Bradley Manning Had Long Been Plagued By Mental Health Issues

Sentencing began Wednesday in the trial of Army Pvt. Bradley Manning. Journalist Steve Fishman wrote an in-depth profile of Manning for New York Magazine. He speaks to Melissa Block about the famed Wikileaker who faces years in prison.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The sentencing phase began today in the trial of Army Private Bradley Manning. Manning was convicted yesterday under the Espionage Act for releasing reams of classified military and diplomatic documents through WikiLeaks. He was acquitted of the most serious charge against him: aiding the enemy. Still, Manning could face decades in prison.

In this part of the program, some background on the 25-year-old at the center of the trial. Bradley Manning was the subject of a profile in New York Magazine in 2011 written by Steve Fishman, who says before Manning joined the military he had a very troubled past.

STEVE FISHMAN: He grew up, in many ways, on his own: child of a divorced family, kind of kicked out of one home, departed another, then kicked out a second time from the first home, a kid who lived in his car, lonely. He was a gay man who had trouble growing up in Oklahoma being accepted, and then really a series of events leading to the Army where he didn't find a home either. He's 5'2" tall, 105 pounds, and wasn't really ever accepted by the warrior contingent he found himself among.

BLOCK: How did he get his computer skills? By all accounts he was very intelligent.

FISHMAN: He was a very intelligent - precociously intelligent kid. The computer skills were something that he acquired on his own, a kind of geeky, science-y kid in Oklahoma who excelled at those skills. And also, it was a way that he found comfort, really from the beginning, entering into the online world.

BLOCK: Well, Bradley Manning shipped out to Iraq in October of 2009. He had top security clearance. What was his job, specifically, and how did it affect him based on what you've read in his Internet chats?

FISHMAN: Bradley was an intel analyst. And he was supposed to sit in a room in which lots of raw intelligence fed, help analyze it, apply it to specific situations. And I think the thing to note here is that you're operating on extraordinarily imperfect data. You have to make important, life-altering decisions in a short period of time. And for Bradley, the consequences of mistakes really bore down on him and troubled him emotionally and intellectually.

BLOCK: What did he write about that in those chats?

FISHMAN: Well, Bradley, he's troubled by everything that he sees. And he writes over his Internet chats that everything started slipping. And he wrote: I was part of something, I was actively involved in something that I was completely against. I think that's a very important moment in his political trajectory. He's got other kind of trajectories going on at the same time that are probably interacting and complicating one another.

BLOCK: One trajectory that you did write about was that Bradley Manning was in contact on the Web with a gender counselor about how he would surgically transition from male to female. And you talked, actually, with that counselor. How relevant do you think that is, if it is at all?

FISHMAN: Well, I don't know. And I think that's the real complication that we see in the public dialogue on this. Bradley Manning was a person who leaked a phenomenal amount of classified information, and he did that for what he says were noble causes. I think at the same time there were clearly complicated, troubling, emotional discoveries going on in his personal life, and they were happening at the same time.

Whistleblowers don't come in convenient, noble, admirable packages. I think they have complicated motives and complicated lives. So it's quite tempting to intermix the two narratives, but I'm not sure that is always the best thing to understand him. Now, that said, he was undergoing, at the same time that he is troubled by what he's seeing and coming to a kind of political renaissance, he's really melting down emotionally. He is having quite a lot of trouble fitting in with his Army counterparts who, he tells a friend in Internet chats, are picking on him, sometimes physically.

He's clearly thinking about his gender identity. He is someone who speaks to a counselor, who spoke to me, about his desire not to be a man any longer. Now, what that really has to do and what conclusions we draw from that about the actions that he took to leak documents to WikiLeaks, I don't know where we quite go with that.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm. And how much of a record is there of what the Army was aware of in terms of his psychological state during his time in Iraq?

FISHMAN: Well, I think there's been very good reporting on this, and it's very, very clear that the Army was well aware of disciplinary problems, of violent acting out, of mental instability over a period of time. At one point, he had the bolt removed from his weapon because there was fear that he would harm himself or others. He attacked a superior officer with his fists. There was a very vigorous debate about whether he was qualified - that is, mentally stable enough - to serve overseas. And I got the impression that the Army just very much decided it needed intel analysts. And that overrode whatever concerns some within its ranks had expressed about whether he was fit to serve.

BLOCK: In the end, do you feel like we know more about Bradley Manning as a result of this trial than we did going in?

FISHMAN: I think, actually, we don't know more about Bradley Manning. The trial was very specific to the charges against him, which he admitted to. He admitted leaking all these documents. And so the real argument was what they meant, how do you characterize these acts. Were they the act of a patriot who felt that people needed to know, or were they the acts of a spy? And eventually, the judge did decide that they were the acts of a spy, and he was guilty under the Espionage Act.

But I think that who Bradley Manning is was very much an issue aside, an issue not dealt with in the trial. And for that understanding, I think we have to go to the reporting on him and his upbringing.

BLOCK: That's Steve Fishman, contributing editor for New York Magazine. His article back in 2011 was titled "Bradley Manning's Army of One." Steve, thanks so much.

FISHMAN: Thank you.

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