Protesters outside President Obama's campaign office in Oakland, California call for PFC Bradley Manning's freedom in August, 2012. (Flickr/savebradley)
In 2010, while stationed at Forward Operating Base Hammer in Baghdad, Pfc. Bradley Manning decided to approach a superior officer in his chain of command to voice his concern about something he had stumbled upon in his capacity as an intelligence analyst. His unit had been helping Iraqi federal police identify suspects for detention and discovered that fifteen men had been arrested for producing “anti-Iraqi literature." After having a high-resolution photo of the “literature” translated into English, Manning discovered that the writing was hardly criminal; it was a "scholarly critique" of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But his superior officer did not want to hear about it. Manning knew if he continued to assist the police in identifying political opponents, innocent people would be jailed, likely tortured, and “not seen again for a very long time, if ever,” as he told a military courtroom in Fort Meade, MD on February 28. Hoping to expose what was happening ahead of the Iraq parliamentary election, on March 7, 2010, Manning shared the information with WikiLeaks.
On March 19, as Americans observed the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War, Manning remained behind bars, facing the prospect of twenty years in prison—and possibly much more—for taking actions that were motivated by concerns about the effects of the US invasion. The anecdote he shared about the Iraqi federal police was part of a longer explanation in court, detailing, for the first time, his motivation for leaking the historic volume of documents, videos, military logs and diplomatic cables to Wikileaks. Surreptitiously recorded in the courtroom, Manning’s statement offers, perhaps more than anything that has been written about his case to date, proof that Manning is the classic whistleblower: his concern above all else was for the greater good and he wanted to spark a much-needed public debate. So he took action, at great personal risk, and is paying the price.
Since his arrest, the media has focused on Manning’s mental problems, his poor relationships with family members, his sexual orientation, and the fact that he considered becoming a woman. Such a caricature, of an unstable youth rather than of a soldier with a conscience, has enabled the government and other detractors to maintain that Manning had no clear and legitimate motives when disclosing the information. Thomas Drake, a whistleblower who revealed fraud, waste and abuse within the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program, was similarly cast as a seller of secrets—and at first a possFible child pornographer. “All those things that actually say who we are as individuals get turned and twisted,” Drake explains. “Instead of focusing on the message,” he explains, “…"[the focus] becomes the person.”
One recent article, a co-authored op-ed in the New York Times, took two opposing views of Manning himself and cast them aside to consider the broader significance of what he did. First amendment crusader Floyd Abrams and Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler laid out the “chilling precedent” established by his prosecution, despite disagreeing with one another about the merits of Manning's actions. One does not have to consider him “a paragon of heroic whistle-blowing, to understand the threat” his case poses to the rest of us, they wrote.
But whistleblowers like Drake argue that Manning is indeed that paragon of heroic whistleblowers, and that his words in court prove it. “If there was any remaining doubt regarding his motives or intentions, they were fully dispelled in his statement,” Drake told me in a recent interview.
This statement included an explanation for why he released the video that would be titled “Collateral Murder” by WikiLeaks, and which revealed an aerial attack on media workers and Iraqi civilians, including children. Manning said: “The most alarming aspect of the video to me was the seemingly delightful bloodlust they appeared to have,” Manning said. “They dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life by referring to them as quote ‘dead bastards’ unquote and congratulating each other on the ability to kill in large numbers.”