Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is escorted into a courthouse in Fort Meade, Maryland, Tuesday, May 21, 2013, before a pretrial military hearing. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Today begins the court-martial of Private First Class Bradley Manning, Wikileaks’ source inside the US military. Because Manning was arrested over three years ago, the global news media have already written much about the young soldier from Crescent, Oklahoma. And though news accounts have frequently gotten the facts right (he’s 25, was deployed to FOB Hammer in the Mada’in Qada desert of Iraq, is 5 foot 2), most reports have written about the big issues that collide in this case without the slightest sense of context and perspective, leading to all kinds of basic errors and distortions—for instance that the leaks were “top secret”; that Wikileaks is on a “utopian” quest for “total transparency,” that Manning did what he did not for political but for psychological (or sexual!) reasons. As Pfc. Manning’s court-martial proceeds over the next three to four months in Ft. Meade, you can bet that media reports will continue to put across the same funhouse distortions. So to kick off my blog coverage of the court-martial for The Nation, here’s a quick debunking trip through the thickets of folklore that have sprung up around this case.
First, it is routinely asserted or implied that Manning declassified the field reports and diplomatic cables because he is a nut job, or because he is gay, or because he is a gay nut job. In fact, Manning’s motive was expressly political: “I want people to see the truth…regardless of who they are…because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.” People can disagree about the consequences of Manning’s leak, but his motive for declassifying the documents is plainly stated, and it has nothing to do with his mental health or sexuality. As former infantry soldier Ethan McCord (seen through the helicopter gunsight camera in the leaked “Collateral Murder” video rescuing wounded children from a shot-up van) wrote, to fixate on Manning’s sexuality “erases Manning’s political agency.”
Another common smear, Myth #2, is that Bradley Manning and Wikileaks are “utopian,” probably the worst curse word in educated English, carrying as it does connotations of extremism and intolerance wrapped in naïveté, or that they are “idealists,” almost as bad. But is there anything “utopian” about declassifying less than 1 percent of what Washington classifies in a given year (92 million documents at last count)? Manning’s leak, though the largest security breach in US history, has not put us on the precipice towards “total transparency,” a mystical condition which neither Manning nor Wikileaks has ever called for or even mentioned. The young soldier’s act is best seen as a very practical, defensive move against dystopian levels of government secrecy—again, the classified material that Manning leaked is less than 1 percent of the 92 million documents that Washington annually declares a state secret. (According to the feds’ own Information Security Oversight Office, the annual cost of all this classification is about $11 billion.)
A corollary (Myth #3) is that Wikileaks is “anti-American,” perhaps because it palpably disapproves of the US invasion of Iraq—but then this opinion is now shared by a supermajority of us Americans. Wikileaks’ mission statement quotes Jefferson and Supreme Court Decisions—an odd kind of anti-Americanism—and its ideology of tech’ed-up classical liberalism comes straight out of Silicon Valley. Digging through Manning’s and Wikileaks’ public (and private) statements reveals no bias against the USA.
On the level of straight fact, there is the common, false assertion, Myth #4, that Bradley Manning leaked “top secret” material. It is true that Pfc. Manning did enjoy top-secret security clearance, a distinction he shared with the 1.4 million other people who are eligible for Top Secret security clearance. (And how, by the way, can any secret accessible by a population the size of all of Vermont and North Dakota together, a group larger than the population of Washington, DC, itself, be a secret?) It so happens that not a single one of the documents that Pfc. Manning declassified was “top secret” status. (By contrast, every last one of the thousands of documents comprising the Pentagon Papers was Top Secret, yet many of Manning's critics claim to love Daniel Ellsberg.) More than half of the diplomatic cables are not classified in any way, and neither was the infamous helicopter gunsight video that shows an Apache gunship slaughtering a dozen Iraqis, including two Reuters news agency employees.
Although the US government has not embraced much responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who have died in the past ten years, it is frequently assumed (Myth #5 ) that Manning’s leaks have gotten people killed or at least damaged US national interests. But in the three-year span since these leaks came out, there is no evidence of a single civilian or soldier or even spy being harmed by the documents’ release. (I've written at greater length for TomDispatch about the accusations of Manning and Wikileaks having "blood on their hands" come loudest from the same pols and hacks who backed the Iraq War and Obama's Afghan Surge.) Yes, two US ambassadors were recalled from Latin American countries, but this is hardly the diplomatic Armageddon that then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton luridly promised us.
A very different charge (Myth #6), and equally false, is that Manning’s leaks have been insignificant. In fact, the leaks played a small but significant role in the Tunisian rebellion and they prevented the extension of American troops’ increasingly unwelcome deployment to Iraq. The declassified documents supplied hundreds if not thousands of front-page stories in the world’s leading newspapers and magazines from Berlin to Delhi to, yes, Washington. If Manning’s leaks have been “insignificant,” then all journalists should aspire to publish such bagatelles.
The foundational ur-myth behind all of the above, its Genesis 1:1 and Myth #7, is that knowledge puts us at risk and that cluelessness will bring us security. It cannot be emphasized enough that the American military and humanitarian debacle in Iraq could never have been possible without extreme levels of government secrecy, distortion and even some lies. The same could be said about our even more catastrophic wars in Southeast Asia a generation and a half ago—dystopian levels of state secrecy entail a very heavy cost in blood (and money), both of the United States and several orders of magnitude more on the foreign nations we invade. It should be no surprise that major foreign policy decisions wind up in catastrophe and failure when made without the benefit of essential information.
These are the myths that have misshaped and deformed so much of the media coverage about Pfc. Bradley Manning and Wikileaks—and will continue to do so as the court-martial progresses through August and September to its inevitable conclusion.
Chase Madar is a civil rights attorney in New York and the author of The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower (Verso). He tweets @ChMadar.
Don’t miss Greg Mitchell, also following the Bradley Manning case.