After three years, Private First Class Bradley Manning’s court-martial has begun. He faces 22 counts, including communicating national defense information and aiding the enemy, after he transmitted hundreds of thousands of classified government documents to WikiLeaks. For exposing civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, his supporters herald him as a whistleblower and hero for transparency. His detractors consider him a misguided soldier or worse, a traitor who potentially compromised national security and put lives at risk.
Manning’s release of classified information may be the largest in U.S. history, but it has not had commensurate impact. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates discounted the damage caused by these breaches saying: “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.” Furthermore, Reuters reported that while the Obama administration maintained publicly that Manning’s actions inflicted serious damage to American interests, officials privately determined that there were limited costs. Although many of the diplomatic cables make for entertaining reading, others reflect readily available information and assessments. For example, many discussions in the cables come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the issues, such as the corruption and incompetence of the President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan or Gulf Arab leaders’ push for pre-emptive action against Iran.
Additionally, some of Manning’s supporters argue that the cables served as a catalyst for the revolutions in Tunisia and other Arab countries by detailing the corruption and lavish lifestyles of the ruling elite. Such claims are misguided and unsubstantiated. Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Yemenis, and Bahrainis suffered for decades under repressive regimes and were well aware of the corruption and crimes of their rulers. The true catalyst and inspiration for the Arab revolutions was Mohammad Bouazizi, who set himself on fire to protest his continual mistreatment at the hands of municipal officials and the repeated illegal closures of his vegetable cart. His desperate and dramatic act drove protesters into the streets of Tunisia, not WikiLeaks.
Transparency and vigilance are crucial to maintain functioning democracies and to check government power. Whistleblowers have an important role to play when crimes have been concealed, and they should be granted protection for their actions. The Apache helicopter video leaked by Manning, which shows U.S. soldiers mistakenly attacking civilians in Baghdad, Iraq, revealed a truly disturbing act. It raises serious questions about the reporting of civilian casualties by the U.S. government. However, Manning’s fast-and-loose release of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables does not fall into the same category.
Prosecuting Manning for aiding the enemy is excessive and might discourage future whistleblowers. The argument by the defense attorney that Manning was “young, naive, but good intentioned” proves compelling. Recently former State Department Spokesman PJ Crowley criticized the Obama administration’s uneven handling of misconduct, writing, “If Bradley Manning is guilty, he has a lot of company. Those responsible for mistreating prisoners at Abu Ghraib had a far more significant impact on perceptions of the Iraq war than Manning did.”
I share many of Manning’s frustrations with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the torture of prisoners, the denial of due process to detainees in Guantanamo, and other aspects of U.S. foreign policy. However, there are other avenues to advocate for reforms than the path he chose. Unfortunately, a young man that hoped to inform and thereby achieve positive change now faces a life in prison as the Obama administration seeks to make an example of him.