Manning’s biggest revelation of all

bradley-manning-jail-cellAs much hay as the government has made about the supposed damage done to the United States by Pfc. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning’s massive leak of classified documents to WikiLeaks three years ago, you might think that those revelations were the biggest breach of U.S. national security in American history.

Manning’s sentence of 35 years surpasses by far any punishment that anyone has ever received for similar offenses. By comparison, former Navy intelligence officer Samuel Morrison was sentenced to two years for giving classified satellite photographs to Jane’s Defense Weekly in 1985.

The 35 years that Manning got was so far removed from what could be considered reasonable that even the New York Times – which has maintained a relatively neutral stance over the case for the past three years – was compelled to call it “far too long a sentence by any standard” in an editorial Wednesday.

Indeed, 35 years is a harsh sentence in the extreme, one that should be reserved only for the most heinous crimes – for example, violence against children, rape, murder and torture.

Ironically, it was precisely those sorts of crimes that Manning exposed three years ago that got him in so much trouble in the first place.

After being rebuffed by his commanding officer and rejected by traditional news outlets like the New York Times, the young Army intelligence analyst provided three important bodies of documents to WikiLeaks.

The Iraq war logs consisted of 391,000 field reports, including the notorious “Collateral Murder” video of U.S. soldiers gunning down a crowd of Iraqi civilians, injuring two small children and killing two Reuters journalists in July 2007. These logs also included documentation of the Haditha massacre in which 24 Iraqi civilians, most of them women, children and the elderly, were systematically murdered by U.S. Marines (a crime for which the perpetrators were never punished).

Following that release, there were 90,000 Afghan war logs, revealing how coalition forces had killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents in Afghanistan and how a secret “black” unit of special forces had hunted down suspected Taliban leaders for “kill or capture” without trial.

And, finally, Manning’s document release included 260,000 diplomatic cables, which arguably had the most impact globally, providing for example the spark for the Arab Spring.

Indeed, it could be argued that the biggest journalistic stories of the past half-decade can be attributed to the courage that Pfc. Manning showed by providing these documents to WikiLeaks back in 2010. But, in a sense, none of these are the biggest revelations that Pfc. Manning brought to light.

Sadly, the biggest story is the lengths that the U.S. government will go to in its attempts to silence and punish whistleblowers, and the shameful silence of the American public at large when these abuses are carried out in plain sight.

Manning, the whistleblower who brought to light countless stories of malfeasance and corruption, was tortured and denied any semblance of a fair trial. President Obama ensured that the military court-martial would be little more than a kangaroo-court show trial when he declared Manning’s guilt in his infamous statement, “He broke the law.”

This was all a striking blow to those of us clinging to some sense of “hope and change,” that phony campaign slogan from 2008.

It is a sad commentary on America that its justice system will condemn an idealistic young soldier with a lifetime prison sentence simply for bringing to light certain unpleasant truths about U.S. warfare and diplomacy, all while the perpetrators of war crimes, torture and corruption are shielded from prosecution by the Obama Justice Department. It is even more embarrassing though how we allow this travesty of justice to unfold.

“When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians,” Manning wrote to President Obama in his request for a pardon.

“Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability,” s/he said.

This veil of national security and the failure of the American people to deal with the reality that it hides is what Manning has truly revealed. His biggest mistake, however, may have been thinking that provided with this information, Americans would take a stand against war and demand accountability from the policymakers who enable it.

These are the same people who responded with a collective shrug when it turned out that the entire rationale for the war in Iraq — weapons of mass destruction — was a complete fabrication. Further, numerous war crimes have come to light over the years that just don’t seem to grab the attention of the American people, and there was really no reason to think that Manning’s revelations would be any different.

Manning is now paying a heavy price for that indifference.

2 comments

  1. Another thought-provoking offering. I had a similarly thought-provoking discussion with a friend (who has served in the military) about the whistleblowing of Chelsea/Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. I found myself splitting hairs between Manning being a member of the military and Snowden being a government contractor, arguing that confidentiality oaths/agreements are different. I was just that: splitting hairs.

    I investigated the military oath in an attempt to determine if Manning violated the oath that he swore/affirmed. I don’t think that he did.

    “I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.” (Title 10, US Code; Act of 5 May 1960 replacing the wording first adopted in 1789, with amendment effective 5 October 1962).”

    Regarding Snowden’s whistleblowing: Ironically, in the past six hours I have discovered that my personal and confidential emails have been shared beyond the intended “recipients” group. How did this happen? I’ll never know, but it literally could cost me money. This speaks to your “Nothing to Hide” entry. I had/have nothing to hide, but someone is interested in my personal correspondence, as boring as it is. “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me.” Beware of social media, y’all! ”

    Bottom line: As individuals in the 21st century we need to think carefully about our own personal ethics and morals. When one has determined and has attempted to live by his/her own personal code of conduct, then one can judge the Mannings and Snowdens (and others) of the world. Time will tell if Manning and Snowden are heroes or villains. But, at this point in time, we all should use their sacrifices to judge ourselves.

    Thank you for making me think and explore. I hope that this is almost as literate as your original post.

    1. That’s a good point about the oath. You’re right — when you actually read it, it’s not clear how precisely he violated it, except of course the implicit or explicit orders that he/she may have disobeyed. A legal expert named Marjorie Cohn recently wrote an article that what Manning did was actually to fulfill his duties as a soldier. According to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, there is a duty to report violations of laws of war as spelled out in the Geneva Conventions. The Collateral Murder video that Manning released was evidence a war crime, so what Manning did was actually the fulfillment of his oath as a soldier.

      Anyway, the real point is that the government completely overreacted in this case. Instead of just charging him with releasing classified information, they threw every conceivable charge at him they could think of, 22 in total including “aiding the enemy,” which carried a possible death sentence. The defense attempted to have this charge dropped, but the judge refused. He was ultimately acquitted of that particular offense, but the over-prosecution had a real effect on the whole case, with the defense focusing most of its efforts simply on trying to prove that Manning was not intentionally trying to help al-Qaeda by releasing the information.

      The whole thing is just sad.

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