FT. MEADE, Md. — Turning in the witness chair to face the judge, sometimes choking on his words, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning apologized Wednesday that he “hurt people and hurt the United States” by leaking the largest amount of U.S. classified documents in the nation’s history and urged the court to give him a chance to some day “prove that I can be a better person.”
He read a from a few handwritten pages, speaking just after his older sister testified. At times, she was in tears when family pictures were shown of his childhood in rural Oklahoma, where their parents often passed out drunk and he was left night after night crying in his crib.
Manning was followed on the witness stand by a beloved aunt from Potomac, Md., his father’s sister, who said the boy was fed baby food until he was 2 and was eventually abandoned by his parents.
Now 25, Manning is the former intelligence analyst in Iraq who provided more than 700,000 classified materials to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks. He sat awkwardly in the witness chair for just a few minutes. He gave what in a court-martial is called a “non-sworn statement.” Under those rules, he was not asked any questions by his defense lawyers, and government prosecutors were not permitted to cross-examine him.
Manning spoke in a hushed courtroom. Though he faced the judge, his words echoed loudly. He began by clearing his throat and struggled to calm hands that shook as he held the pages before him.
“I’m sorry that my actions hurt people,” he said. “I’m sorry that I hurt the United States.”
He said that while an analyst in Iraq in 2009 and 2010, “I was dealing with a lot of issues, issues that are ongoing and continue to affect me. Although a considerable difficulty in my life, these issues are not an excuse for my actions. I understood what I was doing.”
He did not need to say what they were. Since the court-martial began June 3, much of the trial has been filled with testimony and evidence about his struggles with his homosexuality, what two mental health experts Wednesday morning said was his “gender identity disorder,” a misfit in the Army who repeatedly lashed out at fellow soldiers and superiors.
But Manning said those difficulties were no excuse for what he did with WikiLeaks.
“I’m sorry for the unintended consequences of my actions,” he said. “When I made these decisions, I believed I was going to help people, not hurt people.
“I look back at my decisions and wonder how could I, a junior analyst, believe I could change the world.”
But, he said, “unfortunately I can’t go back and change things. I can only go forward.”
Manning said he is ready to accept his punishment, which could be as much as 90 years in prison. “I understand I must pay a price for my decisions and actions. I want be a better person.”
He said he hoped to someday go to college and have a “meaningful” relationship with his sister and her family. “I have flaws and issues I have to deal with,” he said. “But I know I can and will be a better person.”
He told the judge: “I hope you will give me an opportunity to prove that I can be a better person and can return to a productive place in society.”
His sister, Casey Major, 11 years older and a stay-at-home mother of two in Oklahoma City, described a terrible childhood. Their parents drank heavily and repeatedly broke up, often forcing her to raise her brother. “She wouldn’t get up at night,” she said of their mother. “So I would make a bottle, change a diaper. If I was awake and he was crying, she would direct me to get up and take care of my brother.”
For a while they lived in rural Crescent, Okla., where Manning tried to be “a happy kid,” she said. “He had little trucks he played with in the dirt.”
Later, he could not keep his fingers off a computer keyboard, or stayed for hours in his room playing with Legos. When she reached 18, she left home, leaving Manning alone with their mother because their father was gone too. Their mother served him Kid Cuisine microwave dinners, and, while in drunken stupors, threatened to kill herself.
When defense attorney David Coombs displayed a series of photos of Manning as a child, Major cried. One showed him playing in a box, another in an oversized cowboy hat. Others had him on a swing in the pasture or petting a puppy. In one, he was wearing glasses under his blond hair, his fingers working a computer keyboard. “From a certain age on he was at the computer,” his sister said.
She said that since his arrest in May 2010, her brother has changed. “It’s just amazing how much he’s matured,” she said. “He’s settled down.”
She added, “I just hope he can be who he wants to be. I hope he can just be happy.”
His aunt, Debra Van Alstyne, also described the siblings’ terrible childhood. She said she was stunned when her thin, short, scrawny nephew joined the Army. But Manning told her he wanted the GI Bill for college. She was stunned again to learn that he had been arrested in Iraq.
“I was just totally shocked,” she said. “Just totally and completely shocked.”
Also testifying were two mental health experts.
Capt. David Moulton, a forensic psychiatrist, said Manning had “abnormal personality traits,” wanting since 13 to be president of the United States and fantasizing that his leaks would not only end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but wars for all time. “He knew he wanted to do something great,” Moulton said.
Capt. Michael Worsley, a military psychologist, characterized Manning as a gay man trying to fit into the “hyper masculine” environment in the Army. “The pressure would have been difficult to say the least. It would have been incredible,” Worsley said.
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