Bradley Manning and the Two Americas
(5-21-14, author’s note: This was written and published before Chelsea Manning announced her transition. I respect her decision, and have properly gendered her in all my writing/speaking since. This article remains as it was published, but as a historical document, not out of any disrespect for Chelsea or her transition process.)
Somewhere in the Iraqi desert in 2009 in the middle of a flailing war, a soldier committed a seemingly small crime. Private Bradley Manning didn’t kill anyone, or rape anyone, but by nabbing information from his commanders and giving it to WikiLeaks, he lit up the world, like a match discarded into a great parched forest.
Bored and depressed by army life, Manning started hanging out on the WikiLeaks IRC channel with its controversial founder, Julian Assange. It began as a simple act of communication no different in most respects from millions of casual chats that meander daily through uncounted online forums. Manning would occasionally get into conversations and debates, which he would say nourished him in a court statement years later. “[They] allowed me to feel connected to others even when alone. They helped me pass the time and keep motivated throughout the deployment.”
Manning described the WikiLeaks IRC channel as “almost academic in nature,” and Assange, years after the channel had vanished, agreed: “… the public IRC channel was filled with technical, academic, and geopolitical analysis, with many interesting people from different countries.” Assange said it wasn’t unusual for the channel to be visited by soldiers, like Manning.
The soldiers used WikiLeaks in the course of their work. “I had produced a logistics guide to understanding the U.S. military equipment purchasing system, which the Pentagon linked to in order to explain how their byzantine equipment numbering system worked,” said Assange. “We would often get soldiers coming in from far flung outposts asking us how to order a new tread for their tank.” It was easier, it seemed, to use WikiLeaks than the army’s own information services.
In the days before WikiLeaks was directly in conflict with the U.S. government, Assange seemed to have enjoyed the military company in the channel.
“I can’t speak about Mr. Manning personally,” he said, “but the U.S. military is an interesting institution. Most personnel are simply death engineers. But exclude the emotive overtone and you are left with engineer. These are people who like the truth and don’t like bureaucracy.”
In short: Geeks. Not far from being Assange’s people. Years later, sitting on the stand in military court, Manning would echo this in his statement, saying that he’d used WikiLeaks material in his analysis reports to his superiors.
As long as WikiLeaks focused on African dictators and corrupt foreign bankers, everyone could pretend that a secrets-destroying project and America could get along. But America is a country run with secrets, and confrontation was only a matter of time.
As Manning’s view of the military he was in and its war soured he became unhappy with what his job required him to do. His relationship with WikiLeaks became the relief. From his Secure Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) he collected the material that would be the largest leak in U.S. history, and sent it to WikiLeaks. Over the course of months between 2009 and 2010 he carefully exfiltrated media and datasets, including the Collateral Murder video, the Afghan and Iraq war logs, and a quarter of a million diplomatic cables. He sent this data on writable CDs to WikiLeaks, after he failed to get the attention of the Washington Post and The New York Times, according to his statement.
The choice of the data he sent to WikiLeaks is full of contradictions people struggle with to this day. The data was both vast and selective. It was unreadable by a single person in any reasonable time frame, and yet reasonable in terms of data analysis. It was a fraction of what was available to him in a SCIF in the Iraqi desert. In the data he chose, Manning was both careful and reckless. As a dataset, his process was select. As human readable material, it was indiscriminate.
Manning carefully guarded against being caught in the act, but he confessed to what he’d done to several people until one, a hacker named Adrian Lamo, turned him in. He was arrested in May of 2010.
From the start, the American government’s response to what Manning did was extreme. Manning was brutally treated from the moment he was arrested. He was put in a cage in Kuwait, before being put into solitary and subjected to punitive measures in the Quantico Marine brig. After months in limbo, he was charged with 22 counts, including Aiding the Enemy, a euphemism for treason. This is a charge reserved specifically for spies who side with the enemies of the military, and among the worst charges a soldier can face. When Manning pled guilty to 10 of 22 charges in February, Aiding the Enemy was not among them. Ultimately, this was one of the two charges he was found not guilty of when the verdict was finally read. He now faces 90 years in prison at a sentencing hearing expected this week, three years after his arrest.
“People are scared or angry about WikiLeaks, and Bradley Manning is going to pay for people’s anxiety about WikiLeaks,” said Steve Aftergood, Director of the Federation of American Scientists project on Government Secrecy.
That anxiety, and an even larger bewilderment about the Internet has led to the diminutive and clever Manning being demonized and canonized at every turn. He’s been made out to be a pawn of Assange, a disturbed child, a latter-day Ellsberg, a depraved homosexual, the Internet’s greatest hero, a spark of the Arab Spring, and by his own government, a traitor. Beneath this weight of history is just a young geek, perhaps most remarkable for how normal he is.
“There are real questions about proportionality in this case,” said Aftergood. “I think Manning did something wrong, but do I think he’s the worst criminal in the past 10 years of war? He did not kill anybody. He violated security discipline and he has acknowledged that. It is proper that he be punished. But why is he the only name we know that’s being court-marshaled?”
Even as the state threw its weight into destroying its traitor, the Internet and Internet-fueled movements took him up as a hero. His face and name have graced thousands of signs all around the world for years.
Manning attends street protests, uprisings, and occupations everywhere. He hangs on the walls of bedrooms and event halls, like an activist’s Bieber. Sometimes people with little more freedom than him call for his freedom.
Those people all over the world who held up signs with Manning’s face weren’t holding up signs of that normal, geeky kid, but a symbol — just as the harsh government treatment wasn’t really about Bradley Manning the person. The symbol of Manning has so overshadowed the person that there’s little hope of seeing him in there at all. Manning the person, his childhood, his sexuality and gender, his alleged alienation, the contingency of his experience, they are out of reach. To talk meaningfully about Manning, we are left talking about the forces that have acted on him. We have to talk about America, the Internet, and ultimately ourselves.
To one side, Manning’s release of classified material into the public purview is a declaration of the people’s right to know, and an angry comment on how the world is run behind closed doors. To the other, it represents a force threatening to undermine the system that holds America together.
If you see America as a place within borders, a bureaucratic and imperial government that acts on behalf of its 350 million people, if you see America as its edifices, its mandarins, the careful and massive institutions that have built our cities and vast physical culture, the harsh treatment of Manning for defying that institution makes sense, even if it was, at times, brutal.
But if you see America as an idea, and a revolutionary one in its day, that not only could a person decide her fate but that the body of people could act together as a great leader might lead — and that this is a better way to be — Manning didn’t betray that America.
The second America doesn’t have that name anymore. It morphed and grew just as the first, promulgated for a moment from the east side of the mid-North American continent, but going on to become a sense of democracy, the rights of man. It merged with the other spirits born of the Enlightenment and became the force behind science, technology, free speech, and populist will.
Then the ideas of self-determination and the freedom to know blossomed as they never had before in the dying days of the 20th century. The second America became a strange and amorphous transnational creature. It became networked.
The first America built the Internet, but the second America moved onto it. And they both think they own the place now.
Both Americas were so successful they are at this point slightly startled to find they have to share the world with the other. All the while, the law, a poor third player in this drama, has tried to straddle the two like a man trying to stand on two battleships while they drift apart.
By late 2010, after Manning’s arrest, everything was about to be turned upside down for the first America. Manning and Wikileaks radicalized the Internet chat board 4chan and birthed the politically activist version of the movement known as Anonymous. Instability and access reached a still poorly understood tipping point in the Middle East. The Arab revolutions began with Tunisians filling the streets and driving their dictator of more than two decades from both power and the country itself. What began in Tunisia burned its way west to east across North Africa until the whole region caught fire like a dry forest. Seemingly out of nowhere, people cried for dictators to be thrown down, protested for real democracy, and the U.S. State Department stumbled over its responses.
Far from all of that, author Paul Ford wrote a blog post about the Web as a customer service medium. “’Why wasn’t I consulted is the fundamental question of the web,” Ford argued. “It is the rule from which other rules are derived. Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.”
This need, Ford went on to explain, was “…the thing people talk about when they talk about nicer-sounding things like ‘the wisdom of crowds’ or ‘cognitive surplus.’”
Ford, in his funny and slightly cynical way, was identifying a quality so profound to the Internet its people usually didn’t even realize it was new. This idea that participation was more important than qualification, that what made your opinion important was that you had an opinion. This was a new thing in the world, with its own magic. The Why-Wasn’t-I-Consulted faction showed up as open source and free software. It was there when bloggers took on the hoary greats of the news business. It powered Wikipedia, which shocked the world by doing better than anything the old world of accredited expertise could do. The un-consulted could not only appear as a creative force; they could appear as critique, suddenly coalescing into an Anonymous DDOS, or a street protest. They began to make their demands known, from Spain to Cairo to New York, talking across borders and ideological divides, creating distributed media, and above all, having opinions on things.
In January of 2011, Tunisians were exercising their need to be consulted with a word: “Dégage!” Meaning, roughly, “Get out!”, directed at Ben Ali from Facebook profiles and Twitter accounts and most importantly, hundreds of thousands of human voices on the street.
If this is democracy, it is a democracy the world has never known. A kind of kudzu of democracy, small, tenacious, and demanding its way into every crack of the edifices of the old world.
“Why wasn’t I consulted?” is the fundamental question of post-network democracy, and the fundamental question of the Internet, to which the state mechanisms have so far replied: “Who the hell do you think you are?”
The Internet built Wikipedia, Linux, and Facebook, but the old and slow hierarchies don’t understand those things very well. It was the empire that went to the moon, built bridges and ADA ramps across America, and invaded the beach at Normandy. It’s the old way that keeps the electricity running and cables connected to the net, and for this reason, it feels no small bit of entitlement to its power and control.
We don’t know yet if networked communities can manage trash collection and bridge maintenance. And we don’t know if old empires can live peacefully with the roving spirit of creative and loud humans who just change what they don’t like without asking anyone’s permission.
On the morning of April 21st, 2011, eleven months after Manning had been taken into custody, Logan Price had the most expensive breakfast of his life.
Price is a professional leftist activist. “My background had been in global justice and environmental justice work,” the 29 year-old said. He’d been traveling around the country, moving from contract to contract until the end of 2010 to the beginning of 2011, when the state department cables came out. The blockade of WikiLeaks, the Anonymous DDoS response, and the start of the Arab Spring pulled him out of his normal routine. “I just said, what am I working on right now? This is obviously what’s going to be happening this decade. It felt like a really amazing moment.”
He found his way to working for the Bradley Manning Support Network, and eventually, a $5,000 a plate Obama campaign fundraiser breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco. Some well-heeled supporters of Manning decided they wanted to do something to put the issue of his detention in front of Obama. They had 15-20 seats bought, and they needed activists to fill them. Price, with his rough good looks and easy professional manner was ideal for the job; he is never more than a button-down away from looking every inch the establishment. The activists had a song to sing, and they jumped up and sang it, interrupting Obama’s speech that morning. The President took it in stride, waiting for the activist to finish singing before he continued his speech.
Price took pictures and tweeted the whole thing, but when it was all over he was struck by the singularity of the situation. “This is… a once in a lifetime thing, where you’re in a room with the president.” But the action had seemed anti-climatic. Price wasn’t sure what to do. He had no plan. He considered jumping up and shouting something, but while he was still thinking about it, Obama finished his speech, and that was it. The President got up to go. Price got to his feet and ran to the front of the room. He managed to shake Obama’s hand, and then hold on. “It’s classic bird-dogging,” he told me later. “Grab their hand… and lead with a strong question.”
Price’s question was this: “Mr. President, why didn’t you talk about Bradley Manning?”
Obama: Look, there are better ways and more appropriate ways to bring this up than interrupting and causing a scene…
Price: I understand. That’s why I am asking you now. I wasn’t singing or chanting and I want to know. I think he is the most important whistle-blower of my generation. Why is he being prosecuted?
Obama: Well, what he did was irresponsible and risked the lives of service-members abroad. He did a lot of damage. So people can have philosophical views on…
Price: But I haven’t seen any evidence of that, and how can you say that the leaks did more harm than good? What about their effect on the democratic revolutions in the Arab world? And isn’t this going to help the war on terror?
Obama: No, no, no, but look, I can’t conduct diplomacy on an open source [basis]. That’s not how the world works. And if you’re in the military… I have to abide by certain rules of classified information. If I were to release material I weren’t allowed to, I’d be breaking the law. We’re a nation of laws. We don’t let individuals make their own decisions about how the laws operate.
The Secret Service was beginning to tug on Price’s arm, but Obama waved them off. “No he’s being fine,” he told his detail, “He is being courteous and asking questions.”
Price: But didn’t he have a responsibility to expose…
Obama: He broke the law!
Price: Well, you can make the law harder to break, but what he did was tell us the truth.
Obama: What he did was he dumped…
Price: But Nixon tried to prosecute Daniel Ellsberg for the same thing and he is a [hero].
Obama: No it isn’t the same thing.What Ellsberg released wasn’t classified in the same way.
This is true.The 7,000 pages Ellsberg dumped was much more stringently classified, a potentially much worse violation of the law.
Now 81, Ellsberg lives in the Berkeley Hills in a serene little house off the main road. The bright and airy space is filled to the ceiling with books and scattered with papers, presided over by knickknacks and statues. A reclined Buddha lies above the dining and work area, and a white porcelain Guanyin, the Chinese Bodhisattva of compassion, stands in the corner, frozen in the act of pouring holy water.
Once a cold warrior of the nuclear age, Ellsberg had been moved by conscience more than forty years ago to violate his clearance and leak evidence to the press that several administrations had lied to the public about the nature and theory of the war in Vietnam. He’d run from the police and his president, with paper copies of the report that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, continually giving them to news outlets until the story couldn’t be stopped anymore.
After he turned himself in, Ellsberg faced over 100 years in jail. But his case was dismissed due to FBI misconduct. He walked free, and straight into a kind of mythic status, as America’s most prolific and most flamboyant whistleblower. Four decades later he is still fast and sharp, clear eyed, and incisive. He is still moved by the force of ideas, and he is still part of the world that fights the world of secrets he fled in the 1970s.
“I know a lot of whistleblowers now,” he said. “I make a point of trying to meet them and support them. It’s very hard to say, they can’t answer the question, ‘Why did you do it and none of the others did?’”
Looking at the hounding Ellsberg faced, the pretrial solitary confinement Manning endured, the global chase of Snowden with even the forced landing of the Bolivian president’s plane, it’s easy to see why people don’t do it. To betray an institution, even for a greater cause, is to risk everything you know as your life. It is the end of one life, but only the beginning of another if you happen to be very lucky indeed, as Ellsberg was.
It still cost him dearly. He lost friends. He lost the prestige of his career. He had chosen a side in a culture war about who deserved to be consulted about the Vietnam War. But more than that, he had defied authority, and in doing so, defiled his way of life. Ellsberg doesn’t regret that choice, but in his pauses and the strain of his voice, the echoes of the community he lost are still there four decades on.
Ellsberg related the story of a panel on which he debated his own actions and those like him, with someone who seemed to him a surprisingly vigorous opponent. “I asked him after we’d had a debate, whether we really disagreed as much as had appeared in the debate,” Ellsberg continued,
“And he said ‘Oh, I think you’re evil.’ That was a little startling. And I said really? Why do you think that? He said ‘You undermine authority and that’s evil.’”
Can we really do without authority? Can we make a better world by letting everyone in on the secrets, by letting everyone act according to their conscience? Our system, for better or worse, isn’t about that. Democracy as we know it, the democracy invented in the 18th century, was never about everyone being equal. It is about getting rid of bad leaders peacefully, and hopefully arriving at better ones, more closely aligned with the people, committed to serving them better.
I asked Ellsberg, “Weren’t you undermining a system?” Speaking of himself and Manning, Ellsberg answered: “[We were] undermining the sense that the American state is a force for good on the whole in the world… I have no doubt that the majority of Americans think that we intend to and prefer to support democracy in the world.” Instead, he explained, we are a self-interested empire with no particular regard for global democracy. “What Bradley Manning did, and what I did, with these two large leaks… what they revealed was the long term or wide spread operations of an empire.”
And Snowden in the time since has revealed the dirty details of its mass surveillance, its tools of control.
The empire hasn’t liked that enforced openness one bit, as Obama made clear to Price at breakfast. But in September of that year, the empire had a new problem. The spirit of the Arab Spring and the Spanish summer protests moved into a park in Lower Manhattan, and set up camp, just as they had done elsewhere. They were lit up not only by anger but by a network. Occupy Wall Street was born, and spread across the U.S. and the Western world faster than an epidemic can travel, faster than the sound of their own voices. The spread of Occupy was constrained only by the speed of light and thought. Once again, WikiLeaks and even more the still quiet, still-in-custody Manning became one of the movement’s many rallying points.
This was because at its core, Occupy Wall Street was a disagreement with power about what America is. Not a new disagreement, but one whose tension and time had come — a disagreement that became a battle. To the government, Manning had defiled the chain of command, the principle that makes things work. To many, perhaps most, of the people who filled the streets in the fall and winter of 2011, he stood for something they would not let go of. He stood for their right to be consulted on what the U.S. did in the world, to be part of the process that makes things work. Snowden was there again, long after Occupy’s moment in the sun had passed, as much of the Internet closed ranks around him, even more than it had Manning.
On April 11th, before Manning’s proper trial had begun, I visited Fort Meade to see the pre-trial proceedings, and to see the star of those proceedings. It was the first time court had met since an audio recording of Manning’s statement pleading guilty to ten of 22 charges was leaked to the public.
Everyone assumed the leak was the attending media’s fault. “To say the judge was upset is an understatement,” the Public Affairs Office minder told the press pool, in a long scold before the morning’s events began properly. “This media operation center is a privilege… privileges can be given, privileges can be taken away.” The press pool waited, expressionless, for her to get on with it.
Those of us going to court surrendered our electronics and headed out. The journalists who stayed in the media center, which had a live video feed from the courtroom, didn’t have phones, or Internet. But they kept their computers, every one of them another capable recorder.
We arrived, and sat in the pew-like benches to wait for Judge Colonel Denise Lind to enter the courtroom. It was a bare white room, except for neoclassical lintels above the doors, sound baffles around the gallery, and a lining of CCTV cameras on the walls. A WiFi access point hung precariously off a railing on the jury box. People filed into the courtroom, military personnel, press, supporters, lawyers, and Manning himself, smiling and relaxed. He was dwarfed by the majority of the room, especially the military guard. His stature was almost childlike in contrast, second smallest person in the room, besides me.
Manning seemed to all appearances an untroubled man, relaxed, chatting and smiling with his lawyers. He seemed as if he could have been on the legal team, not its defendant.
Lind came in and we were all ordered to stand up. She sat down, and we did too, and for the next few minutes she aired her own powerful displeasure at the press pool. “There has been a violation of the court rules,” she said with a calm but steely voice. To the court and over the video feed back to the other journalists, Judge Lind announced phones wouldn’t be allowed in the media center anymore. While she talked, I considered the profusion of recorders in the courtroom. It was wired, AV equipment at every table, networking, cameras, cell phones of the court staff.
When she finished her statement she allowed the court to move on to its business. That business was largely about how to keep secret testimony secret in the trial, how to hide witnesses, ideas to perfect procedures that would allow the court and litigants to see secret evidence without letting those of us in the world in on it.
In the back, a corporal stood, not paying attention, quietly tapping something out on his Blackberry.
This is an age of unprecedented classification and unprecedented access, of openness and secrecy that are filling the world like gasses, just as they pervade the space of Manning’s military courtroom. Despite its unassuming setting, this trial has been the beginning of a fight over how the Internet is redefining democracy. The contradictions are not mere metaphors, they are architectural, they are logistical; they invade our cities, our politics, and even our bodies.
In 2011, long after Manning was done and in custody, we classified 92 million documents. “I lived that system for many years, was told that the only secrets worth knowing are the secrets kept by others,” said Thomas Drake, a whistleblower and former NSA executive. “We are living inside of an information revolution — and that is the real threat to the national security state — because they always want to control information.” But at that volume, secrecy isn’t about national security, it’s not even about embarrassment, avoiding accountability, or accumulating power. At 92 million documents a year entering classification, secrecy is just an institution’s knee jerk response.
In the same year, according to a Verizon report, 174 million computer records were compromised in 855 hacking incidents, and “58% of all data theft (was) tied to activist groups.” At so many millions of documents, the hacktivism is just as meaningless as the classification, troves of data no one knows how to make heads or tails of. The dumps of 2011 by groups like Anonymous demonstrated by contrast how selective Manning was.
“I think there is a sense of being under assault by inchoate forces,” said Aftergood, of the government response. “You don’t quite know what they are, what their capabilities are, what their intentions are, if they even have intentions. Or is this something that’s just happening?”
As with all things on the Net, the cables, the most contentious of Manning’s releases, have taken on their own life. Few commentators have pointed to lasting harm to American foreign policy from them. But then, they haven’t been out a “lasting” length of time. A few moments have suggested some of their influence; the blockage of cables relating to Tunisia may have fed the fire of their revolution. The Iraqi government used a cable about war crimes committed by U.S. troops as an argument that troops needed to be subject to local law, a requirement that eventually led to all U.S. troops leaving Iraq. Some people saw a litany of crimes in them; others saw nothing terribly bad. People mostly saw in the cables what they expected to see, in the end. But perhaps more importantly, they had to talk about how they saw the cables, and by extension how they see America.
Is it OK we do nasty things around the world to further the interests of Americans abroad? It’s not a question our government has let us face, but in an age of accidental openness, we might have to take a position on bad things done in dark places, ostensibly for our benefit.
No one knows yet what happens when we conflict with our minders.
Manning allegedly told Lamo, the person who turned him in, “God knows what happens now, hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms… if not… i will officially give up on the society we have if nothing happens.”
At this moment, Snowden has vanished into Russia, Assange still passes time trapped in an embassy. The embattled NSA has announced it will be letting go of 90% of its systems administrators. Afghanistan and Iraq are wracked with seemingly endless violence, while the whole Middle East teeters in uncertainty. In America, people are upset and confused, and our European allies have been in turns condemning us and dealing with domestic scandals as it’s come out they’ve been surveilling with us, too. Our government is fighting constitutional scandals on every side, while privacy services shut down or flee our borders. The world is shrouded in confusion and fear.
Manning, now 25, awaits his sentence. His future is more understandable than ours right now. While we spin into conflict about information, about access, about who gets consulted, Manning will go away into the quiet of a military prison, retired, for now, from the information war he helped start.