LAST May, a steady stream of electronic traffic was sent more than 6,000 miles from an American military base near Baghdad to the home of a young computer hacker in Carmichael, northern California.
The messages were sent by Bradley Manning, an army intelligence analyst, and seemed barely credible.
The young man was boasting to a hacker he had never even met that he was filleting the US defence department of some of its greatest secrets.
Mr Manning, 23, called it the “largest data spillage” in American history.
He described systematically downloading detailed reports of alleged torture incidents, civilian deaths and airstrikes and sending them to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks.
The documents he claimed to have downloaded have dominated the international news agenda even since.
Mr Assange said on Friday that if Manning had leaked the US cables, he was an “unparalleled hero”.
Mr Manning’s messages from the spring suggest other military documents have yet to be published. He even claimed to have passed Mr Assange the military files on Guantanamo Bay.
Mr Manning described the highlights of the stolen files last May as “the Gharani airstrike videos and full report [an American strike on an Afghan village], Iraq war event log, the ‘Gitmo papers’ [Guantanamo Bay papers] and state department cable database”.
In an interview with The Sunday Times, Adrian Lamo, 29, the Californian hacker who befriended Mr Manning over the internet, said last week he had kept pressing Mr Manning for more information. How was it possible to penetrate the security networks of the world’s greatest superpower?
Mr Manning replied: “Everyone just sat at their workstations … watching music videos/car chases/buildings exploding. Weak servers, weak logging, weak physical security, weak counter-intelligence, inattentive signal analysis … a perfect storm.”
It is unclear even today exactly what motivated Mr Manning. Supporters say he wanted to highlight what he considered the unacceptable actions of some American troops. Others claim he was lonely, lacked attention as a child and wanted to make an impact.
Even within the flexible codes of behaviour in the hacking community, Mr Lamo considered Mr Manning’s behaviour unacceptable and reported him to army investigators. Mr Manning was arrested on May 26 in Iraq. He has been charged with unauthorised transfer of information from military computers and is being held at a military base in Virginia. He faces possible sentences of up to 52 years.
Mr Lamo said he believed American lives were being put at risk by Mr Manning’s alleged activities.
“I am certain that more information would have come out had I not acted. Bradley would have continued compromising computer files,” he said.
According to Mr Lamo, Manning enjoyed the status of being one of Assange’s key sources. “He made Bradley feel involved,” said Mr Lamo. “He had unprecedented access to Assange. He certainly wasn’t being coerced, but he wasn’t entirely acting of his own accord.”
Mr Manning had access to two key databases: SIPRNET, used by the US defence and state departments for files classified secret; and the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System for files classified top secret.
He arrived in Iraq in October 2009 and it is claimed he started downloading secret files between November that year and last May.
Mr Manning joined the army in 2007 and did his basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. In 2008, he was trained at the army intelligence centre at Fort Huachuca in Arizona. While there, he was reprimanded for uploading to YouTube videos from inside the base that revealed potentially sensitive information.
Mr Manning’s superiors clearly did not view this incident as a serious security breach because he was subsequently confirmed as an intelligence analyst with full clearance.
Those who knew Mr Manning from his hometown in Crescent, Oklahoma, say he was noted for his intelligence. Mark Radford, editor of the Crescent Courier, the local newspaper, said last week: “He was a friend of my son and would play at our house. He was very intelligent. While other children played video games, he was figuring out how to crack codes.”
Chera Moore, 24, who attended Crescent high school with Manning, claimed he refused as a child to recite the part of the pledge of allegiance that referred to God. She said he was unhappy at home.
“He acted differently. He acted smart,” she said. “I think what has happened might be because he wanted to get attention that he felt he didn’t get when he was young. I don’t think he realised all the pain and trouble he has caused.”
After his parents split up, Mr Manning moved as a young teenager with his mother, Susan, to Haverfordwest. He moved back to America after finishing school and told friends he was gay. He took a series of low-paid jobs before joining the army.
In his messages to Mr Lamo, he appears to have found little solace in army life. He said: “I’ve been so isolated so long .. I just wanted to be nice, and live a normal life.”