The Private Life of Bradley Manning

Interview Brian Manning

Below are excerpts from an interview FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith conducted with Bradley Manning's father, Brian, on Feb. 28, 2011. He talks about his son's upbringing in small-town Oklahoma, Bradley's love of computers and how he saw a change in his son when Bradley returned from living in Wales with his mother during his high school years. He also describes an explosive March 2006 altercation that resulted in police being called to the family's home, and tells Smith that he convinced his son to join the Army so he could get some "structure" in his life. FRONTLINE will continue reporting on the Manning story and WikiLeaks for a film airing in May 2011, and we'll publish more of Brian's interview at that time.

Bradley's Childhood

“People need to understand that he's a young man that had a happy life growing up.”

Bradley Manning grew up in Crescent, Okla., a small farming town about 40 miles north of Oklahoma City. The Manning family lived in a farmhouse on a remote stretch of dirt road outside of town. Brian Manning worked in IT for Hertz car rental, a job that required him to be away from home for weeks at a time. Bradley's mother Susan had moved to Oklahoma from her native Wales after she married Brian in 1979. The Mannings had two children, a daughter Casey, and 11 years later, a son Bradley, born in 1987.

Crescent is just a lovely town to grow up in. The school was K-12, so if anything occurred at school or anything, I mean, the entire town knew. ... All the people were lovely. Everybody at school knew everybody. So if you look at it from that point of view, you can see if anything negative had been going on in his life, it would have been apparent to everyone. ...

People need to understand that he's a young man that had a happy life growing up. ...

He would create his own websites. His first website I think he did when he was, like, 10 years old, where I had to go out and actually buy an advanced HTML manual. ...

He was really into computers?

Oh, yes. You could definitely say that was the focal point of his life.

He was smart about computers?

Very smart, and proactive. ... He taught himself Word and taught himself PowerPoint. And he was avid at the yearly science fairs where he would do a presentation. He was very skilled there. He taught himself PowerPoint to a very high level where he was able to develop all of his material for his presentation in PowerPoint. So when we put together his display, even just looking at it from a distance, it looked so professional. He won, I think three years running, grand prize. This is a K-12 project. And I think the fourth year, he basically qualified to win. But they said, you know, "We can't keep giving you this award." ...

He spent a lot of time on the computer. Is that correct?

If he did anything, that's all he did.

That's all he did?

Yeah. He never went outside there.

He didn't like to go outside?

No.

No sports?

Nope. I guess at some point, in Crescent, while he was still there, he was on their basketball team. I have a nice picture of him in his uniform.

What kind of friends did he have?

Very few friends. I think that he had two close friends that he kept in contact with and would visit them after he came back. I don't recall their names. But he never, to my knowledge, as long as I lived with him, it was never anybody came by the house. There wasn't any sleepover or anything else like that. So he kind of kept to himself, kind of.

He was a happy kid. He was happy with the things he had in his life. As long as anything didn't disrupt his activities, he was fine. As I said, he was basically on autopilot. You didn't have any chores; you didn't have anything else like that. There wasn't anything laid out, like, "Well, Bradley, you need to do this, or you need to do that." He never had anything like that.

What was his temperament like?

He was very calm, very quiet. ...

What kind of things did you like to do together?

Basically just talk about the computer things. When you do IT work all the time -- you know, it's like the old saying: Driving down the street, you know which house is where the painter lives. Well, it's the one that needs to be painted -- you know, so the last thing you want to do when you get home is to do something you've been doing all day. But most of the time he enjoyed figuring stuff out himself.

I had seen a statement on the Internet that I was strict or whatever. ... We never had to tell him to get up. I never had to tell Bradley to go to bed. You know, same with his older sister. They just were very well-behaved kids. And I mean, it was a very happy, you know, household.

You say it was a happy household, but you did go through some tough times.

At the very end. ...

In 1994, I basically took a project where ... I'd be in Paris for three weeks and back in the U.S. about five to six days a month.

[My ex-wife] never learned how to drive. She lived four miles outside of town, so I basically had to stock her up with food and supplies and stuff for the three-week period that I'd be gone. And that was kind of a strain for her, because she was basically stranded. Our neighbors weren't real close to us. ...

Did Bradley complain about you being absent a lot? How did it affect your relationship with him?

When I would come back after three weeks, you know, sometimes he wouldn't even recognize me. It was kind of like, reacquaint myself. So that was a little bit rough on him. But, I mean, after a couple hours, it was, "Dad's home," and things were OK. ...

And what effect did [your divorce] have on Bradley, do you think?

To be fair, I never prepared my ex-wife for life on her own. She never wrote a check, never handled any bills, never did anything [with] the checking account. ... A lot of the things that I had taken care of, all of a sudden, she had to rely on Bradley. So he had to kind of grow up kind of quick, you know, to handle things, basically for me.

And he was a young kid?

Yeah. He was about 12.

Bradley's Return From Wales

In 2001 Bradley moved with his mother to Wales, where he attended high school. In high school there, he was seen as a computer geek. He was not openly gay, but classmates say he was often teased and described him as short-tempered. After graduation, Bradley called his father, who had moved to Oklahoma City, and asked to move in with Brian and his second wife. But after Bradley moved in, tensions ran high at the Manning home. Bradley didn't get along with his stepmother and he and Brian began to argue about money. Years later, Bradley would claim that he was kicked out of the house for being gay.

He connected with me and said that he'd reached the decision that he wanted to come back and live in the U.S., and pretty much could we make the arrangements. And that was fine. We had a room for him set up and everything.

But that must have been a surprise for you?

It was very much a surprise. ...

When he came back, it was like a different person had come back, because his mother had put him in the position that he basically ran the household. And I hear this from her sisters that I've talked to. So it's basically, you know, that sometimes he'd be upstairs. If he wanted something, he'd just beat on the floor and yell down to his mother for a cup of tea or something, and she'd basically bring it up to him, so. ...

He was spoiled by his mother, is what you're saying?

Spoiled rotten. ...

So he was king of the castle?

He was king of the castle. He handled all the finances and everything else like that, so when he came back to the U.S., he had a certain amount of money that she had given him to get himself established. And he didn't have to pay rent. I had supplied him with a vehicle and got him through the driving class and helped him [with] transportation to and from work.

But he had this total irresponsibility for finances. ... That was causing some real strife, because we were basically bailing him out right and left.

So that caused some tension?

It caused a lot of tension. We picked him up for everything he needed in his life, including car insurance, everything else like that, AAA coverage. All the little sundry things that come along with life, my wife and I are now picking up.

And when he'd have these overdrafts -- I mean, that caused a lot of problems, I'm telling you. You'd go to talk with him, and then he had total disregard for it. [You] just couldn't get through to him that sooner or later, the well was going to run dry.

Were there any other issues?

The other issue -- for several reasons that are personal, we had very strict rules at the house about food and drink. And that is, we had a dining area in the kitchen, and if you wanted to drink or eat something, that's where you went. I followed the rules. Everybody else in the household followed the rules.

And you go back to where Bradley's room [is], and you'd find eight or nine Dr. Pepper cans shoved under the bed. So he was blatantly disregarding that. And you tried to talk to him about it, and it's like talking to a brick wall.

And unfortunately, my current wife's father died of emphysema, so she had a real issue with smoking. And I know for a fact that he had taken to sneaking outside and smoking cigarettes in the garage. And that caused some conflict. ...

And what was he doing, most of the time, when he was in the house?

He would either be at work or be in his bedroom with the door shut.

And what was he doing with the door shut?

I don't know. The door was shut.

But he was on the computer most of the time?

Yeah. A bit, yeah, computer.

Did he have friends?

He occasionally had a friend come by that he would meet somewhere.

At what point does he tell you about his homosexuality? How does that go down?

Not long after he came back from the UK. I can remember the conversation like we're just sitting here having it today. And he said, "You know, Dad, I just want to let you know, I'm gay." ... I said: "That's your decision. You know, I don't -- it's fine." ...

So it surprised you when he told you?

Well, yes. It definitely surprised -- I would say I was surprised. But just from a fact of someone, you know, throwing a bucket of water over your head, it's like: "Oh, OK. Well, I didn't know that." (Laughs.) You know, it's not something that you are involved enough where you would start seeing or having suspicions of. He had been at the household long enough that had he, you know, distributed [sic] any traits, I would have had suspicion. But there wasn't. This was just a flat-out statement that "You should know."

The Altercation and 911 Call

Bradley lost his job at a software company after becoming increasingly erratic and had a heated confrontation with the boss. Then, after only four months back home, tension between Bradley, his father and stepmother reached a breaking point.

So then in March '06 there is this, as you describe it, an altercation?

Yes.

What was that?

I was recovering from radical prostate surgery. I couldn't walk without a walker, and I was sitting out in the living room. And it became an issue about some of the things that were going on. ...

What gets said?

It just basically started as a discussion on, you know, you're going to have to follow the house rules. We don't want any of this smoking going on, and the Dr. Pepper. And things just escalate. ...

Yelling?

Yes. Yelling. He was yelling and kind of tossing some stuff around and stuff.

Tossing some stuff around?

Yeah. I think he tossed a can or something like -- you know, I can't exactly remember --

Did he throw something at her or at you?

No, I think it was just threw something. ...

What was he saying?

I don't remember exactly what it was. It was the issues of not following the house rules, and the smoking was probably the biggest one.

And he was telling you what? "Don't mess with me? Don't tell me what to do?" I mean, what was --

He was arguing more with my wife than me.

What was he telling her?

Well, you know, basically, "You stay out of my life" type of thing. And we're taking the point, "Look, you're in our household, you'll follow our rules." It just went along those lines. ...

But it just reached a point where my wife felt vulnerable. There was no way in the world I could restrain Bradley or do anything if he really did get hot or make any threatening motions or anything. And she just was scared. So she called 911. I mean, the phone was literally right there, next to her. ...

Was he approaching her?

No.

So there was no physical -- nobody hit anybody?

Nobody touched anybody. No.

Was there threats of physical violence, other than the fact that she felt like something might go down?

You couldn't tell, to be honest with you. ...

But what was his case? If I was talking to Bradley right now, how would he describe that incident?

"I came back here to live. I know what I'm doing. Just leave me alone. Just stay out of my life."

So why does that warrant calling 911?

Well, as I said, it went back and forth and back and forth with -- you know, you bring up the smoking and you bring up the Dr. Pepper cans, and you bring up other little things that normally, by themselves, would just be a one-or-two-word exchange. Well, it depends on where you are on the temperature scale and as far as the discussion's going. But when things reach a certain point, you know, the boiling point, then you don't know where it's going to go.

Listen to the 911 call (2:01)
EMBED THIS AUDIO

That altercation, as you call it, did that change your relationship with him?

From that point on? Yes, because once the police arrived, they immediately went to the adult male in the room, think[ing] that, you know, I was somehow involved as the aggressor in the situation. And they realized that I was basically incapable of doing anything because I couldn't even walk. Then they took my wife off to the side. They took Bradley off to the side.

They? There were two cops?

I think there were two policemen, yeah. But they tried to get the story straight to see if everybody was on the same page, OK. And it became the issue, the fact was somebody had to be removed from the equation. Pretty much the decision was made to get Bradley out of there, and so they went outside. He grabbed some minimal things and left with them. I didn't know where they went.

It's been reported that you kicked him out of the house. Is that a fair assessment of what happened?

No. I just told you exactly what happened. The police took him.

... If the police didn't take him out of the house, would you have kicked him out of the house?

I don't know. ...

And when's the next time you heard from Bradley?

I think the next day, he came by the house and got the pickup truck and grabbed some of his stuff.

Did you have any words?

Nothing. We didn't have any argument or anything like that. It was kind of we reached the point of OK, it's time to move on.

Bradley's Decision to Join the Army

In the year after he left his father's house, Bradley bounced from Tulsa to Chicago to Maryland, he was never able to hold onto a job for more than a few months.

I said: "Bradley, you're really not going anywhere, you know? You haven't got transportation. You're working in a coffee shop and maybe going to go to community college. You really don't have any structure in place." And I said: "If you get into a place at Army, you know, you're going to have three square meals a day; you're going to have a place to sleep and a roof over your head. And as long as you follow the path, you know, it's all you have to do."

What was his objection?

He didn't want the controlling, and that [was] kind of the pullback I felt, you know? He didn't want to have to be told something without having the option of being able to have his say.

He didn't want rules?

Yeah, exactly. Yeah, that was basically his pullback. But eventually, I convinced him at least to go and investigate into it.

How did you convince him to go down and see the recruiter?

He was at the point where he was seeing some of my logic in that: "You don't have a place to live. You're camping at your aunt's house. You don't have any transportation. You're working at a dead-end job, and you're looking at going to a community college that you won't even have transportation to and from. What's your plan?"

So eventually -- I can't say I convinced him to go in. "Just go talk to them," was basically what I said. And I will just have to say that I would assume from my own experience that the recruiter took over from there, based on my own experience. I mean, they can be pretty convincing. That's their job.

How much time do you think you spent talking to him about this?

Maybe all told, maybe 35, 40 minutes over four, six weeks.

I see. So these were short conversations where you continued to remind him that he should try the Army?

Uh-huh. I used my own experiences as examples to him: the fact that joining the Navy and my five years in the Navy is what put me on a path for the rest of my life.

Why He Decided to Speak Publicly

The only reason I decided to come forward at this time is because there's so much misinformation out there about Bradley's early life, his later years, as he progressed, and the basis of why he took the path of joining the Army. ... I wanted to straighten all that out. There's been so many things that have been misrepresented. Flat-out incorrect information has been put out there by people that I don't even know.

And I'm only speaking for myself. I'm not speaking for any other member of the family. I am not speaking for Bradley. These are my words, my truths. If I know something that's incorrect, I'll correct it. If I don't know something, I'll say, "I don't know that." And if there's some information that you don't have and I think is pertinent to Bradley's story, I'll supply that for you.

And I want to do this with public broadcasting because it's a media that I, all the time, listen to. I'm a supporter of PBS. I listen to Morning Edition and the afternoon show, All Things Considered, and have for many, many years.

To NPR?

Yep. NPR, National Public Radio. So I thought it would be a better platform to go forward on a media that I trust and that I've listened to for many years.

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Posted March 29, 2011

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