When Army Pfc. Bradley Manning spoke before a military judge at length for only the second time ever last month, the media gallery next to the Fort Meade, Maryland, courtroom was arguably the most crowded it has been since the 25-year-old army private was arraigned one year earlier. Clearly, I was not the only one in attendance that morning weighing whether or not it was worth risking my career, my reputation and a possible military reprimand by recording the soldier’s testimony: this morning, audio of his guilty plea was leaked to the web by an anonymous source.
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The significance of Pfc. Manning’s statement doesn’t begin and end with what he said last month. Yes, the army-intelligence officer admitted for the first time ever during the roughly hour-long reading that he did, in fact, cause the biggest intelligence leak in US history. And, yes, as many assumed, he did supply the whistleblower website WikiLeaks with a trove of sensitive documents that he thought would embarrass the very country he swore to protect. His words weren’t the only ones that mattered, though.
By finally admitting to sharing war logs, State Department cables and hundreds of thousands of protected files, Pfc. Manning was no longer the “accused” WikiLeaks source or the “alleged supplier” of some of the rawest evidence of American misdeeds in the Iraq and Afghan wars. He owned up. Yes, he did it, and a few dozen members of the press were hearing with their own ears why. Those members of the press have painstakingly referred to Pfc. Manning as, largely, anything but the proven WikiLeaks source since his military detainment began over 1,000 days ago. Now, however, he can be properly credited. And he should be.
Pfc. Manning said he leaked video footage of Iraqi civilians being murdered by Americans to spark debate. And sharing State Department cables, he said, was to show the world what the United States was really doing abroad. It was the first time I ever heard his voice, and it was a moment I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
For the millions, if not billions, of people who could benefit from hearing the Manning’s explanation, the Freedom of the Press foundation has published the recording of the testimony. That organisation has only existed for a few weeks but has so far managed to raise thousands of dollars for groups like WikiLeaks and other whistleblowing sites so that Pfc. Manning’s quest for transparency can continue amid an international war against information sharing. It is only fitting that that group, which can list Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg as a board member, published the audio that members of the press were strictly prohibited from recording.
"After listening to this recording,” Ellsberg said this week, “I believe Bradley Manning is the personification of the word 'whistleblower'."
Going into Fort Meade last month, I made a point of weighing the pros and cons of recording the testimony and leaking it to the press myself as it became apparent that Pfc. Manning would speak on the morning of the 28th of February. What recording software could I run off my laptop undetected? How stealth would an analogue recording device be? What if I just wired my cell phone to log the speech from the microphone attached to my ear buds? Would I be able to wipe away all metadata from the MP3? Who would I give it to, and how would I work again – not just as a Washington-based reporter planning on covering Manning’s court-martial this June, but as a career journalist who could be punished severely for breaking strict army sanctions against such conduct. Blogging and tweeting are both outlawed when court is in session.
These are questions I’ve been asking for two weeks and no longer have to wonder. Someone else has taken what should go down as one of the most significant confessions, nay, statements, of our time and shared it with the masses. Just like Pfc. Manning’s own work, this should spark debate. But don’t let this explanation convince you: listen yourself. Listen to a 25-year-old man, still barely a boy, explain how he changed the course of history and has paid the price ever since. David Coombs, Manning’s attorney, announced this week that the entire statement, 34 pages long, was written by the soldier while in pretrial confinement. He was given a computer but told he could not save his work. “This restriction required Pfc. Manning to print whatever he had typed at the end of each day,” said Coombs.
After 1,000 days of detainment, that was the least bothersome ordeal Pfc. Manning has had to endure. But after risking his life to expose the realities of America’s wars, we owe it to him to at least hear him out.
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