Putting to one side – but certainly not forgetting – the media-promised apocalyptic threat to US national security, and the hysterical howls for the extra-judicial execution of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, this article intends to consider the more cogent criticisms directed towards the young whistleblower.
As a preamble, it is worth a reminder that no actual harm has been linked to Manning’s leaks. Captain Joe Morrow, his team of prosecutors, and all the ‘expert witnesses’ who gave damage assessment reports during the court-martial, failed on this front. Equally in need of clarification is Manning’s motive. The shameful attempts of some media outlets to discredit Manning, as having acted either for personal gain or on account of any number of personal issues, should fall hopelessly short of convincing anyone who is familiar with Manning’s pre-arrest ‘chat log’ conversations, or post-arrest public statements.
Most equitable commentators are willing to grant Manning a strong political and moral conscience, and will even acquiesce to the evidence and concede that no actual harm occurred. However, concern is often expressed as to the method by which Manning elected to leak these documents, and the apparent ‘indiscriminate’ manner in which she exposed vast bundles of ‘intelligence’ data.
One charge against Manning is that she should have taken up the evident criminality (I use the word meaningfully) she was witnessing, with her appropriate chain-of-command. Well, as it so happens, this is exactly what Manning had endeavoured to do on a previous occasion: The incident involved fifteen detainees who were handed over to the Iraqi Federal Police [IFP] for printing “anti-Iraqi literature”. Manning, who had investigated the matter, discovered that the literature in question was actually a scholarly, anti-corruption critique against Prime Minister Maliki. Upon this revelation, writes Manning, “I immediately took that information and *ran* to the officer to explain what was going on… he didn’t want to hear any of it… he told me to shut up and explain how we could assist the IFP’s in finding *MORE* detainees…”
Furthermore, the suggestion that Manning should have revealed her concerns to her superiors is to make the false assumption that her superiors were ignorant of US troop activity. The absurdity of this recommendation is more fully realized when one considers the likely possibility that many of these crimes would not only have been known to her superiors, but also ordered by them. As Daniel Ellsberg says, “the idea that there was an alternative channel is simply false… Manning [was] well aware… that there was a cover-up on this information going up to the highest levels.”
The allegation that Manning’s leaks were unjustifiably excessive; too much so to be tactful or discriminating in content, stands as one of the weightier indictments. First, however, some context: the seven hundred thousand plus documents Manning exposed (not all of which were classified) sounds astronomical, but this number is dwarfed when compared to the over ninety million documents classified by the US each year. As an intelligence analyst, Manning had an acute understanding of what she was releasing, and though the number of documents is extensive, the types of document (the Afghan War Logs, the Iraq War Logs, the US State Department Cables, and the Guantanamo Files) were carefully chosen.
Even so, some argue, Manning could not possibly have read or known the content of all seven hundred thousand documents. The leaks, therefore, were haphazard and negligent. I would, of course, have to concede this point, had it not been for the intermediation and involvement of Wikileaks. It is often forgotten (or, perhaps, omitted) that Wikileaks – often with the help of multiple other media outlets – made huge efforts to minimize the risk of harm to individuals through an arduous process of redaction and filtering. As an example, of the ninety thousand Afghan field reports, Wikileaks retained fifteen thousand for closer review and redaction, so as not to put Afghan civilians named in the logs at risk.
Although confronting these criticisms of Manning’s conduct and defending her reputation is a necessary undertaking, it neglects the wider ideological struggle in which we find ourselves, and diverts attention away from the actual content of the leaks. We endlessly extol the virtues of democracy, but seem to be actively apathetic when it comes to challenging those who seek to erode it under the pretext of national security, or to defend those like Manning who understood what Jefferson meant when he said that ‘information is the currency of democracy’. How are we to make informed electoral decisions or hold our representatives to account when we are oblivious as to their actions both domestically and abroad? It’s rather flattering, I sometimes think, that the American people need to be lied to so much. It’s less flattering, however, that as a collective, they appear to lack, as Orwell would have said, ‘the power of facing unpleasant facts’. Manning, who through her actions exhibited this power, has given us the opportunity to overcome the illusion that the values we (rightfully) seek to promote are upheld by those entrusted to do so. For the courage of taking our professed enlightenment ideals at face value, Manning will be sitting in a military prison for the next thirty-five years of her life.