The government wins big in the Manning case. And the rest of us?

All in all, it’s hard to see how the trial of Private Bradley Manning could have ended any better for the U.S. government.

For starters, Manning was convicted, not that the verdict was ever in doubt, with President Obama declaring “he broke the law” even before the trial opened, the president apparently having skipped the class at Harvard Law where the presumption of innocence was covered. Still, even though it was a foregone conclusion, the guilty verdict meant that the government’s three-year enterprise of pursuing, jailing, tormenting, and finally prosecuting the hapless soldier for leaking military and diplomatic files, more than half of them not classified at all, gets at least a light dusting of vindication.

Not only vindication, but fairness too. The military judge herself gagged on the charge that Manning had aided the enemy – a count that would have made his leaks to the news media no different from a sale of troop deployment data to the Taliban. The judge’s rejection of the aiding-the-enemy charge was applauded as evidence of wisdom and restraint, rather than an implicit repudiation of the whole point of the case. If enemies didn’t benefit, why should we treat the leaks as anything more than a momentary bureaucratic embarrassment? Why on earth did the prosecution demand 60 years behind bars?

The news media—the only entities that unquestionably benefited from the leaks—helped keep the idea alive that something momentous, even transformative, was at stake. Without doing any actual reporting to determine how much the 700,000 documents Manning channeled to Wikileaks actually mattered, the media insisted his actions were a grave offense. The New York Times, which to its credit denounced editorially the severity of the sentence, in its news columns still referred to his actions, breathlessly, as “a gigantic leak that lifted the veil on American military and diplomatic activities around the world.” It did?

Then Manning himself relieved the government of any obligation to show that his actions actually did any harm when he appealed for compassion during the sentencing phase of his trial, referring to evils that were never introduced into evidence or documented in press accounts. “I am sorry that my actions hurt people. I ‘m sorry that they hurt the United States,” he said. “I am sorry for the unintended consequences of my actions. When I made these decisions I believed I was going to help people, not hurt people.”

Finally, facing 35 years in prison, Manning announced he wanted henceforth to be known as Chelsea, not Bradley, and intended to live the rest of his, or now her, life as the woman she had always been. She would seek whatever hormonal and surgical interventions that might require. Catnip to the media, and various news outfits squandered barrels of digital ink figuring out whether Manning would get the medical help she sought, and exploring the grammatical rules that should govern references to her gender.

For the government, it was just too good to be true. This idealistic young soldier, outraged by the deceit and wrongdoing he discovered, says he’s sorry for having wanted to make these wrongs publicly known, admits doing incalculable harm – though without evidence of any–and allows actions that others regarded as heroic to be redefined as the byproduct of psychosexual dysfunction.

The full range of realities that Manning’s leaks brought to light has yet to be inventoried, and only a fraction of them have been made public. The Guardian, Continue reading “The government wins big in the Manning case. And the rest of us?”

U.S. is uniquely harsh in its panic over government secrets

By the standards of other countries, the U.S. approach to official secrecy is ferocious.

For leaking hugely newsworthy information to the press, ex-intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who’s beseeching a score of countries for asylum, and Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier being tried by a military court in Maryland, face charges of espionage. They could go to prison for life.

Elsewhere, punishment for making official secrets public is less severe than the penalties here for driving drunk: at worst, two years in Britain and Denmark. In other Western countries, maximum punishments range from four years in Sweden and Spain, to five in Germany, Belgium and Poland, and seven in France.

That’s according to an analysis of 20 European countries by Sandra Coliver, a legal expert with the Open Society Justice Initiative. Her group has been leading a multiyear, international effort to formulate broad principles reconciling the legitimate need to keep government secrets with the no less legitimate need to hold governments publicly accountable.

Not only are penalties mild elsewhere, Coliver found, prosecutions are rare.  In six countries, nobody in the past decade has been convicted for disclosing state secrets. In Britain, since the 1989 Official Secrets Act took effect, only 10 public employees have been prosecuted. The longest sentence was imposed on a naval petty officer who sold intelligence to a newspaper about a possible Iraqi anthrax attack. He got a year.

In fact, apart from the United States, the only country where prosecutions are common is Russia. There, 10 government employees have been imprisoned in the past decade for from four to 15 years for disclosing government information publicly.

Europe’s courts seem to be moving toward support for whistleblowers, even when state security is breached.

In a 1996 case, a military intelligence official in Romania was initially sentenced to two years for releasing the tapes of illicit wiretaps his agency had made of journalists and politicians.

But the European Court of Human Rights ruled that he was wrongly convicted, Continue reading “U.S. is uniquely harsh in its panic over government secrets”

Media heroism turned on its head: The real Manning scandal

In media mythology, the years from the mid-‘60s to the mid-’70s were the classical age, a heroic time of moral clarity.

Mainstream journalism marinated in adversarialism. Little Southern newspapers infuriated their own readers by staring down segregation. Foreign correspondents forced upon an unwilling public the realities of a brutal war. Network news ignored official disdain and showed the bottomless suffering the war inflicted on the innocents it was supposed to save. With the Pentagon Papers, newspapers defied secrecy rules to expose government lies. With Watergate, reporters forced out a corrupt president.

True, that retelling is a bit of myth-spinning; the media never were quite that gutsy. But myths illuminate. They remind us of values and aspirations. What we’d like to think was true then reflects what we hope might still be true now.

And over the past decade or so, it’s as if that classical formula of defiance and struggle has been turned upside down. Instead of halting war, the news media helped lead the charge into battle, stoking jingoism and spreading half-truths. Instead of unmasking civilian suffering, the media have kept the thousands of innocent Iraqi and Afghan war dead off-screen, pandering to the idea that the only victims worth compassion wear U.S. uniforms.

Even Watergate is upended, with Bob Woodward, one of the two Washington Post reporters who exposed the scandal, now the target of scathing revisionism because of a trivial dustup with a thin-skinned White House.

And looming above those breathtaking role reversals is the media’s disgraceful abandonment of the boldest news source of his generation, Pvt. Bradley Manning, a soldier who in 2010 defied secrecy restrictions to feed the most influential media in the world with leaks they gratefully published, which exposed corruption and duplicity, identified torturers, energized the Arab spring, and embarrassed officialdom worldwide.

The ferocity of the Obama administration attack on Manning and on Wikileaks, the online Continue reading “Media heroism turned on its head: The real Manning scandal”

Abandoning Private Manning

Bradley Manning is the 23-year-old Army private who has been in military lockup since he was arrested last May for allegedly downloading a huge volume of secret U.S. military and diplomatic documents to Wikileaks, which became headline news worldwide.

Continue reading “Abandoning Private Manning”