Exclusive: Channel 4 News reveals US Army hacker Bradley Manning, allegedly behind the WikiLeaks data leak, was a bullied schoolboy in Wales and set up a social networking site years before Facebook.
In a fascinating insight into Bradley Manning’s teenage years in the quiet Welsh town of Haverfordwest, Channel 4 News has spoken with two of his schoolfriends who say that, even as a schoolboy, he had already determined he would “right a big wrong”.
His friends’ revelations suggest that some of the character traits which may have prompted the biggest-ever leaks of confidential information from the US government were in evidence during his time as a young teenager in Wales.
In the log of his online conversations with former hacker Adrian Lamo, who went on to tip off the FBI about the army private’s claims, Manning describes how the behaviour of US forces made him “rethink the world” and how he wants people “to see the truth”.
However, Manning has been driven from a young age by the need to right the injustices of the world. In an exclusive interview with Channel 4 News, Tom Dyer, a Welsh school friend of Manning, says he was not at all surprised when he learnt that the American was behind the leaks that have rocked the US administration.
He always had this sense that ‘I’m going to right a big wrong’. He was like that at school. Tom Dyer, school friend of Bradley Manning
“He’s always had this sense that ‘I’m going to right a big wrong’. He was like that at school,” Mr Dyer says. “If something went wrong, he would speak up about it if he didn’t agree with something. He would even have altercations with teachers if he thought something was not right.”
Rowan John, another contemporary from Bradley Manning’s time at Tasker Milward school in Haverfordwest, concurs that he was an outspoken pupil. He told Channel 4 News: “He was opinionated but not forward on it. If he truly believed in something, he would give an opinion. That’s probably because he was right in his opinion.”
Tom Dyer stresses that Manning was not motivated to express his views out of personal malice. “He has his own sense of what is right or wrong. It’s not directed against another person in particular. He’s certainly not malicious in any of his actions.”
Bradley Manning arrived in the UK from the US in 2001, aged 13, after his parents divorced. His mother Susan is said to have struggled to adapt to life away from her native Wales. Bradley joined Tasker Milward in the same year.
The man who is alleged to have perpetrated a massive data leak from US army servers quickly established a reputation for computer expertise at his mid-Wales comprehensive. Tom Dyer recalls: “Overall, Bradley was renowned for his IT skills.”
Manning even designed a website which, according to Mr Dyer, anticipated modern social networking sites. “He produced a website with another schoolmate. It was pre-Facebook. It was like a community site. It didn’t really lift off, but it was a good idea.
“It was pretty much a social networking site before its time. You could log in and find out about local news.”
'I can't believe what I'm confessing to you'
Bradley Manning was arrested on 26 May 2010 after former hacker Adrian Lamo handed over to the FBI and to Wired.com transcripts of online conversations he had conducted between 21 and 25 May with the US Army intelligence analyst.
In these "chats", Manning confesses to providing WikiLeaks with 260,000 classified US State Department diplomatic cables, although without providing much detail as to their content. At one point he admits: "i cant believe what im confessing to you."
Manning also describes how he is "self-medicating like crazy", and goes on to describe his relations with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whom he describes as "being tailed in Sweden by State Department officials".
On 25 May, the US Army private explains to Lamo his reasons for feeling disillusioned with the army and with US foreign policy, admitting that "i had always questioned the things worked, and investigated to find the truth..."
He goes on to paint a picture of a lax security environment where it is easy for soldiers to extract data from classified networks without raising suspicion.
In the Lamo logs, Manning describes his frustration at being asked to carry out menial tasks as a lowly intelligence analyst in the US Army. He writes: “Regularly ignored… except when I had something essential… then it was back to ‘bring me coffee, then sweep the floor’ (…) felt like I was an abused work horse.”
But Manning was being victimised several years before, while at school in Haverfordwest. Rowan John and Tom Dyer both believe he was bullied because of where he came from. “When he came over to the UK he was just picked on for the fact that he was an American,” according to Mr John.
“People used to pick on him because he was an outsider. He was an easy target. Totally different from anyone.”
Tom Dyer remembers: “At the beginning (the bullying) was regular. There were two factions at Tasker’s. There was one group who took the mick out of him whenever they could. He eventually came to accept it, but on occasions he couldn’t take the joke.”
Not openly gay
One thing both Rowan John and Tom Dyer are clear about is that Bradley Manning was not victimised for being gay. It has emerged that before he was sent to Iraq, Manning was in a relationship with Tyler Watkins. But neither of his Welsh school friends knew about his sexuality.
“He wasn’t openly gay. It was only ever rumoured,” according to Tom Dyer.
Rowan John says he was “really shocked” to learn that Manning was gay. “Nobody knew he was gay. He kept it very secret. The impression I got about him coming over to the UK is that he was picked on because he was different, not because of his sexuality.”
Nobody knew he was gay. He kept it very secret. He was picked on because he was different, not because of his sexuality. Rowan John, school friend of Bradley Manning
Manning is reported to have dropped out of school after taking his GCSEs, returning to the US shortly afterwards. In 2007 he joined the US Army and was posted to Baghdad, where he had “unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months”.
The WikiLeaks revelations to which Manning has been linked began in April 2010 with the publication of a video designated Collateral Murder. It showed the killing from a US Apache helicopter of Iraqi citizens and two journalists.
In July 2010 WikiLeaks published Afghan War Diary, a compilation of some 76,000 US military documents. Then, last month, nearly 400,000 logs from the Iraq war appeared, revealing civilian deaths and detailing new allegations of abuse by coalition forces.
The leaks culminated in the release on 28 November of some 250,000 classified US diplomatic cables.