Bradley Manning is a threat to mainstream journalism.
Manning also said he “first approached three news outlets: the Washington Post, New York Times and Politico” before approaching WikiLeaks. And he repeatedly denied having been encouraged or pushed in any way by WikiLeaks to obtain and leak the documents, thus denying the US government a key part of its attempted prosecution of the whistleblowing group. Instead, “he said he took ‘full responsibility’ for a decision that will likely land him in prison for the next 20 years — and possibly the rest of his life.”
This is all consistent with what Manning is purported to have said in the chat logs with the government snitch who pretended to be a journalist and a pastor in order to assure him of confidentiality but then instead reported him. In those chats, Manning explained that he was leaking because he wanted the world to know what he had learned: “I want people to see the truth … regardless of who they are … because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.” When asked by the informant why he did not sell the documents to a foreign government for profit – something he obviously could have done with ease – Manning replied that he wanted the information to be publicly known in order to trigger “worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms”. He described how he became deeply disillusioned with the Iraq War he had once thought noble, and this caused him to re-examine all of his prior assumptions about the US government. And he extensively narrated how he had learned of serious abuse and illegality while serving in the war – including detaining Iraqi citizens guilty of nothing other than criticizing the Malaki government – but was ignored when he brought those abuses to his superiors.
Manning is absolutely right when he said today that the documents he leaked “are some of the most significant documents of our time”. They revealed a multitude of previously secret crimes and acts of deceit and corruption by the world’s most powerful factions. Journalists and even some government officials have repeatedly concluded that any actual national security harm from his leaks is minimal if it exists at all. To this day, the documents Manning just admitted having leaked play a prominent role in the ability of journalists around the world to inform their readers about vital events. The leaks led to all sorts of journalism awards for WikiLeaks. Without question, Manning’s leaks produced more significant international news scoops in 2010 than those of every media outlet on the planet combined.
A spokesperson for the New York Times has disputed Manning’s confession, that he contacted the newspaper. And, an officer in Manning’s chain of command admitted under oath, that Manning’s document dump did not imperil government employees.
On the second day of proceedings, Coombs cross-examined Capt. Steven Lim, an officer in Manning’s intelligence unit during part of his Iraq deployment, and used the opportunity to draw out military secrecy issues.
“Do SIGACTS (Significant Activity reports—Army jargon for the documents contained in the Iraq and Afghan war logs) contain the names of key sources of people working with the government?”
“No sir,” responded Lim.
“Would a SIGACT, if it was released, compromise our key sources?”
“So if someone said the SIGACT release would compromise our key sources that would not be a true statement.”
Manning also revealed himself in cross-examination as a bit of an anarchist.
In the course of the questioning, Lind tried to get to the bottom of an apparent contradiction in Manning’s comments. In his statement, he expressed strong moral reasons for his actions that suggested he was justified in leaking confidential information for the greater good.
Yet in his guilty plea, he admitted that he had acted without authorisation and that his conduct had been “prejudicial to good order and discipline and of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces”.
Lind referred to these two seemingly polar positions and asked: “How can they co-exist?”
Manning replied: “Regardless of my opinions, it’s beyond my pay-grade, it’s beyond my authority to make these decisions. There are channels you are supposed to go through. I didn’t even look at those channels – that’s not how we do business.”
At another point, the judge asked him what would happen if someone at the top of the military chain of command made a decision, and lower ranks decided to ignore it according to their own morale code. “You would have junior ranks making their own decisions until the organisation seizes up,” Manning replied.
Moral outrage leading to the questioning of the actions of supervisors and the role of an organization, plus exposing either a complicit or incompetent media establishment, or both? Is this what Bradley Manning is in jail for?
What the U.S. government needs to accept with due diligence is that it is only going to get easier for others to do what Bradley Manning did. Instead of circling the wagons and imposing draconian punishments on people like Manning, and attempting to find ways to hermetically seal inane and ersatz secrets, the government should instead work to declassify as much material as it possibly can as quickly as it can. The state would have far greater success keeping under wraps a few necessary secrets — continuity of government plans, the movements of nuclear weapons, the security of the president of the United States — than it does with the present landfill of frivolity that currently passes for “state secrets.”
How blind is the entrenched government secrecy apparatus to this problem? Consider that in the aftermath of the cable release, the U.S. government instructed its employees to continue treating the cables as secret, and to never access them. It would be a cliche to say the executive branch instructed its functionaries to stick their heads in the sand, but that’s exactly what they did. Even worse, it means that the foreign officials whom our representatives are interacting with definitively know more about the ongoing actions of the American government than do the members of the American government.
A final point, this one on the government’s charge against Manning of “aiding the enemy.” Shortly after the New York Times published the first round of leaked cables, Robert Gates offered an honest appraisal of the situation to the press. There are few men alive today who know the secrets that Gates knows; he was Secretary of Defense then, during a time of war, and before that a Director of Central Intelligence. His opinion is therefore quite worthy of deep consideration. Gates pointedly questioned the alarmists in Washington at the time. He said:
Let me just offer some perspective as somebody who’s been at this a long time. Every other government in the world knows the United States government leaks like a sieve, and it has for a long time. And I dragged this up the other day when I was looking at some of these prospective releases. And this is a quote from John Adams: “How can a government go on, publishing all of their negotiations with foreign nations, I know not. To me, it appears as dangerous and pernicious as it is novel.”
When we went to real congressional oversight of intelligence in the mid-70s, there was a broad view that no other foreign intelligence service would ever share information with us again if we were going to share it all with the Congress. Those fears all proved unfounded.
Now, I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think — I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is: governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets.
Many governments — some governments deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation. So other nations will continue to deal with us. They will continue to work with us. We will continue to share sensitive information with one another. Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.
Fairly modest. In the years that followed the actions of Bradley Manning, it’s hard to peg exactly what horrors have befallen the U.S. government aside from the Gates-prophesied embarrassment. The meandering war in Afghanistan certainly didn’t need Manning’s help to get that way. If he “aided the enemy,” perhaps someone should tell that to the enemy. For all that Bradley Manning revealed, he didn’t really reveal much. But by its shameful non-application of justice in Manning’s prosecution — 1,000 days in chains for a nonviolent offense, without the dignity of a trial by jury — the U.S. government has itself revealed the most terrible truth imaginable.
It’s a sad day to be an establishment paternalist in America.