How We All Betrayed Bradley Manning

08/16/2013 03:33 pm ET | Updated Oct 16, 2013
  • Urizenus Sklar irl Peter Ludlow, Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern University

I attended Bradley Manning's sentencing hearing on August 13 and 14 at Ft. Meade. The following analysis is based on those hearings, working off of my notes.

Let me begin by saying something about the defense strategy in this case. This is a military court, and the defense has concluded, I think correctly, that any defense based on the rightness of what Bradley did is simply not possible. We may believe that he did the right thing by leaking documents, but that defense is not an option in a military court -- the judge simply is not going to accept that even if she were to secretly believe it. I even doubt that a defense team could be assembled under those terms. Bradley is looking at possible life in prison, and perhaps the best case scenario is that he could serve 20 years in military prison if the court can be convinced that he was simply well-intentioned but disturbed and badly misguided.

Whatever we may think of that line of defense there is plenty of evidence to support it and during the two days I was attending court the defense made this point with considerable success. But in doing so I think the defense also successfully put the United States military on trial, and in a certain sense, it put all of us on trial. The military failed Bradley Manning, his parents failed him, society failed him. We all failed him. Indeed, we continue to fail him.

Let's begin with Manning's home life. The defense called his sister Casey to the stand and she testified about Bradley's early years. Bradley was born on his sister's 11th Birthday. His mother was a dysfunctional alcoholic and was drinking heavily well into the second trimester (quite possibly throughout her pregnancy). A military forensic psychiatrist diagnosed Bradley as having fetal alcohol syndrome. This, according to the psychiatrist, was evident even in Bradley's facial morphology --the thin upper lip and the missing two lines between his nose and mouth are typical of fetal alcohol syndrome. That syndrome was also manifest in a number of Manning's behaviors to this day.

Bradley was born underweight and it seems his parents did not subsequently do a particularly good job of taking care of his nutritional needs. His aunt said that his parents only served him baby food and milk until he was two years old. After that it was all Kid Cuisine and fried food. As many of you know he is today quite diminutive. He is 5 feet 2 inches tall, and, according to his aunt, when he enlisted in the army he had to struggle to make minimum weight -- 109 pounds.

Manning was clearly not military material by any stretch of the imagination, but we will get back to why he enlisted in a bit; first a bit more about his family -- again based on the testimony of this sister and his aunt.

According to his sister, the mother began drinking at noon every day and was completely dysfunctional throughout the day. The sister, Casey, basically took over all the responsibility for raising Bradley. Additionally, according to the sister, the mother could not write (she could read) and could not drive a car. Thus she could not take care of basic household book-keeping or even drive for errands. This became an issue at one point as they lived the country and were pretty much isolated.

The father was not much better. He too was an alcoholic, but a functional alcoholic, doing computer work for Hertz. He seemed to be pretty indifferent to Bradley. One story in particular stood out. When Bradley was around 12, the father told the mother that he was leaving them. That night she took a bottle of Valium along with her usual alcohol intake and then came and told Casey what she had done. They were probably a half hour from the hospital so they had to drive (there was no time to wait for an ambulance). The father couldn't drive because he was drunk, so Casey had to drive. The father also refused to sit in back with the mother so Bradley had to sit with her and keep her from passing out on the trip to the hospital.

The situation with the mother became worse after the father left. In one incident she took a swing at Casey and Casey pushed her down. The mother was unable to get up and spent the night on the floor sleeping. Shortly after that the mother kicked Casey out of the house. Bradley, now age 13, was left a lone with an alcoholic mom in an isolated location.

At some point (now the sequence of events is hazy to me) Bradley went and lived with his Aunt, who seemed quite together (and who had an excellent rapport with the judge). She seemed to be the only real parent in Bradley's life.

At a later point Casey got married in Las Vegas and the family flew out for the wedding. Bradley was living with his Aunt at this point. During that trip one day the father picked Bradley up and took him until 8 pm and then dropped him off without having fed him. He would not see Bradley the rest of the time they were there.

This takes us to the question of why a guy like Bradley would want to go into the military. The Aunt was apparently really taken aback when Bradley said he was going in the military. But the decision seems to be driven by the father, who insisted that Bradley had to get the GI Bill in order to go to college. Why? Who knows. But Bradley accepted this. He definitely belonged in college and deserved to go to college; everyone agrees that his intelligence level was quite high even though he had numerous emotional problems.

Bradley's first attempt at basic training failed when he was injured and the Aunt was hoping this would be the end of a bad idea, but the father again insisted that Bradley should try again so he could go to college on the GI bill.

Bradley eventually passed basic and ended up doing intelligence work in Iraq. It was also becoming clearer to him that he had "gender dysphoria" (a technical term used by the defense experts). On one of his leaves he experimented with living as a woman and took a picture of himself made up as a woman, which he subsequently emailed to his Master Sergeant (Atkins) in an email entitled "My Problem".

In his time in service it should have been clear to everyone that Bradley was a psychological basket case. This was in the days of DADT (Don't ask don't tell) so he could have been removed from the military for discussing "his problem" with his colleagues and supervisors. He was a loner to begin with and had trouble engaging people socially in any case (this related to the fetal alcohol syndrome). He was struggling with a lot of issues involving his sexual identity (and identity in general) and had no one to turn to for help.

There were many signals that Bradley was not mentally well in service. At one point, when being counseled for tardiness, he became angry and overturned a table with a laptop and desktop computer on it. He had to be physically subdued at that point (a sergeant put him in a full Nelson headlock) and in that instance there was some fear he was going to go for the weapons rack.

In another incident, Master Sergeant Atkins was called in and found Bradley in the storeroom adjacent to his workstation. Bradley was in the fetal position, holding his head, and rocking back and forth. At his feet was a Gerber knife with a 2-3 inch blade, folded open, and he had carved the words "I WANT" into the vinyl seat of a folding chair. The Master Sergeant got him up and made him go back to his work station. This led to an interesting exchange between the defense (Coombs) and the Master Sergeant (Atkins ).

[Again this is not from the transcript but from my notes]

Atkins: I put him back at his workstation
Coombs: Why would you ever do that?
Atkins: There were tasks to do.
Coombs: Why not take him to mental health immediately.
Atkins: I don't know sir. We did later.
Coombs: But he assaulted xxx that same shift.

Atkins later received a letter of reprimand and was demoted in rank for this, and it seems like he ended up being the fall guy for the entire mess. There was plenty of mess to go around.

One thing that became clear in the testimony is that a number of soldiers found the chain of command in this operation in Iraq to be kind of a mess. To my ears it sounded like a total disaster, but perhaps to a military court it sounded like SOP FUBAR.

There was plenty of discussion of why Manning had not been issued a DEROG (derogatory letter) for his behavior and it seems to be the case that they needed his work product badly and that the stoploss policy was figuring in their thinking. A DEROG might have meant Manning would be separated from the unit, and whatever one might have thought about his behavior, no one questioned his work product.

As Atkins put it, Manning "was the person who had the best handle on the most active and dangerous threat." Atkins felt he had the best handle on the Shia insurgency.

One thing that was clear however, was that the security procedures were a mess. The defense called a former Lt. Colonel (Lilian Smith) who worked in the area of Information Assurance. When asked by the defense what the Information Assurance procedures were she said "There weren't ANY information assurance practices." (Her emphasis.)

She said that no one seemed to understand what a DEROG was and that it should have been issued in the case of Manning. Also, "it was an undisciplined environment when it came to Information Assurance".

Smith identified 15 red flags -- or failures of security procedure, including the control of CDs in the workspace. (Relevant in the Manning case since he used CDs to download materials).

I have much more, but people who are interested should seek out a transcript or follow the superb work of Alexa O'Brien and Kevin Gostzola.

Let me return to the issue of Manning and how we all failed him, and there is plenty of fail to go around. The indictment is of the entire military but it goes much broader I believe.

First, we failed Bradley when we allowed him to be born into a society that could not properly educate his parents or take care of their substance abuse problems. It failed him when it forced an innocent kid like that with severe developmental and psychological problems to be raised in abject poverty for much of his life.

We failed him when we structured our education system so that the only way someone as bright but as poor as Manning could go to college was via the GI Bill.

There aren't just liberal tropes of failure here. The failure of the family is a real thing and his father failed him badly, but more broadly how can we live in a society when it is somehow ok for a father to abrogate his responsibility to his son like that.

The military of course failed him on many levels. The first issue had to do with why we were even there. But the institution of stoploss policies also played a role. People who were not suited to staying there were forced or encouraged to stay on duty when it simply was not appropriate. The DADT policy made it difficult to impossible for Bradley to seek out help.

The military failed Bradley on so many other levels. The failure of the chain of command is a factor -- someone should have DEROGed him. He should have been removed from intelligence work. He was not well. He needed help and he also needed to be removed from his work station.

The security breach for which Manning is being blamed is not the action of one crazy idealistic misguided soldier. It is a complete breakdown of administrative and security assurance procedures. It was a systemic problem.

But the military must also think about the conditions that led Manning to leak the documents that he did. In his statement at the beginning of the trial he described a case where he felt this was necessary. In February 2010, he received a report of an event in which the Iraqi Federal Police had detained 15 people for printing "anti-Iraqi" literature. Upon investigating the matter, Manning discovered that none of the 15 had previous ties to anti-Iraqi actions or suspected terrorist organizations. Manning had the allegedly anti-Iraqi literature translated and found that, contrary to what the Federal Police had said, the published literature in question "detailed corruption within the cabinet of al-Maliki's government and the financial impact of his corruption on the Iraqi people."

When Manning reported this discrepancy to the Officer in Charge (OIC) he was stonewalled. "The top OIC and the [unavailable] battle captain informed me they didn't want or need to know this information anymore. They told me to quote "drop it" unquote and to just assist them and the Federal Police in finding out where more of these print shops creating quote "anti-Iraqi literature" unquote might be."

Manning could not play along. As he put it, he knew if he "continued to assist the Baghdad Federal Police in identifying the political opponents of Prime Minister al-Maliki, those people would be arrested and in the custody of the Special Unit of the Baghdad Federal Police and very likely tortured and not seen again for a very long time -- if ever." He was likewise upset by the gun camera video showing the killing of innocent civilians -- which the military was at the time denying. Manning felt compelled to pass this information on to WikiLeaks after the New York Times and Washington Post did not express any interest in the documents (yes, he went to them first). So the corporate media failed him (and yes, it failed all of us).

Let's pause and think about this. Here is a kid who had a horrific early life and who had every reason to turn bad or to just give up on life. He was thrust into a difficult work situation but, even as he struggled with his personal problems, when confronted with wrongdoing he had the strength and courage to stand up in a way that most of us, having led lives of privilege, would never have done.

As the final betrayal, to have any hope of some day leaving prison, his acts of strength and moral courage must be characterized by the defense team in court as "post-adolescent idealism" (and by the prosecution as "espionage" and "providing aid and comfort to the enemy"). That he is looking at life in prison suggests a moral failure that permeates out society from top to bottom. The mere fact that he had to live the life he did, suggests a societal moral failure no less significant.

God bless Bradley Manning. He deserved better. From all of us.