In the summer of 2009, Brad’s unit, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, was preparing to deploy to Iraq. Bradley Manning 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). JRTC was the Army’s predeployment 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 friend he’d made through his boyfriend Tyler, a few months earlier.
“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 bull dyke 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.
“Pretty boy (me), questioning military because oppressed by bull dyke, went to see religious person who talked about the whole thing from a reason/philosophy standpoint. Is that not absolutely hilarious.”
“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.”
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. 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 to 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 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,” 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.”
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. “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.
During his predeployment months, Brad chatted often with his new friend Danny. “Can I tell you a secret?” Brad asked Danny during one of their talks.
“As long as it won’t get me hunted down and shot by marines, sure,” Danny said.
“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,” 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.
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. 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.