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“Private”: Bradley Manning’s Story, From Difficult Childhood to Alleged Whistleblower on World Stage

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The new book, “Private: Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks, and the Biggest Exposure of Official Secrets in American History,” tracks Manning’s trajectory from growing up as a gay teen in small-town Oklahoma to joining the U.S. Army, where he found success as an intelligence analyst before being charged with the largest U.S. intelligence breach on record. We speak with the book’s author, Denver Nicks. “In many ways Bradley Manning’s story is the story of the United States in the post-9/11 era,” Nicks says. “[His] life is sort of quintessentially American, in that he’s gay at a time when gay rights goes mainstream. He joins the Army — and as an intelligence analyst, no less — at a time when the national security state really starts to metastasize into something that we have never seen before. … We have more people with more access to more secret information than ever before, while we are living in the post-9/11 era of foreign policy conducted, as Dick Cheney said, in the shadows. We are more dependent than ever on leaks to know what our government is doing. Leaks are not only inevitable, but necessary. … Bradley Manning had access to an extraordinary amount of classified information — more, in fact, than he leaked.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In addition to Kevin Gosztola, we’re joined by Denver Nicks, author of a new book on Bradley Manning called Private: Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks, and the Biggest Exposure of Official Secrets in American History. He’s also a regular contributor to The Daily Beast. Kevin Gosztola is a civil liberties blogger at Firedoglake.

Why did you decide to write this book?

DENVER NICKS: The Bradley Manning story is one of—easily one of the most important stories of the last decade, certainly. In many ways, Bradley Manning’s story is the story of the United States in the post-9/11 era. Bradley Manning’s life is sort of quintessentially American, in that he was—he’s gay at a time when gay rights goes mainstream. He joins the Army—and as an intelligence analyst, no less—at a time when the national security state really starts to metastasize into something that we have never seen before. And, of course, his life intersects with this sort of out-of-control growth in the secrecy state that has existed since 9/11. It’s a hugely important story, and I wanted to tell it from the beginning and get into Manning’s life and who he is.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you focus quite a bit on his early life, his friendships and his development as a geek, before he even got into the military. And could you talk about that, his early life and his family?

DENVER NICKS: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s an important part of the story that has been—I wouldn’t say it’s been overlooked. It’s been covered. I mean, it’s a part of his life that other figures in the media have talked about and looked into, but I didn’t feel that it had been looked into with enough depth and honesty before.

Brad, of course, grew up in Crescent, Oklahoma, not far from where I’m from. I come from Tulsa, Oklahoma. And the circumstances of his early life were really humble. He grew up in a farmhouse outside of a small town. And as I said before, his life is sort of quintessentially American in that he becomes deeply interested in computers and sort of a computer whiz, as it were, at a time when the computer becomes the essential form of—the essential tool for communication. He’s gay in a small conservative town in Oklahoma. And in short, due to the fact that he has this working-class background, he—and his family falls apart when he’s about 13 years old, he has a pretty difficult youth.

Bradley Manning joined the Army, like many, many young men and women do in this country, because it was a great opportunity for him, and, frankly, because it was a great opportunity for the Army. It’s too often overlooked, I think, that Bradley Manning was very well positioned to be a successful intelligence analyst in the United States Army, and by all accounts, in many ways, was a successful intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army. Certainly had troubles along the way, but he was good at his job, and the Army saw that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: One of the interesting aspects of the book is you sort of counterpose the early life of Julian Assange, as well, of him growing up in Australia and his run-ins, as a hacker, with the law in Australia. But then you point out the fact that both Assange and Bradley Manning were influenced by a Richard—the work of Richard Stallman, an advocate of free software and a more open internet. Could you talk about Stallman and how he influenced both of them?

DENVER NICKS: Right. Richard Stallman is sort of one of the guru figures in the hacker community, if you will. He’s the primary proponent and the founder of what’s called the Free Software Foundation, the primary proponent of the notion of free software, which is about, as Stallman would say, free as in freedom, not free beer. The idea basically is that the—is that information should be free. This is one of the places where this idea comes from, that the fundamental currency of politics and culture is information and that information should be free-flowing for a healthy society, for a healthy culture and healthy politics and, in Stallman’s case, for a healthy computer.

Julian Assange was part of this hacker culture in the '80s and early ’90s, and continues to be, but he was at that time. And like many people who are involved in that scene, Assange gets involved in writing open-source software, software based on the premises that Richard Stallman founded, the sort of free software ideals. Bradley Manning, later in his life, becomes good friends with a fellow named Danny Clark, who worked for Richard Stallman at the Free Software Foundation, and to some degree, I think, became interested in Stallman's ideas and the notion that information should be free.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about his trajectory from a computer geek, young kid from Oklahoma—interestingly, right near Kerr-McGee and near where Karen Silkwood was killed—

DENVER NICKS: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: —one of the major whistleblowers of this country, anti-nuclear whistleblower. She was killed leaving a meeting from Crescent, Oklahoma.

DENVER NICKS: That’s right. It’s strange that Karen Silkwood comes from—that she died right outside of Crescent. It’s a very, very small town. And, I mean, the odds that two of the world’s most famous whistleblowers would come from this small town are tiny.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about how he goes from what he was doing in high school to the military.

DENVER NICKS: Right, his—so, Bradley goes to high school in the U.K., in Wales. And he goes back to Oklahoma to get out of a bad situation. He was living with his mom, who was dealing with some health problems and alcohol abuse problems. So he goes back to the United States, moves in with his father. And that situation becomes riddled with conflict pretty quickly. Basically, it comes to a point where he gets kicked out of the house, he’s got to leave, and he’s homeless in Tulsa for a while. Goes on a brief journey from Tulsa to Chicago, lands in Maryland, living with his aunt, and he’s working at a Starbucks.

Essentially, he’s—Bradley Manning is a very ambitious and very bright, thoughtful kid. He knew that he was made for more than working at a pizza parlor in Tulsa or spending the rest of his life working at a Starbucks in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. And he, apparently, after prodding from his father and probably after interacting with people in the national security, in the government universe around in these D.C. suburbs, decides to join the Army, or to look into it, anyway. He made the decision without consulting with many people in his family, announced to his aunt, who he was living with at the time, that he had already joined. When he went to her and told her he was thinking about it, he had already signed his papers.

It was the best option available to him, frankly, and a good option for him. One wishes that—you know, as I’ve said before, he joined the Army before the financial crisis hit in this country; however, if you are in the sort of bottom working-class rung of our socioeconomic structure, the financial crisis began in about 1980. And that’s the financial crisis Bradley Manning was living in. That’s why joining the Army was the best option available to him. He wanted to get a college education and didn’t have a clear route to one.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You also chart out that there were numerous indications throughout his life of some amount of anger management problems, emotional instability, that manifested itself in his early life as well as in the military.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about that?

DENVER NICKS: Yeah. I mean, that’s certainly true. There are—there are these moments in his life when he manifests emotional problems, emotional instability. It’s important to note that if you take any life and put it under a microscope, you’re likely to find instances in which a person appears to be crazy. I’m sure—I know that would be true of me. I assume it would be true of—well, I won’t speak for the both of you—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Never of Amy.

DENVER NICKS: Never of Amy. Certainly not Amy, but maybe Juan and I. So there’s that fact, you know, that people have moments of emotional instability. Everybody does. However, it is clear that Bradley Manning—I mean, he had a rather difficult life. It’s not that he had nothing to be upset about. And the moments of emotional instability manifest themselves throughout his young life and leading up to the Army. And there are indications that the Army, had systems been functioning as they are designed to function, should probably have revoked his security clearance before he—before he was arrested, certainly. There was even discussion about leaving him in the United States when his unit deployed to Iraq.


DENVER NICKS: Because he had—because he had had these moments of outburst while he was a soldier at Fort Drum awaiting deployment, enough to cause concern with some of his superiors that maybe he wasn’t in the right state of mind to deploy to Iraq. Ultimately, the exigencies of a protracted war won out in the calculus, and the Army needed bright, good intelligence analysts, and that’s what Bradley Manning is—was—not an intelligence analyst anymore. But he’s still—he’s still a soldier in the Army.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, very quickly, he goes to Iraq. Where is he? And what does he have access to? Talk about the Lady—what he is charged with in the Lady Gaga CDs.

DENVER NICKS: Right. Well, he’s—so he goes to Iraq, and he had long had access to substantial amounts of information, more information—I mean, Bradley Manning and his peers had more access to state secrets than people in their position of any previous era, because we classify more information than ever and because we, at the same time, share information between agencies in an effort to bulk up our national security and help our intelligence agents do their work. So Bradley Manning had access to an extraordinary amount of classified information—more, in fact, than he leaked.

He goes to Iraq, and he finds himself, as he says, troubled by some of the things he sees. On the other hand, I don’t have the impression that Bradley Manning is a pacifist or was wholly against the war, certainly not when he arrived there. In fact, he talks in some of the chat logs that I quote in my book, chat logs with a friend of his—he talks about wanting to—about considering applying to West Point, about maybe working—about maybe reenlisting and working in the United States Cyber Command.

So he has access to an extraordinary amount information, and he’s accused of obviously using that access to download information onto—well, initially, apparently, onto CDs and transferring that from his work computer to his computer in his—what’s called a CHU, in his room on base, which is—which was only possible, one should note, because it was a very common practice at FOB Hammer, and apparently in many places in Iraq, to burn information onto CDs, classified information onto unmarked discs, and transfer it out of the secure facility, primarily in order to share it with the Iraqi authorities.

AMY GOODMAN: Denver, you focus a great deal in Private, the book about Bradley Manning, on his sexuality. Why?

DENVER NICKS: Yeah. Well, sexuality is an important part of all of our identities, for one thing. For Bradley Manning, it was an important part—it was an exceptionally important part of his identity socially and his identity politically. I think that much too much has been made of the notion that Bradley Manning lashed out at the Army because he was angry about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I have never seen any evidence to support that suggestion. And frankly, that comes—I think that comes from the right-wing blogosphere, and there’s nothing to back it up. However, Brad was—he was very close friends with a fellow named Toby, who was and is a prominent gay rights activist and a politico in the D.C. area. Brad was deeply concerned personally about the fight for marriage equality. These are important driving factors for him ideologically. So that’s why I focus on it. And, of course, his relationship is a hugely important part of his life, leading up to the point when he’s arrested.

AMY GOODMAN: You raise the issue of whether he should be called Breanna or Bradley.

DENVER NICKS: Uh-huh, right. I mean, that’s a—that’s a difficult issue. What Amy’s referencing, of course, is the fact that, not long before he was arrested, Brad apparently created a sort of—I’m not sure what the proper terminology is, but he apparently created an alter ego for a transgendered self that he intended to become that he named Breanna. One asks—you know, one asks oneself if the proper thing to call Brad Manning is in fact Breanna. When Brad Manning indicates to the world that he is now Breanna Manning, I’ll call him Breanna, certainly. I mean, I’ll absolutely respect that. But as of right now, I don’t think we have a clear indication of what exactly Manning prefers to be called.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You also obviously point out the fact that, in this new metastasized national security state that we have with all of this emphasis on gathering of information, that the system itself becomes more vulnerable, because the more that it gathers so much information, centralizes it, shares it, the more that individuals like Bradley Manning, a mere private—he may have been very skilled, but he was just a private in the military—can have access, can get keys into this trove of intelligence.

DENVER NICKS: That’s absolutely right. As I—I wrote in The Daily Beast just today about this instance in which, last week, the New York Times ran these two cover stories about insider information in the Obama administration, one about the origins of the Stuxnet virus and the other about the so-called kill list and the drone assassination program, both of which were widely believed to reflect well on the president for political electoral purposes. I’m not sure that both of those stories do reflect well on the president, but certainly they were interpreted to. Both of those—both of those stories quote high-level, confidential sources divulging classified information.

Senator McCain has made a big deal about this, as others have, that there is apparently this flow of classified information emanating from—from the White House, but there doesn’t seem to be a concerted effort on the part of the White House to crack down on those leaks. Legislators have announced the intention to introduce legislation to crack down on leaks even further, but that doesn’t get at the source of the problem. The problem, as I say, is not that the ship is too leaky, it’s that the ship is too full. We have more people with more access to more secret information than ever before, while we are living in the post-9/11 era of a foreign policy conducted, as Dick Cheney said, in the shadows. We are more dependent than ever on leaks to know what our government is doing. Leaks are not only inevitable, but necessary. So, as I say in the piece, if the administration is leaking information for political gain, it’s reprehensible, but the least of our problems.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what happened to Bradley Manning while in jail? We’ve just passed the two-year anniversary of him being imprisoned.

DENVER NICKS: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: And what we understand has taken place, what a number of human rights groups and leaders have called treatment that amounted to torture—

DENVER NICKS: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: —taken from Quantico—taken from Iraq to Kuwait, then held at Quantico—describe his treatment—and now moved on.

DENVER NICKS: And we shouldn’t forget that this happened. I mean, it was a miscarriage of justice that I think every reasonable person recognizes was a miscarriage of justice at this point. After he was—Bradley Manning was moved to Kuwait initially after his arrest, and then he was taken from Kuwait to Quantico Marine Base, a brig that was not apparently designed as a pretrial confinement facility, though it served that purpose in this instance. Manning was deeply, deeply fraught when he was first arrested, as I certainly would be in that position. But shortly after he was moved to Quantico, the mental health specialists at Quantico determined that he didn’t have to be—that he didn’t need to be kept under suicide watch. Suicide watch is the—was the pretense for keeping him in conditions tantamount to solitary confinement. Bradley Manning’s attorney, David Coombs, tried, from very early on, to get his client moved into lesser—to less harsh conditions. He was, for example—

AMY GOODMAN: Stripped naked at night.

DENVER NICKS: He—early on, he was—he wasn’t stripped naked at night exactly, but he was like not allowed writing utensils in his cell, allowed only one piece of reading material at a time, had to surrender all of his clothes but his underwear in the evening, had to respond verbally to guards to make sure that he was still living but could not converse with guards, and kept in his cell for like 23 hours a day, one hour a day allowed to walk figure eights in an empty gymnasium, essentially.

Later, the situation gets much, much worse, and he is apparently—there’s a moment that he talks about in a complaint that he filed, that is attorney posted on his website, in which the Marine guards, after a protest outside Quantico protesting his treatment, the Marine guards come to him and basically just start harassing him. You know, no answer is the right answer. They are yelling at him. More guards than usual are escorting him around. That situation becomes more aggravated, as he’s stripped naked and is sort of forced to stand at attention naked, which one should note—forced to stand at ease, which is with the feet placed about shoulder width and the hands behind the back—not a good position to sort of modestly cover oneself in front of strangers. So that situation—that situation got totally out of control.

It was, frankly, shameful, and at this point—and ultimately totally backfired on the government. I mean, to be perfectly honest with you, I think that Bradley Manning’s treatment at Quantico, while deeply unfortunate and a terrible ordeal to go through, was ultimately a positive for him. He raised money, because of what the government did to him, for his legal defense, and was impressed, I think, more sympathetically than ever before on the public mindset. The government’s overreaction in that case backfired on the government, made them look—made certain officials look ridiculous. The Quantico brig was ultimately closed.

AMY GOODMAN: And Bradley Manning has been moved to Fort Leavenworth.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to wrap it up there, but I want to thank you very much for being with us, Denver Nicks, author of Private: Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks, and the Biggest Exposure of Official Secrets in American History.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, part two of our conversation with an Israeli and Palestinian filmmaker about a remarkable new film called 5 Broken Cameras. Stay with us.

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