other. It’s such a wide spread =L. Like a going away party of sorts.”
“Okay,” Danny said, “let’s put a limit on people involved to Tyler and I then. I don’t think I’ll be able to invent workable quantum tele-portation quite that quickly =) .”
“I’m speaking more along the lines of my DC circle of friends,” said Brad. “Jason Edwards, Toby Quaranta and his boyfriend, etc. I have a lot of potentially powerful friends.
“Can I tell you a secret,” Brad said, suddenly, “since we are along the same thought lines? And for the love of science, don’t tell Tyler =P .”
“As long as it won’t get me hunted down and shot by marines, sure.” “My mind has been set for many, many years,” Brad said.
“That I’d do everything in my power to unite various groups of talented people together, and work out a way of building political momentum toward a seat in the senate, and possibly the presidency.”
Brad explained that Tyler, along with most of his friends, didn’t know the extent of his ambitions. “I’m only 21, remember =L ,” he said. “But I deliberately put myself into situations (Don’t ask, Don’t tell is one of them) that can increase my political capital.”
He’d known he wanted to be president, he said, since he was thirteen. Imagine, Brad said, the possibilities of a politician like Carl Sagan, with his brains and scientific outlook combined with his facility for clear communication. He would campaign passionately on two of the issues closest to his heart: scientific research and education.
“I’m trying to play off the civil rights card. Thus all the gay rights stuff on the side. My life goal is the expansion of human knowledge, and the elimination of the earth-moon system as the boundary of human influence. It’s probably why I approach gay rights leaders in a ‘hey, you’re kind of cool, I’d like to talk about other stuff now’ attitude. I intrigue them. They react in curiosity when meeting me. Here I am, 21, gay, obviously have some intellect, living under DADT, and, though the gay rights thing is interesting, I seem to have grander dreams in mind.
“Now I’m just being arrogant,” Brad said, “which is fine, because I am, I guess.”
Brad spoke to Danny with remarkable candor and an astounding lack of self-awareness—both hallmarks of immaturity. While he could open up around friends, he was no socialite and certainly not a charismatic leader of men; acquaintances, from classmates to coworkers, quite often found him irritating if not utterly forgettable. Yet he was unmoved by the obvious limitations that stood in his way. His ambitions were boundless, extending from Capitol Hill and the White House to literally beyond the moon and into outer space.
Excerpted from the book “Private: Bradley Manning, Wikileaks and the Biggest Exposure of Official Secrets in American History” by Denver Nicks. Reprinted by permission of Chicago Review Press. All rights reserved.