On the night of February 21, 2009, a year before Army private Bradley E. Manning allegedly leaked the largest cache of classified information in American history, he sat at a computer in his barracks at Fort Drum in upstate New York. It was a Saturday in midwinter, and the barracks were nearly empty. He pulled a chair up to the computer in his cinder-block room, briefly debated between a pizza and a sandwich from Domino’s, went with the sandwich, and passed over into his “digital existence,” as he thought of it. He logged on to AOL’s instant-messenger service under the handle Bradass87, and off he went to transform himself. On the web, he could be whomever he chose.
It was 8:27 p.m. at Fort Drum when he popped up on the computer screen of ZJ Antolak.
“hi,” he began.
“hi,” ZJ responded.
“You don’t know me, i apologize, i got this [address] from your youtube channel.”
“No problem, there’s a reason I put it on there :P,” wrote ZJ, adding an emoticon to indicate her playful tone—or his, depending on your frame of reference. ZJ was Zachary Antolak, a 19-year-old gay activist and web designer. On YouTube, he went by the name Zinnia Jones. On the Internet, he was a she who called herself Queen of the Atheists, wearing her auburn hair below her shoulders and painting her lips a bold red.
Manning was an atheist himself—“I’m godless,” he told an acquaintance. But even more, he identified with ZJ’s self-invented life. “I saw your more personal stuff and figured you were on the same page … as me,” Manning wrote. “You remind me of … well … me.”
Among fellow soldiers, Manning had to conceal the basic facts of his sexual orientation. On the web, he was proudly out and joined a “Repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” group. He’d even begun to explore switching his gender, chatting with a counselor about the steps a person takes to transition from male to female.
On the web, being one thing didn’t mean you couldn’t be another. And for all of his boundary-crossing and self-exploration online, he was, at first, a committed soldier. In fact, he was gung ho, eager to put his technical expertise to use for the cause—he had the skills of a hacker, though at that point, he didn’t yet have the ideology. The Army had trained him at Fort Huachuca as an intelligence analyst. “With my current position,” he wrote to ZJ with a new graduate’s earnestness, “i can apply what i learn to provide more information to my officers and commanders, and hopefully save lives … i feel a great responsibility and duty to people.”
Not that Manning’s conception of patriotic duty would have met with the approval of his superiors. His methods were hardly standard operating procedure. “In public eye, US intel services are mysterious; in the real world, intelligence is a goofy, clunky, and annoying process,” he wrote to ZJ. “drives me NUTS … luckily i use my DC contacts from Starbucks and get the word out to those higher up in the chain.”
ZJ played along with Manning’s espionage narrative. “I can imagine two guys in sunglasses meeting at a starbucks to quickly hand over an envelope … just to get some minor bug repaired,” she wrote, according to logs provided to New York Magazine.
Manning, though, had followed a different script. “Lol ... glamorous, but no … it’s more like i knew this lt colonel from the DIA”—Defense Intelligence Agency—“at starbucks before i was in the military … slept with him once or twice, then i get in the military, i notice the problems, call him and say, hey, find someone who can fix this.”
In the gravityless world of the web, Manning could be all he wanted to be—gay, patriotic, and powerful, too. “I have long arms and a wide footprint,” he wrote from his deserted barracks.
When the computer was turned off and his Army comrades returned, his superpowers disappeared. The members of his platoon didn’t consider Manning a warrior, not like them. He’s five foot two and 105 pounds, as “tiny as a child,” one former soldier said. Military policy dictated that he hide his sexual orientation, but it probably wasn’t a secret to his platoon. “It took them a while, but they started figuring me out, making fun of me, mocking me, harassing me,” he wrote to ZJ, heating up with one or two physical attacks.” Though, he assured ZJ, “I fended [it] off just fine.”
Over time, the pressures took a toll. At Fort Drum, Manning was losing control, lashing out at his tormentors. He had trouble with roommates, screamed at superior officers, his fists in balls. His master sergeant wasn’t sure he was mentally fit to deploy to Iraq, fearing he could do harm to himself or others. By August 2009, the month of Manning’s last chats with ZJ, he’d been referred to an Army mental-health counselor. Even online, his bravado slipped away. On August 7, 2009, almost six months after he first reached out to ZJ, he popped up on her screen. It was 11:30 p.m., a Friday night at Fort Drum. “i don’t mean to sound overdramatic, but im quite lonely,” he told her.