Meanwhile, Manning’s concerns about his sexual identity were intensifying. In November 2009, he made contact on the web with a gender counselor back in the States. When I met the counselor, he was easygoing and upbeat for someone who’d spent hours talking to servicemen who believed they were inhabiting the wrong body. He knew what he was talking about, though. In person, his gender was difficult to discern—he’d begun his transition as a teenager. “Bradley felt he was female,” the counselor told me. “He was very solid on that.” Quickly, their conversation shifted to the practicalities: How does someone transition from male to female? “He really wanted to do surgery,” the counselor recalled. “He was mostly afraid of being alone, being ostracized or somehow weird.” To the counselor, it was clear Manning was in crisis. “I feel like a monster,” he’d typed on his computer several times. The statement referred partly to his gender struggles but more to his job. He’d taken an oath not to divulge this type of information. But then it spilled out. He told the counselor about a targeting mission gone bad in Basra. “Two groups of locals were converging in this one area. Manning was trying to figure out why they were meeting,” the counselor told me. On Manning’s information, the Army moved swiftly, dispatching a unit to hunt them down. Manning had thought all went well, until a superior explained the outcome. “Ultimately, some guy loosely connected to the group got killed,” the counselor said. To the counselor, it was clear: Manning felt that there was blood on his hands. “He was very, very distressed.”
About that time, Manning later explained, “everything started slipping.” Manning, it turned out, wasn’t built for this kind of war. “i was a *part* of something … i was actively involved in something that i was completely against.” The job wore down lots of soldiers. Some survived by becoming desensitized—the blood and death goes right past them. Manning took it personally. According to the government, it was in November 2009, the same month that he reached out to the gender counselor, that Manning began to work with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, “a candidate for the most dangerous man in the world,” as Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Pentagon papers, later put it.
Assange’s appeal to Manning was obvious. The WikiLeaks leader was a celebrity in Manning’s hacker world—dashing, mysterious, and cartoonish in equal parts. There was his striking appearance: knife-thin with a constantly cocked head and that saintly white hair. Assange was another one who’d harnessed the power of the Internet to do his bidding. He was a genius programmer and cryptographer who started refining those skills as a teenager. As a 24-year-old, he was charged with hacking into Nortel—he didn’t cause any significant damage and so wasn’t sentenced to prison. Hackers loved him. To them, he embodied all their best impulses. They thought of themselves as “highly critical minds that question authority, appreciate civil liberty,” one hacker explained to me. And Assange questioned authority every day. But Assange wasn’t a typical hacker, who, after all, are mostly technicians. Assange was a thinker. One of his central thoughts was that secrets sustain corruption. And so he designed WikiLeaks, which made leaking the world’s most closely held secrets devilishly simple. Just hit SEND and off they went into WikiLeaks’ encrypted system.
“I feel like a monster,” he typed to his gender counselor, who said, “He was very, very distressed.”
For months, Manning later said, he tracked Assange, and eventually, he claimed, the WikiLeaks founder responded. “He finds you,” Manning later explained. It was something like a courtship, at least from Manning’s point of view. “i’ve developed a relationship with assange,” he wrote. Assange’s attentions flattered Manning, and his beliefs spoke directly to the troubled, impressionable private. “Every time we witness an act that we feel to be unjust and do not act, we become a party to injustice,” Assange once wrote.
The seduction worked both ways. For Assange, someone like Manning was irresistible, too. WikiLeaks had revealed political and banking scandals in Kenya and Switzerland, but a person like Manning had access to more impressive secrets, involving the United States, a central perpetrator of injustice in the world, as Assange saw it, and one on which there were few checks.
Manning claimed he was a source to Assange, not quite a collaborator, but he had certain privileges: “i mean, im a high profile source.” To maintain his status in the hierarchy of Assange’s attentions, Manning had to produce, which ratcheted up the pressure. The process exhausted him. “I’m a total fucking wreck,” he later wrote.
Meanwhile, Watkins, one person Manning thought he could depend on, was slipping away. Even before shipping out, Manning had changed his Facebook status to “single.” But it wasn’t a clean break. “Thinking of you dear,” Watkins wrote on Manning’s Facebook page on March 24, 2010—but then disappeared. The mixed signals drove Manning to despair. “[Tyler] left me with this ambiguity for months on end,” and it “causes so much stress,” he wrote on Facebook, according to a copy provided to New York. Manning reached out again and again, but Watkins wouldn’t respond.