Chelsea Manning 10: Iraq, Part One

In early October 2009, along with other members of her unit, Chelsea arrived at Forward Operating Base Hammer. FOB Hammer is fifty-five kilometers to the east of Baghdad. It is in a bleak desert area, and is completely isolated from any other human habitation. The climate is harsh: Even in spring, the temperature can go up to 40° C. And even though it is in a desert, FOB Hammer is not always dry. It rains there occasionally, and when it does, the sand turns to thick, sticky mud. Also, according to one soldier who was posted there, the base was regularly invaded by a smelly, polluted fog. (3; 12-13)

Soldiers posted to FOB Hammer had little opportunity to leave the base. Many of them arrived there immediately after having been flown into Baghdad at night, went a whole year without leaving, and then were flown home out of Baghdad, at night. It is not clear whether Chelsea saw anything of Iraq beyond FOB Hammer, but it seems unlikely that she did.

The army did attempt to ease the boredom soldiers were bound to feel at FOB Hammer by providing them with entertainment and recreation. There was a workout room and an espresso bar on the base. There was high-speed internet in all the soldiers residences. There was also a lot of what was called “war porn” available for viewing. According to one soldier who spent time on the base “They loved to watch these clips of Apaches gunning down people. It was definitely entertainment.” In adddition, this soldier adds, in the “Operations Room” there was a large television screen “with a live-feed projection of a drone flying over Iraq.” The point of all this “mediatization” was presumably not only to distract the soldiers but at the same time to make them feel that despite their quiet surroundings, they really were involved in an exciting war. (3: 11, 28)

While Chelsea was on the base, she spent most of her time working twelve- or fourteen-hour shifts in a dimly-lit and crowded room called a “skif” — an abbreviation of “Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility.” There she had access to two secure online networks, SIPRNet (the “Secret Internet Protocol Network”) and the JWICS (the “Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System.” She used these resources to do the work she had been trained to do, searching for information that would be interesting to her superiors and presenting it to them in an organized, easily understandable form.(3: 12-13, 28)

The first few weeks in FOB Hammer seem to have gone well for Chelsea. She enjoyed the work despite the difficult conditions and was quickly promoted to the rank of “specialist.” But the honeymoon did not last long. At FOB Hammer, Chelsea“s life became isolated and monotonous. She suddenly lost all the regular face-to-face contact with like-minded young people that she had become used to when she was stationed at Fort Drum. Her lonely life seems to have intensified the transgendered desires that had been troubling her. But, on top of that, the fact that she was actually in a war zone and working on detailed daily reports of battlefield action quickly led her to painful doubts about the justice of the American military operation in Iraq.

Chelsea’s complicated state of mind during this period is clearly indicated by the statements of an army gender counselor she contacted in December 2009, just two months after arriving in Iraq. When he was interviewed by a journalist after her arrest, the counselor made it clear that Chelsea had come to him because she felt certain that, despite her male body, she was female, that she wanted to “transition” and that she wanted surgery. All that was holding her back, the counselor said, was the fear of “being alone, being ostracized or just seeming weird.” But, according to the counselor, what was upsetting Chelsea most at the time was not her anxiety about gender. Several times during their online conference, she had told him, “I feel like a monster” He emphasized that, although in saying this, Chelsea was referring in part to her transgenderism, what was, more than anything making her feel monstrous was a guilty conscience about what she was doing in her job. As he put it, “She felt she had blood on her hands.” She had taken an oath not to reveal anything about the intelligence work she was doing — even to people who like the counselor were themselves in the army. But despite the oath, she felt it was her moral duty to let the American people know what was happening in Iraq.

It was during this period of time that Chelsea first began to interact regularly with WikiLeaks. As she explains in her pre-trial statement, she heard of WikiLeaks website during her training at Fort Huachuca in 2008. She came to be really interested in the site, however, only after arriving in Iraq — and her first visits were made in the course of doing her assigned work. In what she describes as her “daily Google News open source search for information related to U.S. foreign policy” she read of how records of 500,000 text pager messages made during the September 11, 2001 attacks had been released on the WikiLeaks website.(23) She says:(8, 10;)

I … reviewed the messages myself and realized that the posted messages were very likely real given the sheer volume and detail of the content.

After this first encounter, she goes on to say, she “began conducting research on [WikiLeaks]…and also began to routinely monitor the [WikiLeaks] website.”

In this section of her statement, Chelsea also mentions reading a US Army report on WikiLeaks. Although she doesn’t explicitly say so, she implies that this report described WikiLeaks as a threat to American security. She says that on “open-source” — i.e. public — sites, she “ discovered information that contradicted” the US Army report. According to what she read on these public sites

similar to other press agencies [WikiLeaks] seemed to be be dedicated to exposing illegal activities and corruption [and that it had] received numerous awards and recognition for its reporting activities

In the same paragraph, Chelsea also notes, without comment, that, on the WikiLeaks website, she found information about the US Army’s Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Chelsea emphasizes in the following paragraphs that, in these early days at least, she was doing nothing that her superior officers would have considered wrong or irresponsible.

After seeing the information available on the [WikiLeaks] website, I continued following it and collecting open-source information from it. During this time period I followed several organizations including wire press agencies such as the Associated Press and Reuters and private intelligence agencies including Strategic Forecasting. This practice was something I was trained to do during AIT, and was something that good analysts are expected to do.

Chelsea goes on to strengthen her assertion that her original contact with Wikileaks come about in the course of her assigned work by giving an example of how the site was actually useful:

During the searches of [the Wikileaks site] I found several pieces of information that I found useful in my work as an analyst. Specifically, I recall [documents published by Wikileaks] relating to weapons trafficking between two nations in my Operating Environment. I integrated this information into one or more of my work products.(8, 11)

In the weeks that followed, Chelsea moved from simply monitoring the WikiLeaks website to participating in anonymous online chats with WikiLeaks staff. She says, in her statement, that she did this mainly out of curiosity about how WikiLeaks had obtained the text pager messages they had released.

Despite her insistence that she became involved with WikiLeaks in the course of her normal work — and that the site and the chats really did help her to do her work — she readily admits that she found some recreational pleasure there too:

I really enjoyed [the chats] pertaining to and involving [WikiLeaks]…they helped me to pass the time and keep me motivated throughout the deployment.(8, 11)

It is likely that both the anxiety caused by her transgenderism and her growing misgivings about the American operation in Iraq — fueled by her contact with WikiLeaks — contributed to the deterioration of Chelsea’s state of mind during her first months in Iraq. At any rate, it is clear that during that time she lost the outward confidence and self-control she seems to have built up during her time at Fort Huachuca and Fort Drum. And her ability to follow military discipline certainly seems to have suffered: shortly after her online conversation with the gender counselor, Chelsea was summoned to a conference with two superior officers. They reprimanded her for persistently arriving late to work. They explained the importance of being prompt and they told her that as a punishment she would lose one of her two days off per week. When she heard this, Chelsea stood up and flipped over the table between her and the superior officers. The computer that had been sitting on the table was damaged when it fell to the floor. A soldier who was present quickly pulled Chelsea away from a gun rack that was close by, and two other soldiers grabbed her, pinned her arms behind her back, and dragged her out of the room. Apparently some of her superior officers thought that because of what had happened, Chelsea should lose her access to classified material, but in fact no further action was taken against her. (1; 16)