The Trials of Bradley Manning

The Trials of Bradley Manning

His conviction on Espionage Act charges poses grave dangers for American journalism.


Closing arguments in the Bradley Manning case.
Chief prosecutor Maj. Ashden Fein in closing arguments. Seated behind him are defense attorney David Coombs, left, and Bradley Manning. Illustration: Clark Stoeckley, from his book The United States vs. PFC Bradley Manning.

In late July, the trial of Bradley Manning finally came to a close in a heavily air-conditioned courtroom in Fort Meade, Maryland, where the young private from Crescent, Oklahoma, was prosecuted for the largest security breach in US history.
Manning had already pleaded guilty to ten of the lesser charges against him—for instance, unauthorized possession and improper storage of classified material, which together carry a maximum twenty-year term. But this was not enough for the prosecution: it pressed on with a dozen more serious offenses, including the potential capital crime of aiding the enemy as well as charges stemming from the Espionage Act of 1917, which Richard Nixon retooled as a weapon against domestic leakers in his vendetta against Daniel Ellsberg. (Such a use of the statute has never been decided on the legal merits until this case.) Judge Denise Lind announced a verdict that splits the difference, acquitting the soldier of aiding the enemy but convicting him on the Espionage Act charges. Private Manning could still face a prison term of more than 130 years (the sentence will be determined in a separate proceeding). The consequences for American journalism are grave, as the government now has even greater incentive to prosecute as a spy any confidential source who passes classified information to the press, criminalizing what has long been a vital (and tacitly accepted) conduit of essential public information. Such collateral damage to the Fourth Estate will not be mourned by a government that has become aggressively intolerant of leaks, whistleblowers and, it often seems, a well-informed citizenry. 

Fort Meade is the too-perfect setting for Manning’s court-martial: an Army base, it is also home to the National Security Agency, now famous for its powers of digital intrusion after the spectacular revelations of whistleblower Edward Snowden. The NSA is the largest bureaucracy in the bloated US security complex, a farrago of draconian harshness coupled with casual indiscipline, dodgy legality with solemn appeals to the rule of law, and state-of-the-art IT with chronic power outages and a shambolic incapacity to run a search of its own employees’ e-mails. 

Private Manning was an Army intelligence analyst deployed at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Hammer in Iraq when, in 2010, he amassed 90,000 field logs from the Afghan War and 392,000 from Iraq, files on the Guantánamo prisoners and 250,000 State Department diplomatic cables—a huge trove, but still less than 1 percent of what Washington classified in 2010. Manning passed them all to WikiLeaks, which published most of them through well-established newspapers and magazines. 

Many of the leaks are not flattering to Washington’s amour-propre. The most famous is the “Collateral Murder” video: the gunsight view from an Apache helicopter opening fire on a couple of armed men and several civilians in Baghdad in July 2007. But the logs from both wars include reports of night raids gone wrong, Afghan outposts laboriously built and then abandoned, civilian casualty estimates whose existence had been officially denied, and documentation of torture by Iraqi authorities under the noses of occupying US soldiers. The diplomatic cables show Washington lobbying to keep the minimum wage down in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere; to impose US-style patent law regimes abroad for the benefit of Big Pharma; and to suppress criminal investigations in Germany into the CIA kidnapping of a terrorist suspect that turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. 

One might guess that Manning’s exfiltration of so many documents required amazing feats of subterfuge, but it needed no deception beyond scrawling “Lady Gaga” on a CD-ROM, with the files later sent to a WikiLeaks site from a Barnes & Noble in suburban Maryland while the private was on leave. There was no security to speak of at the SCIF (sensitive compartmented information facility) at FOB Hammer, where the “infosec” (information security) protocols were casually flouted with the full knowledge of supervisors. This was not an anomaly: 1.4 million Americans have top-secret security clearances—480,000 of them private contractors. Security clearance vetting is cursory, like so much else about the sloshy and erratic US infosec: intact military hard drives can turn up for sale in the bazaars of Kabul, and top-secret documents have been accessed by all sorts of people through the file-sharing technology installed on government laptops by the children and grandchildren of national security officials, as Dana Priest and William Arkin documented in Top Secret America, their book on our ballooning security state.

The Reaction

Manning hoped his leaks would spark ”worldwide discussions, debates and reforms,” as he put it in an instant-message chat with the acquaintance who turned him in to the authorities. From Pakistani reformist politician Imran Khan to former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva to the Council of Europe, politicians from around the world have paid close attention. So have ordinary citizens. The US ambassador to Tunisia’s brutally candid assessment of that country’s corrupt Ben Ali dictatorship added crucial fuel to the uprising that overthrew him in 2011. Scholars, activists and journalists have learned much from the disclosures, using the files in work that is no less important for being incremental, unsexy and usually under the radar. 

But inside the Washington Beltway, the reception for Manning’s leaks has been far less welcoming. At its best, he’s been greeted with apathy: Alyssa Rosenberg of the Center for American Progress has dismissed Manning as “not a particularly effective whistleblower.” 

The more intense response in DC has been to denounce Manning as a traitor with bloodstained hands. The politicians and pundits who supported the Iraq War tend to be especially liberal with that charge. Hillary Clinton, for instance, called Manning’s leaks “an attack on the international community” that “puts people’s lives in danger” and “threatens our national security.” Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered that WikiLeaks “might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family”—after he endorsed President Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan. 

Yet in the three years since Manning’s disclosures, there has been no diplomatic Armageddon or military calamity other than the usual rudderless carnage of American foreign policy. There is no evidence that a single US soldier or civilian has been harmed as a result of his leaks (military spokespeople have admitted that no casualties in Afghanistan have been traced to the WikiLeaks revelations). 

Manning’s culpability remains less a rational accusation than a casual assumption. He is a convenient scapegoat for a decade of military and humanitarian disaster, and he has been treated accordingly. Upon his arrest in May 2010, he was locked up in punitive isolation for two months in Iraq and Kuwait, then nine more months at the Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Virginia. Prohibited from lying down during the day or exercising, he was forced to respond every five of his waking minutes to a guard’s question: “Are you OK?” In his final weeks of isolation, Manning was deprived of all clothing beyond a tear-proof smock and forced to stand at attention every night in the nude. This was all for the prisoner’s own good, Obama assured the nation at a press conference. We now know that a Marine Corps psychiatrist repeatedly advised that Manning be taken off “prevention of injury” watch, and even the judge presiding over his court-martial has ruled that his treatment was illegal. 

Was Manning treated so harshly to get him to implicate Julian Assange of WikiLeaks? To intimidate other potential leakers? Whatever the reason, the abuse was so bad that last year the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, formally charged that it “constitutes at a minimum cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” The isolation torture of Manning aroused a global outcry, leading to his release into the medium-security general population in April 2011. This marked the end of the criticism by most American intellectuals, who made it clear that they had no sympathy for Manning, even as they lapped up the front-page stories derived from his leaks with their morning coffee. 

Although Manning does have some high-profile defenders—Michael Moore, Glenn Greenwald, Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich, Code Pink—the field is not crowded. The reflexive willingness of most of the American right to bay for Manning’s scalp has been less remarkable than the silence of progressives. The ACLU once raised money for Daniel Ellsberg’s legal defense, and one might have expected its former president, liberal lion Norman Dorsen, to roar in support of Manning. But even as he condemned Manning’s prison treatment, Dorsen said, “We’ve got to be tough on the people in the government who are like Manning… how are you going to run the government if people are free to leak things to the world using their individual judgment?” In fact, the human rights industry, though it railed against Manning’s confinement, has had little to say about the charges. (The ACLU and Amnesty International mainly limited themselves to condemning the most serious charge of aiding the enemy.)

The panicky response to WikiLeaks from some liberals has had its opera buffa highlights. WNYC radio host Brian Lehrer and New Yorker liberal hawk George Packer clucked like wet hens in horror at WikiLeaks’ release of a (ludicrously) classified list of world locations of strategic interest to the United States. Can we ever be safe now that the terrorists know there are vast mineral reserves in Central Africa, and that the Strait of Gibraltar is a vital shipping lane? Ambrose Bierce said that war is God’s way of teaching geography to Americans, but have we become so infantilized that grade-school factoids must be guarded as state secrets? 

Many intellectuals have labored to draw casuistic distinctions between what they see as Manning’s irresponsible leaking and Daniel Ellsberg’s virtuous leaking of the Pentagon Papers some forty years ago. These exercises zealously avoid the main legal difference: the thousands of documents leaked by Ellsberg were uniformly classified as “top secret,” whereas nothing released by Manning is of that high status. Meanwhile, Ellsberg himself has been a tireless defender of the young soldier, and on a weekly basis has had to reprise Marshall McLuhan’s famous scene in Annie Hall against Manning’s smug detractors. 

It’s Not Personal

The individual is erased in mass media smears. We have not heard much about the Bradley Manning who shocked his classmates and teachers by announcing his atheism in grade school; who took care of his alcoholic mother as soon as he was old enough to add up the bills and write the checks; who came out as gay to his best friends at 13. The boy who was designing websites at age 10, who won his school’s science fair three years running. The teen who, when he graduated from high school, didn’t find sufficient financial support from home or the state to attend college, where he badly wanted to study physics or engineering. The post-adolescent youth sleeping in his truck in the parking lot of O’Hare airport, getting by on minimum-wage jobs, a Joad without the family. The young man trying to find stability and a way to get a college education, who joined the Army even though he is queer, fiercely independent of mind and will, and stands 5 feet, 2 inches tall. The soldier who could not join in the celebration of his comrades in Iraq when a convoy of US soldiers narrowly missed an IED that blew up a truck full of Iraqi civilians instead. The intelligence analyst who found out that a group of civilians had been arrested by Iraqi police for handing out a leaflet alleging financial corruption and ran horrified to his commanding officer, since he was well aware that the Iraqi police had a habit of torturing prisoners. The young soldier reported his CO telling him to shut up and get back to work. “Everything started slipping after that…. I saw things differently,” Manning told the confidant who later turned him in. Explaining the reason for his leaks, Manning said, “I want people to see the truth…regardless of who they are…because without information you cannot make informed decisions as a public.” This motive should not be so difficult to understand, given that he was neck deep in America’s worst foreign policy disaster since the Vietnam War. 

But a depoliticized society cannot comprehend a political motive and will instead reduce such acts to psychology, sex or celebrity envy. Some on the right have seized on Manning’s sexual preference and gender identity as the key to his vile deed—part of a long pinkbaiting tradition of impugning minority sexual preference as both the symptom and cause of political treason. On the left, a few have surmised that it must have been Manning’s queerness that endowed him with the extra empathy to commit his noble act. But as to motive, both logic and evidence indicate that Manning’s sexuality is a red herring. After all, of the 1.4 million people with a top-secret clearance, thousands are surely part of the LGBT community—and yet there is only one Bradley Manning. Sexuality is no indicator of political dissent (the rule of RC squared: for every Roger Casement, there is also a Roy Cohn). 

Mainstream LGBT advocacy groups, having labored for years to remove “don’t ask, don’t tell” as military policy, were not about to embrace Manning—and why should they? After all, there is nothing specifically gay-lib about his heroic security breach. When a conclave of former grand marshals of San Francisco Pride anointed Manning a leader of this year’s parade, the decision was immediately overturned by the parade’s board, which could not resist adding a denunciation of the young soldier to demonstrate its loyalty to Washington. A hope dashed, but why should the queer establishment be held to a higher standard than other liberal elites who have turned their backs on Manning? 

After all, the transgression of this soldier is far greater than being a freethinking queer in the military. Private Manning actually believed that Operation Iraqi Freedom would be about Iraqi freedom. He thought he should be a well-informed citizen soldier, and he thought civilians should know the truth about the war that was being fought in their name. 

Leaks Are Good for Security

The personal history of Private Manning will leave many indifferent, but there are other reasons to support him—for instance, that small matter of national security. It has been casually assumed that leaks constitute a security threat, but in truth it’s the national habit of pathological overclassification that has yielded so many foreign policy disasters. Indeed, government secrecy, distortion and lies were necessary catalysts for the invasion of Iraq, as for the invasion of South Vietnam a generation before. Publicly accessible intelligence, unbowdlerized by spin doctors and legal departments, is a useful preventive measure against multitrillion-dollar wars that yield no strategic gain along with their charred rubble and mangled flesh. That a high degree of governmental openness is necessary to avert public disaster is not some new idea dreamt up at Julian Assange’s kitchen table. James Madison wrote two centuries ago that “a popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.” This should not sound like a radical slogan in the year 2013. 

The Law Is a Ass

But Private Manning broke the law—and the law is the law! This folk tautology ought to be airtight, but it carries a whiff of desperation, of depleted authority on the verge of meltdown. It turns out that selective enforcement of military law is pervasive. Sexual assault is rarely punished. Laws against killing foreign civilians are worth even less: just ask the Marine unit that killed twenty-four Iraqi civilians in Haditha, some of them execution style, without any of the soldiers serving time in prison (the leader of the unit suffered only a reduction in rank and a pay cut). The law in these instances may be many things, but it is not a prescriptive rule enforced evenly and impartially. And yet the request for clemency in the case of Bradley Manning is treated as an outrageous and whiny exception, which if granted would bring about the collapse of all military discipline. 

The laws against releasing classified material are just as elastic. Barely a week goes by without The New York Times or The Washington Post spilling government secrets. This complaisant nonenforcement of leaks is nothing to complain about: after all, it’s how we learned the truth about—to name just a few salient examples from recent history—Vietnam, Watergate, warrantless wiretapping and the cyberwar against Iran.

There is a proper response to the hypocritical and dysfunctional inconsistency of our secrecy laws, and that would be the swift declassification of some 99 percent of our state secrets (government documents are classified at the rate of about 1.83 million per week), with real security for the tiny remainder of legitimate secrets (nuclear launch codes, for example). And for the record, neither Julian Assange nor Bradley Manning has ever called for “total transparency,” a straw-man position often attributed to them by the self-important guardians of extreme government secrecy. 

Instead of more open government, we are getting more secrecy, more prosecutions of whistleblowers and the altogether creepy “insider threat” program, which requires officials to report on the infosec failings of colleagues or face prosecution. (This institutionalization of mutual suspicion is not limited to national security organs but extends to agencies like the Education Department and the Social Security Administration.) Progressives who naïvely believe the solution is more congressional oversight should note that many in Congress have been pushing for even more leak probes and harsher prosecutions than the president. 

Obama has launched eight prosecutions based on the Espionage Act of 1917—more than all previous presidents combined, who together have managed only three such trials. Maybe he feels he has nothing to lose, since this clampdown placates the national security apparatus and wimp-proofs his right flank, while those who care about civil liberties were probably not going to vote Republican anyway. As a result, the former constitutional law professor who ran as the whistleblowers’ best friend in 2008 is now their scourge. 

It would take great powers of imagination to blame any part of our recent military debacles on leaks and whistleblowers. If someone had leaked the full National Intelligence Estimate on Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, would more people have decided—like then-Senator Bob Graham, who voted against the invasion after reading the unredacted report—to oppose the war before it began? If the Afghan War logs had somehow come out during Obama’s months of deliberation before escalating that conflict, would he have made the same decision—one that has yielded only thousands more civilian and military casualties? 

But it is Bradley Manning we have put on trial, not the impresarios of war, not the CIA torturers or their lawyers. The Iraq War, which began with a lurid overture of secrecy and lies, is now getting its dissonant coda: a private court-martialed for telling the truth, a trial unfolding behind a thick wall of official secrecy, in which the court’s media center was, on the day of the prosecution’s closing statement, patrolled by armed soldiers peering over the shoulders of typing reporters. “Pfc. Manning was not a humanist. He was a hacker,” said prosecutor Maj. Ashden Fein. “He was not a whistleblower. He was a traitor.” The past decade has witnessed the carnage unleashed by militarized cluelessness. In the story of Bradley Manning, who has been the ethical citizen and who the rampaging criminals?

Don’t miss Greg Mitchell, also following the Bradley Manning case. His latest post tracks the reaction to the verdict, as the trial’s sentencing phase begins.

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