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Bradley Manning, Wikileaks, and the Biggest Exposure of Official Secrets in American History
By Denver Nicks
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2012 Denver Nicks
All rights reserved.
Crescent, Oklahoma, appeared out of the wilderness in the fevered summer of 1899, after the lands left unassigned to Indian tribes in Oklahoma Territory were opened to white settlement. Would-be homesteaders had clamored for years for the opening up of this rare remaining tract of unsettled federal land in the fertile plains, and when, at noon on April 22, a gunshot announced the beginning of Oklahoma's first land run, a disorderly horde of people on horseback, foot, and the occasional bicycle raced to claim plots of their own. It was the last yawn of the American frontier, the triumph of Manifest Destiny, and, for those who struck out to this untrammeled Eden, a moment of profound optimism almost unimaginable in modern America. In the cross-timbers north of the Cimarron River, settlers staked out a trading post cradled in the nook of a clump of trees that formed the shape of a waxing moon. They named their new town Crescent.
Amid the fanatical confidence of the land run, Crescent's population boomed. The land was tilled into orchards of peaches, pears, apples, and grapes and fields of wheat, corn, and cotton, and the settlement grew into a one-square-mile rectangular grid, bisected by Highway 74, with a railroad stop next to the grain elevator that pumped life into the local economy. Banks, a hardware store, and restaurants grew up along Grand Avenue through the center of town. For most of the twentieth century, Crescent escaped the fate of slow decline that emptied out so many small towns in Middle America. Into this close-knit farming community of 2,800 souls in the heart of America's Bible Belt, Brian Manning moved with his Welsh wife and six-year-old daughter in the summer of 1983.
Brian Manning had grown up in Chicago but left home at seventeen. He used those first couple of years away from home to party — hard. In 1974, after a booze-soaked weekend like many before it, he made his way to a navy recruiting office, determined to get his life on track. He enlisted. He was nineteen years old. The navy trained Brian as an intelligence analyst, gave him a security clearance, and shipped him overseas.
Brian Manning met Sue Fox in Haverfordwest, where she was raised. This small but bustling market town of fewer than 15,000 straddled a tidal river in rugged southwest Wales. The young sailor was stationed at an air force base there, where he worked maintaining the military's then-cutting edge computer systems. In 1976, on the day after Brian turned twenty-one, the couple married; later that year, on December 17, their daughter, Casey, was born.
Brian got out of the navy in 1979 and completed an associate degree in computer science at a community college in Orange County, California. He planned to continue at UC Irvine, but in the summer before the start of the school year a position became available setting up and managing industrial-scale computers systems at Hertz Renta-Car in Oklahoma City. It was a well-paying job with the chance for advancement and substantial travel. Unlike in Southern California, in Oklahoma Brian could afford to buy a comfortable house in the exurbs for his wife and six-year-old daughter and prepare a space in the family for the next child he and his wife hoped soon to have.
The Manning family moved into a humble, two-story, white farmhouse several miles north of Crescent, on five acres of land off a remote road where the gravel thins just before conceding to the red dirt underneath. Here, on the outskirts of a rural Oklahoma town, the computer engineer and the young Welsh woman who married him assembled the idyllic home into which Bradley was born on his sister's eleventh birthday, December 17, 1987.
Brian and Sue had tried for years to have another child, and the boy was welcomed into a loving family. Casey adored her little brother. Brian could be stern and distant and spent long stretches away on business trips to Europe, but even when Bradley was a baby his dad invited him into his world of computers, letting the boy sit with him and peck away at the keyboard.
Sue loved little children. She liked to get out her Russian nesting dolls and Jacob's ladder, toys that are, notably, more for adults who are playing with little kids than for little kids playing among themselves. She was a doting mother, with little in life but her household. A small-town girl herself, she didn't work and didn't drive, instead spending her days caring for her young and keeping a neat home. She spent time in her abundant organic garden, pulling weeds; planting corn, tomatoes, asparagus, peppers, and sundry other vegetables; and picking fresh blackberries. On some mornings, she squeezed fresh juice from oranges and called to her son, who came bounding downstairs to the kitchen for breakfast with Mum. When Bradley was a few months old, the family moved to Phoenix, but they returned to Crescent before his second birthday.
Bradley had acres of countryside to explore, an aboveground swimming pool, a dog, a cat, and horses that his sister rode bareback. Neighbors were a quarter mile or more away, and he rode his bike with friends down the gravel and dirt roads, past trees and overgrown brush, cattle at pasture, fields of hay, and oil derricks. He rooted around in the dirt with toy cars and trucks. Indoors, he played video games at home on a Nintendo 64 or rode his bike to a friend's house, dropped it at the doorstep, and ran inside to play video games there. Sometimes, he spent hours glued to the computer screen playing the game SimCity.
Like his parents, Bradley was very small in stature, but he was also notoriously hyperactive. Rhonda Curtis, who was a close friend to Sue and lived around the corner from the Manning house, thought of Bradley as "a little cocker spaniel." Bradley's aunt Debbie, his father's older sister, would later describe him as a hummingbird, starting one activity and then resting briefly before bouncing frenetically to the next. The energetic little boy grew up in an exurban-bucolic wonderland, living the full range of seasons on the lower Great Plains: muggy summer with june bugs and fireflies; the long, stormy spring; mild winter with generous snow; and the cool glow of autumn.
In the fall of 1993, Bradley started kindergarten at Crescent Elementary School with around forty-five other students. He was tiny, restless but obedient, and an active participant in class. Sue got good reports from teachers when she visited the school for conferences; her boy made excellent grades and never got into any real trouble.
By the third grade, when social hierarchies and self-aware identities begin to set in for children, Bradley could tell he was different from the other kids. He wasn't tall, strong, a great athlete, or especially popular. And though in the close-knit microcosm of Crescent schools it never reached the intensity it might have in the cold anonymity of a suburban megaschool, like many small boys Bradley was bullied. But little Bradley had one asset with which he could satisfy the need common to all children to feel empowered. He was smarter than the other kids. And he knew it.
On the hour-long bus ride home with the other children who lived in the countryside around Crescent, Bradley generally spent his time finishing homework while the others fired paper wads back and forth at one another across the center aisle and over the seats. But he wasn't always quiet. "There was this one kid on the school bus showing off that he knew how to spell Mississippi," recalled Johnny Thompson, who was a grade under Bradley in school and, like Bradley, had one of the last stops on the school bus route. "Bradley come along and was like, well I can spell television. And that just kinda blew our minds." When Johnny first talked to Bradley, he thought they were in the same grade, because Bradley was so short. "I looked at his math homework, and it was algebra, and I had no idea what that was."
Whereas in a bigger, more impersonal school, a kid like Bradley might not have found a niche, in Crescent he got involved in a range of school activities. He won the science fair three years in a row — so many that there were jokes among parents about changing the rules so that one student couldn't win year after year. He was a promising saxophonist in the band and became personally close to the band teacher. For a time, he played on a youth basketball league. He became a star on the middle school quiz bowl team and took trips with other high-achieving students to competitions around the state. On such trips, he and a small group of friends would sit together on the bus and discuss questions of philosophy and morality — "stuff, for that age, that was pretty deep," recalled Shanée Watson, one of his teammates.
As an outstanding student, Bradley went on end-of-year field trips with others who made good grades. On one such trip, to Frontier City, an amusement park, he was walking around with a group of guys and a chaperone. The group stopped, with the Silver Bullet looming overhead; the rollercoaster lauds itself as the tallest in the state, and a dare to ride it is not an insignificant challenge among Oklahoma boys. The chaperone invited the boys to take a whirl on the towering coaster, but none would ride — except Bradley, who rode the Silver Bullet alone.
While other kids lived in the myopia of childhood, focused on themselves, their friends, and their possessions, Bradley's curiosity about the world was drawing his young mind outside the city limits. He developed a rich fantasy life. With his best friend, Jordan Davis — another bright kid low on the social totem pole — he created imaginary companies, hiring and firing, buying and selling, and amassing make-believe wealth. For months, he and Jordan fixated on international intrigue of Bradley's own creation, an imaginary crisis involving oil and American intervention in the Middle East, inspired, apparently, by the first Gulf War, though Bradley was far too young at the time of the actual conflict to remember it.
Consistent with his experience as a little businessman, Bradley was a politically conscious adolescent and always "very pro-business, pro-capitalism," Jordan Davis reported years later. He was never socially conservative, Davis said. He believed "that society needed to be kind of ordered and that kind of thing, but otherwise he didn't care much for that aspect of conservatism." He was also notably interventionist in his outlook on the world — a budding neoconservative. For Bradley, like many young boys, the military held a romantic allure; unlike many young boys, Bradley thought about the wider implications of his boyhood war games. He was, according to his best friend, an advocate of what he would someday learn to call realpolitik. "If you have to support a dictator to keep communism out, then yeah, do that," Jordan said.
Bradley was a precocious boy of strong opinions, and in the cloistered community of Crescent he developed a certain intellectual confidence. In class discussions he was assertive, at times argumentative, and unafraid to challenge authority figures when he felt they had it wrong. To many of his classmates and teachers, it seemed Bradley Manning was too smart for his own good.
When Casey had left home for college at Oklahoma State, her room on the upper level of the house had been bequeathed to Bradley. He quickly made it his own, strewing Lego creations across the floor and setting up the computer system that would become increasingly important to him.
By the time Bradley turned eight, Brian Manning had introduced him to the C++ programming language. Brian was not a naturally affectionate dad, and that combined with the amount of time he spent away from home produced a tenuous relationship between father and son. But, as when Bradley was a baby and Brian let him sit with him pecking away at the keyboard, at the PC the two found common ground. It was the mid-1990s, and the computer was rapidly becoming an ever more interesting toy as the Internet began going mainstream; Bradley took a quick and abiding interest.
* * *
Crescent had bucked the trend of small-town decay for decades, but while the rest of the country was celebrating the economic boom of the 1990s, Crescent got left out of the party. A Kerr-McGee plutonium plant south of town near the Cimarron River had provided good local jobs until union activist Karen Silkwood's death in 1974. The dubious circumstances of Silkwood's passing — she was driving south on Highway 74, carrying, some say, documents for a New York Times reporter that would have revealed shoddy safety practices at the nuclear fuel plant — inspired an Oscar-nominated Hollywood movie and gave the town its first taste of the national spotlight. In 1975, a year after Silkwood's body was found in a crumpled car by the side of the road, the plant closed.
Heavy flooding in the 1980s damaged the railroad, and after one major flood it was never repaired. The train stopped coming through town, and rail cars that could accommodate three thousand bushels at the grain elevator were replaced by truck trailers with only a third of that capacity. What once fit on a one-hundred-car train required three hundred separate trucks, and the increase in the price of moving grain to market reverberated through the town's economy. Weeds grew up over the abandoned rails, businesses shut down along Grand Avenue, and Crescent continued its slow decline.
What kept the town alive were the exurbanites, families with breadwinners who commuted to work in Oklahoma City but made their homes in and around Crescent — families like the Mannings, who might have stayed had the tumult not began at home.
In the isolation of her life in the Oklahoma countryside, Sue became a heavy drinker. A little woman with perpetually rosy cheeks, she'd put vodka in her morning tea and pour vodka and Coke over ice cubes for her afternoon cocktails, taking care to be discreet about the booze around visiting friends. Late in the evenings after the family had gone to bed, she'd be flush with a day's liquor and call a friend, and they'd stay up late chatting for hours about their kids and the gossip around town. To friends, Sue seemed content with her life in Crescent, with a home and a bountiful garden to tend and a small group of women to lean on. But something was nagging at her beneath the placid exterior.
One evening on the phone her friend Diane asked Sue if she ever looked to God for help when facing life's hardships.
"God's busy," Sue told her. "He has a lot of other people's problems to deal with. He doesn't have time for mine."
To those who knew him in Crescent, Brian Manning was a peculiar man. He was standoffish — not rude, but not friendly either — and, being short like the rest of the family, accused by some of having a little man's complex. Though he lived out in the country and exuded a certain swagger, he wasn't the type to get his hands dirty, preferring to rely on others for his manual labor needs; a friend of Bradley's would later describe him as a suburban John Wayne. He went on business trips up to a month and a half long in Europe and boasted to his neighbor Bill Cooper about the women who, he said, threw themselves at him while he was away, though he insisted he never went further than buying them drinks. He ate in the English style, with the knife in his right hand and fork in the left, prongs pointed downward, claiming it was more efficient than the American method.
Sue was permissive — overly so — with Bradley, but Brian was strict, and liberal with the belt. On at least one occasion, according to his sister, when Bradley was in around the second grade, he received a spanking so severe he told a teacher at school the next day that he couldn't sit down. Bradley told his friend Jordan about once hiding in a tree to escape his father's punishing hand.
To outside observers, Sue, who was small and meek to begin with, seemed to recoil in the presence of her husband. In front of friends, neighbors, and even his kids, Brian insulted her, calling her worthless, stupid, and worse, according to numerous people who knew the family. The littlest thing would seem to set him off; sometimes it was nothing at all. The marriage came under increasing stress.
Excerpted from Private by Denver Nicks. Copyright © 2012 Denver Nicks. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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