Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism

Uncovering Bradley Manning

In 2010, the biggest American security leak stunned the world when WikiLeaks published more than 250,000 diplomatic cables containing state secrets, such as Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The cables were obtained by a U.S. Army intelligence analyst, the then-22-year-old Bradley Manning, when he was working in Baghdad in 2009 and 2010.

This June, Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks, and the Biggest Exposure of Official Secrets in American History — a book that traces back to the childhood of the arrested U.S. army soldier — debuted in bookstores. Its author Denver Nicks, a New York-based journalist, conducted in-depth interviews with those in Manning’s hometown in Crescent, Okla. Nicks spoke with Global Journalist about why he had decided to write about Manning, an enigmatic man who has been charged with some of the most serious crimes one can commit, namely, aiding the enemy.

Global Journalist: What was your impression of Bradley Manning as you conducted interviews for your book?

Denver Nicks: Manning is profoundly ordinary in some ways. He comes from very humble beginnings. Many of the people who knew him would have never guessed that he would one day be in the news, particularly what he is in the news for. He went from being a poor, uneducated, working-class kid in middle America to being by all accounts, a rather successful intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army. It’s a remarkable story just about how he got just there, and of course, everything that came after.

GJ: What was the research process for the book like?

Nicks: The first thing I did in reporting the book was spending a lot of time in Crescent, the town where Manning grew up as a boy. I found Crescent, Okla., a really nice town full of good people. They let me into their lives and told me about their experiences with Manning’s family, despite the fact the great majority of people in Crescent are not sympathetic to the situation Manning has really gotten himself into.
Later over the course of my research, I openly got access to remarkable archives of emails, chat logs and text messages going back in years, which provided this new source material. To be able to go back and see exactly what somebody said during a conversation long before anybody was thinking about being a subject of a news article or long before anybody’s memory was tainted by what happened since is amazing. It provided me, in this case, with an astounding insight into Manning’s mindset, friendships, fears and hopes, well before he even dreamed of being in serious trouble.

GJ: The book was published before the trial. Was there any concern about the impact of the book might have on trial?

Nicks: There was certainly concern about that.  I thought about it deeply. I talked about it with my sources at length. The reason there was an embargo on the book was that I had an agreement with a source that I wouldn’t publish it until after the court martial. When we came to that agreement, it seemed to everybody that Manning’s court martial would manifest a lot sooner than it did. As the case would drag on and as it became clear that the story I had told was incomplete, I reached a point when I wanted to publish the book; I certainly don’t think the book reflects particularly poorly on Manning. I talked about it with the source at length. We went back and forth and eventually the source agreed to let me out of that agreement. After the source agreed to that, I went forward to publication.

GJ: What about this story made you want to turn it into a book?

Nicks: Manning’s story is quintessentially American, Western, post-millennial in a lot of ways. Manning grew up during the relatively calm years of the 1990s and his life was relatively calm and peaceful. Right around the time that planes crashed into the World Trade Center and sent the world off to the absolutely insane decade of the 2000s that we just experienced, Manning’s family dissolved. And he too was thrust into a period of immense chaos, and his life continues to trek along with the history of the United States and the world.

He’s deeply interested in politics and follows the beginning of the Iraq War. As military operation becomes more overt and more focused on cyber-warfare and on intelligence gathering, Manning, as a computer specialist, joined the army and became an intelligence analyst.

And of course throughout the 2000s, you have these two countervailing tendencies towards secrecy and openness. On the one hand, in the wake of 911, our government recoiled into a position of secrecy in response to and in shock after the 911 attacks. On the other hand, the Internet has this revolutionary force in global societies and a force that inherently promotes openness through interconnectedness. So you have these two countervailing forces and, in the person of Bradley Manning, they collide.

A New York-based journalist, Denver Nicks has written extensively on politics. His book "Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks, and the Biggest Exposure of Official Secrets in American History" was published in June by Chicago Review Press. Nicks is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. His work has appeared in the Daily Beast and The Nation.

Follow him on Twitter @DenverNicks.

By Regina Wang. 

Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism.
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