Bradley Manning, the unknown soldier

The spotlight has been on Julian Assange, but the 23-year-old accused of leaking US secrets to Wikileaks.

The spotlight has been on Julian Assange, but the 23-year-old accused of leaking US secrets to WikiLeaks, is held in solitary confinement at a US army base and faces life in prison. Can anyone save him?

On 26 May 2010, 23-year-old American soldier Bradley Manning was arrested in Iraq on suspicion of leaking classified information. As Manning was charged and imprisoned, first in Iraq and then in the US, the organisation WikiLeaks released an unprecedented amount of information into the public sphere: most significantly, the Afghanistan war logs in July, the Iraq war logs in October and then thousands of diplomatic cables in November. Julian Assange, the founder and pale face of WikiLeaks, went into hiding but emerged in London after the Swedish judiciary requested his extradition to face charges of alleged rape and sexual assault.

As Assange became a worldwide media sensation, with a host of well-known supporters paying his bail and publicly offering him support, Manning was comparatively forgotten. Assange himself says they have never met (if it cannot be proven that Manning leaked data directly to Assange, then the US authorities will have no case to prosecute or extradite the WikiLeaks founder). But in an interview with MSNBC in December, he described Manning as a "political prisoner".

Manning is being held at the Marine Corps Brig in Quantico, Virginia. He has been there since 29 July 2010 after spending two months in a military jail in Kuwait. Only two people visit him: his lawyer, David Coombs, and a friend, David House. Manning doesn't have many friends. Since his arrest, people have fallen away, reluctant to be associated with a man who has incurred the wrath of the highest levels of the US government and who could spend the next 52 years of his life in jail.

House - a softly spoken, intense 23-year-old from Alabama - has taken Manning up as his cause. When I meet him in London, he says he didn't know Manning personally before the events of last year. A researcher at MIT, House is involved in the hacker community in Boston. Manning was connected to the group through a friend and House said he knew of him. After Manning's arrest, state department officials, the FBI and police investigated the hackers, trying to fathom their informal set-up and find out what they knew about Manning. In response, members of the group formed the Bradley Manning Support Network. House got involved and began to visit Manning in jail.

Brig problem

The military base at Quantico is huge. An hour outside Washington DC, it is mostly used as a training centre for marines, but there is also an air base and accommodation for military personnel and their families. It has a suburban atmosphere, says House - woods and fields surround the area, and a river passes through it. Manning is held in the "Brig", a squat, one-story building surrounded by barbed-wire fences. The unit is normally used as a short-term pre-trial detainment centre, where suspects are held for a maximum of 90 days. Manning has been there for seven months.

When House arrives to see Manning, he is searched and then lead into a fluorescently-lit room dissected by a glass wall. There is a tiny hole in the wall through which the two men can speak. The whole facility has to go into lockdown when Manning - a "maximum custody" prisoner - is taken out of his cell. House says he can hear his friend before he sees him, because his chains rattle so loudly. "I can't really describe how bizarre it is to see a 110-pound, five-foot-three individual done up in chains from his hands to his feet, connected at the waist, so he can't really move," he says.

As they talk, three marines stand behind Manning and listen to the conversation. They stare at House. His first visit was in September 2010 and he has been to Quantico every few weeks since then. As time has gone on, House has noticed that Manning has become increasingly anxious about discussing his situation in the Brig. There have been other changes, too - it takes Manning longer to warm up to conversation; sometimes it will be nearly an hour before he is able to speak at any length or with coherence. He has also gained weight and appears exhausted. Most recently, he has appeared almost catatonic, barely able to communicate at all.

This kind of deterioration is typical of prisoners held in solitary confinement. Manning is under a Prevention of Injury (POI) order, which limits his social contact, exercise, sleep and access to external stimuli such as newspapers or television (Manning had no idea of the impact the WikiLeaks release was having until House told him). He spends 23 hours a day alone in his cell. The hour he is allowed out, he is taken to an empty room and walks in circles. If he is caught exercising in his cell, he is forced to stop. At night, Manning is stripped to his underwear and has to sleep under blankets that he says give him carpet burn. He is usually woken several times throughout the night by guards. POI orders are usually issued when prisoners present a risk to themselves or others and are supposed to be temporary. Manning has been under the order since he arrived at the Brig in July.

In January, the Brig commander put Manning on suicide watch for three days (though none of his psychological evaluations have suggested he has suicidal tendencies or any inclination to harm himself). Manning's glasses were removed, so he was unable to see properly. A guard was stationed outside his door, his clothing removed and he was kept in his cell for 24 hours a day. House cannot understand why the suicide watch or POI conditions are enforced, given the recommendations by Brig psychiatrists that Manning is psychologically fit. Pentagon officials maintain that Manning receives the same treatment and "privileges as all other prisoners held in what the military calls 'maximum custody'". But House points out that Manning is the only maximum-custody detainee at Quantico, "so he is being treated like himself".

When House and Manning talk, they cover a range of subjects and common interests - computers, philosophy and the impact of technology on society. They share a passion for the potential of the internet, for free information. At their first meeting they had "this amazing conversation about Hinduism and the way the internet distils ethics down". Manning requested that House visit again.

Born in December 1987 in the small town of Crescent, Oklahoma, Manning grew up with his parents and sister. In his early teens, his father walked out and his mother, Susan, decided to move with the children back to her home of Haverfordwest in south-west Wales. It was an awkward transition for Manning, who went to the local school and spent much of his time in the computer room. When he was 17, he returned to Oklahoma to live with his father, who threw him out when he discovered his son was gay. Manning lived on the road, moving from place to place without a job. He visited a boyfriend, Tyler Watkins, in Boston where he met the network of hackers around MIT. In October 2007, he joined the US army and was soon despatched to a base outside Baghdad in Iraq.

The reasons for Manning's disaffection with the US military have been widely discussed. House says it is difficult for him to talk about this with Manning directly, as he doesn't feel comfortable talking about the past or about his alleged crime in any detail in front of the marines. But House says there is one incident they have discussed that had a clear impact on Manning. A group of Iraqis had been detained for publishing "anti-Iraqi literature". Manning, tasked with investigating the case, got the leaflets translated and discovered they were a serious critique of government corruption. He notified his superior officer, who simply told him to find more Iraqis to detain.

According to chat logs of alleged conversations between Manning and a fellow hacker, Adrian Lamo (later published incompletely by Wired), the huge download of information from government databases was easy to execute. Manning appears to explain how he was able to copy data from the classified network using unmarked CDs. In the chat logs, Manning seemed to realise the potential impact of his actions. "Hillary Clinton and several thousand diplomats are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format, to the public," he wrote. Lamo, based in California, informed the authorities and Manning was arrested.

At attention

Manning has no set date for a trial. Those, such as House, who are campaigning on his behalf, want Manning's case to be handled with "due process" and the extreme conditions of his detainment to be re-evaluated. They want him to be seen by an independent pyschiatrist and are also trying to raise awareness in the UK, as Manning holds dual UK/US citizenship.

But the authorities, it seems, do not like the attention. In January, House drove to the Quantico base to visit Manning with Jane Hamsher, a Washington DC film producer and blogger. The pair were stopped before they reached the base and held by the police on the basis that Hamsher only had a digital copy of her car insurance certificate. They were eventually let go, as visiting hours ended, and so were unable to see Manning. This incident occurred shortly after Manning was on suicide watch. As Hamsher put it to me: "It felt like they didn't want David to see Bradley that day and they were going to do anything they could to stop it."

Towards the end of our conversation, I ask House why he thinks Manning might have committed the crime he is accused of. "If the chat logs between Manning and Lamo are true, you can see Manning's need for attention," he says. "But we also see him calling for worldwide debate and reform. When I meet him, I see the individual that wants reform. But I think at the core of it are the conditions in his life. He needed to find some self-worth in the world."

Sophie Elmhirst is an assistant editor of the NS