Chelsea Manning 11: Iraq, Part Two

As she explains in detail in her pre-trial statement, during her seven-month deployment in Iraq, Chelsea worked continually with online documents called “SIGACT tables” — documents containing very large compilations of individual “SIGACTs.” (“SIGACT” is a US Army acronym for “significant activity.”) Here is Chelsea’s statement of what SIGACTs are.

As I started working with SIGACTs, I felt they were similar to a daily journal or log that a person may keep. They capture what happens on a particular day and time. They are created immediately after the event and are potentially updated until a final version is published.(8, p 4;)

In order to make the concept of a SIGACT clearer, Chelsea also distinguishes between what counts as a SIGACT when an army unit is “in garrison” i.e. when it is at the place where it has been permanently stationed, and when it actually deployed in a “theater” of war.

In garrison, a SIGACT normally involves personnel issues, such as Driving Under-the-Influence or an automobile accident involving the death or serious injury of a Soldier.(8, p 4;)

When an army unit has been deployed to a war zone, however, a SIGACT report will normally concern a specific event on the battlefield such as:

an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attack, a Small Arms Fire (SAF) engagement with a hostile force, or any other event a specific unit documented and reported.(8, p 3;)

As Chelsea explains, the idea is that once a SIGACT report has been made it moves up the chain of command until it reaches a level where appropriate action can be taken. This happens quickly, and afterward, the SIGACT report is of little practical importance. She acknowledges in her statement that, in the period immediately after it is made, the report is “sensitive,” i.e. the information it contains, if made public, could be damaging to the American war effort. In her opinion, however, after some time has passed, the report will no longer be sensitive and it is unlikely that any harm will be done by making it public. Chelsea also mentions — presumably in an effort to show that her “crime” was not as serious as the Army and the government were claiming — that, in the ordinary course of events, the information in a SIGACT report often quickly becomes publicanyway.

Although SIGACT reporting is sensitive at the time of their creation, their sensitivity normally dissipates without 48 to 72 hours as the information is either publicly released or the unit involved is no longer in the area and is not in danger. (8, p 6;)

Chelsea goes on to say that, in her opinion, the only reason that the record of SIGACTs remains “classified” is that it is kept on a data base known as the Combined Information Data Network and everything on that database is regarded as permanently classified information.(8, p 6;)

What Chelsea says, in her pre-trial statement, about the purpose and the limited sensitivity of SIGACTs is of course, intended to create sympathy in the courtroom. With the same purpose in mind, in another section entitled “Facts Regarding Storage of SIGACT Reports,” she says that the first steps she took toward the actions that led to her arrest and trial were simply a matter of doing her duty.

As part of my training at Fort Drum, I was instructed to ensure that I create back-ups of my work product. The need to create back-ups was particularly acute given the relative instability and unreliability of the computer systems we used in the field during deployment...I used several DCGS-A machines during the deployment due to various technical problems with the laptops. With these issues, several analysts lost information, but I never lost information due to the multiple back-ups I created. (8, p 7)

Chelsea goes on to offer a considerable amount of detail as to how she backed up her data: “physical” back-ups on paper, which made it easy to “grab” data quickly and made it easier to “brief” superior officers; copies of data on both her “primary” and “secondary” computers; back-up on a “shared drive” on one of the online networks she was using; back-up on a re-writable compact disc which she labelled and stored in the “skif” where she and the other intelligence analysts worked.(8, p 7-8)

She goes on to explain that although “early on in the deployment” she only saved records of the SIGACTs “within or near our Operational Environment,” later she “thought it would be easier just to save all the SIGACTs onto a CD-RW.” By using this method Chelsea “was able to retrieve the information whenever [she] needed it, and to avoid having to depend on the unreliable and slow” connection to the online database. (8, p 8)

There were two sets of SIGACT tables on the database, one covering Iraq and the other Afghanistan. It took Chelsea about a week to download each of the tables; the process went on in the “background” while she did other work on the computer. After the downloads were complete and transferred to rewritable CDs, Chelsea stored them in the conference room of the skif. She updated them regularly by pasting in records of the most recent SIGACTs.(8, p 8-9)

Chelsea also downloaded and transferred to CDs a “large repository” of two other types of reports from the same database. These were HUMINT reports concerning “human intelligence” — presumably information that had been acquired from Iraqis working with the Americans, and “CIED” reports containing information about actions that had been taken against “Improvised Explosive Devices.”(8, p 9)

Commenting on her downloading activities, Chelsea says:

I never hid the fact I had downloaded copies of both the SIGACT table...They were stored on appropriately labeled and marked CD-RWs stored in the open. I [viewed] the saved being for both my use and the use of anyone within the S2 section.

Chelsea clearly says in her pre-trial statement that when she arrived in Iraq she had no intention of breaking her oath of secrecy and releasing classified information on the internet. But there is nothing in the statement to indicate precisely what first gave her the idea of releasing the SIGACT tables. It seems likely that she was pushed to act, not so much by any specific event, but rather by the impact of reading so many detailed reports of American military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just by doing her work, she seems to have shaken her former belief that the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were serving the interests of those countries — and at the same time defending American values. In short, her conscience seems to have been troubled by what she read.

I created copies of [the SIGACT tables] as part of the process of backing up information. At the time I did so, I did not intend to use this information for any purpose other than for back-up. However, I later decided to release this information publicly. At that time I believed, and still believe, that these tables are two of the most significant documents of our time.

And, if she were asked, “Why are the documents so significant?” the gist of Chelsea’s answer would surely be: “Because I believed they would convince the world that, in the name of bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq, the US army was doing harm both to the countries it had invaded and at the same time trampling on its own reputation as a champion of democracy and human dignity.”

Chelsea’s next step was to take the CD-RWs containing the downloaded data out of the skif and back to her living quarters on the base.

On 8 January 2010 I collected the CD-RW I stored in the conference room...and placed it into the cargo pocket of my Army Combat Uniform. At the end of my shift I took the CD-RW out of the [skif] and brought it to my Containerized Housing Unit. I copied the data onto my personal laptop. Later, at the beginning of my shift, I returned the CD-RW back to the conference room.

At the time I saved the SIGACTs to my laptop, I planned to take them with me on mid-tour leave, and decide what to do with them. At some point prior to mid-tour leave, I transferred the information from my computer to a Secured Digital memory card for my digital camera. The SD card for the camera also worked on my computer and allowed me to store the SIGACT tables in a secure manner for transport.

Later in January, Chelsea was flown from Iraq back to the US. She began her mid-term leave on January 23.