In January 2010, more than 130 people gathered to celebrate the opening of Room B-28, a “hacker space” in the basement of the computer science building at Boston University. The room had two rows of computers running open-source software, and, in conformity to the hacker ethic, its walls were painted with wildly colored murals, extensions of the free expression to be practiced there. That was the reason for the power tools, too — in case someone wanted to build something amazing and beautiful, such as the musical staircase, under construction now, that chimes when you step on it.
One of the visitors was a young Army specialist named Bradley Manning, on leave from duty in Iraq. He had been working with computers, modifying code, since he was a kid. David House, founder of the hacker space, said he immediately sensed that Manning “was in the community,” someone who understood how technology could be empowering. This was the sort of world Manning hoped to inhabit one day, friends said. He had joined the Army so the GI Bill would finance his education. He had his eye on a PhD in physics.
Days later, he would be on a plane back to Baghdad and a culture where rule-breaking was not celebrated. And eight months after that, House — who had chatted with the man for barely 15 minutes — went to visit him in the brig at the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia, where Manning was being held as the prime suspect inthe largest national security leak in U.S. history.
He is accused of violating military computer security and leaking classified information to the insurgent Web site WikiLeaks. He faces 22 charges, including “aiding the enemy,” a capital crime. The material includes a video of an Apache helicopter firing on civilians in Baghdad, daily field reports from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a quarter-million cables from U.S. diplomats around the world. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called the cable leaks “an attack on America’s foreign policy interests.”
For most of the past year, Manning spent 23 hours a day alone in a 6-by-12-foot jail cell. His case has become a rallying point for free-information activists, who say the leaked information belongs to the American people. They compare the 23-year-old former intelligence analyst to Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Vietnam War-era Pentagon Papers, and decry excessive government secrecy. “What is happening to our government when Bradley Manning is charged with aiding the enemy?” asked Pete Perry, an organizer with the Bradley Manning Support Network. “Who is the enemy? Information? The American people?”
The case raises troubling issues. Placing information in the public domain has never before been construed as aiding the enemy. Manning had a history of emotional outbursts throughout his youth, and they continued during his Army service, culminating in a breakdown in Baghdad.
How did a young man of such promise wind up in a brig? And how was he in a position to potentially access sensitive material given what the Army knew — or should have known — about him? Who is Bradley Manning, and what made him the way he is?
Manning’s path to jail began in a one-stoplight Oklahoma town so pious he liked to quip that it had “more pews than people.” There are a dozen churches in Crescent’s one square mile, and its pastures are dotted with oil derricks and bales of hay.
Manning’s parents — a young Navy veteran skilled in computer programming and his Welsh wife — moved to Oklahoma from California in 1983 with their 7-year-old daughter, Casey. Brian Manning had married Susan Fox the day after his 21st birthday in Wales, where he had been stationed.
The couple had tried for years to have another child, so Bradley’s arrival exactly 11 years after his sister’s was an occasion. His early years, spent in Arizona and Oklahoma, were happy ones. The girl was crazy for her little brother, bounced him on her knees as he “laughed and laughed.” His mother noticed that even as a 6-month-old, Bradley was fascinated by the computer. “He would sit with his father and just peck, peck, peck” at the keyboard, she said in an interview during a trip to see her son at Quantico.
The family lived in a neatly kept two-story house on five acres on an isolated dirt road several miles outside Crescent, where they had what Casey calls a “hobby farm.” There were two horses, a cow, pigs and chickens, a large vegetable garden and a pond stocked with perch. Susan was a homemaker and expert knitter who worked odd jobs but never learned to drive. She was a doting, even indulgent mother who let Bradley cover the entire second-story floor with his Lego creations.
Bradley was like a “hummingbird,” said his aunt, Debra Manning. “Always moving fast, taking a short rest, then back in motion again.” He’d talk just as quickly, his words tumbling over his thoughts.