Private Bradley Manning: The Soldier Behind Wikileaks?

UPDATED 04/04/2011 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 04/04/2011 at 01:00 AM EDT

As a young boy in Crescent, Okla., a sleepy Bible-belt farming town of 1,400 people, Bradley Manning showed a precocious disdain for authority. In second grade he stunned his class when he refused to say the pledge of allegiance, telling his teacher that he didn't believe in God. "A few classmates said, 'You can't say that,'" recalls classmate Chera Moore. Manning had a response for that too: He slammed his fists on his desk. "The teacher had to calm him down," Moore says. "He was different."

A lifelong disregard for other people's rules has now gotten Manning, 23, into deep trouble. Last May, while stationed as an Army intelligence analyst near Baghdad, Private 1st Class Manning allegedly initiated a computer chat with Adrian Lamo, an ex-hacker in the Bay Area. Manning wrote that he'd seen "incredible things, awful things ... things that belonged in the public domain." Lamo says that Manning confided that he had released more than 250,000 diplomatic cables, which prompted Lamo to contact U.S. officials. Soon after, Army officials arrested Manning. Today he sits under 24-hour guard in a Marine cell in Quantico, Va., accused by Army investigators of having engineered one of the largest breaches of military secrets in U.S. history: the downloading of thousands of classified Iraq and Afghanistan documents and confidential cables. They made their way into the public domain via WikiLeaks, the antisecrecy media group run by Julian Assange. Although Manning's attorney David Coombs wouldn't comment, Courtney Wittmann, a spokeswoman for the Military District of Washington, says Manning unlawfully transmitted classified data for public release and "use by the enemy." With his court-martial proceedings set to begin as early as next month, Manning faces life in prison or the death penalty if he is found guilty of the most serious of more than 20 charges leveled against him: aiding the enemy. "From a small-town kid to this," says Moore. "It's shocking."

To date, Manning has not entered a plea. But according to internet chat logs between Lamo and Manning published in Wired, Manning allegedly described himself as a "high profile source" for Assange (who denies ever having contact with Manning and as yet faces no charges related to the leaks). Meanwhile Manning fills his time watching local news, writing letters and reading works by political activist Howard Zinn and propaganda theorist Edward Bernays. "Brad's doing better physically and emotionally than he was earlier this year," says David House, a friend who visits twice a month. While Manning is not on suicide watch, one visitor said Manning was recently forced to sleep naked for a few nights because authorities claimed he might harm himself. This visitor says angrily, "It's all b.s."

People who knew Manning back in Crescent describe an opinionated kid who had an intellectual bent, a fascination with computers, and a home life that was not always easy. "I was the only nonreligious person in town," Manning told Lamo during an online chat. Shanee Watson, a friend, describes intense debates with Manning about "religion, politics and philosophy" as they rode the bus to junior high school quiz-bowl events. Moore says that Manning inherited his combative streak from his dad, a Navy veteran, who she says went to bat for his only son when his behavior rankled school officials. Occasionally she saw a softer side that she attributes to his mom, Susan, a Welsh homemaker. "He helped me with my math and was sweet," Moore says, "as long as you didn't bring up political views that were different from his."

After Manning's parents divorced in 2001, Susan took 13-year-old Bradley back with her back to Wales. His small size and big views invited bullying and earned Manning a reputation as a hothead who could be provoked easily. "He was in tune with the world, and if he felt something wasn't right, he'd voice his opinion," says James Kirkpatrick, a friend, who says Manning had a remarkable talent even back then for building websites and writing computer code. Manning returned to Oklahoma to live with his father during his senior year of high school. Later, when Kirkpatrick learned that Manning had enlisted in the Army, he was stunned. "I could never imagine him joining up," he says. "He cared deeply about his country, but he didn't agree with what the government was doing."

Friends suggest that he signed up because of an interest in technology, but his father told PBS' Frontline that he "twisted his arm" to enlist. "He needed structure in his life; he was aimless," he said.

During this time father and son reportedly had a falling-out after Brian learned that Bradley was gay, a secret that Manning shared with only a handful of friends over the years. Fourteen months after completing training at Arizona's Fort Huachuca, Manning was deployed to Iraq in Oct. 2009 as an intelligence analyst with security clearance. He shipped out against the recommendation of a mental health specialist who, according to The Washington Post, cited an incident during which Manning "balled up his fists and screamed at higher-ranking soldiers in his unit." Overseas his troubles intensified. In December 2009 he reportedly displayed enough emotional instability for his superiors to order the removal of the firing pin on his rifle. Six months later Manning allegedly struck a fellow soldier, resulting in a demotion.

The military charged last July that Manning began leaking classified information just one month after his arrival in Baghdad. These days, in his 6-ft. by 12-ft. cell, Manning has ample time to think about whether the crimes he's charged with constitute treason-as detractors like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee believe-or "heroic" whistle-blowing, in the words of his champions, like Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Lamo, who turned in his friend, believes that Manning released the secret documents because "he wanted to make the world a better place." Lamo says that in one of their final cyberchats, Manning stressed that he could no longer support a war that he had turned against. "I want people to see the truth ... regardless of who they are," he allegedly wrote. "Because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public."

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