While stationed at a military base in Baghdad, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning had access to hundreds of thousands of classified documents, which he passed on to WikiLeaks to share with the world. As Manning faces his sentencing, we've summarized six essential details he revealed.
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1) Iceland’s economy was much worse than we thought.
WikiLeaks published a classified US diplomatic cable on Feb. 10, 2010, leaked by Bradley Manning, which revealed the extent of a dire economic crisis in Iceland. Reykjavik13, as the cable is now called, summarized a meeting on Jan. 13, 2010, between a US diplomat and two officials from the Icelandic Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The officials predicted that Iceland could go bankrupt by 2011 if a dispute over repaying British and Dutch depositors in online savings accounts, or “Icesave” accounts, at Landsbanki — which collapsed in 2008 — was not settled.
The cable disclosed that the British government had considered intervening to stop a referendum on the “Icesave” repayment plan and explore other options, including a bailout from Norway. The Icelandic officials asked for US assistance in raising the issue with the IMF, and to counter “bullying” by Dutch and British governments.
While the referendum went as planned, Iceland was eventually not required to guarantee the British and Dutch deposits, and was able to saved its domestic depositors by transfering their deposits into “good” banks.
As part of the European Economic Area (EEA), which adheres to European Union common-market policies, the outcome raised larger concerns about the effectiveness of the EU’s deposit-guarantee schemes. The issue remains central in ongoing efforts to harmonize EU banking policies.
2) Rules for war?
In April 2010, a video titled “Collateral Murder” was published by Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, on YouTube. Manning sent WikiLeaks the video, which was also screened at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
The video shows US soldiers killing a dozen people in Baghdad, Iraq from two US Army Apache helicopters in July 2007, while talking rapturously about the mission. Two of those killed were Reuters journalists, and two children were injured in the attack.
Supporters of the video’s release questioned the military’s conduct under war-time rules of engagement.
Responding to public outcry, the military said the video did not provide adequate context for the attack. US authorities defended the soldiers, who said they mistook the journalists’ cameras for weapons and people coming to the journalists’ aid for armed insurgents.
Wikileaks gained unprecedented notoriety for the video, but was criticized for selectively editing the previously-classified footage.
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3) How not to make friends
Adrian Lamo, a California-based hacker, handed over a record of his online chat with Manning to Pentagon criminal investigators at a Starbucks near his house in May 2010.
The chat explained how Manning downloaded documents from the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, SIPRNet, onto a CD while stationed with the 10th Mountain Division's 2nd Brigade near Baghdad, Iraq.
On May 26, days after Lamo turned him in, Manning was arrested. He was held at a temporary detention facility in Kuwait before being moved to the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, where he was charged under military law for downloading more than 150,000 US State Department documents and cables.
Kevin Poulsen of Wired News, who knew Lamo personally, published parts of the chat between Lamo and Manning, making the public aware that Manning was the source of the leaks.
The US government eventually tried to build a case against Julian Assange for orchestrating the document theft, but Manning did not name Assange in the chat log and there was no evidence that Assange directly contacted Manning.
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Wikileaks, along with The Guardian, Der Spiegel, and The New York Times, published the “Afghan War Diary,” leaked by Manning, on July 25, 2010. It was the largest leak of classified information in the history of the US military.
The documents, 91,000 reports from January 2004 to December 2009, included intelligence assessments, enemy surveillance accounts, details of civilian casualties, specific geographic information, and combat plans.
There were reports of the US concealing information on the Taliban’s capabilities, such as the number of deaths they'd caused through roadside bomb attacks, and that the group had obtained surface-to-air missiles. Discrepancies also appeared between the number of casualties recorded in field reports and those in final assessments.
Long-held suspicions of Pakistan aiding Afghan insurgents (while receiving large amounts of US aid) were also supported by evidence in the documents.
The release added fuel to a contentious moment in US domestic politics: a majority of Americans no longer supported the war, and the White House faced a backlash against its “surge” strategy in Afghanistan. With mounting casualties from the conflict, the Obama administration said the war’s success could be jeopardized by the leaks. Congress scrambled to pass legislation to finance the next stages of the war; a $60-billion bill eventually passed the House and was approved by the President.
The Pentagon threatened WikiLeaks with criminal action, demanding that the documents be returned and that no further leaks take place. WikiLeaks refused to comply. The Department of Defense could not prove that Assange persuaded Manning to provide the leaks, and the case lost traction. Assange later alleged that sexual assault charges brought against him were a smear campaign by the US government to punish him for the leaks. He fled Sweden to avoid extradition to the US, and is now in hiding at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.
Members of the coalition forces, including Australia and Canada, launched investigations into the leaks, worried that there could be consequences for their involvement in the conflict. The coalition remained intact, though it lost international support.
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WikiLeaks, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, and The New York Times also published a set of documents titled the “Iraq War Logs,” in October 2010. This set, also leaked by Manning, included some 400,000 classified documents covering the Iraq War from Jan. 1, 2004 to Dec. 31, 2009.
Numerous cases of detainee abuse, six of which likely ended in death, were shown in the documents not to have been investigated by the US. Previous estimates of civilian casualties from the war were shown to be grossly low. Iraq Body Count, a London-based monitoring group, identified 15,000 previously unknown civilian deaths through the reports.
The documents also included field reports about Iraqi militants training in Iran with Iran’s Quds Force, and evidence of human rights abuses by Iraq’s army and police.
Officials from the US State Department emphasized that troops were endangered as a result of the leaks. The Pentagon argued that the exact number of war casualties could not be known, and that any reports of abuse were brought to the attention of the relevant authorities.
International concern grew over the US committing possible war crimes in Iraq, including violating the Geneva Convention accords. The UN requested a full investigation by the Obama administration into human rights abuses in Iraq. The resulting investigation was later criticized for giving UN investigators only limited access to Manning.
Britain organized its own investigation into human rights violations with the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT), which was criticized by lawyers who represented Iraqi civilians for not being independent. England’s High Court deemed the investigation “inadequate” in May 2013.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki defended his government against allegations of abuses committed by the Iraqi military and police. Concerns about Iraq’s preparedness for the eventual withdrawal of US troops and Iran’s influence in the region foreshadowed major policy concerns which would intensify for the US in the following years.
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6) Oops! Time to go now.
Complete versions of 250,000 diplomatic cables from the US State Department, which Manning provided to WikiLeaks, were accidentally published in 2011. (Wired News also published the full chat log between Manning and Lamo.)
The revelations were numerous and dumbfounding. Most importantly, the truth was exposed about an incident in 2006 when US troops entered a house and killed 11 Iraqis, including women and children. One cable described how a UN official, following up on allegations widely spread through the Iraqi public, discovered that the version of the event put forward by the US military contained serious flaws.
US troops had fired at the building before entering to search for an Al Qaeda-affiliated operative, and proceeded to unnecessarily execute those inside. An airstrike was ordered to eliminate any evidence.
The issue, already contentious, became a focal point for Iraqis who were discontent with the state of their country after the US invasion. The subsequent decision by Iraq’s government to withhold immunity for US troops was a decisive factor in the US's decision to withdraw from Iraq without providing personnel to help with the country's rehabilitation. This left concerns about Iraq’s ability to avoid becoming a breeding ground for terrorism or devolving into a pawn for regional powers, especially Iran.
After the cables were made public, Paypal shut down its WikiLeaks service, and Twitter was served a subpoena for its involvement in the leaks. WikiLeaks itself faced obstacles maintaining its service. Some cite Manning’s leaks as a source of the Tunisian uprising and ensuing Arab Spring in 2010; others claim Manning played a role in inspiring Edward Snowden and his leaking of classified government documents in 2013. The issue of government transparency has become a global concern.