WikiLeaks probe: Army commanders were told not to send Manning to Iraq

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 27, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Investigators have concluded that Army commanders ignored advice not to send to Iraq an Army private who's now accused of downloading hundreds of thousands of sensitive reports and diplomatic cables that ended up on the WikiLeaks website in the largest single security breach in American history, McClatchy has learned.

Pfc. Bradley Manning's direct supervisor warned that Manning had thrown chairs at colleagues and shouted at higher ranking soldiers in the year he was stationed at Fort Drum, N.Y., and advised that Manning shouldn't be sent to Iraq, where his job would entail accessing classified documents through the Defense Department's computer system.

But superior officers decided to ignore the advice because the unit was short of intelligence analysts and needed Manning's skills, two military officials familiar with the investigation told McClatchy.

The commanders hoped they could address Manning's discipline problems in Iraq, the officials told McClatchy, but then never properly monitored him. The result was a "comedy of errors" as one commander after another assumed someone else was addressing Manning's problems, one official said. Both officials spoke anonymously because they weren't authorized to discuss the investigation.

Investigators are now considering whether they should recommend disciplinary action against at least three officers in Manning's chain of command. Investigators must submit their findings to Army Secretary John McHugh by Tuesday.

It's the second time in just over a year that Army practices have come under intense internal scrutiny after a major security failing. A similar probe after an Army psychiatrist allegedly opened fire on fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009, killing 13, also focused on how superiors failed to take action despite signs that Maj. Nidal Hasan, who'd exchanged e-mails with a radical Yemeni-American cleric, was seriously disaffected and might turn violent.

That probe, which the Pentagon has yet to make public, resulted in 47 recommendations for changes in Army procedures, including granting supervisors better access to personnel records and imposing better screening for threats from Internet sources. Although none of Hasan's supervisors have been disciplined, they still could face charges or administrative actions, Army officials have said.

The findings in the Manning investigation likely will renew concerns that commanders once again refused to address signs of a troubled soldier because they needed his skills to deploy a fully staffed unit to Iraq or Afghanistan. It could also lead to changes in how commanders deal with discipline problems or decide when not to deploy someone.

Deploying soldiers who in earlier years might have been left behind wasn't a problem exclusive to Manning's unit but a systemic issue during the height of the Iraq war, as commanders found themselves scurrying to cobble together units to deploy.

An Army report into the service's high suicide rate concluded in July that military commanders had become so focused on training troops for deployment that they no longer had the time to address issues such as alcoholism, prescription drug abuse and even violence, and instead hoped they'd disappear in combat.

Army commanders declined to comment on the record about the Manning investigation or the Hasan probe, saying they didn't want to interfere in cases where criminal charges are pending. Manning is being held at the Marine Corps base at Quantico, Va., facing eight charges that could result in a 52-year prison sentence. Hasan is awaiting court martial on murder charges in Texas that could result in the death penalty.

Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff of the Army, admitted last summer when the 350-page report titled Health Promotion, Risk Reduction and Suicide Prevention was released that attention to disciplinary issues had waned during the rush to get troops to war.

"We prioritized, I think, the way you would want us to do, and that is to fight our nation's wars and to be ready and tactically sound to go and do the mission we were given by the country," he said then. Now, with the U.S. scheduled to have all troops out of Iraq by the end of the year, "It's time for the Army to take a hard look at itself, to sit down and say, okay, what are those things that came lower on our priority list that we need to reinstitute, reinforce and start doing to get at this problem?"

Chiarelli said then that it would be fair "to say that, because of everything that we're doing, we have not paid the attention we need to on high-risk behavior."

Investigators looking at Manning's case found that while the military had followed procedures in giving Manning a security clearance, more questions should have been asked about whether he should retain it once he displayed disciplinary problems.

A central Defense Department agency, Defense Security Service, issues the clearances based on the soldier's job, need-to-know government secrets and a background check. Higher-level clearances also may include interviews by DSS. The length of time the clearance is in effect depends on the job and the level of access given.

At one point, Manning, who joined the Army in 2007, saw a mental health specialist, officials said, but it's unclear what came of that meeting. Iraq was his only deployment. He was deployed to Iraq in 2009 and served there until he was arrested in May, shortly after the first WikiLeaks posting in April.

Army Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen Jr., the commander of the Army General Command and Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., has led the wide-ranging investigation. Investigators made several trips to Fort Drum, where Manning was stationed before deploying to Iraq, and conducted scores of interviews. The findings could become part of the evidence presented at Manning's court martial.

Manning allegedly downloaded the documents while pretending to listen to music by Lady Gaga on headphones, a cover story, investigators say, to explain the sound of the computer's CD drive whirring as he copied the files.

Some human rights groups charge that Manning is being mistreated, with no ability to exercise or receive visitors and that at times, he's deprived of his eyeglasses. The Defense Department has denied these claims and another that Manning was improperly placed on suicide watch for two days as punishment. The Pentagon this week named a new detention commander but insisted the change was long planned.

Manning, 23, isn't cooperating with investigators, and prosecutors still don't know how the hundreds of thousands of documents and files he allegedly downloaded reached WikiLeaks, which has posted them on its website in four separate bursts that began in April with the release of a video showing an Army helicopter firing on civilians in Baghdad, killing two Reuters news agency employees.

The website also released tens of thousands of documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan before the current, ongoing publication of hundreds of thousands of State Department cables. That release began on Nov. 28.

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