Op-ed: How Bradley Manning Changed The Fate of Whistleblowers

Soldier Bradley Manning now faces up to 136 years in prison for espionage charges.

BY Victoria A. Brownworth

July 31 2013 1:44 PM ET

(Left: Protestors rally after Manning's verdict in San Francisco)

Manning was held for months, without charge or a hearing, in solitary confinement under conditions described as torture by Amnesty International, the International Red Cross, Human Rights Watch, and other human rights organizations. He was listed as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.

After the verdict was read on July 30, Widney Brown, Amnesty International's senior director of international law and policy said, "The government’s pursuit of the‘aiding the enemy’ charge was a serious overreach of the law, not least because there was no credible evidence of Manning’s intent to harm the USA by releasing classified information to Wikileaks."

Brown called the Obama Administration’s priorities "upside down," and said "The U.S. government has refused to investigate credible allegations of torture and other crimes under international law despite overwhelming evidence."

She said what global supporters of Manning have reiterated over the past three years of his incarceration — that Manning was prosecuted for "trying to do the right thing: reveal credible evidence of unlawful behavior by the government. You investigate and prosecute those who destroy the credibility of the government by engaging in acts such as torture, which are prohibited under the U.S. Constitution and in international law."

Yet Manning himself was a victim of torture: short of actual water-boarding, he was treated much the way prisoners at the infamous Abu Ghraib facility were treated. His sexual orientation was constantly at issue during this period and he was kept naked, was put through cavity searches and other humiliating treatment, all of which was reported to various human rights groups.

That Manning was indeed tortured was codified by Lind herself who already agreed prior to trial to lessening Manning’s sentence by several months because of the extreme conditions under which he was confined. Brown asserts that Manning was acting on the firm belief that he was revealing and preventing "serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law."

This two-month trial wasn’t just about Manning, however. Freedom of information itself was on trial. Restrictions on the press during the trial, a long battle over transcripts being given to the press, Army personnel reading over the shoulders of reporters. It was more Soviet bloc circa 1960 than America 2013.

At the heart of the Manning trial was what his actions meant. When military code virtually orders a soldier to reveal wrong-doing when they witness it, wasn’t Manning acting well within that rubric as Brown’s comments more than suggest? Will Coombs be allowed to argue that point during the sentencing hearing, since he was barred from doing so during the trial?

And what of the press? Ellsberg knows better than anyone else what Manning is up against.

"He’s facing a possible 136 years," Ellsberg asserted. "The same sentence I was facing 42 years ago. My charge was dropped, which should have been the case with Manning."

Ellsberg, who has been an outspoken supporter of Manning, is also concerned about what the case means for a truly free press in the U.S. He explains that Manning’s conviction is bad, but a stiff sentence would be detrimental to more than just Manning, but to America itself.

"This puts a very, very serious restriction on democracy because who would risk a death sentence or life in prison to tell the truth? I would, Manning would, [Edward] Snowden would, but how many others would risk their lives? Of course truth-telling can be worth that.

That charge would not have deterred Manning, Snowden or me. But truth is definitely at risk here. We see that, we do."

Ellsberg says the Manning verdict is, "one victory for Obama in his war on whistleblowing" and a "predictable disaster" for civil liberties.

"Manning’s been held for three years, incommunicado and in abusive confinement.

That still could lead to his getting off with time served, but it seems very unlikely," he said.

In a statement after the verdict, Jullian Assange, WikiLeaks founder who also faces possible prosecution by the Obama Administration, said "Bradley Manning’s alleged disclosures have exposed war crimes, sparked revolutions and induced democratic reform."

Assange repeated what many of Manning’s supporters have argued about Manning’s imprisonment and trial: that it simply reflects the fact that President Obama is "intent on deterring and silencing whistleblowers, intent on weakening freedom of the press."

Spontaneous protests against the verdict and in support of Manning were held across the country, from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. Supporters of Manning held his photo aloft and spelled out his name on placards. At DuPont Circle in Washington, a replica of Manning and one of the Stature of Liberty were positioned side-by-side.

Yet many still believe the verdict is justified. USA Today ran an editorial referring to the verdict as sound and to Manning as a criminal, even as an op-ed in the same paper called for Manning to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Snowden’s family argued that their son is different from Manning. The Obama Administration, which has aggressively prosecuted Manning, expressed disappointment that he wasn’t found guilty of all charges (Lind also dismissed an espionage charge related to one of the videos) and both Republican and Democratic members of Congress expressed relief that he’d been found guilty.

Amnesty International’s Widney Brown had perhaps the most succinct coda on Manning’s trial and its verdict: "It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that Manning’s trial was about sending a message: the U.S. government will come after you, no holds barred, if you’re thinking of revealing evidence of its unlawful behavior."

African-American philosopher, Princeton professor, LGBT ally, and one of America’s foremost intellectuals, Dr. Cornel West said after the verdict, "Brother Bradley Manning is willing to forfeit his life for the furtherance of honesty, decency, and justice. Manning is our John Brown — without the violence —of our national security state. God bless him!"

That said, Brown the abolitionist did not fare well: he was hanged for treason and for fomenting a slave rebellion.

Manning’s sentencing hearing is expected to last for several weeks. Lind has full discretion in the sentencing — she can ask for nothing or for the full 136 years. It is to be hoped that when the hearing ends, the sentence for Manning will be what it should be: time served and nothing more. Only that would send a message that democracy matters more than show trials and persecution of the very whistleblowers President Obama promised to protect.

VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH is a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Baltimore Sun, The Nation and other national publications. She is a contributing editor at Curve magazine, a blogger at Huffington Post and a frequent contributor to The Advocate and SheWired. Her most recent book is the award-winning From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth. She has covered Manning since his arrest in 2010. Follow her on Twitter @VABVOX

Tags: Commentary