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Bradley Manning: From Oklahoma to Baghdad to Prison

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After nearly ten months pretty much in the dark -- often literally, in near-solitary confinement in the Quantico brig -- Pvt. Bradley Manning finally received massive mainstream media attention last week. Harsh prison conditions, including forced nudity, for the man accused of leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks finally drew widespread condemnation on the editorial pages of major newspapers and other news outlets, and from many others.

Activists, human rights advocates and bloggers had raised the issue for months to little avail until Hillary Clinton's chief State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley, joined them, leading to Crowley's forced exit -- and sparking widespread outrage.

But how much do we know about Manning, his legal case and how his incarceration reached this point? Most people still know very little. My book Bradley Manning: Truth and Consequences -- the first book about him -- was published yesterday as an e-book here and print here. Below is the first excerpt from the book.

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Bradley E. Manning was born on December 17, 1987, in Crescent, Oklahoma, a town of a little more than a thousand people in the central part of the state. If the name of the town sounds familiar it's probably because it was once the site of the Kerr-McGee nuclear fuel processing facility that became famous thanks to Karen Silkwood, a young technician and union activist there who informed the Atomic Energy Commission about radiation hazards at the plant in the summer of 1974. Frustrated by the lack of response, she decided to leak documents to a New York Times reporter. After a union meeting in the town's Hub Cafe on November 13, 1974, she left to meet him in Oklahoma City.

She never got there. Silkwood died when her car struck a culvert, and the cause has been debated ever since. The crash was portrayed ambiguously in the 1983 film Silkwood (starring Meryl Streep and Cher in Oscar-nominated roles). Did Silkwood simply doze off? Or was her car rammed from behind by a Kerr-McGee goon? Friends claimed she had received several threatening phone calls that autumn. The documents and binder intended for the Times reporter, perhaps in her Honda at the time of the crash, were never found. In any event, her death brought significant attention to problems at the plant, including the misplacing of 44 to 66 pounds of plutonium. Kerr-McGee closed the site in 1975 and Crescent's population has dropped by about one-quarter since.

Crescent residents still argue about Silkwood today: Hero or political malcontent? Straight or gay? Murder or accident? And what exactly was in her "leak"?

A couple of decades after Silkwood's death, Bradley Manning grew up with his family out in the countryside in a two-story house near the end of a gravel road. As a technician for five years in the Navy in the 1970s, Brian Manning was stationed for a time at Cawdor Barracks, a U.S. base near Haverfordwest in Wales. There he met Susan Fox, who lived nearby. After marriage, they moved to Crescent, from where Brian commuted to his tech job with Hertz Rent-a-Car in Oklahoma City. Susan gave birth to a daughter, Casey, and then in 1987, Bradley arrived.

Since Brian Manning had to spend a lot of time away from home, his son learned to fend for himself. Neighbors who watched Bradley grow up told reporter local Denver Nicks that his father "was just real demeaning" or words to that effect. Former friends of the boy say he developed a reputation for being a "quiet but not exactly anti-social kid." Sometimes he hacked into computer games. Longtime friend Jordan Davis later told NBC that he was someone who "often got under his classmates' skin."

Bradley went to Crescent schools until eighth grade. Slight of build, he played the saxophone in a band, avoided sports and was a good student for the most part. He was outspoken about government and religion and would get into arguments in class. On religion, Bradley stood out from his peers in the Bible Belt of Oklahoma in openly mocking religion. Former classmates recall he would refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance, presumably because of the "under God" part of the Pledge. And, although he was raised Catholic, he claimed he never believed a word of it.

Just into the first semester of eighth grade, his father came home and told his mother that he wanted a divorce. This inspired Bradley to tell Davis and another pal that he was gay. Then he moved with his mother to Wales.

In Haverfordwest, he was not comfortable with telling others that he was gay and became more introverted, quiet at school when not irritable. A fellow student, James Kirkpatrick, found Manning to be "different and interesting," according to Ed Caesar in a story about Bradley's years in Wales for The Sunday Times of London. Manning would show off his computer expertise, a skill that Kirkpatrick found to be "awesome." Everything that made bullies want to pick on the undersized Manning made Kirkpatrick interested in being his friend.

"He stuck out," Kirkpatrick told Caesar. "Very quirky, very opinionated, very political, very clever, very articulate. He could be quite anxious and frustrated, and people used to bully him a little bit to try and get a reaction out of him... He never told me he was gay, I don't think he told anyone."

Upon finishing high school, he returned to Oklahoma, lived with his dad and began work for a software company. Then, according to friends, his father found out he was gay and kicked him out (his father denies this, citing fights with him and his stepmother). Bradley turned to old friend Jordan Davis for help and, after living out of a car for awhile, he stayed with Davis in Tulsa. He moved from low-wage job to low-wage job, from F.Y.E. to Incredible Pizza. He drifted to Chicago, then to Potomac, Maryland, where he moved in with an aunt. He took jobs at Starbucks and Abercrombie & Fitch, enrolled in a few community college classes and earned enough money to take a trip to Chicago for a music festival.

Not long after that, in 2007, Manning joined the military. Accounts differ on exactly why.

According to Jordan Davis, his friend had always wanted to serve in the Army. He "had views about the world," and some of those views were very "pro-America, pro-Army," Davis told reporter Ed Caesar. But he added: "I was a little worried about Bradley joining the army. I think he underestimated the culture of the military."

He "thought it would be incredibly interesting, and exciting," Davis told Denver Nicks. "He was proud of our successes as a country. He valued our freedom, but probably our economic freedom the most. I think he saw the U.S. as a force for good in the world...."

But Manning's father told a different story when interviewed in 2011 for a PBS Frontline documentary about Bradley. Brian Manning said his son had never wanted to join the military and only signed up after he pushed Bradley to do so. "I didn't make him," Manning told Frontline. "I twisted his arm and urged him as much as a father can possibly urge somebody....because he needed structure in his life. He was aimless."

While at Fort Huachuca in Arizona for training, Manning was reprimanded for posting messages to friends on YouTube that revealed sensitive information. Still, he gained the status of an intelligence analyst with a security clearance. Next he was stationed at Fort Drum in upstate New York.

Manning spent the holidays at the end of 2008 in the Washington, D.C. area, and announced he had a new boyfriend, Tyler Watkins, who was studying neuroscience and psychology at Brandeis, near Boston. Manning often visited him there. Watkins' circle included hackers and other information-must-be-free advocates.

Later he met David House, a young researcher at MIT who hails from Alabama, at a conference House organized. "Clearly Bradley was somehow involved in the hacker culture," House told The Guardian in March 2011. "But he looked a bit like an outsider. Bradley had obviously slept well, he hadn't been up for days on end, his hair was fixed, he had showered. He wasn't dirty, like a typical hacker is."

According to House, Manning had joined the army with the aim of taking advantage of the GI Bill later. "He told me he wanted to go to college to get a master's in physics and a bachelor's in political science - this is what he was shooting for, this intellectual engagement," House said. The hacker community, he added, is "a very creative community, very alluring. These are people who seemingly have no limits. When you come in contact with this very empowering culture, it can suck you in."

In his postings at Facebook, Manning was unusually (one might say, dangerously) open for an active duty gay soldier, with updates such as: "Bradley Manning is in the barracks, alone. I miss you Tyler!" And, "Bradley Manning is glad he is working and active again, yet heartbroken being so far away from hubby."

His dog tags read: "Humanist."

In September 2009, however, his relationship status shifted to "single." An Army probe would later suggest that turmoil in Manning's personal life, which caused some disciplinary problems at Fort Drum - including shouting at officers and throwing chairs - should have warned superiors not to deploy him to Iraq, especially for a job that would feature accessing classified documents. But they did it anyway, faced with the common staffing problems that come with fighting two wars at once.

Spc. Manning arrived in Iraq in late October 2009 with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division. He was handed two dedicated military laptops. One was connected to the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet), used by the State Department and Pentagon to share information; the other enabled entry to the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS), which manages top-secret dispatches.

His Facebook updates were now rare and careful, such as, "Bradley Manning has soft sheets, a comforter, and a plush pillow." But in late-November, from Iraq, he posted, "Bradley Manning feels forgotten already." By his later account (at least according to controversial "chat logs"), he had quickly seen some abuses in Iraq that profoundly troubled him - and he may have already contacted the well-known "whistleblowing" organization WikiLeaks in some manner. In December, a master sergeant who supervised Manning "was so concerned about the private's mental health that he disabled Manning's weapon," The Washington Post would later report.

Near the end of January 2010, Manning returned to the U.S. on leave, and made his way to Cambridge to see Tyler Watkins and other friends. Watkins would later tell reporters that something seemed to be bothering his friend - what to do about certain classified information he felt the world deserved to see. But did he actually go ahead and leak some of it? Less than four months later, Manning would be under military arrest and behind bars, in Kuwait. The "Bradley Manning" book is available as an e-book here and print here. Greg Mitchell has written a daily WikiLeaks live-blog at The Nation since last November. His previous book was "The Age of WikiLeaks: From Collateral Murder to Cablegate (and Beyond)." To reach him by email: epic1934@aol.com
Truth and Consequences
By GREG MITCHELL