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Did WikiLeaks Let Bradley Manning down?

01/08/2013 12:35 BST | Updated 30/09/2013 10:12 BST

Private First Class Bradley Manning is facing a very long prison term. He may have been acquitted of the most serious charge of abetting an enemy but Manning will likely be an old man when he eventually leaves prison a free man, if that ever happens.

WikiLeaks, the online organisation which published the hundreds of thousands of classified documents Manning handed over, has said they "will not rest" until Manning is free. However the question is, did WikiLeaks do enough to protect Manning in the first place?

Even in the digital age, journalists have to protect their sources. WikiLeaks would argue that it did protect Manning but there are many levels of protection and it's arguable that WikiLeaks provided only the bare minimum when, given the incendiary nature of the materials it received, it should have done much more.

WikiLeaks protects its sources (and itself) through anonymity at both ends. All users have a coded username, as do all WikiLeaks staff, to protect everyone's identity. Users can then transmit their information to WikiLeaks through a confidential portal without leaving any identification trail.

In November 2009, Bradley Manning started visiting the WikiLeaks site as it was about this time WikiLeaks published the pager messages from the 9/11 attacks. There he seemed to find a forum of people he could relate to.

Manning started engaging in chat messages with an anonymous WikiLeaks associate. The person called themselves "Ox" but Manning suggested changing this to "Nathaniel," after Nathaniel Frank, the author of a book on Don't Ask Don't Tell. Given that Manning was by this time already battling with his sexuality and gender identity, this choice of name is quite telling.

Whether 'Nathaniel' was Julian Assange is the subject of much debate. It's probable that we will never know for certain but Manning has said that he felt this relationship was a genuine friendship.

"I could just be myself, free of any concerns about social labelling in real life," Manning has said. "In retrospect, I realize these dynamics were artificial. They were valued more to me than Nathaniel."

Manning didn't start handing over the classified documents to WikiLeaks until January 2010. Some have therefore accused WikiLeaks of grooming Manning in this time, encouraging him to provide the materials. However no such evidence has been found.

Army investigators found 14-15 pages of chats between Manning and 'Nathaniel' (who they believed to be Assange), but none of it showed any pressure being put on Manning. So if WikiLeaks didn't groom Manning, did they do enough to protect him after he passed the materials over?

Well, Wikileaks has never ever revealed that Manning as their source. Even now they refuse to do so.

When Assange was giving a press conference after the verdict was announced, he refused to confirm Manning as their source and pointed instead at Adrian Lamo, the computer hacker who reported Manning to the authorities, saying "We are pleased that throughout this case no evidence was produced from WikiLeaks against Bradley Manning. The allegation against him is that he spoke to a US informer [Lamo] who turned him in... It is of great concern to us to see any national security source victimised, but we have chosen not to enter into a debate over whether he is one of our sources."

And Julian Assange is right. The military court found no evidence that WikiLeaks had blown Manning's cover. But that doesn't absolve WikiLeaks completely.

Admittedly, in WikiLeaks' defence, it's difficult when your source is as emotionally unstable as Bradley Manning. However irrespective of that, Manning was in a very vulnerable position. That would have been obvious to anyone within WikiLeaks on seeing the material he sent them. One look at the materials Manning sent over and their first reaction should have been, "our source is going to be in a lot of trouble. We need to be sure he understands the repercussions of this and gets some help."

At best, whether any help or advice was given is unclear. At worst, the continued release of materials by WikiLeaks even after Manning's arrest harmed his case considerably. Also WikiLeaks promised $50,000 to Manning's defence fund but less than half of that has ever been received.

In the few months between the handing over of this material and his arrest at the end of May 2010, Manning fell apart.

In this short time Manning told his master sergeant that he was suffering from gender dysphoria and handed over a photograph of himself dressed as a woman. He also started developing his alternate female persona, referring to her as Breanna. He even went so far as to set up Twitter and YouTube accounts in Breanna's name to give her a digital presence.

His Facebook posts clearly showed a troubled mind - ""Bradley Manning is not a piece of equipment," he posted. He added that he was utterly lost "beyond frustrated".

May 2010 and WikiLeaks' revelations were dominating global headlines but their source, Manning was out of control. On May 7, he was found curled into a foetal position in an Army storage cupboard, with a knife at his feet. Understandably he was referred to an Army psychiatrist, who recommended a discharge for an "occupational problem and adjustment disorder." Instead he was demoted.

The secret Manning was carrying was becoming too much to bear. Desperate, Manning started to reach out to anyone he thought could help him, including Adrian Lamo. Manning confided everything to Lamo, a hacker he thought would have sympathy with his situation. Instead Lamo, who had promised Manning he wouldn't breathe a word of this to anyone, reported Manning to the authorities.

It would be unfair to suggest that WikiLeaks should have profiled Manning extensively, that they should have known that this was a man in a very vulnerable emotional state even before the confidential materials were handed over. But the duty of care does not seem to have been followed through.

WikiLeaks are advocating their secrecy as a source of pride, as a discharge of their responsibilities, but in this case it was not enough. In this instance, the need for secrecy left Manning adrift at the very point when he needed firm guidance. 'Nathaniel', it seems, was not concerned enough in protecting Manning once they had got the secrets from him.