On Monday, Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army soldier who leaked hundreds of thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks, begins his court-martial for espionage charges. Manning himself is a fascinating character, and his time in prison rife with abuse (extreme isolation, forced nudity), but his trial — and the forces he unleashed on the world — is as consequential as it is difficult to understand.
Though his supporters adamantly deny it, Manning’s leaks endangered a lot of people (the U.S. government has not been specific as to how many). Some were human rights activists whose inclusion in the cables endangered their families.Others were opposition political figures in oppressive regimes, where exposing their ties to western governments unraveled years of effort for democratic reforms.In Afghanistan, the Taliban publicly announced their intention to comb through Wikileaks to identify and murder any Afghans who worked with the U.S.
Manning also dramatically altered how the U.S. intelligence community functions. In 2004, the 9/11 Commission Report blamed “stovepiping,” in which different agencies cannot or do not share critical intelligence with each other, for how the 19 hijackers managed to slip through the cracks of the U.S. security bureaucracy. As a response to that charge, the U.S. government made centralized databases of classified information widely available on a secret network called SIPRNet. But soon after Manning’s leak became public knowledge in 2010, access to those central databases on SIPRNet got restricted.
Lastly, Manning’s leaks dramatically altered U.S. diplomacy. By exposing the underbelly of U.S. diplomatic efforts, these leaks have chilled communication efforts with regimes in strategically vital areas like the Middle East. Just months before the U.S. decided to topple Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, the leaked cables sufficiently exposed U.S. Ambassador Gene Cretz that he was recalled to Washington — leaving no Chief of Mission in Tripoli to even attempt a negotiation during the civil war that soon followed.
Whatever damage he may have caused, Bradley Manning has been subjected to abusive, unjustifiable treatment. At a basic level, holding him for three years — Manning was arrested in Kuwait in mid-2010, then later transferred to Ft. Leavenworth — before going to trial raises some serious questions about his Sixth Amendment right to a fair and speedy trial. While in prison, Manning was repeatedly stripped naked, kept in isolation for twenty-three hours a day, and effectively blinded when guards confiscated his eyeglasses.
Manning’s treatment in prison was so poor that PJ Crowley, a State Department spokesman who had defended the prosecution, resigned in protest.
The charges levied against Manning also seem excessive. It’s reasonable to prosecute a person with a security clearance who deliberately leaks documents. But the government is not stopping at espionage: Among the twenty-one counts Manning is facing on Monday is “aiding the enemy,” a rather difficult charge to make stick even with direct evidence. In 2007, the military accused William H. Steele, a Lieutenant-Colonel in charge of a prison in Iraq, of aiding the enemy by sending lascivious messages on an unmonitored cell phone to the daughter of a detainee and improperly safeguarding classified material on his laptop. He was acquitted, though he still went to prison for two years on other charges.
In contrast, there is no evidence, in his recorded public or private statements, to suggest Manning actively wanted to help al Qaeda or the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the prosecution is arguing that the effect of his leaking is to help those groups, proving his intent is entirely different.
Bradley Manning is a fascinating figure. His lawyers suggested he suffered from gender identity disorder, which would mean that he’s not just gay but also possible transsexual. He also seems to have been frustrated with his military career, which he thought was going nowhere. While prosecutors are arguing that Manning leaked all those classified documents because he “craved notoriety,” his defense says he was simply naive but good-intentioned.
An ancient cliché, misattributed to Samuel Johnson, says that hell is paved with good intentions. Manning admitted to leaking classified documents in an effort to “spark a domestic debate over the role of the military and our foreign policy in general.” He certainly succeeded. But he also endangered innocent people and upended the very process of diplomacy that had guided U.S. foreign policy.
Such a complicated man would make for an interesting public trial regardless of the crime being tried. But however interesting he is as a person, there is little doubt he broke the law: There’s no other way around his admission that he leaked documents he had taken a solemn oath to protect. Manning cannot be a whistleblower, as his diehard supporters assert: He never tried to raise his concerns with his own chain of command, and he did not specifically expose supposed law-breaking or abusive behavior. By leaking so indiscriminately, Manning moved himself past any possible whistleblower defense.
But his supporters still insist, angrily, that he is a martyr for free speech, as if violating a half-dozen nondisclosure laws is a free speech issue (it is not). And this martyrdom gave an incredible boost to Wikileaks, which inspires behavior so aggressive and bizarre — like inventing a vast CIA conspiracy to try to cover up rape allegations — even supporters of the organization compare it to a cult. Before Bradley Manning leaked millions of documents to Wikileaks, the organization was a small- time hacker collective that had leaked interesting but not earth-shattering internal documents about the Church of Scientology (which is ironic, considering Alex Gibney’s charge that Wikileaks acts just like that church in defending itself from even sympathetic portrayals), and some banks. Wikileaks also helped a notorious anti-Semite, holocaust-denier Israel Shamir (who started the CIA conspiracy rumor about Assange’s accusers), crush democratic protests in Belarus.
Post-Manning, though, Wikileaks has come under fire from many directions. First Amazon booted Wikileaks from its cloud hosting system. Then the major banks that govern transactions on the Internet, including Visa, suspended their accounts. While Wikileaks claims such a move is a “financial blockade,” the charge rings hollow: Considering how often they’ve threatened to go after banks, why should the banks still process their transactions?
Wikileaks is also skilled at avoiding the consequences of what it unleashes. While Manning sits in prison for years, Wikileaks’ leader, Julian Assange, enjoys diplomatic protection in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid being extradited to Sweden to face rape allegations. The employees of his organization are untouched by law enforcement. Wikileaks teamed up with the hacker group Anonymous to steal email data from private corporations like STRATFOR, which brought prison time to an Anonymous official but still kept Wikileaks workers out of jail. Its shift from exposing secrets to becoming Julian Assange’s legal fund drove away employees.
Maybe that’s the real story here. Manning has been treated horribly by the U.S. government while in prison. The hackers who steal information for Wikileaks have gone to jail. But Wikileaks, the organization, along with Assange,remain at large, free to write op-eds and appear in public no matter the crimes with which they’re charged.
It says something about the world that such a tiny organization can create such disruption yet face so few consequences. In its wake, Wikileaks has left a trail of upended lives — including Bradley Manning’s. It will be sad to see such a troubled, fascinating young man be thrown into prison at the age of twenty-five, but that is the bed he made. It is approaching time for him to lie in it.