Producer’s Note: This essay was written before Manning’s recent coming out, and in light of recent events, its message is more relevant than ever.
It’s been weeks since I testified at the court-martial of Private Bradley Manning, and I still don’t know how to explain to anyone what that experience was like. I don’t even know how to feel about what I saw there.
Everything seemed simple before, and now it’s really not. It used to be easy to take a bird’s-eye view of the entire situation. I saw it as some abstract network of people, events, morals, responsibilities, laws, consequences, past, future, the connections between them, and some process of justice or historical consensus that would resolve all this in favor of one definitive outcome or another. It was easy to talk about what Manning did, debate the ethical and legal character of his actions, and calmly contemplate what should happen next.
That was my attitude going into this — there were facts, they would eventually add up to an answer, and I didn’t need to give much thought to anything beyond that. For me, the facts were simple: I had spoken with Manning online for several months in 2009, after he took an interest in my fledgling YouTube channel, and long before his leaks of classified material. His defense team believed our conversations could show that Manning cared about his country and wanted to protect people, contrary to the government’s assertions that he had recklessly placed America and its troops at risk. And so I was called by the defense to testify about what Manning said to me: that he felt he had a great duty to people, and wanted to make sure everyone made it home to their families.
Flying out to Baltimore was disorienting; I hadn’t been apart from my fiancee and our kids for over a year, and now I was on my own in a city I’d never visited before. Still, I took it in stride and tried to think of it as something that was going to happen, something I’d get through no matter how it went, and then it would be over – the same things I would always tell myself before a dental appointment. As if this were no more than some temporary discomfort or inconvenience to my life. I drew on the same strategy I used when nervous about flying, or transitioning, or coming out to my family: pretending that all of this was completely normal to me. Of course, having to pretend meant that it very much was not, but I tried not to think about that.
“Miss McNamara?” Sgt. Valesko, clean-shaven and wearing a sports jersey, recognized me at the baggage claim and introduced himself. He carried my bags outside, where Sgt. Daley was waiting to drive me to my hotel. I joked about the fact that I was quite literally getting a ride in a black government van. As they showed me some landmarks around the area — Costco, Olive Garden, and a high-security prison — we all got to know each other. Daley told me about growing up in Shreveport, attending a superhero-themed wedding in Seattle, and shattering his wrist in a motorcycle accident; I showed him the thick five-inch surgical scar on my abdomen. They thought it was great. It was surprisingly easy to talk to them. They were very friendly, and it really put me at ease, even when I was still struggling to get a handle on everything that was happening.
I was scheduled to have a meeting with Manning’s defense the next day, before they began making their case on Monday. Sgt. Val — everyone called him that — picked me up from the hotel, as well as Capt. Barclay Keay, another witness for the defense. This was my first time at Fort Meade, and it was a subtly disturbing place to be. While there were some features that made it clear this was a very different world, such as entire lots full of giant beige fuel tanks and warnings of barriers that might erupt from beneath the roads, it took me a moment to realize why it felt so wrong. It wasn’t about what was there, but what was missing: variety. Nothing here was out of place.
Unlike the surrounding town outside the barbed-wire fence, there were no irregular trees or overgrown weeds or strangely curved roads. Vast expanses of empty, perfectly maintained grassy fields separated the base’s buildings, nearly all of which were faced in brownstone and looked like they were built in the 1950s or earlier. There were homes here like those in most suburbs, but even the higher-end “mansions,” which Sgt. Val pointed out were for generals and admirals, were absolutely identical and took up no more space than any other house. What looked like a Walmart was simply titled “COMMISSARY” in plain white letters across the side. A lone Burger King sat atop a hill; I almost expected the logo to read “FOOD.”
We soon arrived at the courthouse where the trial had been taking place, a small bland building that gave no indication it had become a site of any historic events. A series of makeshift hallways fashioned from white tarps wrapped around the building, blocking any view of its entrances. Sgt. Val guided me and Keay through the maze both outside and inside the building, and we eventually reached the courtroom itself. No one else was there today, but we didn’t have to wait long before we were approached by Capt. Angel Overgaard of the prosecution, a small woman in a sweatshirt with her hair in a tight bun. I was surprised, as I had been rather specifically informed that this would be a meeting with the defense, and I still have to wonder if this was intended to catch us off-guard.
Overgaard chose to talk to me first, and led me to a small private room to discuss my testimony. Just as the defense had previously spoken with me to work out what I would be talking about at the trial, the prosecution now wanted to figure out what they should ask me during cross-examination. The content wasn’t much of a mystery: the only relevant evidence at hand was my online conversations with Manning, which had already been published in their entirety. But unlike the defense, who worked together with me to establish exactly which questions they would ask and how I would reply, the prosecution couldn’t be quite so open about this. As their goal would be to diminish the significance of my testimony, they needed to retain some element of surprise.
Her questions spanned a wide range of topics, and didn’t seem to suggest any larger picture of what approach the prosecution might take when cross-examining me. Starting with the basics – how Manning first contacted me, how he felt about his job as an intelligence analyst, and what his goals and ambitions were – she then moved on to various details of what we talked about. She asked me to explain what the Python programming language was, as well as information theory, the AES algorithm, “Slashda” (by which she meant Slashdot), and Reddit, which she pronounced “read-it.”
These seemed to me like things the prosecution could learn about from a brief session of Googling, and I suspected this much ignorance was a put-on so they could see how I would personally explain such things. I had a nervous sense that they specifically wanted to know what I would say about it, and I wondered how they intended to use all this. It became even more suspicious when she began asking me what WikiLeaks is, when I had first learned about it, what sort of content is on the site, which of their material I had read, and how I believed the organization functions.
As someone who had only visited the site a few times out of curiosity, and didn’t read very many of the cables simply because they were in all caps, I found it almost amusing that she thought I could explain the nature of WikiLeaks in any useful detail. Still, her tone was friendly throughout, even as she was not-so-subtly digging for any answers that could be turned to the prosecution’s advantage. She didn’t feel there was much more to talk about after that, and she led me back to the courtroom to explain how my testimony would proceed tomorrow. I would enter through a side door and walk down the center aisle, where another prosecutor would hand me a water bottle, and I would then approach the witness stand to be sworn in. The prosecution would be in front of me on the left, and the defense on the right.
Standing there in the nearly-empty courtroom where all of this was about to take place, I felt… nothing. None of it seemed to reflect any of the significance the entire situation had acquired. Yes, it was important, but everything around me made it clear that it was also just another trial. It was just a courtroom that would be used for many more cases in the future, a building where you could just as easily walk down another hallway and have no idea what was taking place in the next room, and a gathering of ordinary people with ordinary lives who were doing this as just another part of their jobs.
We get excited when we watch film teasers, but after we see the movie, we realize it was nothing like what we expected — it was just another movie. Having only heard about the trial from a distance, my expectations had grown so much that I failed to realize this was all still taking place in the same boring world the rest of us inhabit. Nothing about the reality of this seemed to do justice to the idea of it. Before leaving, I was directed to the government’s trial operations trailer, where two soldiers issued me a witness badge. My name was written on a whiteboard below several others. On the wall above their televisions, a black-and-white image of the Dos Equis guy read: “I don’t usually watch trials…but when I do, it’s not the ones I’m supposed to watch.”
Back at the hotel, I Skyped with my family, recounting the day’s events and making sure everything was okay at home. It was difficult to sign off for the night, and as soon as they were gone, the feeling of isolation grew to almost a physical presence. I left the TV on a random channel and tried to imagine I wasn’t alone. When the alarm went off at 5:30, I was nearly in a state of panic. It was still pitch black out, and it took me a moment to remember that I was in a hotel far away from home.
This time, Chief Joshua Ehresman joined us on the ride to Fort Meade. Tall, stocky and charismatic, his Southern accent and broad grin made his tales of hard-partying hijinks seem like so much innocent fun. He asked if I was military or civilian, and insisted he had seen me somewhere before – perhaps because of my Army surplus purse. I suggested he might know me from the internet; he laughed and remarked that he needed to stay off the internet so as not to get himself into trouble.
At the entrance to the courthouse, we were ordered out of the van so it could be inspected by bomb-sniffing dogs. A crowd of a few dozen people had gathered behind a barricade at the very far end of the parking lot, holding signs and cheering loudly as we walked into the tents. Not knowing what else to do, I waved. “Who are they?” asked one of the soldiers. “They’re gonna free Bradley Manning,” smirked Ehresman. “Good luck,” I muttered bleakly. He thought this was hilarious.
The witness trailer where we waited was roomy and colder than a movie theater – a welcome relief from the unexpected Maryland heat. Two private rooms were at either end, with a common area between them, lined with small drab waiting-room chairs and a few syrupy orange leather lounge chairs. A coffee machine was perched on a table, and an unused television sat in the corner, with DVDs like Independence Day stacked on top of it.
Today, there were six of us lined up for the defense: Chief Ehresman, Capt. Keay, Sgt. David Sadtler, Capt. Steven Lim, Col. Morris Davis, and myself. With the exception of myself and Col. Davis – the former Chief Prosecutor of the military commissions at Guantanamo – they had all personally worked with Manning in some capacity while he was stationed in Iraq. Every one of them felt somewhat mystified as to why they had been called here. They admitted to knowing almost nothing about Manning himself, and believed they had little to offer in the way of evidence other than simple facts such as “I saw a window open on his computer.” Once I told them of my conversations with him, they concluded that out of everyone present, I had spoken with him the most extensively.
Throughout the morning, we all refreshed our phones for updates on Twitter from Alexa O’Brien, Kevin Gosztola, Ed Pilkington and Nathan Fuller. Their tweets provided more valuable inside information on the minute-to-minute happenings than anything the Army told us that day. It was through them that we learned why the trial, scheduled to begin at 8:30 AM, had not even begun two hours later: the video and audio feed to the press room was nonfunctional, and they couldn’t proceed until it was fixed.
Eventually, Ehresman was escorted to the courtroom. We refreshed our phones obsessively as we waited for the next update from Alexa on what questions were being asked and who would be called next. At one point, my old name was tweeted by a reporter, and all of them saw it. “Oh great, now the whole world knows,” I joked. “Why do they even think that matters?” lamented Sadtler, a detached and ironic young man who was much less uptight and formal than everyone else present.
For such a significant occasion, the atmosphere in the trailer was starkly mundane. Even when waiting to testify at a historic trial, waiting in a small room all day gets old fast. Most of them talked to each other in acronyms I couldn’t understand, stopping only to inquire about the My Little Pony sticker on my phone. Keay had brought bananas, almonds and berries for us to snack on, and we all remarked on what a brilliant invention the Keurig machine was. Sadtler discussed the US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan with Lim, who soberly contended that our actions were regrettable but necessary. Sadtler, who seemed to be of a more liberal bent, was skeptical.
At one point, Manning’s lead attorney, David Coombs, stopped in to say hello to us. Taking Lim into a private room, we overheard them discussing several very obvious points about .EXE files – executable software. To Sadtler and I, who had both been raised online, it was highly amusing to hear people try to work out exactly what an .EXE is. We joked that it “hacks the Gibson.” By lunch, only Ehresman and Sadtler had testified. Col. Davis and I ate at the catering tent, where prosecutor Maj. Ashden Fein was angrily berating another soldier for the problems with the media feed that morning. He seemed very high-strung and truly upset about this. I wondered if he would be similarly on edge in court.
With the press room issues cleared up, everyone’s testimony proceeded much more rapidly during the afternoon session. Eventually, Col. Davis and I were the only ones left waiting in the trailer. While my phone’s battery had died hours before, he helpfully kept me updated on what was happening just a few hallways away from us, and we passed the time talking about what we had each been working on recently.
I learned that he had received a Hugh Hefner First Amendment Award along with Jessica Ahlquist, a young woman who successfully fought to remove an unconstitutional Christian prayer display from her public school, and whom I had spoken alongside at a secular rally last year. He shared his thoughts about Guantanamo and the injustice of extraordinary renditions, as well as his stance on the Manning trial: that Manning’s actions were wrong, but so was the government’s pursuit of an “aiding the enemy” charge that could carry a life sentence. I found this to be a refreshingly elegant perspective – an all-too-rare acknowledgment that perhaps both sides could be right, and wrong.
At around 4:30 PM, a soldier finally came to escort me to the courtroom. We waited outside the doorway as dozens of spectators were led out of the building. Many of them looked me up and down as they passed – I couldn’t tell whether they were scrutinizing my face, or my pink hair, or if they just wanted to get some sense of what was going to happen next at the trial. An older woman asked if I enjoyed the clapping that morning. “Yes,” I answered unsteadily, not sure if I was allowed to say anything to them.
I was led through the hallways until I was standing outside the closed doors of the courtroom. Two soldiers, both women, stood ready to open them as soon as I was called in. I chatted with them about insignificant things like the weather, and once again, I shared my well-worn explanation for why I was there: that Manning and I had talked several times, and the defense now felt that the record of his statements could be useful in countering the charges against him. We stood there in silence for some time, until the doors were opened.
I walked in, and saw that the benches were packed with spectators. Every single person in the room was looking at me. It was completely silent; my ears began ringing, and my heart raced. I got the sense that everything was somehow frozen in time – walking past the benches and up to the stand was like a dream where everything is too slow, and you know you have to try and get away from something terrible, but you can’t. Fein handed me a water bottle. I didn’t know why I was panicking. I had told myself this was just something I’d have to do, like any other routine thing, and then it would be over.
As I turned to face the room, my heartbeat pounded in my ears even worse than before, and I could barely speak when Overgaard swore me in. My mouth went dry and my throat tightened. In front of me, at the defense table, I saw Bradley Manning for the first time. However underwhelming and unimportant everything seemed in the empty courtroom before, however much I’d thought the reality of the situation fell short of the idea, the reality had surely caught up and exceeded whatever I expected to feel. I could sense the energies of some pivotal moment of history turning to focus themselves on me, and the weight of it was almost unbearable.
Coombs asked me what my name had been before I changed it, the name I still had in 2009 when Manning spoke with me. In front of this room of strangers and the entire world listening outside, I spoke a man’s name in little more than a wavering croak. He then asked why I changed my name. I thought it was obvious – did I really need to explain it? What came out was something like this: “I’m a woman, and I wanted my name to reflect that.” A young woman in an aisle seat seemed to be vaguely impressed.
I kept looking over toward Manning. I wanted, more than anything, to see some indication that he was okay – that he was still alive in there, that he hadn’t been destroyed by all this. He only stared straight ahead at the ceiling-mounted monitor, with no visible emotion on his face. I tried desperately to make my pulse stop pounding, but seeing him that way just added to what I began to realize was a growing despair.
Coombs asked me basic factual questions about my history with Manning: how he found me (he was a fan of my videos), how long we talked for (six months), and why he chose to speak to me (he felt I had a similar outlook on political and religious matters). I answered as best I could, but I couldn’t get my thoughts in order, and the words were slow and jumbled. My mind seemed mostly occupied with processing something much larger.
Most of the questions seemed redundant, given that the chat logs were the entirety of our interactions. I didn’t understand how my opinions could have any value here – even if all they had to go on was the text of our conversations, that was all I had to go on, too. I had no unique insight beyond anyone else. I didn’t know why I was there.
Coombs finally moved to introduce the 39 pages of logs as evidence, and Overgaard immediately objected, claiming that they were hearsay. There was a brief back-and-forth over the precise legal details, and Judge Denise Lind called a 20-minute recess so that copies could be made of our conversations and she could review them. The spectators once again shuffled out, along with the prosecution team. The only ones who remained in the courtroom were myself, Manning, his attorneys, and his guards – two large plainclothes men with earpieces who stayed within a few feet of him at all times.
During the recess, Coombs took me aside to the unoccupied jury panel, where we went over the specific portions of the logs that he would ask me about. I had looked over these excerpts with him many times before, but now I couldn’t concentrate. Instead, my eyes were drawn to Manning, well aware that I might not see him again for a very long time, if ever. It was a relief to see that he was happily talking and joking with the attorneys and even the guards. Some part of him had survived through all this.
After Coombs left, I sat alone at the jury panel. Seeing Manning look in my direction, I waved weakly at him. He nodded at me.
Once the court reconvened, Coombs simply had me read selections from the logs. For the first time since I walked into the courtroom, I began to relax, certain that the confident Manning I once knew was still there with me. My voice seemed to return, and I read his words aloud.
With my current position…I can apply what I learn to provide more information to my officers and commanders and hopefully save lives…I’m more concerned about making sure that everyone, soldiers, Marines, contractors, even the local nationals, get home to their families…I place value on people first.
During the cross-examination, Overgaard’s questions had little to do with anything we discussed at our meeting, and she likewise asked me to read certain portions of our conversations. I could tell that she had assembled these excerpts to paint a more damaging picture of Manning.
She cited conversations where he expressed a nuanced outlook on the methods and goals of terrorists, criticized malfunctioning military computer systems that made his job difficult, and sent me a link to his newly-developed unit “incident tracker” that was hosted on his personal site – a link which contained no actual content, though Overgaard did not allow me to clarify this. By now, any trace of nervousness had dissipated. Instead, I was merely incredibly offended. Even though these were his words and not my own, I felt a deep indignity at being forced to speak what they were intent on using against him.
I was excused from the trial and strode out of the courtroom — with a nod to Bradley Manning and to the spectators. Some nodded in reply.
Bradley Manning is a human being, and that simple fact made itself so apparent that day, everything else ceased to matter. Looking at him, there was no way I could continue to see the situation as being about anything other than this one person and what they had gone through. Yes, there are issues of morals and laws and risks and harms that must be weighed up. I know this. I’ve said those words before. But none of it was important now.
It’s not that I believe Bradley’s actions were right. It’s that I don’t even care anymore, and people’s shallow words of support or denouncement mean nothing to me. They have no idea what he’s going through – none of us do. To me, this isn’t about making him a figurehead for some movement, or a subject of our little arguments over abstractions, or a symbol of everything right or wrong with the world. It’s not about my opinion or the reporters who ask me for it. It’s not about the meaningless words I’ve written on needing to deter soldiers from leaking mass amounts of classified documents, something I foolishly believed to be the most relevant response to this situation. It’s not about finding an elegant answer to a moral puzzle or coming up with yet more rational arguments to support whatever I happen to be feeling at the moment.
It’s not about what we think of Manning’s opinion of Guantanamo or the Army or their broken computers, it’s not about soldiers joking around and admiring a coffee machine in a trailer, it’s not about whether the trial lived up to our expectations. It’s not about us.
For the past three weeks, my life hasn’t been about anything other than the fact that Bradley Manning is sitting in a cage right now while the rest of the world gets to walk away and move on. And I don’t think I can move on.
It’s easy to forget that at the center of all this furor is one person – a person like us, who thinks like us and feels like us and hurts like us. Having seen Manning in that room, I can never forget this. Before, he was just a name to me, one of thousands that have crossed my screen. But Bradley Manning is not, and never will be, just a name.
In that room, I saw a person who was in more trouble than I had ever seen another person be in, someone who had suffered and was still suffering the full wrath of an enraged, unforgiving American government. And that scared me, and I wanted to help him, to do anything I could do get him out of there, and I couldn’t. And that hurts beyond any words.
Nothing I can possibly say about this will be able to give him what he needs and deserves. What he needs isn’t as sterile as some right answer that accords with ideals of freedom or justice or any other lofty concept that we speak about in preachy tones. He is a human being and what he needs from the rest of us is humanity. The only meaningful question is how we can live with ourselves while this is happening to a person.
What I felt then and still feel now is a kind of guilt, unreasonable as it may be. No, I had no way of knowing what Manning was going to do – but if I had kept talking to him, everything could have happened so differently. I don’t know how I, still an immature child even at 21, would have reacted if he had spoken to me about his intentions rather than Adrian Lamo.
I could never tell how serious he was being when he talked about his work, and there’s a good chance I would have unwisely leapt at the opportunity to see or touch or transfer any classified material he had been gathering behind the scenes. For such an excited, youthful lapse in judgment, I could have been dragged into this unexpected and unimaginable hell right alongside him. Or, if I were more attentive to the consequences of what he was planning, I might have tried to discourage him from doing something so reckless. I might have been able to prevent this.
And if there was something else going on in his life that was distressing to him, maybe I could have helped him with that, too. What I didn’t reveal at the trial was that Manning opened up to me in part because we were both gay men. That’s not who I am anymore, and by the time Manning contacted Lamo, there were clear signs that he too was considering transitioning — signs that any other trans person would see as indicative of someone who was so far into this, they weren’t likely to turn back.
I’ve talked about Manning as male, because there’s been nothing but silence and denial on this front from his family and his attorneys, and I simply don’t know how else to refer to him. But I do know what happens when you take one of us and lock us away for most of our early twenties, unable to access treatments like those he was seeking. It horrifies me, and it should horrify anyone else who truly understands what it means to be held hostage by our own bodies.
Somewhere, in some other universe, I might have been able to stop all of this — or I might have ended up in a cell, too. But now there’s the unbearable discrepancy, the miserable and unyielding knowledge that I would get to walk out of that courtroom as a free person and he wouldn’t, that he’s locked in a cage and I’m not, that I got to transition and he didn’t.
The next day, Sgt. Daley drove me back to the airport. I stared blankly as he asked if I had seen any movies during my stay. He recommended The Lone Ranger. “That horse stole the show!” he effused. I tried to laugh, and I couldn’t.