Some thoughts about Army Pfc. Bradley Manning’s pretrial hearing, which concluded this week.
Manning, of course, is charged with leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to the website WikiLeaks and, at his trial in March, will be pleading guilty to certain charges while rejecting the military’s contention that he “aided the enemy” in doing so.
Manning was in court this month seeking dismissal on the grounds that since his arrest in May 2010, he has been subjected to unlawful pretrial punishment. Certainly the conditions Manning and his civilian lawyer David E. Coombs described in often dramatic testimony were inhumane, especially for someone not convicted of anything – two months in a dark “cage” in Kuwait; nearly nine months in solitary confinement in Quantico, Va.; orders to stand for inspection naked.
Oddly, the mainstream media and conservative media have been cool, if not callous, to the whole story. This is hard to understand on many levels. To begin with, the media are the main consumers – beneficiaries – of WikiLeaks documents presumably leaked by Manning. Among the first 115 editions of the New York Times in 2011, for example, 54 of them contained stories sourced to WikiLeaks, the Atlantic Wire reported. That’s almost half. The Gray Lady, however, had to be publicly browbeaten by online criticism and her own ombudsman into sending a correspondent to cover even one day of hearings on this biggest leak case in history. Could the media’s aversion to the story be related to their noted adulation of President Barack Obama, who has already prosecuted more leak cases (six) than all other presidents combined (three)?
As for conservatives, it was only two years ago that pundits were openly calling for the “execution” of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ founder and publisher. Now, with Manning’s pretrial proceedings under way, their silence is notable.
I, too, am both a consumer and beneficiary of WikiLeaks, only I’ve never harbored bloodlust for Assange, nor outrage over WikiLeaks. As far as I’ve been able to tell, these document dumps jeopardize only the deployment of U.S. government lies, not U.S. troops, and, personally, I would like to see many more such revelations.
But not just as a journalist. As an American citizen, I am extremely alarmed by a government colossus that not only routinely withholds its own dealings and deliberations from Us, the People, but increasingly believes it can take possession of our dealings and deliberations in the form of cellphone and email interception, black boxes on our cars, cameras everywhere and other invasive control techniques once relegated to Orwellian satire or Communist spying apparatuses. In other words, it’s not as if WikiLeaks happened in a state of informational transparency befitting a democratic republic. Ours is an era of increasingly dictatorial information control.
But back to Bradley Manning, the media’s invisible man. Should he, as Barack Obama’s government is pressing, go to jail for life for releasing about 250,000 diplomatic cables to which as many as 3 million Americans with security clearance already had access? Is it even possible to consider such widely available documents “secret”? We’re not discussing, for example, the documents passed to Kremlin agents by the infamous Rosenberg ring that helped the Soviet Union construct an atomic bomb. This release of truly sensitive information not only aided the enemy, intelligence archives now tell us, but also gave Stalin the confidence to back the invasion of South Korea, kicking off a war that claimed nearly 50,000 American lives and those of about 2 million Korean civilians. This left much blood on the hands of the Rosenbergs, who were executed as traitors.
And WikiLeaks? We haven’t seen any evidence of such enemy aid, not even resulting from disclosures of Iraq and Afghanistan war logs Manning is alleged to have released. Which isn’t to say that Manning didn’t give someone something – but I would call it heartburn to the powers that be. Is life in prison really the appropriate punishment?
Of course not – that is, not if national security is the chief concern. But the prosecution of Bradley Manning doesn’t seem to be about national security. It’s about power – the power to control the information that constitutes an inattentive American public’s understanding of events, now and in the future.
Frankly, our world abounds with information leaks and spills that pose grave threats to national security and will never be punished. You could argue, for example, that Bill Clinton’s “leaking” as president created the Chinese military threat. Clinton, in effect, ran a WikiLeaks of his own when his administration declassified some 11 million pages of military data. As journalist Richard Poe has written, federal investigators later determined that these documents helped China modernize its missile technology and nuclear know-how (including “suitcase nukes”).
Journalist Bill Gertz and others have also chronicled how the Clinton administration permitted top-secret weapons technology to flow to Beijing in exchange for campaign contributions. Far from being considered an enemy of the state, of course, Clinton is lionized and petted, while his equally corrupt wife is the No. 1 Democratic hopeful for 2016 – if, that is, President Obama doesn’t run for an unconstitutional third term.
And speaking of Obama, wasn’t it he and Vice President Joe Biden who disclosed the top-secret fact that members of Navy SEAL Team 6 killed Osama bin Laden? Some SEAL parents believe releasing this information led SEALs to be targeted by a strike in Afghanistan that resulted in the deaths of 17 SEALs and 13 other service members.
Obviously, Clinton and Obama are presidents, not privates. A president can release whatever information he wants. And a president can seek to jail citizens for life for the same. But that doesn’t make it the right thing to do – not even if the “free press” ignores it.