Bradley Manning was rightly convicted, but his case is still troubling
On July 30, Judge Colonel Denise Lind read the verdict in Bradley Manning’s court martial. Though cleared of the worst charge, aiding the enemy, the judge convicted him of multiple counts of violating the Espionage Act. While mostly expected, Manning’s case raises many troubling questions for the future.
The charge by the government that he “aided the enemy” by leaking classified documents first to WikiLeaks, who then passed them on to journalists, was problematic from the start. Aiding the enemy is a serious charge, one that could have led to the death penalty — a clear example of prosecutorial overreach. Had it been upheld, it would have threatened the criminalization of journalists through the implication that their publishing also aided the enemy — a dreadful precedent. It’s a good thing it got struck down.
Despite those concerns, it is inarguable Manning broke a raft of laws. This is where the discussion about his imprisonment, the case against him, and his treatment while incarcerated become complicated. His pretrial detention was abusive; it’s shocking no one has been held to account for the unjustifiable mistreatment he suffered while in jail. In all likelihood, his mistreatment in prison will ameliorate his eventual sentencing (for which the hearing begins on July 31).
But being poorly treated in jail does not change the nature of the crimes Manning committed. Without rehashing them all over again (a fruitless, circular exercise considering how ossified public opinion is by now), there is an important precedent at play. People can argue all they want about the ultimate public good Manning’s leaks did, but they also put a lot of people in serious danger.
Moreover, I’m still not entirely sure they were necessary.Even the “Collateral Murder” video that he leaked, which showed an Army helicopter firing on some journalists and a civilian in a passenger van while engaged in a firefight with insurgents, was public knowledge beforehand. The New York Times reported on the incident:
The two Reuters staff members, both of them Iraqis, were killed when troops on an American helicopter shot into the area where the two had just gotten out of their car, said witnesses who spoke to an Agence France-Presse photographer who arrived at the scene shortly after their bodies were taken away.
The incident was a terrible tragedy yet never received much play in the press at the time, nor did it generate much public outcry. Many of the incidents Manning publicized through his leaks — mistaken shootings at checkpoints, intelligence failures, civilians caught in crossfires — are the routine things that happen during war. It’s why those who have seen war believe, firmly, that it is a wretched state of affairs we should never enter into lightly.
Yet publicizing the carnage or war does not prove that such carnage is a war crime. This was an essential pillar of Manning’s belief that he had to leak: He felt there were crimes being committed. And despite the awful carnage and dolor of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s not clear that the risks associated with blanket disclosure were worth the marginal improvement of the public’s knowledge about the wars.
Many people will disagree with the above paragraph, but to pretend like it’s not an argument is hardly constructive. The databases Manning sent to WikiLeaks had the curious double-effect of not fundamentally altering the country’s understanding of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (i.e., we already knew the state of affairs in both, which public opinion was reflecting), while also placing into grave danger many of the Iraqis, Afghans, and democracy or human rights activists elsewhere who were playing constructive roles in their respective societies.
Manning himself presents another troubling issue. By all accounts he was deeply conflicted — with his gender identity, his poor integration into his Army unit, and his own moral struggle with the war. His chain of command in Iraq, which was responsible for his well-being and conduct, failed him utterly when they did not respond sufficiently to his breaks of discipline (which included punching a female superior officer in the face). After displaying such behavioral issues, he should never have been allowed to maintain his access to classified information, much less have unfettered access to a CD burner inside his intelligence facility.The lack of reprisals for those failures is a letdown.
Some of the discussion online, especially on Twitter, focused on Manning’s political beliefs, as if he was being persecuted for them. He is not: Had he not leaked hundreds of thousands of secret documents, he never would have been imprisoned or put on trial. It was his decision to break the law in so many different ways that brought him to where he is now. Yet his beliefs are not immaterial. The wars were horrendous, there was far too much carnage for far too little gain, and the system supporting them does badly need to be reformed.
Manning is not the first to feel outrage at war, yet few have committed espionage in response to it. When I became disgusted at the conduct, abuses, and waste that I saw while working for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, I began to write about it. I published op-eds about the poor treatment of our interpreters. I blogged extensively about the terrible decisions driving our strategy in some provinces, even contacting local Afghans who would give me insight into what was going on in their areas (I even published a book about my time in the country). Since then I got to bring my views to officials in Washington. I’ve briefed diplomats about my analysis, and several years ago I worked some policymakers at the Pentagon to try to shift policy. It didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, but some minor things, I think, changed for the better.
But moving an entire system like the U.S. government on your own is hard work. I only worked on it for a few years. It takes dogged tenacity, a loud voice, meticulous research, and the patience to network your way into the right offices to meet the right people who might be able to change things. It takes understanding how the legislative process works, how appropriations function, how Congress and the White House and the various national security departments interact.
Bradley Manning didn’t bother with any of that. After his immediate supervisor in Iraq didn’t respond to his complaints the way he wanted, Manning did not write about his experiences or concerns elsewhere. He did not search out open information to expose wrongdoing or poor decision making. He did not petition his own government, or Congress, or his superiors in Baghdad, or in Washington, or join a protest. He made the leap from having a bad feeling about the war to leaking hundreds of thousands of secret documents to a shadowy organization on the Internet.
Manning’s decision to leak is, ultimately, lazy. He never put in the hard work others do when they see something wrong and decide to work hard to change it. He never put in the time to study warfare, to learn about the history of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, to see what it would take to alter the course of the war or better inform the public. Manning did none of that; instead, he defaulted to sneaking classified databases out of his intelligence facility in Iraq while cloaking himself in the rhetoric of a whistleblower.
Lost in all of the heated debates about whistleblowing, classification, alleged war crimes, and espionage is the discomfiting realization that Bradley Manning took a shortcut — the easy way out. He tried to tear down a powerful system he felt was illegitimate. He committed crimes to expose what he felt was criminal misconduct. Manning is now learning what happens when you think law-breaking is immaterial to obeying the law. And that, too, is troubling.