Private Bradley Manning’s court-martial came to an end yesterday with a guilty verdict on most of the charges. The private who leaked classified government documents to Wikileaks is looking at 136 years in prison. Fortunately for him, he beat the rap for “aiding the enemy,” which could have resulted in a life sentence, as if 136 years was anything else. The prosecution on that charge was less about Private Manning, though, than it is about warning others to keep the secrets of the US government.
Despite the outcome, Private Manning’s supporters were upbeat. “We won the battle, now we need to go win the war,” his defense lawyer, David Coombs said of the sentencing phase. “Today is a good day, but Bradley is by no means out of the fire.” Quite what he was drinking at the time, one cannot say, His client is going away for the rest of his life, and the appeals process in the military is not going to change that much.
A more conventional view of the verdict came from a statement by the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee, Chairman Mike Rogers, a Republican, and senior Democrat Dutch Ruppersberger, who said. “Manning harmed our national security, violated the public’s trust, and now stands convicted of multiple serious crimes.”
Of course, that isn’t entirely accurate either. Private Manning leaked classified documents, to be sure, but simply because documents are classified does not mean they are important. Indeed, more documents are classified because they are embarrassing than because they treat highly sensitive matters.
For example, Private Manning leaked video footage of an Apache helicopter attack in 2007. In the assault, a dozen civilians were killed in Baghdad, including a Reuters photographer. There was no national security interest in classifying the video, but it was highly embarrassing and undermined various lies of the Bush administration. As the British say, the Official Secrets Act isn’t there to protect secrets; it’s there to protect officials. The Pentagon classifies documents for the same reason.
Private Manning stands convicted more of stupidity than anything else. If he wanted to alert the American people to things like the helicopter attack, he could easily have taken it to a member of Congress and explained that either that Congressman acts, or the video goes to the press. This is what Daniel Ellsberg did with the Pentagon Papers.
Moreover, he should have waited until his enlistment was up before leaking this information. In any matter of civil disobedience the trial is the entire purpose, but it is the government that winds up in the dock because of its foolish laws or policies. In a military courtroom, that just doesn’t happen because so much occurs behind closed doors.
This journal neither supports Private Manning’s actions nor does it condemn them. Instead, one feels sorrow over a young man who did a very dumb thing in a very dumb way for reasons that he felt were noble. That still doesn’t get him off the hook.