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Bradley Manning's Guilty Verdict Will Damage America

Punishing someone for telling the truth is never a good look.
July 31, 2013, 4:00pm

An illustration of Bradley Manning in court. (Image via)

Bradley Manning has been found guilty of 20 crimes. While the ex-soldier escaped a charge of "aiding the enemy", after blowing the whistle on an unbelievable series of abuses, war crimes and political chicanery, Manning still faces a maximum of 130 years in prison. The 20 charges he was convicted of include espionage, theft and computer fraud.

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Manning didn't have the best preparation for the trial. He spent nearly a year in solitary confinement and the plea deal he entered was rejected almost in its entirety. In a depressingly ironic turn of events, the verdict was delivered on July the 30th, the day that US Senator Chuck Grassley is campaigning to make National Whistleblower Day.

Let’s remind ourselves of the evils Manning committed when he leaked hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks back in late 2009.

Collateral Murder, the visceral footage of an Apache attack helicopter murdering a group of civilians (including two Reuters journalists) while the pilots laugh and joke, has been viewed on YouTube nearly 14 million times. It is just one example in a chain of incidents that illustrate what the Iraq war really looked like. Manning's leaks also exposed how US officials deliberately ignored cases of torture, rape and murder carried out by the Iraqi authorities and 15,000 previously unreported civilian deaths.

(Photo via)

Sitting alongside those revelations are the Afghan war logs, detailing a foreign policy disaster that is arguably even greater in scope. The logs chronicle how secret and illegal assassination squads mistakenly shot schoolchildren dead and reveal the true extent of friendly fire among both the Afghan and coalition forces.

Manning’s leak also contains the files on all of Guantanamo Bay’s detainees, including children and the mentally ill, exposing the shaky evidence that keeps many of these people held indefinitely, without trial, in a cell somewhere deep in southeast Cuba.

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Finally, it’s not only America’s enemies who are victims of its nefarious ways. Thousands of cables – informal communications between various US officials and their foreign counterparts – uncover US diplomacy as an exercise in bullying, striving to constantly undermine and manipulate any state that it wishes to in order to achieve its own ends. One such cable proves that former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was happy to spread the lie that it was his own air force firing missiles onto a group of local civilians, when it was in fact part of a US offensive campaign.

Basically, Bradley Manning’s disclosures highlight the US military for what it is: an arrogant behemoth that has little concern for international law, the civilians of the countries it invades or even basic human dignity.

The trial itself has been a dramatic affair. As you might have expected, accounts of the accused man have varied; the prosecutors have described Manning as a “traitor” and “anarchist hacker”, while his defence have painted him as a “naive” whistleblower who broke his military code for the greater good.

Kevin Gosztola. (Photo via)

Kevin Gosztola, a journalist who's been relentlessly covering every single day of the Manning trial from Fort Meade, told me about the troubles that the press have been facing: “We’ve had an escalation in the way that the press have been treated by the military. We’ve had very little internet access and we all have to be inspected now for electronic devices because of the security breach that occurred back in February when Bradley Manning’s statement was recorded and released to the public.

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"For a long time the press pool have been collectively punished for that, even though it’s not been proven to us that it was someone in the media centre who recorded Manning’s statement. I don’t know who it was. In the last week, during closing arguments, one day we had actual armed, military police officers peering over our shoulders, looking at our screens and stopping us if they saw internet windows open. I was told, 'Don’t have Twitter at all,' on my computer by the military police officer, even though I wasn’t sending any messages. I was abiding by the court rules entirely.

“It’s a very big deal of nonsense that the press have to put up with now, and there is not a lot of transparency here.”

According to Gosztola, because of all these obstacles to reporting, “media weren’t able to keep up with the judge and she read the verdict really fast – it was almost as if she did not want the press to report on every little detail”.

Gosztola continued: “The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington made a special enquiry to forward a message to the judge, asking for any verdict to be read slowly because there are people here in the press centre who are trying to get this information down, and that didn’t happen today. She was very animated – she was actually pretty agitated. When she opened her proceedings, the first thing she said was: 'No outbursts in my court room,' or something to that effect. She was very adamant towards all of Manning’s supporters who were there today to not make any outbursts in the court room or create any scenes, otherwise they would be removed immediately and probably not be able to return for the rest of the sentencing stage."

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Media gathered outside the courthouse on the day of closing arguments. (Photo via.)

Fortunately, the verdict was not as bad as it could have been. If he had been found guilty of "aiding the enemy", according to Trevor Timm of the Press Freedom Foundation, that would have had far-reaching “consequences for the free-speech rights of military members and national security journalists around the world”. He continued, telling me, “The US government was arguing that, if you published something on the internet, you will potentially – even if you had no intent to and made no effort to cause harm – be aiding the enemy.”

So, had the charge stuck, governments would have been able to prosecute leakers and perhaps even journalists who have their content published on the internet, simply because a terrorist might come across it. In some ways that particular verdict was a minor detail in Manning's personal saga, but signifies a certain amount of glory in the war for freedom of speech and information. “But it’s still very worrying,” Trevor continued, “that he was found guilty under the Espionage Act, which was made in 1917 and originally enacted to go after non-violent opponents of World War I. It has been morphed into this official secrets act, which the government is using to go after leakers to the press, including those who share information with the public that caused no harm.”

Now that Manning has been convicted with this piece of legislation, it could set a precedent for future cases involving the prosecution of whistleblowers – such as Edward Snowden, if he ever gets caught.

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This wielding of an incredibly heavy sentence towards leakers continues a long-running theme of the current administration, which – for all of Obama’s praise of whistleblowers – has prosecuted more than every other US president combined.

So, this is far from over. According to Nathan Fuller from the Bradley Manning Support Network, “It’s outrageous that he was convicted of the Espionage Act for any of these file transfers, because he chose documents that he knew would inform the public and not harm America, yet the judge convicted him anyway. He still faces more than one hundred years in jail for exposing war crimes and those criminals that he exposed have not faced justice."

When I asked him if he will continue to campaign on Bradley’s behalf, Nathan said, “Absolutely. I think Bradley Manning should be free. I think we should fight against his sentencing legally, and then we should move on to the appeals court, where this case will surely go.”

Chase Madar. (Photo courtesy of Chase Madar)

When I called Chase Madar, author of The Passion of Bradley Manning, he brought the whole practice of leaking back into focus: “This is not just a matter of principal – some noble cause. We pay a very high price in blood and money and inflict even greater misery on foreign nations for these extreme levels of secrecy. The idea that people should know what their government is up to is not some new, outlandish, utopian ideal that was invented at Julian Assange’s kitchen table six years ago. It’s a very old idea that’s been central in the American political tradition, because it works; when people don’t know what their government is doing – when they don’t know what their government knows – you get catastrophes.

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"It was government secrecy, distortion and even a few lies that were key components in getting us into Iraq and South Vietnam the generation before. Important decisions, such as going to war, should be well informed. That’s why Bradley Manning’s disclosures are so important and such a great benefit not just to the world, but also in particular to the United States.”

But perhaps we’re missing the point entirely: “The real problem that we’ve had with American security and foreign policy is not leaks and whistleblowers," Madar explained. "Instead, it’s the ever-increasing amount and higher degrees of classification, and extreme government secrecy. What Bradley Manning released is less than one percent of what the US government classifies in a given year. Last year that figure was 95 million documents, and the number keeps going up. In this climate of dystopian levels of state secrecy, you have people speaking out and getting what is, in the grand scheme of things, a really small amount of information to the public.”

Whatever his motivations, whether they be destructive or noble, it’s helpful to quote Manning directly: “If you had free reign over classified networks and you saw incredible things, awful things – things that belonged in the public domain and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC – what would you do? God knows what happens now. Hopefully worldwide discussion, debates and reforms. I want people to see the truth, because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public."

Follow Joseph on Twitter: @josephfcox

More stories about whistleblowers:

The Torture of Bradley Manning

Yes, the NSA Can Spy on Every US Citizen

Julian Assange Isn't WikiLeaks