On Monday, the military court-martial begins for Bradley Manning, the military-intelligence analyst who is accused of sending 700,000 U.S. documents and at least one video to a drop box in cyberspace belonging to the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks. His trial, three years after his arrest, will provide a fresh account of how a young U.S. Army private laid bare the secret diplomacy underpinning the global war on terror and whether the disclosures caused grave harm to America’s ability to fight that war.
For Manning’s supporters, he is a whistleblower and a hero who endured cruel and unusual punishment from the military even before his trial. For the U.S. military, Manning is akin to a spy. He faces 22 charges, including aiding the enemy and violating the Espionage Act, crimes for which he could receive life in prison.
But many Americans are hearing about him for the first time.
The leak of the documents, many of them classified, which Manning has admitted, was not the gravest intelligence breach in U.S. history, but it was the most expansive. The disclosures included detailed diplomatic cables providing the minutes of meetings with heads of state; spot intelligence reports from the front lines of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; and a video claiming to show a deliberate airstrike on a Reuters photojournalist in Iraq.
Manning was able to do all of this in a secure classified facility at a U.S. Army base in Iraq. In some cases he did so by disguising the files on a CD containing the music of the cross-dressing pop singer Lady Gaga.
Alexa O’Brien, an independent journalist who has posted detailed transcripts of the Manning court-martial at Fort Meade, Maryland, said the temporary sensitive compartmentalized information facility where Manning worked was leaky. “The facility where Manning worked did not meet the Defense Department’s own information-assurance standards,” she said. “Manning’s supervisor testified at the pretrial that soldiers would play pirated versions of movies they purchased from Iraqi nationals on their classified work stations at the facility.”
Manning’s defense lawyers would later tell a pretrial hearing that he suffered from gender-identity disorder, creating an alter-ego, Breanna Manning.
Some commentators have credited Manning’s leak with providing a spark for the revolutions that toppled the governments of Egypt and Tunisia and triggered uprisings in Bahrain, Libya, and Yemen, collectively known as the Arab Spring. Files leaked by Manning disclosed a secret relationship between the U.S. government and President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, to allow drone strikes inside the country where the United States was not in a declared war. Another cable detailed the private investments and holdings of the Tunisian ruling family.
Still other files revealed secret talks between Arab governments and Israel; the lavish spending habits of Muammar Gaddafi’s family; and suspicions from the U.S. ambassador to Georgia that Russia’s intelligence services directed a secret war in the country for much of the last decade.
The Manning leak also ushered in a new era within the Obama administration to crack down on leakers and what they deemed the “insider threat,” a term that historically referred to spies who sold or shared secrets with foreign governments. On November 28, 2010, as WikiLeaks was doling out the diplomatic cables Manning leaked to selected partner news organizations, including The New York Times and The Guardian, Jacob Lew, then Obama’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, issued a memorandum (PDF) to all government agencies that generate classified information to reform systems for protecting those secrets.
“Any failure by agencies to safeguard classified information pursuant to relevant … is unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” it said.
After the order, major defense contractors began marketing software with names like “sureview” and “checkmate,” promising to actively monitor classified computer networks to spot the next Bradley Manning. Inside the government, spokespeople for government agencies were instructed not to acknowledge any of the information from the government documents now sprouting up throughout the Internet on WikiLeaks mirror sites.
“WikiLeaks was an enormous wakeup call for the government,” said Lucy Dalglish, the dean of the University of Maryland’s college of journalism. In the past, she said, reporters from the mainstream media who obtained classified information would negotiate the details they would publish with senior government officials. Manning, she said, “uploads it to an anonymous site and it goes around the world almost instantly. They see that and say, ‘Oh my God, we are screwed.’”
One concern for many in the U.S. government was that WikiLeaks did not at first redact the names of individuals who provided sensitive information to U.S. diplomats and military officers. (The partner organizations that selectively posted information did make such redactions.)
Beginning in late November 2010, the State Department was forced to start making arrangements to move some sensitive sources in hostile countries and war zones as a result of the WikiLeaks, said P.J. Crowley, who served at the time as the State Department spokesman.
“In all cases where we highlighted, not a high-level official well-known globally, but an activist or someone who would be placed in harm’s way if published, the mainstream media was willing not to publish those names,” said Crowley. “While some individuals inside WikiLeaks shared that concern, Julian Assange did not at first and only acknowledged this danger relatively late in the process. Eventually he lost control of the archive and lots and lots of names were put out there.”
Crowley would later resign his post after publicly criticizing the treatment of Manning after his arrest, when the private was placed on suicide watch at a maximum-security militar detention center at Quantico, Virginia, between July 29, 2010, and April 2011. In this period Manning spent months confined to a cell for 24 hours a day in only his underwear. Every five minutes guards had to ask if he was OK. He was allowed only one book at a time and was given no pillows or sheets for when he slept.
While President Obama would say he believed Manning’s treatment was in accordance with U.S. military code, the judge in Manning’s case criticized the decision to keep him under suicide watch during this period, and advocates for the young private saw the conditions he was kept under as proof that he was being punished even before being convicted.
Earlier this year, Manning pleaded guilty to 10 lesser offenses in relation to WikiLeaks of mishandling information he was required to protect. But the government has continued to press its topline charges, while Manning has denied that he did his leaking to aid an enemy of the United States or in any way violated the Espionage Act. In an audio statement that surfaced in March from one of his pretrial hearings, during which he admitted to the leaks, Manning said he was moved to disclose the information to spark a wider debate about foreign policy. He observed that a 2007 video he leaked captured from a helicopter before an airstrike in Iraq showed that his fellow soldiers “dehumanized the individuals they were engaging in and seemed to not value human life by referring to them as ‘dead bastards’ and congratulating themselves on their ability to kill in large numbers.”
“With Manning’s offer of a plea bargain, which carries up to 20 years in jail, this satisfies the imperative to reinforce to those in uniform that they have a solemn responsibility to protect the national interest,” said Crowley on Sunday. The former spokesman said he believed Manning harmed the national interest with his leak. But he also said the prosecution ran the risk of taking the case too far by seeking to imprison Manning for the rest of his life for the crime of aiding the enemy. “My apprehension is that as the prosecution begins to present its case tomorrow, it risks making Bradley Manning into a martyr,” he said.