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Lost in the Bradley Manning Narrative: What He Actually Leaked

The best way to honor Manning’s courage is to never lose sight of the horrors he exposed.
June 4, 2013, 5:40pm

A Manning protest in Honolulu in February, via savebradley/Flickr

Do you know that Egyptian torturers received FBI training in Virginia? Were you aware of the fact that American officials were instructed to hide evidence of child abuse by contractors in Afghanistan? Do you know the State Department fought against Haiti raising its minimum wage?

Yesterday, Bradley Manning’s trial finally kicked off and with it a conversation about what the people have the right to know. These debates frequently frame discussion within the context of a philosophical question about transparency. These issues are crucially important because the Manning trial stands as something of a referendum on press freedom.

The prosecution’s “aiding the enemy” charge hinges on whether or not WikiLeaks material was found at Osama bin laden’s compound. As former DOJ whistleblower Jesselyn Raddack has pointed out, “If Osama bin Laden or any other suspected terrorist happens to have read a New York Times article on the Internet, the government can now go after the paper for ‘aiding the enemy’. That’s a big problem.”

However, the issues of the leaks themselves, and their importance, are frequently obscured. The aforementioned stories were all leaked by Manning, as was the Iraq War’s official death count (which Bush and Obama claimed didn’t exist), the infamous “Collateral Murder” video, and many other examples of shady and/or criminal government behavior.

Many of Manning’s critics, and even some of his supporters, have referred to him as “naïve." Perhaps he was, but not in the way they think. Manning believed that exposing the American people to the truth would result in backlash and protests. It’s easy to consider his perception naïve, because he clearly assumed that the stories he unearthed would be vigorously debated and covered.

He was naïve to believe that the American media would cover anything he leaked in any substantial way, that the American people would be provided, not just with coverage of his trial, but of an examination of what is being done in their name. Perhaps he was even naïve enough to believe an outfit like MSNBC, which gained increased popularity by aligning themselves with the lofty promises of the Obama administration, had a definitive problem with the criminality of the American government. Perhaps he thought a station that barely even seems to cover his trial proceedings would cover the issues he aimed to popularize.

As FireDogLake’s Kevin Gosztola wrote about the network’s lack of coverage, “If one agrees the content of MSNBC news programming has become increasingly partisan and focused on issues of the utmost concern to Democratic Party operatives, it is possible to explain why…Democrats do not have a lust to make an example out of Manning, but they also do not support him. They just trust that the military is handling him appropriately. The result is no coverage.”

It would, probably, be a mistake to simply chalk up the liberal establishment media’s response to Manning as a mere extension of its usual Obama apologia. As Charles Davis writes, “To be fair, liberals can’t really be blamed for their reaction to Manning. What he did was fundamentally radical, not reformist. He didn’t settle for working within a system explicitly designed to thwart the exposure of wrongdoing, through a chain of command that callously ignores concern for non-American life. Having access to evidence of grotesque crimes no one around him seemed to care about, he engaged in direct action, exposing them for the benefit of the world and those paying for them, the U.S. taxpayer.”

The American taxpayers, the everyday people regarded as bumbling Joe Six-Packs by liberals and disposable pawns by conservatives, have always had much better instincts than their mainstream media. It was Lincoln who said, “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.” The problem with the standard Manning narrative, which focuses on whistleblowing and information freedom, is that it forgets to discuss the very facts he gave up his freedom to release.

Manning’s goal was to bring us the truth. The fact that the details of his leaks are almost never brought up in the media’s coverage points to another welcomed reminder from the young private: the operative connection between the press and the government. The best way to honor Manning’s courage is to never lose sight of the horrors he exposed.