Early Struggles of Soldier Charged in Leak Case
By GINGER THOMPSON
Published: August 8, 2010
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — He spent part of his childhood with his father in the arid plains of central Oklahoma, where classmates made fun of him for being a geek. He spent another part with his mother in a small, remote corner of southwest Wales, where classmates made fun of him for being gay.
Then he joined the Army, where, friends said, his social life was defined by the need to conceal his sexuality under “don’t ask, don’t tell” and he wasted brainpower fetching coffee for officers.
But it was around two years ago, when Pfc. Bradley Manning came here to visit a man he had fallen in love with, that he finally seemed to have found a place where he fit in, part of a social circle that included politically motivated computer hackers and his boyfriend, a self-described drag queen. So when his military career seemed headed nowhere good, Private Manning, 22, turned increasingly to those friends for moral support.
And now some of those friends say they wonder whether his desperation for acceptance — or delusions of grandeur — may have led him to disclose the largest trove of government secrets since the Pentagon Papers.
“I would always try to make clear to Brad that he had a promising future ahead of him,” said Daniel J. Clark, one of those Cambridge friends. “But when you’re young and you’re in his situation, it’s hard to tell yourself things are going to get better, especially in Brad’s case, because in his past, things didn’t always get better.”
Blond and barely grown up, Private Manning worked as an intelligence analyst and was based east of Baghdad. He is suspected of disclosing more than 150,000 diplomatic cables, more than 90,000 intelligence reports on the war in Afghanistan and one video of a military helicopter attack — all of it classified. Most of the information was given to WikiLeaks.org, which posted the war reports after sharing them with three publications, including The New York Times.
WikiLeaks has defended the disclosure, saying transparency is essential to democracy. The Pentagon has denounced the leaks, saying they put American soldiers and their Afghan allies in grave danger.
And while that dispute rages on, with the Pentagon having recently demanded that WikiLeaks remove all secret documents from the Internet and hand over any undisclosed materials in its files, Private Manning is being held in solitary confinement at Quantico, Va., under suicide watch.
Private Manning’s military-appointed lawyer, Maj. Thomas F. Hurley, declined an interview request.
Much remains unknown about his journey there from Crescent, Okla., the small town where he was born. But interviews with people who know him, along with e-mail exchanges between him and Adrian Lamo, the computer hacker who turned him in, offer some insights into Private Manning’s early years, why he joined the Army and how he came to be so troubled, especially in recent months.
“I’ve been isolated so long,” Private Manning wrote in May to Mr. Lamo, who turned the chat logs over to the authorities and the news media. “But events kept forcing me to figure out ways to survive.”
Survival was something Private Manning began learning as a young child in Crescent. His father, Brian Manning, was also a soldier and spent a lot of time away from home, former neighbors recalled. His mother, Susan Manning, struggled to cope with the culture shock of having moved to the United States from her native Wales, the neighbors said.
One neighbor, Jacqueline Radford, recalled that when students at Private Manning’s elementary school went on field trips, she sent additional food or money to make sure he had something to eat.
“I’ve always tried to be supportive of him because of his home life,” Ms. Radford said. “I know it was bad, to where he was left to his own, had to fend for himself.”
At school, Bradley Manning was clearly different from most of his peers. He preferred hacking computer games rather than playing them, former neighbors said. And they said he seemed opinionated beyond his years about politics, religion, and even about keeping religion out of politics.
In his Bible Belt hometown that he once mockingly wrote in an e-mail had “more pews than people,” Private Manning refused to recite the parts of the Pledge of Allegiance that referred to God or do homework assignments that involved the Scriptures. And if a teacher challenged his views, former classmates said, he was quick to push back.
“He would get upset, slam books on the desk if people wouldn’t listen to him or understand his point of view,” said Chera Moore, who attended elementary and junior high school with him. “He would get really mad, and the teacher would say, ‘O.K., Bradley, get out.’ ”
It was something he would hear a lot throughout his life.
After Private Manning’s parents divorced, he moved with his mother to Haverfordwest, Wales, her hometown, and began a new chapter of isolation. Haverfordwest is several times bigger than Crescent. It is also centuries older, with traditions that run much deeper. A bustling market town, it offered a pace of life that was significantly faster.
Former students at his school there, Tasker Milward, remembered Private Manning being teased for all sort of reasons. His American accent. His love of Dr Pepper. The amount of time he spent huddled before a computer.
And then, students began to suspect he was gay.
Sometimes, former classmates said, he reacted to the teasing by idly boasting about stealing other students’ girlfriends. At other times, he openly flirted with boys. Often, with only the slightest provocation, he would launch into fits of rage.
“It was probably the worst experience anybody could go through,” said Rowan John, a former classmate who was openly gay in high school. “Being different like me, or Bradley, in the middle of nowhere is like going back in time to the Dark Ages.”
But life ahead did not immediately brighten for Private Manning. After his troubled high school years, his mother sent him back to Oklahoma to live with his father and his older sister.
He was hired and quickly fired from a small software company, where his employer, Kord Campbell, recalled him as clean-cut and highly intelligent with an almost innate sense for programming, as well as the personality of a bull in a china shop. Then his father found out he was gay and kicked him out of the house, friends said. Mr. Clark, the Cambridge friend, said Private Manning told him he lived out of his car briefly while he worked in a series of minimum-wage retail jobs.
He enlisted in the Army in 2007, to try to give his life some direction and to help to pay for college, friends said.
He was granted a security clearance and trained as an intelligence analyst at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., before being assigned to the Second Brigade 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y.
Before being deployed to Iraq, Private Manning met Tyler Watkins, who described himself on his blog as a classical musician, singer and drag queen. A friend said the two had little in common, but Private Manning fell head over heels. Mr. Watkins, who did not respond to interview requests for this article, was a student at Brandeis University. On trips to visit him here in Cambridge, Private Manning got to know many in Mr. Watkins’ wide network of friends, including some who were part of this university town’s tight-knit hacker community.
Friends said Private Manning found the atmosphere here to be everything the Army was not: openly accepting of his geeky side, his liberal political opinions, his relationship with Mr. Watkins and his ambition to do something that would get attention.
Although hacking has come to mean a lot of different things, at its core, those who do it say, is the philosophy that information should be free and accessible to all. And Private Manning had access to some of the most secret information on the planet.
Meanwhile, his military career was anything but stellar. He had been reprimanded twice, including once for assaulting an officer. He wrote in e-mails that he felt “regularly ignored” by his superiors “except when I had something essential, then it was back to ‘Bring me coffee, then sweep the floor.’ ”
And it seems the more isolated he felt in the military — he wore custom dog tags that said “Humanist,” and friends said he kept a toy fairy wand on his desk in Iraq — the more he clung to his hacker friends.
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A version of this article appeared in print on August 9, 2010, on page A1 of the New York edition.
It seems that the media wasn't particularly open about this aspect of Manning's background. According to other sources, his breakup with his boyfriend may have been the tipping point. Frankly, I'm surprised that this was published in the Times.
Now, the highlighted parts of this article point to several troubling issues. First, an openly gay individual with a boyfriend who the Times described as a drag queen, and who had a history of disciplinary problems, including assaulting an officer, had a TS clearance? WTF??? And the reason that this individual got the clearance, as well as being permitted to join in the first place, is because we weren't allowed to ask, and he didn't have to tell, about his conduct.