i could’ve sold to russia or china

Jeremy Harding

  • The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story of the Suspect Behind the Largest Security Breach in US History by Chase Madar
    OR, 167 pp, £10.00, April 2012, ISBN 978 1 935928 53 9

What was troubling Julian Assange when he made a dash for friendly extra-territorial space? His detractors argue that it’s the usual story, to do with his propensity to see himself as the centre of the universe, and the target of an improbable plot to lock him up in the US and throw away the key. That last honour has already been bestowed on Bradley Manning. In the leaker, surely, the Americans have their man: why bother with his celebrity publisher? Outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in Hans Crescent, round the back of Harrods, a thin but emblematic presence is maintained by his supporters. While I was there earlier this month a French woman was squatting on the pavement, hunched over a placard, shading in the letters of a message that she later tied to one of the crowd barriers. It read, very roughly: Thank you, Assange, for giving us a history of the vanquished. She was thinking of something by Brecht, she said, or possibly Walter Benjamin. An older, more eccentric figure assured me that Assange had sneaked away from the embassy the week before through a tunnel under Harrods: the store’s security guards had just let her in on the secret. A third insisted there was only one way out of Hans Crescent for the man who’d already left by al-Fayed’s drains: first Rafael Correa’s government grants asylum, then Assange is set on a rapid path to Ecuadorian citizenship and finally awarded a minor consular position, which gets him from the steps of the embassy to a boarding gate at Heathrow under diplomatic immunity.

On a recent visit to Queensland – Assange’s home state – the US ambassador in Australia said the US could have him extradited as easily from Britain as from Sweden, only they weren’t bothered. Bob Carr, the Australian foreign minister, is equally relaxed: the reluctance of the US to extract Assange from the UK, he’s said, is proof of its dying enthusiasm for the chase. Carr can always be relied on to stick to the script, but the idea that the US could get Assange from the UK as easily as Sweden has to be tested not simply against the views of Assange’s lawyers and helpmates, but those of John Bellinger, for example, a former legal counsel for the State Department, who told AP television news in 2010 that bringing charges against Assange while he was still in the UK would put a loyal ally on the spot by generating a rival extradition request. Better for the US to sit it out: ‘We could potentially wait to see if he is prosecuted in Sweden and then … ask the Swedes to extradite him here.’ Assange’s people add that, unlike the British, the Swedes have an extradition treaty with the US which allows for ‘temporary surrender’ of suspects wanted for serious crimes, even if they are also charged in Sweden. This arrangement ought to be called the ‘Panama track’, after a 2008 diplomatic cable from the US Embassy in Panama City to Washington – courtesy of WikiLeaks – which sets out the advantages clearly:

Under this procedure, the suspect is ‘lent’ to the US for prosecution on the condition that they will be returned for prosecution in Panama at the end of their sentence. This procedure is much faster than a formal extradition, and has proven so successful, that [the Drug Enforcement Administration] sometimes designs operations to bring suspects to Panama so they can be arrested in Panama and turned over to US authorities quickly.

In Assange’s favour is the suggestion that any charge against him would also have to apply to Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the New York Times, as WikiLeaks’ US partner for the Afghan and Iraq war logs and the outlet for its diplomatic cables. As Chase Madar explains in The Passion of Bradley Manning, none of the material that Manning allegedly leaked is top secret. Out of roughly 250,000 diplomatic cables, for instance, 15,000 to 16,000 are ‘secret’ and fewer than half are classified. As classified files go, they pale by comparison with the papers Daniel Ellsberg leaked in the thick of the Vietnam War. Finally, there is a view in the administration that the leaks have not compromised national security. (The documents that make this case – one originating from the White House – are themselves classified, and Manning’s lawyer has already subpoenaed some of them.)

Even so there are reasons for Assange to be cautious. Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a written statement for the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this month that he had indeed ‘caused serious harm to US national security and he should be prosecuted accordingly.’ That might mean little in an election year, but what of the alarming trove of email traffic at Stratfor, the private security and ‘global intelligence’ firm in Texas, which was obtained by the hacktivist collective Anonymous and released by WikiLeaks six months ago? Among the 5.5 million messages, several relate to Assange and one of them, from Fred Burton, the company’s ‘vice president for counter-terrorism and corporate security’, says simply: ‘Not for Pub – We have a sealed indictment on Assange. Pls protect.’ True or false, this is not the kind of assertion Assange can afford to take lightly.

An overriding cause for concern is the statistical picture, summarised by Madar, of prosecutions under Obama: in the last four years, six people, including Manning, have been charged under the Espionage Act (1917) for disclosures of classified information. ‘Although candidate Obama campaigned as the whistleblower’s loyal friend and protector,’ Madar writes, ‘he has presided over more leaks prosecutions under the act – a use that the statute’s authors never intended – than all his predecessors combined.’ Assange is not on the US government payroll, unlike the others, but he remains unfinished business for the US, waiting in the Ecuadorian Embassy, listening to the machinery whirring around him as Foreign Office staff board flights for Quito and the Ecuadorian government checks every safety mechanism, keen to avoid any misunderstandings with the British. Meanwhile the high-level Syrian emails now being released by WikiLeaks are proof that Assange isn’t twiddling his thumbs. Western surveillance technology companies and defence contractors will feature prominently in the 2.4 million documents in prospect. In the first release the focus is on the Italian defence company Finmeccanica and its sales of mobile communications equipment to the government in Damascus, the last as recent as February.

Bradley Manning, by contrast, is out of the game. His exemplary punishment is required by the fact that he was a soldier working in intelligence. Assange may be a crusader but he was not enlisted for his country, or anyone’s, when he posted nearly half a million ‘significant action’ logs from Afghanistan and Iraq and a quarter of a million diplomatic cables on WikiLeaks, all of them sourced by a thoughtful soldier in Iraq. Manning, who has spent two years in detention, first at the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia and now in Fort Leavenworth, is charged under the Espionage Act and also with ‘aiding the enemy’.

At his work station in a prefab intelligence building in Iraq, Manning came rapidly to feel that secrecy was a blight on everything he valued. Above all, that it set the scene for illegality and swept up hurriedly behind it. Madar agrees and praises Manning’s ‘glowing contribution … to freedom and justice around the world’. At the beginning of the 1990s, Madar tells us, the US government was classifying about six million documents a year; in 2010 the figure was closer to eighty million: 9/11 accounts for this increase, but so does the ease with which documents can be generated and stored. There is also a new fixation with secrecy in an age in which information overkill is the real ally of regimes that wish to march people away in broad daylight. The internet shines a light on everything and everyone, 24/7: a source of strength, for hackers and evangelists like Assange, is always a potential weakness, as it is for their sworn enemies.

Is there a difference between military secrets and those that arise in the management of civilian life by governments which may or may not be at war? On the face of it there seems to be, but the US is on a war footing, openly or otherwise, most of the time, and military security has repercussions in the realm of what we now call civil society. At the same time, the values of civilian life are dutifully streamed on to the front line for Coalition troops, to remind them of the freedoms they are defending, or enforcing. Laying on all the electronic comforts of home is a key part of the quartermastering.

The open-plan area where Manning worked at Forward Operating Base Hammer was, in Madar’s words, ‘a large windowless warehouse full of computers and desks and power cords’. And intelligence staffers with various levels of security clearance. Like the crew of the Nostromo in Alien, parked in some remote corner of the universe, the people in this hermetic vessel enjoyed a degree of leisure culture. The staff in the intelligence area, known as the Secure Compartmented Information Facility (Scif), were endlessly footling online, pulling their favourite music videos from their shoulder-bags or burning disks. Manning describes it in a transcript of one of the chat logs handed to the FBI and army security:

everyone just sat at their workstations … watching music videos/car chases/buildings exploding … and writing more stuff to CD/ DVD … the culture fed opportunities … funny thing is … we transferred so much data on unmarked CDs … everyone did … videos … movies … music … all out in the open.

And then there was any amount of devastating information that undercut everything the war was meant to be about. In space, Manning might have recalled, no one can hear you scream. But the new technology had changed that. It’s hard to believe that geeks and ‘tech-libertarians’, as Madar calls them, can transform the world in ways that matter. But they can alter the discussion radically, which is what WikiLeaks and Manning pulled off in 2010, with exhaustive confirmation that the war in Iraq had been a terrible mistake.

Manning has the information gene: his father was a signals buff with security clearance, deployed by the US navy to Cawdor Barracks, Haverfordwest, where he met Manning’s mother in the 1970s. (The facility is now the home of 14th Signal Regiment, electronic warfare specialists who can shut down discussion altogether if they choose to.) Manning Sr encouraged his son’s interest in computers and taught him C++ programming. ‘Manning had designed his first website,’ Madar tells us, ‘at the age of ten.’ The Manning household began to come apart as he hit his teens and in 2001 his mother left Crescent, Oklahoma, and took him to Wales. When he returned to Oklahoma on his own in 2005, his father got him a job in a local software company, but it didn’t work out, and after a while drifting around – Tulsa, Chicago, Washington DC – he decided to enlist.

His cursus through the military was rocky. In the autumn of 2007 he reported at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri and was soon in the ‘discharge unit’, where recruits considered unfit to serve were referred before returning home. He stood 5’2”, he was minded to distinguish right from wrong and sense from nonsense, he was gay. He was bullied during basic training and again by the other men in the discharge unit, who would all end up outside the army. But Manning was recycled. A fellow trainee, interviewed for Guardian Films last year, thought the army was desperate.

I know for a fact that in 2007 recruiting numbers were the lowest they had ever been. They were lowering recruitment standards like crazy. I mean, facial tattoos, too tall, too short, too fat, criminal record – it didn’t matter. They even upped the age limit. You could be 42 years old and still enlist for basic training. It was take everybody you could get. Keep hold of everybody you can get.

Manning went on to Arizona for a stint in intelligence training and from there, in the summer of 2008, to Fort Drum in upstate New York, where he remained until October 2009. At that point he was deployed to FOB Hammer, about 35 miles east of Baghdad, as an intelligence analyst in the Scif. Here, as Madar explains, he could access SIPRNet, the router network shared by the Defense and State Departments to transfer classified data. He could also avail himself of the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System, a closed government internet used by key departments, including Defense, Homeland Security, State and Justice, to exchange classified and top secret materials. After a few weeks in Iraq, Manning got high-level security clearance.

Madar identifies a crucial moment in the chat logs that explains Manning’s disillusion about the conduct of the war. One of his tasks was to investigate a group of Iraqis who’d been rounded up for criticising the government, but as Manning was shortly to ascertain, there was no wrongdoing. They had produced a pamphlet called Where Did the Money Go?, which he had read to him by an interpreter only to discover that it ‘was following the corruption trail’ in al-Maliki’s cabinet: ‘i immediately took that information and *ran* to the officer to explain what was going on … he didn’t want to hear any of it … he told me to shut up and explain how we could assist the FPs in finding *MORE* detainees.’

The problem in Madar’s reading was not just censorship but torture, which ‘as Manning well knew, remained a common practice among the Iraqi authorities even six years into the American occupation’. ‘Enhanced interrogation’ was very much Rumsfeld’s bag. In 2005 Peter Pace, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had tried to put a marker down – no US soldier should turn a blind eye to torture in Iraq – but Rumsfeld had already introduced a confidential directive, known as Fragmentary Order 242: US forces were not to intervene or follow up in instances of torture by Iraqi security. Manning had every reason to fear the worst for his dissenters.

Some time towards the end of 2009 he happened on classified video footage – which WikiLeaks later published as ‘Collateral Murder’ – taken from a helicopter gunship that had opened up on a group of people in a suburb of Baghdad. He riffled the files for a date – 12 July 2007 – and GPS co-ordinates, which he then put into Google, coming up with a report in the New York Times about the incident: at least 11 dead – two of them Reuters staff – and a couple of children badly injured. The view from the Apache and the events on the ground were not easy to reconcile. Manning told his confidant on the chat site that he ‘couldn’t let these things stay inside of the system … and inside of my head’. He mulled over the gunsight video ‘for weeks … probably a month and a half … before i forwarded it to them’. By ‘them’ he meant WikiLeaks, though he didn’t say so. The footage was shown at the National Press Club in Washington on 5 April 2010 and the rest we know.

Given that security at the Scif was non-existent, it was easy enough for Manning to take in a CD with a scrawled inscription in felt tip – ‘Lady Gaga’ did the trick – wipe the contents and ‘then write a compressed split file … nobody suspected a thing.’ A former FOB Hammer security staffer explained how easy it could be: ‘There were laptops sitting there with passwords on sticky notes. If someone in uniform came in and sits beside me at a computer and I didn’t know him, I’m not going to stop him and say excuse me, can I see some ID? I’m just gonna be like, “whatever”.’

In December 2009 Manning was so obviously distressed that a psychologist recommended removing the bolt from his service weapon. By the spring of 2010 he was being eaten alive by his demons. On 7 May he had a disagreement with a superior at FOB Hammer and hit her in the face. He was once again Private (first class) Manning, with restricted access to the online-party-venue-cum-chat-palace which, by all accounts, the Scif intelligence area had been from the outset. He was set to fetching and carrying in the storerooms. Two weeks later, exasperated, lonely beyond belief, he made the tragic mistake of opening up an instant-messaging dialogue with Adrian Lamo, a celebrity hacker in Sacramento. By now he had passed on the files. Madar doesn’t tell us how the material got from FOB Hammer to WikiLeaks. Christmas leave in the US is a likely moment. But Manning is awaiting trial and everything he did, said or transmitted online or offline is only ever ‘alleged’ in Madar’s circumspect account.

Lamo emerges as the pale grey, ambiguous figure that any white knight of the codes can become in the struggle to enter and explore forbidden territory. His real-world bisexuality and his kudos as a hacker – he broke into the New York Times network in 2002 – were a draw for Manning, who’d recently ‘exfiltrated’ vast amounts of information, and happened to be gay and stranded in a desert outside Baghdad. Like a mountaineer who’s taken an exhilarating risk, he was ready to share his story and Lamo was a celebrity climber. He did what hackers do best, spending years moving from ledge to ledge in real and virtual environments, cautious and confident by turns. Lamo’s adventure inside the Times had left him with a lot of damages to pay – to the company itself, as well as Yahoo!, Microsoft and MCI – and cost him a six-month gating at his parents’ house as part of a longer probation. In 2004 an ex told Wired that he’d turned a stun-gun on her. Shortly before Manning embarked on the dialogue towards the end of May, Lamo was discharged from a mental hospital in Sacramento where he’d been obliged to spend nine days after a police officer decided he was acting oddly: as it happened, he’d gone to the station to report a missing backpack.

In the chat logs Manning, or bradass87, bares his heart to Lamo. He is desperate, occasionally elated. Of the huge reaction to the Apache gunship incident he says: ‘video is released in 2010, those involved come forward to discuss event, i witness those involved coming forward to discuss publicly, even add them as friends on FB … without them knowing who i am … they touch my life, i touch their life, they touch my life again … full circle.’ Fellowship without intimacy is part of the healing quality of IT for a soldier in a remote posting. It’s also the self-evident solution to his moral quandary. He explains to Lamo that he’s seen ‘awful things’ on ‘classified networks’, ‘incredible things … things that [belong] in the public domain … things that would have an impact on 6.7 billion people.’

That’s a competitive figure. But Manning was not a monopod life-form in the crater of Babel, leaking and tweeting for gain: he was an intelligence staffer tormented by classified material he’d opened and trawled. He became a down-the-line information libertarian in the process. Discussing the diplomatic cables, he says: ‘i could’ve sold to russia or china, and made bank?’ Lamo replies: ‘why didn’t you?’

Manning: because it’s public data.

Lamo: i mean, the cables.

Manning: information should be free … it belongs in the public domain.

Lamo plays his cards close to his chest. In the extracts Madar gives us from the chat logs, his interventions are rare. Here is another during an exchange about lax security at FOB Hammer:

Manning: bringing CDs to and from the networks was/is a common phenomenon

Lamo: is that how you got the cables out?

Manning: perhaps

Two days into their exchange, Lamo contacted the federal authorities; he kept Manning talking for several more and eventually handed a log of the sessions to the FBI in a Starbucks in Sacramento. Life happens over coffee. In Madar’s generous sense of things Lamo had no choice: ‘he most likely turned in his new and unsolicited acquaintance to protect himself from a prison sentence. How many of us, in Lamo’s situation, would do otherwise?’

The dismaying aspect of the story, Madar insists, is that no one leaked sooner: American service personnel and government officials in their tens of thousands had access to the war logs and diplomatic cables. In a brave chapter on ‘Whistleblowers and Their Public’, Madar squares up to the historical evidence that disclosures do not stop a juggernaut in its tracks or even slow it down. ‘The litany is long of colossal game-changing bombshells that made inaudible thuds on impact,’ from Henri Alleg’s La Question (1958), about his torture by the Paras in Algiers, through Ellsberg to Karl Eikenberry’s leaked cable from Kabul (2010), where he was serving as ambassador. Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general, advised in the strongest possible terms against troop escalations and called for a review of the US counter-insurgency programme. ‘Despite Eikenberry’s impeccable credentials, and despite swiftly tanking public support for the war, the cable halted neither Obama’s Afghan surge nor the intensified drone strikes.’ Manning had a notion about the real-time sluggishness of politics, warfare, life and death. ‘Apathy,’ he confided to his fairweather friend on instant messaging, ‘is its own 3rd dimension.’