Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, in handcuffs, is escorted out of a courthouse in Fort Meade, Maryland February 23, 2012. Reuters/Jose Luis Magana
Anyone losing sleep over Bob Woodward’s relationship with the White House can finally rest easy. The éminence grise of access journalism has made his peace with the Obama administration. After a spat with economic adviser Gene Sperling over an op-ed he was writing about the sequester, Woodward received an apologetic e-mail from Sperling, who said “as a friend” he thought Woodward would “regret” his comments. Woodward took to the airwaves, casting it as a veiled threat. But by Sunday, order was restored: Sperling called him a “legend” on ABC’s This Week. “I’m going to invite him over to my house,” Woodward said on Face the Nation, adding magnanimously, “Hopefully, he’ll bring others from the White House, or maybe the president himself.”
If there are indignities to be suffered from running afoul of the White House, Woodward’s perceived injury is the least among them. His tantrum, skewered by The Daily Show, might simply be funny were it not for the actual targeting of journalists by the Obama administration.
In particularly stark contrast is the ongoing imprisonment of Abdulelah Haider Shaye, a Yemeni journalist who in 2009 revealed a US airstrike that killed fourteen women and twenty-one children. In 2011, President Obama personally intervened to keep Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, from pardoning Shaye (see “Free Abdulelah Shaye, March 21, 2012). As we wrote on this matter, “While paying lip service to media freedom, this administration has undermined the rights of journalists, and the whistleblowers who aid them, whose work has sometimes cast the government in a negative light.”
Enter Pfc. Bradley Manning, whose case reached a critical juncture just as Beltway pundits were seizing on the Woodward affair. On February 28, the 25-year-old pleaded guilty to ten criminal counts stemming from his historic leak of sensitive material to WikiLeaks in 2010. Before a military judge in Fort Meade, Maryland, Manning told how he decided to expose the cache of files, including videos, military logs and 250,000 State Department cables. “The more I read the cables, the more I came to the conclusion that this was the type of information that should become public,” he said. He called The Washington Post and The New York Times before turning to WikiLeaks. (“I do not believe she took me seriously,” he said of the Post reporter; the Times never called back.)
Manning was eloquent in explaining his motives. Disturbed by footage of a deadly aerial attack on Iraqi civilians in 2007, he said, “I wanted the American public to know that not everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan are targets that needed to be neutralized, but rather people who were struggling to live in the pressure cooker environment of what we call asymmetric warfare.” Such a sober meditation on the human cost of US military force is precisely what was missing from the press during the run-up to both wars.
Manning’s guilty pleas could mean twenty years in prison, on top of the 1,000 days he has languished in pretrial detention (including more than nine months in solitary confinement, often under horribly abusive conditions). But the worst is yet to come: the Obama administration will now prosecute Manning for the most serious charges he faces, including “aiding and abetting the enemy.” It’s a scorched earth move, designed “to terrorize future national security whistleblowers” and journalists alike, in the words of Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler. It’s also a story that merits deeper concern from the Washington press—the kind of story that in another age might have interested Bob Woodward.
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