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Manning confesses: I leaked to WikiLeaks to 'spark a debate'

Army soldier admits to being WikiLeaks' source for confidential government files and says he hoped leak "might cause society to reconsider" the U.S. government's antiterrorism efforts.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
5 min read
Bradley Manning
Bradley Manning after a hearing in March 2012. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

For the first time today, U.S. Army soldier Bradley Manning explained publicly why he handed hundreds of thousands of classified files to WikiLeaks, telling a crowded military courtroom in Ft. Meade, Md., that he had hoped to "spark a debate on the military and our foreign policy."

Manning said that his decision to leak the files stemmed from increasing concern about the U.S. military's actions in the Middle East, and that his conscience led him to conclude the documents must be made public. After approaching The New York Times and The Washington Post, but finding neither news organization was interested, he said he handed the documents to WikiLeaks.

The confession that he was WikiLeaks' source for the Iraq and Afghanistan war files came on the same day that Manning formally entered guilty pleas to 10 of 22 charges that he is facing, which carry a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. He has pleaded not guilty to the more serious charges, including "aiding the enemy," which carry a possible maximum sentence of life in prison.

"I felt we were risking so much for people who seemed to be unwilling to cooperate with us leading to frustration and hostility on both sides," Manning said, according to an excerpt posted by Reuters. "I began to get depressed about the situation we were mired in year after year. We were obsessed with capturing and killing human targets on lists and ignoring goals and missions. I believed if the public, particularly the American public, could see this it could spark a debate on the military and our foreign policy in general as it applied to Iraq and Afghanistan. It might cause society to reconsider the need to engage in counter terrorism while ignoring the human situation of the people we engaged with every day."

"They seemingly delighted in the bloodlust they had," said Manning, who provided WikiLeaks with a video showing U.S. troops in Iraq destroying a vehicle that was preparing to rush a wounded Reuters journalist to the hospital. "This seemed similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass."

In 2011, Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald wrote that the WikiLeaks-disclosed State Department cables "helped end this stage of the Iraq war," and that "whoever leaked those cables is responsible for one of the most consequential, beneficial and noble acts of this generation."

Manning's statement said that he first copied the files onto a CD then transferred them to an SD card. He visited his boyfriend, Tyler Watkins -- a student at Brandeis University who has described himself as a classical musician, singer, and drag queen -- and asked hypothetically what someone should do with important information that had not been made public. Watkins didn't seem interested and Manning dropped the topic, he said.

Kevin Gosztola, who has written about the case for Firedoglake.com, summarized today's testimony as:

Manning analyzed the data and felt it could spark a domestic debate "on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general." He thought it might cause "society to re-evaluate the need to engage in counterterrorism or counterinsurgency operations that ignored the dynamic of people living in the environment every day."

He called The Washington Post. A woman answered who seemed to not take him seriously, even though he suggested the information would be valuable to the American public. Then, he decided to contact The New York Times. Nobody answered the phone so he left a message explaining he had information that was "very important." He left the Times his e-mail and a Skype address but never received a reply. Manning had tried to connect with someone at Politico. He considered going to Politico, but the weather conditions hampered his travel. He ultimately decided to submit to WikiLeaks.

New York Times representative Eileen Murphy told New York magazine: "This is the first we're hearing of it. We have no record of Manning contacting the Times in advance of WikiLeaks."

The case against WikiLeaks

Today's testimony will do little to bolster any criminal case the U.S. government brings against WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange said last fall in an appearance from Ecuador's London embassy that prosecutors want Manning to identify him as a co-conspirator.

The Army wants, Assange said from his embassy room where he sought refuge to avoid an extradition attempt, "to break him, to force him to testify against WikiLeaks and me" -- an apparent reference to the Justice Department's criminal probe taking place in conjunction with a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va. If prosecutors can prove conspiracy to commit computer crimes, they would avoid some of the free-speech problems they'd face in an Espionage Act prosecution.

Manning said he had conversations in encrypted Internet chat rooms with someone using the alias "Nathaniel," who could have been Assange, but nobody pressured him to divulge them.

These were "my own decisions and I take full responsibility for my actions," he said, according to the U.K. Telegraph.

Manning did not mention his online conversations with ex-hacker Adrian Lamo, who he had seen as a kindred spirit, but who then turned in the Army soldier to authorities. Lamo told CNET in 2010 that he had no regrets.

According to those logs, which Lamo provided to various news organizations, Manning was certain that he was chatting with the WikiLeaks editor himself, saying: "I've developed a relationship with Assange...It took me four months to confirm that the person I was communicating was in fact Assange."

Another excerpt from the logs shows Manning wrestling with how to release the files:

(12:15:11 PM) bradass87: hypothetical question: if you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time...say, 8-9 months...and you saw incredible things, awful things...things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC...what would you do?
(12:16:38 PM) bradass87: or Guantanamo, Bagram, Bucca, Taji, VBC for that matter...
(12:17:47 PM) bradass87: things that would have an impact on 6.7 billion people
(12:21:24 PM) bradass87: say...a database of half a million events during the iraq war...from 2004 to 2009...with reports, date time groups, lat-lon locations, casualty figures...? or 260,000 state department cables from embassies and consulates all over the world, explaining how the first world exploits the third, in detail, from an internal perspective?
(12:22:49 PM) bradass87: the air-gap has been penetrated... =L

For his part, Assange has claimed that he never heard of Manning or "bradass87" before the news became public, and insists that WikiLeaks maintains an anonymous submission system. "We're in a very difficult position concerning Bradley Manning," he told PBS Frontline. "Our technology does not permit us to understand whether someone is one of our sources or not. Because the best way to keep a secret is never to have it."

Manning uploaded the Iraq and Afghanistan files to WikiLeaks from a Barnes & Noble bookstore, according to the U.K. Guardian's Ed Pilkington.

This afternoon, Judge Col. Denise Lind is scheduled to question Manning about his partial guilty plea.