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.