Reviewed: The Passion of Bradley Manning, by Chase Madar (OR Books, 167 pp., $15). Bradley Manning could not possibly have known, when referring to the hundreds of thousands of classified defense documents he ostensibly slipped to WikiLeaks, how true it was when he allegedly said, “It’s almost bookworthy in itself, how this played.” But Chase Madar’s The Passion of Bradley Manning proves him right.
For those who have followed the WikiLeaks story closely for the past two years, Madar’s book provides no new revelations, but it does paint a nuanced picture of Manning and the material he is said to have provided to the world. This far more complex picture is often missing altogether from media accounts.
Madar purposefully shies away from the personal dramas that have surrounded WikiLeaks, lamenting that “the leaks themselves have almost been swallowed up by the story of the leaks.” Instead, he dedicates chapters to the rich history found in the State and Defense Department documents, from the well-known to the overlooked, and makes the case that Manning was a leaker of conscience whose treatment at the hands of his government jailers amounts to torture.
Since his arrest in April 2010, Manning’s internal struggle with his sexuality and gender identity has been the focus of the media and the implied motive behind the largest leak in United States history. Manning had a troubled childhood; he struggled with bullying and a tumultuous home life. After he joined the military, his difficulty fitting in intensified, which created tension and discipline problems.
But to pin his deed on his personal struggles is to ignore Manning’s own words — the only available evidence we have. Madar quotes at length from Manning’s online chats with Adrian Lamo, the FBI informant who turned him in. Those chats tell the story of a young man who wasn’t “acting out” due to personal issues, but who was deeply disturbed by his experience of war as an intelligence officer in Iraq.
After describing the many incidents that led to his decision, Manning allegedly told Lamo: “I just…couldn’t let these things stay inside the system…and inside of my head.” He then describes having agonized “for weeks” before purportedly uploading the material to WikiLeaks — not, as is often reported, a rash play for attention.
Manning’s reputed decision, regardless of motive, will forever be debated. Madar is an unabashed supporter of Manning, opening the book by declaring that Manning deserves a medal rather than life in jail. But regardless of one’s feelings about Manning’s alleged act, Madar’s indictment of the U.S. secrecy system as the ultimate root of the problem should find little argument: “Classification is the disease of Washington, secrecy its mania, and dementia its end point.”
To Madar’s point, the U.S. government last year classified 77 million documents, up from six million in 1991, when a Congressional committee already identified overclassification an epidemic. The classification network called SIPRNet, from which Manning allegedly downloaded the documents, was accessible to hundreds of thousands of U.S. personnel and even, it has been suggested, the Iraqi military.
And when everything is secret, nothing is. Journalists have long probed unknown government employees for classified information that may expose corruption or crime, and administration officials of all political stripes are just as quick to encourage the leaking that bolsters their own cause. These have been facts of Washington politics for decades. Even as the Obama administration cynically prosecutes more leakers than all other previous administrations combined, the practice will surely continue, as recent events prove. As Madar observes: “Another Washington Post story citing ‘unnamed officials’; another Sy Hersh piece in The New Yorker; [or] the latest Bob Woodward book” is always right around the corner.
And while much of the information leaked over the years is “top secret” — a classification higher than anything Manning is said to have leaked — it is Manning who may ultimately pay the price.
Trevor Timm blogs about free speech and government transparency for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.