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

By Victoria A. Brownworth

Originally published on Advocate.com July 31 2013 12:44 PM ET

The most important trial in recent American history came to an end July 30 ending with a guilty verdict.

Amid the national discourse on government secrecy, surveillance and lack of executive transparency, soldier Bradley Manning, one of the most fearless whistleblowers in U.S. history, was found guilty of espionage, the most serious charge in the government’s arsenal other than treason.

"This is a dark day for freedom," Daniel Ellsberg told The Advocate a few hours after the verdict came in at Fort Meade, Md. in the two-months-long trial of the gay former Army intelligence specialist. "This is a dark day for American journalism and the press. The only sliver of light is that it could have been worse–Bradley could have been convicted of aiding the enemy."

Ellsberg is himself a former U.S. military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971. He faced the same charges as Manning 42 years ago.

Manning was convicted by the judge, Col. Denise Lind, in his court marital, on 20 of 22 counts, including five counts of espionage and theft. He was acquitted of aiding the enemy— a charge tantamount to treason.

The mainstream media has focused on Manning not having been convicted of that most serious charge against him, aiding the enemy, which carried an automatic life sentence without possibility of parole. Prosecutors had argued that Manning had aided al Qaeda by revealing secret information. This argument was repeated frequently in the mainstream press as fact, rather than accusation, but Lind, who did not comment on her verdict, did not accept the government’s argument on that charge.

The charges Manning was convicted of, however, particularly that of espionage, carry sentences of up to 136 years in prison. They also, as Ellsberg notes, reconfigure things for journalists in America from now on. Who will be a whistleblower with life in prison as the outcome?

The sentencing hearing for Manning begins July 31 and is expected to last several weeks. This hearing will be like another trial in many ways. Manning’s lead attorney, David Coombs, is expected to present evidence that was disallowed during Manning’s trial — notably his client’s state of mind and the rationale for his actions. Manning has said repeatedly that he felt the public needed to know the costs of war with which he had become more and more familiar through his work as an Army intelligence analyst.

In a 10,000 word statement at his hearing in February, Manning said, "I began to become depressed with the situation that we found ourselves increasingly mired in year after year." Manning thought the public should "decide for themselves" about the costs — financial and in blood — of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was succinct when he said he hoped the release of the documents would "spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general as it relates to Iraq and Afghanistan."

Manning has been presented as a traitor, a hero and a tantrum-throwing gay man who was getting back at the military for "don't ask, don't tell," and for a homophobic roommate where he was stationed. His own attorney presented him as youthful and naive in his closing arguments at trial. But Manning is smart and thoughtful. He is also anything but treasonous. His sexual orientation definitely impacted his relationship to the military as well as the terrible treatment he has received while incarcerated, but what is revealed by Manning’s statement is standard whistleblower: a source talking to a journalistic entity (in this case, WikiLeaks).

Manning’s statement is perhaps naive in terms of what he hoped would be accomplished by his actions, but it in no way depicts a man at war with those actions. Manning wanted the world to know the costs of war and that they were egregious. He wasn’t selling the documents to a foreign power or even to WikiLeaks itself. He received no remuneration of any kind at any point. Manning’s motives were clearly and indisputably altruistic; he never benefitted in any way from his role as whistleblower. He has only suffered for it.

That is what Coombs must illumine for the judge in the sentencing hearing. It is also what he has to repeatedly argue: that the then-21-year-old Manning was a young and disillusioned member of the military who could see no end to the war(s) without transparency, that he saw absolutely no harm in what he was doing and in fact quite the opposite: Manning expected his actions to have a good outcome for everyone, most notably the men and women being fed into the U.S. war machine. And it has been argued by many that Manning’s actions forced an early end to the Iraq War and also spurred the democratic rebellions known as the Arab Spring.

What complicates the sentencing hearing for Manning is that he is one of only two people ever convicted under the 1917 Espionage Act under which he was prosecuted. (The other, Samuel Morison, a government security analyst, was convicted in 1985 for leaking classified information to the press. Like Manning has been for the Obama Administration, Morison was a test case for the Reagan Administration which was attempting to stem leaks to the press. Morison was pardoned by President Clinton on his final day in office, against the wishes of the CIA.)

Manning was first arrested in May 2010 where he was stationed in Baghdad on suspicion of leaking 750,000 documents to WikiLeaks, an international news and information service. The documents were State Department cables, terrorism detainee assessments, combat logs and videos. The prosecution stated that it was the largest breach of classified secrets in U.S. history.

One of the key items leaked by Manning was the 2007 video of an Apache combat helicopter attack in Iraq in which U.S. soldiers fired on civilians and killed 12, including two Reuters journalists with what Manning described as "delighted bloodlust."

The video, now infamous after having been shown on repeatedly various news networks, is horrific. Were it the only thing Manning had released, it would have been enough to turn most anyone against the wars.

But that video was just one of the more repugnant of the many documents released by Manning. Myriad others were published by numerous newspapers, magazines, and TV networks worldwide, notably the New York Times, Washington Post and The Guardian. ABC News focused considerable attention on that video and others leaked by Manning.

Yet none of the news outlets has been implicated or even charged, which makes Manning’s conviction questionable. In 1971, the Nixon Administration filed injunctions against the New York Times and Washington Post in an effort to keep them from publishing the Pentagon Papers leaked by Ellsberg. No such injunctions were filed by the Obama Administration. How could Manning be guilty of espionage in leaking the documents if the news organizations which published or aired them were not culpable as well?

Manning’s conviction for espionage is the most shocking aspect of the verdict. It only appears less extreme in comparison to the charge of aiding the enemy, which is tantamount to treason. But since Manning did not pass information to any foreign government or act in service to any foreign government, the U.S. government did not actually prove he was a spy. And since according to Col. Lind herself the government failed to prove its case for aiding the enemy, then where exactly does the espionage come in? Why are there only six counts of espionage rather than 750,000?

(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