It is difficult to get in to see the imprisoned Army Private First Class Bradley Manning, who is currently kept in chains as though he were a wild animal. His friend David House regularly sets out for the military prison holding the diminutive (1.57m) US army private. House, a 23-year-old computer researcher friend from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, leaves Boston every couple of weeks on a Friday afternoon after work: “I immediately run home and grab my army rucksack, throw in a bunch of socks and loose clothing, hop on an Amtrak train to Washington, DC. It’s a seven to eight hour train ride.”
Riding the overnight train, one of the things House says he tries to put out of his mind is the hate mail resulting from his part in the campaign to support the solitary young man accused of being the “hacktivist” behind all the notorious recent publications of WikiLeaks. “I receive probably 10 to 15 pieces a day. It’s quite a lot, but only one or two a week are actual death threats,” House says.
He arrives in Washington at 6am, and often checks in to a cheap student hostel near Union station before picking up a car-share vehicle for the 58km drive south down Interstate 95 to Quantico, Virginia. It’s important to get there at noon on Saturday. Too early, and the guards turn him away; too late, and it cuts into the strictly enforced weekend visiting periods between noon and 3pm.
House reckons he is lucky to have got on the visiting list. It helped that he could claim to be a friend of Manning. A year ago, they met when the young soldier turned up at a hacker conference organized by House, “just a kid from Alabama” who had made it on intellectual merit into the hacker elite based around Boston University and MIT.
“Clearly Bradley was somehow involved in the hacker culture,” House says. “But he looked a bit like an outsider. Bradley had obviously slept well, he hadn’t been up for days on end, his hair was fixed, he had showered. He wasn’t dirty, like a typical hacker is. Especially in Boston. These are people who wouldn’t shave for days on end, they would smell bad. These are all marks of intellectuals who are engaged or obsessed to a degree with their passions. It’s a badge of honor. If you’ve got somebody who’s concerned with their appearance to any degree, that doesn’t mesh very well with the academic hacker scene in Boston.”
House warms to his theme, quoting from the “hacker manifesto,” a 1986 essay by the notorious hacker Loyd Blankenship: “Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for. I am a hacker, and this is my manifesto.”
Manning’s family says that the young soldier should never have been posted to Iraq, and was already showing signs of depression before being sent there. This kind of hackerdom, to which he was introduced while on leave, via a Boston boyfriend, might perhaps have seemed an environment that could save him. The 22-year-old junior soldier had recently come out as gay, and had a disrupted childhood and a troubled relationship with his father, a former US serviceman who had met and later divorced Manning’s mother. Manning was an unlikely soldier, who recounted that his custom dog tags gave his religion as “humanist,” and had strong political opinions.