On May 24th PBS aired a Frontline documentary about alleged Wikileaker Bradley Manning called “WikiSecrets.” Billed as “The inside story of Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, and the largest intelligence breach in U.S. history” it focused exclusively on Manning’s struggles in the military as a data analyst and closeted homosexual who’d gained access and subsequently released tens of thousands of classified government documents. Omitting Manning’s stated motives or the content of the leaks, it put forth the “angry gay man” narrative that Bradley leaked the information primarily because he was frustrated by bullying and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the military policy in place until September 20, 2011 that prohibited military personnel from disclosing or discussing homosexual relationships. As PBS told it, Manning was angry and wanted to exact vengeance on the establishment before going bonkers.
From the transcript:
Martin Smith, reporter: It was a vicious circle. Manning started getting into fights. At Fort Drum, he was reprimanded for tossing chairs and yelling at fellow soldiers. He was referred for counseling. But because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Manning was unable to confide in his Army therapist. He sought counseling off base.
Jason Edwards, Manning’s friend: He called me from Fort Drum after some clashes between him and officers or other enlisted men. And mostly, it was just him crying over the phone to me.
MS: [on camera] Crying? Sobbing?
JE: Yeah. Very violently.
M S: And what would he be saying?
JE: A lot of it was intelligible. Mostly, it was, “Why?” He claimed that his superiors were stupid. And, “I can’t stay in this situation. I’m never going to get out.”
M S: [voice-over] His Army supervisor was concerned about sending Manning to Iraq, worried that he was a risk both to himself and others. But there was a shortage of qualified analysts. He was sent anyway.
This had been the dominant media narrative on Manning since his arrest the year before. The supporters he had were made up primarily of civil libertarians and the very liberal, people like Glenn Greenwald who already suspected the government and the military were committing atrocities overseas.
But in March, news reports came out about conditions at Quantico, the Marine base where he was being held. He was allegedly kept in isolation and made to stay awake 23 hours a day. Hillary Clinton’s spokesman P.J. Crowley, United States Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, condemned the treatment, and Barack Obama was forced to confront the issue by a growing body of Manning sympathizers.
In early July New York magazine published a profile of Manning to mixed reviews. While some panned author Steve Fishman for focusing too much on Manning’s private life and personal problems, Fishman also became the first mainstream journalist to shed light on the fact that Manning has continuously claimed to have leaked the information as an act of conscience. And even if he wasn’t entirely supportive of the massive risk Manning took to shed light on the activities of the US government, Fishman treated him like a whistleblower – albeit a non-traditional one. As he wrote:
Manning isn’t a classic whistle-blower. Disturbing information didn’t cross his desk, prodding him to act. Manning snooped…He’d started leaking as a way to protest the conduct of the war…. But soon he embraced a broader principle: Open the drawers. “information should be free,” he [told friends].
Manning profile was a breath of fresh air into the public discourse on Bradley Manning and Wikileaks. New information brought to the court of public opinion will help shed light on the circumstances that led to Manning’s actions.
Fishman, to be sure, did discuss Manning’s personal issues. He even reported that Manning had been consulting counselors about a sex change; hitherto unknown information Fishman discovered. But Fishman didn’t insinuate that personal demons and homophobic bullies drove Manning mad to the point of leaking the documents. In addition to alluding to an incident that Manning said led him to reach out to WikiLeaks – when U.S. forces handed peaceful political dissidents over to Iraqi security forces who were known to torture detainees – Fishman mentioned that Manning was troubled by an incident in which his data analysis led to the death of people in Basra. Fishman pointed out that Manning was motivated, at least in part, by an ethical imperative. In doing so, he succeeded where CNN, PBS and even The Guardian have largely failed. As Fishman wrote:
[Manning] told the counselor about a targeting mission gone bad in Basra. “Two groups of locals were converging in this one area. Manning was trying to figure out why they were meeting,” the counselor told me. On Manning’s information, the Army moved swiftly, dispatching a unit to hunt them down. Manning had thought all went well, until a superior explained the outcome. “Ultimately, some guy loosely connected to the group got killed,” the counselor said. To the counselor, it was clear: Manning felt that there was blood on his hands. “He was very, very distressed.”
Fishman also noted that it wasn’t just that Manning felt like he was a part of something detrimental. Manning decided to do things his own way because complaints he made about possible war crimes were ignored. When Manning complained to his superiors, they ignored the solider and told him to get back to work. And although Fishman failed to elaborate on the issue, in a chat log with Adrian Lamo (the man who turned Manning in) Manning said that a superior ordered him to find more detainees – peaceful dissidents or otherwise – to round up on behalf of Iraqi Security forces, when he lodged a protest over the aforementioned incident.
According to Manning, not only have soldiers in Iraq been systematically ordered to commit crimes, but traditional avenues of dissent have been systematically stifled; an issue described by Fishman in his Manning profile. For example, Ethan McCord, one of the soldiers on the scene of the “Collateral Murder” incident leaked by Manning, claimed he was told by superiors “to get the sand out of my vagina” after he showed signs of distress and hinted that he wanted to complain about criminal atrocities he was ordered to commit.
Manning’s sexuality isn’t entirely irrelevant to the story – being a gay man in a homophobic environment probably heightened Manning’s sensitivity to injustice. As Fishman wrote:
In Iraq, the torments Manning suffered at the hands of his fellow soldiers, his loneliness and concern over his gender, and the hours and hours he would spend in the airless intel office watching the brutal inner workings of the war bore down on him. He was unmoored in a way he hadn’t been before: angrier, less afraid, more certain of what was good and what was evil, and more compelled to act on this dawning righteousness.
Thus, Fishman did pay mind to Manning’s political motives.
And he noted that it wasn’t just evidence of probable war crimes that moved Manning to act. Fishman, quoting Manning at length from the transcript of his online chat with Lamo, revealed to New York’s readers that Manning was perturbed by Uncle Sam’s pernicious activities beyond Iraq.
“[I]f you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time,” Manning, as quoted from his chat with Lamo, said, “say, 8-9 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?”
While Fishman’s piece itself is unlikely to lead to any sudden change of heart on the government’s behalf, his article has revitalized the discussion. In its wake, Chase Madar released a widely published op-ed entitled “4 Reasons Bradley Manning Deserves the Medal of Freedom”. Politico, too, recently released an article – albeit one that involved a FOIA and was in the works for months – about an internal investigation by the Marines that revealed the decision to place Manning on suicide watch was politically motivated. And shortly after Fishman’s piece, Wired released an almost entirely unredacted version of the Manning-Lamo chat logs, which affords the public even more insight into Manning’s mindset, and reveals how he approached Wikileaks with the material.
But even if new information in the volley of articles that succeeded the Fishman piece haven’t influenced Manning’s case- it was clearly intended to foster a more mature discussion of the matter. This could end the harsh punitive treatment of Manning; punishment designed to frighten whistleblowers and strengthen the government’s cloak of secrecy.
That seemed, in any case, to be what happened to Thomas Drake. Drake, a former NSA official was charged with espionage for blowing the whistle on an inefficient, ineffective and borderline totalitarian data collection scheme. While his case had been highlighted by civil libertarians, transparency advocates and news sources of lesser prominence for years, charges against him were drastically scaled down only after The New Yorker and “60 Minutes” ran sympathetic pieces hailing his revelations as a service to the country. There were other factors that led the government to drop the charges to be sure but high profile reportage helped draw attention to Drake’s heroism, as Jesselyn Raddack of Government Accountability Project (an NGO that represented Drake) told reporters after Drake’s victory:
“This is awkward because it involves you guys,” she was quoted by Politico as saying. “The almost universally favorable media attention … has played a role.”
And while Manning might lack the years of service and the Patriotic pedigree of Drake, everyone – lowly army privates withstanding – might benefit from such a discussion. If the public learns more about Manning – why he (allegedly) leaked the info, and how he is being treated – it is more likely that fair treatment for the former solider will be forthcoming. And not only will those interested in preserving a murky framework for the government to do as it pleases be less capable of denying Manning his rights by painting him as a bomb-throwing Benedict Arnold, but it will be less able to act recklessly with impunity.