A lot has been written about the Bradley Manning trial and whether or not he was a whisteblower and a hero, or a traitor to his country. I don’t think he was either.
Manning is a member of the military. As any member of the military past or present knows, the first thing you do when you join is take an oath to serve and defend your country. In obtaining a security clearance and working with classified information, military members take other oaths and sign a number of papers, stating that you won’t disclose classified information. If you do, you are subject to discipline under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Manning broke the law. He not only broke military law, he also managed to break a number of other long-standing US laws with criminal consequences. That makes Manning a criminal, nothing more, nothing less. Government prosecutors over-reached when they tried to charge Manning with aiding the enemy, a charge that could have meant death for Manning. The judge acquitted Manning of that charge because, while what he did was stupid and illegal, he didn’t pass classified information directly to any of our “enemies.” Manning was found guilty of a host of other charges, for which he deserves to be punished. Obviously, Manning understands this, because before his trial on the most serious of his charges, he had already pleaded guilty to a number of lesser charges.
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What Manning did was not whistleblowing. The government and the military have very well defined procedures for people who want to point out government wrongdoing. Some of the hundreds of thousands of documents that Manning eagerly handed over to WikiLeaks contained clear examples of government abuse. Had Manning followed procedure and protocol he’d be a free man today, and presumably those abuses would have been identified. Or, like some anti-government folks believe, they may very well have been covered up. But we’ll never know, because instead he handed these documents over to foreign-based website operators, with no thought or concern about what national security or diplomatic secrets would be revealed to the world. He put government agents as well as members of the military — ours and our allies’ — in jeopardy.
As part of the journalism community, I know the first question you are going to ask: ‘What about his right to free speech?’ Everyone has a right to free speech. Say what you want, but if what you say breaks the law, you should expect to go to jail for it, especially if you sign an oath not to reveal classified information. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for Manning and I don’t have any respect for WikiLeaks or its founder, Julian Assange.
Manning should serve his time. So, by the way, should Edward Snowden — if he ever decides to come back to the United States. But perhaps that’s a topic for another column.