As 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,” Manning 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.