Witnesses Testify About WikiLeaks Suspect’s Computer Skills


June 5, 2013
Watch WikiSecrets, FRONTLINE’s investigation into Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and the largest intelligence breach in U.S. history, and The Private Life of Bradley Manning, a profile of the early years of the young soldier now accused of leaking more than half a million classified U.S. government documents.

PFC Bradley Manning’s supporters have often complained about the slow pace of his legal proceedings … but now that his court-martial is underway, the pace has picked up more quickly than anyone had anticipated. Manning’s defense has agreed to stipulations of testimony from a number of prosecution witnesses, eliminating the need for them to testify in person. Already having reached the end of the witness list for this week, court sessions have been cancelled for Thursday and Friday, and will resume on Monday.

Based on the testimony of several witnesses so far, it appears it was not difficult for Manning to access, copy and remove confidential files. Manning and other intelligence analysts worked in a “Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility” or SCIF at Forward Operating Base Hammer on the eastern side of Baghdad. From there, they could access a secure database of sensitive government documents, the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, or “SIPRNet.”

Chief Warrant Officer Kyle Balonek described a relaxed atmosphere at FOB Hammer, where soldiers stored music, movies and video games on the secure shared computer drive in the SCIF. It was unclear from Balonke’s testimony whether keeping such unscreened material on the drives was authorized in the combat theater, but the practice was clearly against regulations on their home base in Fort Drum, Texas.

According to Balonek, Manning was hardly alone in copying sensitive files to local drives or even CDs. One of the main computers at the facility was sensitive to the heat and dust that defined Baghdad, and when it would crash, access to the SIPRNet was lost; creating backup files allowed the analysts to keep working without a connection to the network.

The prosecution worked to assert that Manning accessing documents outside of his area of analysis – for example, Guantanamo detainee records — but cross-examination revealed that it was not illegal or improper for Manning to access these documents. At the end of both sides’ questioning, Judge Lind asked if there was a prohibition on an analyst browsing the SIPRNet during idle hours, and Balonek replied, “No, there is not.”

Balonek had previously refused to testify during Manning’s pre-trial Article 32 hearing in 2011, invoking the prohibition on “compulsory self-incrimination” under Article 31 of the UCMJ (similar to a civilian invoking 5th Amendment right). The judge announced today that CWO Balonek had been granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony. Balonek was presumably concerned about being pursued for issues around failing to stop or detect Manning’s activities, but no reason has been cited for his previous refusal to testify.

Several additional witnesses commented on Manning’s remarkable skill with computers. Jihrleah Showman, a former Army specialist who supervised Manning for two months in Iraq, had him install a chat program on her computer even though he was unauthorized to do so. She said Manning once boasted that he found most government passwords “not complicated; he could always get through them.” Chief Warrant Officer Hondo Hack, who supervised the day shift of analysts, said that in 20 years in the Army he had never seen the level of organization he saw in Manning’s work and computer files.

The next set of witnesses, who will testify beginning Monday, will consist of more computer forensic experts and two witnesses who are expected to speak to the content of various documents leaked by Manning. The government will not provide the names of witnesses before they testify.

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More Stories

In Public, the World Health Organization Praised China’s Early COVID Response. In Private, They Had Concerns.
The Associated Press obtained leaked recordings of WHO internal meetings and shared them with FRONTLINE and the BBC; they are heard in the new documentary “China’s COVID Secrets.”
January 26, 2021
“We Take Our Democracy for Granted,” Says Bob Corker, Former GOP Senator and Trump Critic
Bob Corker, former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a sharp rebuke of President Trump and a strong warning to the American public in an interview with FRONTLINE.
January 26, 2021
‘Enabling It to Happen Again’: How Charlottesville Led to the Capitol Attack
A scene from the FRONTLINE documentary 'Trump’s American Carnage' shows how the 2017 Unite the Right rally and President Trump’s response foreshadowed Jan. 6, 2021.
January 26, 2021
'It's a Very Tough Job': In Rural Wisconsin, a Struggle to Save Family Farms and a Way of Life
Spend a few hours listening to people who live in Clark County, Wisconsin, and you hear a lot about what’s ailing small farms. But you also hear about the community ties and independence that keep them in farming.
January 25, 2021