The news from a Fort Meade courtroom was mixed, at best. Those expecting Pfc. Bradley Manning to be set free were disappointed. But so were those waiting for him to be marched straight to death row.
In her Solomonesque decision, the military judge, Army Col. Denise R. Lind, found Manning not guilty of “aiding the enemy,” the most serious charge he faced, which carried an automatic sentence of life in prison. Government prosecutors overreached. They tried but were never able to prove their absurd assertion that Manning betrayed his country because he knew ahead of time that anything he leaked to WikiLeaks would eventually be read by leaders of al-Qaida.
At the same time, Col. Lind found Manning guilty on six counts of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and various lesser charges that, added together, could result in 136 years behind bars. The sentencing phase of the trial is already under way.
No sooner was the verdict announced – spying, yes; treason, no – than both sides resumed the debate that has swirled around Manning since his arrest in May 2010: Is he a hero or a traitor? The truth, I believe, lies somewhere in between. He’s neither. You can’t really call him a hero. He joined the military. In providing WikiLeaks with 700,000 pages of classified documents – on the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan and State Department cables – he violated his military code. He knowingly broke the law. He must pay the price. He will spend time in prison. And he should.
But it’s too simplistic to brand Manning a traitor. He didn’t repudiate the United States. He didn’t travel behind enemy lines. He didn’t sell his secrets. He didn’t jeopardize any future military plans. He revealed information on what he found to be questionable, if not illegal, aspects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because they troubled him and he believed the American people deserved to know the truth.
Any discussion about Manning’s fate must take into consideration two important factors: One, our vastly expanded national security empire; two, the Obama administration’s obsession with leaks. Every American understands that certain documents must be classified in the interest of national security. But can the government really justify classifying more than 92 million documents in fiscal 2011?
Among items Manning released, for example, was a 2007 video of an Apache helicopter attack in Iraq during which U.S. soldiers fired on civilians, killing 12 people, including two Reuters journalists. He also leaked information of the 2005 massacre at Haditha, where U.S. Marines killed 24 unarmed civilians, execution-style. Surely, it’s not treasonous to ask: What purpose was served by keeping reports of those shocking incidents secret, other than sparing the military embarrassment and outrage?
In some cases, in other words, Manning revealed worse crimes than the one he committed, and will serve more time in prison. In connection with the killings at Haditha, for example, eight Marines were originally indicted, but charges against seven of them were dropped. In the end, only one Marine was found guilty, for dereliction of duty, for which he received only a reduction in rank and a pay cut, but no jail time. Manning could serve life in prison for telling us about it.
It’s obvious that the Obama administration pursued Manning with such vigor, not because of any harm he did, but because of their desire to send a strong warning to other potential whistleblowers. That also explains their current obsession with Edward Snowden. The New York Times reports that Pfc. Manning is one of seven people charged with leaking to the news media during the Obama administration. During all previous presidencies, there were only three.
Now here’s the good news. Initially, most members of Congress reacted in knee-jerk fashion to Manning and Snowden, by condemning both and expressing unqualified support for the National Security Agency. But, suddenly, the tide is turning. Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate have expressed alarm at the NSA’s snooping on average Americans and demanded that some limits be placed on the program. The House came within seven votes of defunding the entire operation. And President Obama summoned leaders of both parties to the White House to discuss how to balance national security and privacy.
In the end, that’s why whistleblowers are important. Whatever you think of them, hero or traitor, we wouldn’t even be having this important conversation about national security and privacy – without Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.