The divisive case of Bradley Manning

Because of Bradley Manning, Americans have an unprecedented opportunity to evaluate our relationship with our own government. Photo: Know Your Meme

DALLAS, January 10, 2012 – PFC Bradley Manning, the 23-year-old US military analyst accused of publicly leaking the largest set of confidential documents in history to WikiLeaks, has had his day in court. By January 16th, the investigating officer, Lt Col Paul Almanza, will submit his opinion on whether Manning should face a court martial for his 30 charges, including “aiding the enemy,” which carries the death penalty. Though it is Manning who is ultimately on trial, the case has inspired incredibly divisive, passionate debate, revealing multiple political and philosophical rifts between Americans in both the civilian and military communities. 

Observers disagree on nearly every philosophical and political point, each side presenting equally compelling arguments to support the outcome they see in Manning’s future: death, prison or freedom. Under the surface of these arguments lay timeless, complicated philosophical questions that inspire passionate rhetoric from each side: what are the state’s rights to secrecy versus rights of the people to know their government’s actions committed in their name? In times of war, what is the value of an oath versus the moral obligation to act on one’s conscience in the face of atrocities? Can a nation fight against human rights violations while also violating human rights? And if the government wages expensive wars its citizen’s finance and warriors fight, should it be accountable for errors when they are made? If not, who watches the watchers? Answers to these questions reveal a growing political divide along statist and civil libertarian lines.

Government officials, many military members of all ranks, and civilians that passionately support the military believe Manning was a traitor who put American lives in harm’s way by leaking classified documents without a concern for the military consequences. This wholesale breach of secrecy was conducted through slow, methodical operations belying intent to inflict as much damage as possible to the government, the military, and the integrity of the War on Terror. Regardless of his motivations, Manning committed treason by breaking his oath of loyalty and abusing his trusted access, and therefore must suffer the consequences of his actions. If unpunished, Manning’s example could encourage future incidents of security breach with potentially unfathomable consequences.

When discussing the actual material leaked, hard-lined statists within both the civilian and military community believe that international diplomacy is a war of nationalism, so the American government can be trusted to act in America’s best interest. Therefore deceptions essential to diplomacy cannot be released to the public. By disclosing to the world the U.S. Government’s actions undertaken in secrecy, whether unethical or not, Manning jeopardized America’s positions in the perpetual political chess match. More than likely, he was responsible for the deaths of Afghani informants, though it is difficult to calculate such losses in the chaos of war. Most believe Manning deserves either life in prison or the death penalty for his recklessness.

Civil libertarians inside the military pay close attention to this subject, and often both agree and disagree with the statist perspective. Most live and breathe government bureaucracy and see the need for government checks and balances.  However, they often understand that transparency risks turning what once would have been inconsequential military incidents into strategically significant events. For a Private First Class to intentionally leak information that could have cost American lives and jeopardized their missions is unforgivable.

However, many were relying on the prosecution to prove Manning aided the enemy with the leaks and somehow endangered their fellow warriors; despite internal pressure from Washington and the military, the prosecution failed. Instead they argued that Manning knew his illegal acts could have aided America’s enemies. For civil libertarians in the military, that is not enough.

They acknowledge that the Iraq War logs did reveal war crimes committed by members of the military, also how bureaucrats hindered the military’s progress. The brutal nature of the Iraqi provisional government against its own people was also made clear, and in some cases, the helplessness experienced by military leadership caught in the maelstrom of occupation and nation-building for a hostile population. The leaks also led to reforms in the military, which increased security and fortified weak procedures preventing future breaches, making America safer. Many military civil libertarians also place value in the fact that Manning did not leak Top Secret documents though he could have, and did not attempt to financially benefit from his actions. A minimum sentence of 15-20 years sounds just and appropriate to preserve the honor of an oath, while not taking Manning’s life for whistleblowing.

While most civilian statists agree with the military statist perspective, civil libertarians in the civilian community do not completely agree with their military counterparts, and are further divided between left and right extremes. On the right, the belief in limited government is strong, so while support for the military is absolute, the intentions of the bureaucrats that started War on Terror is questionable. Philosophically, many view terrorism as a tactic and waging war on it a way to perpetual war for perpetual peace. They believe secrecy equates unchecked power, and if a government is at war with a tactic or a brand of religious fanaticism that exists in the minds of individual men tied to no nation-state, endless war funnels power from the people to the state, transitioning republics into empires.

In terms of the case specifically, they point out that despite extreme political pressure, the prosecution failed to prove the material was harmful to the military. Asserting Manning should spend his life in prison or die because enemies could have used the leaked material sets a dangerous precedent for prosecuting political enemies of the state. Many charge that terrorists will use anything for propaganda means, and by General Stanley McChrystal’s own math, the crimes committed were more likely to recruit terrorists than a video referring recruits to WikiLeaks. It was, however, embarrassing to the bureaucrats of the world, which were caught deceiving each other and their own people. Most civil libertarians advocate either release or a minimum prison sentence of 10-20 years.

On the left, liberals portray Manning as a hero, freedom fighter and patriot. They see the entire affair through a political lens with WikiLeaks and Manning as architects of truth for revealing the moral depravity of America. He has become a symbol of strength and courage for the gay community, and has an entire movement Bradley Manning Support Network dedicated to his support. Celebrities, including Michael Moore, regularly update the public on Manning’s status and appeal for his support. He’s even had songs written about him.

This loyalty comes from the belief that Manning’s actions revealed how corrupt world leaders lie to the people for their own benefit. Most do not support the military, the War in Iraq, Afghanistan or on Terror, so the contents of the leaks justify their disapproval. In addition, many have watched the events of Manning’s arrest and detainment with great outrage over government actions, further solidifying their views and support.

When President Obama declared Manning guilty without trial, many saw the statement as  an authoritarian streak unconcerned with due process. As bureaucrats launched grand jury investigations on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks in an unsuccessful effort to uncover evidence of criminality, that demonstrated that corrupt government will reach far and wide to destroy their opponents. When confronted with charges of torture, a respected State Department spokesperson resigned after slamming the Pentagon over Manning’s treatment, calling it “counterproductive and stupid,” indicating Manning was not treated as if he was innocent until proven guilty. Leftists see this as proof of inhumane treatment. They march and rally for Manning’s release every few months and plan to demonstrate in mass if he receives anything less than exoneration. 

The above views are all perspective-oriented, political and philosophical, however, a distraction from the larger issue. Instead of debating unanswerable questions about oaths and conscience, or bickering about the political semantics of the case, Americans have an unprecedented opportunity to engage in a clear, unemotional review of the functioning habits of our own government. “All worthwhile information in Washington is ‘classified’ one way or another. The functioning of our republic has come to depend upon government that leaks “secrets” like radioactive uranium spins off electrons. Excessive secrecy and the countervailing need to share information only exacerbate and complicate the situation,” Christopher Hitchens wrote six years ago. Manning proved him right. 

Respectable agencies tasked with protecting America must guard our secrets very well, but politicians also dispense these “secrets” to the media and the public to suit their needs. Under the Obama Administration, this has escalated. Multiple expose-style reports have documented how the national-security establishment uses state secrecy to manipulate the world-wide media and its citizenry beyond levels conducive to maintaining democracy. Now with the National Defense Authorization Act (signed into law as of January 1st) establishing unprecedented Constitutional breaches allowing for indefinite detainment of citizens simply suspected of a terrorist act, we should be incredibly alarmed. Knowledge and information is power, and while a functioning military must have confidentiality, a government of free people, must be held accountable to the court of public opinion.

Perhaps Bradley Manning should be punished if he violated his oath - otherwise there is no value in the oath - but instead of allowing politics and ideology to divide us, the American people should use this opportunity not to characterize PFC Bradley Manning as either an idealistic whistleblower or narcissistic turncoat, but to evaluate our relationship with our own government. Rarely do we have such an opportunity, where the classified information is already public record, for an honest, open dialogue regarding the national-security state. And whether it is still operated by the citizen, for the citizen, both civilian and military.


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Tiffany Madison

Tiffany is a writer and veteran's advocate. Her column focuses on civil liberties, veteran's issues and current events. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanymadisonFacebook or her website.

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