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    Open Government and a Free Press Are on Trial with Bradley Manning

    Written by

    DJ Pangburn


    Pfc. Bradley Manning as drawn at his February 23, 2012, by USMC Sgt. Shawn Sales

    Today, on day two of Bradley Manning's court martial, Americans must confront a few things. Chief among them, we must ask ourselves if doing what is ethically right sometimes requires breaking the law. We must also ask ourselves if we value free information, open government, a free press, and the place of the whistleblower in the American and international landscape. 

    When we decide to break a law on ethical grounds, we carry out an act of civil disobedience. There is a long history of this activity in the United States, stretching as far back as the Boston Tea Party, but reaching its sublime apogee with the civil rights movement. Participants in the '60s and '70s counterculture also made use of the tactic, as well as activists in the 1999 Seattle WTO protests and Occupy movement.

    More recently, Aaron Swartz suffered for it after liberating JSTOR academic papers to enlighten the world, and suffering prosecutorial overreach as a result. We know the rest of his story. The same goes for Anon member Jeremy Hammond's act of civil disobedience. Hammond's Stratfor hack illuminated the intelligence-industrial matrix that exists between government, private intel firms and corporate industry. (Read the Stratfor emails over at WikiLeaks' Global Intelligence Files.)

    And then there is Bradley Manning. 

    Not content labeling him a criminal or traitor, his detractors—both within and outside of government—almost immediately painted Manning as a gender-confused individual with an axe to grind. That line of attack more or less backfired awhile ago. Yesterday, military prosecutors opted to buttress an evidence-driven case by characterizing Manning as an arrogant, self-interested individual more concerned with "the notoriety he craved" than in making government more ethical and open. Isn't it strange that the biggest threats to state power are always so unstable? 

    The government wants to prove that Manning, in handing over classified documents to WikiLeaks via Tor relays, "knowingly gave intelligence to the enemy." To that end, they are prosecuting him under the Espionage Act (amongst 21 other counts), even though Manning was clearly attempting to blow the lid off of the US's military and diplomatic shenanigans. 

    From a legal standpoint, the military's case is pretty solid. The government can say quite easily prove that Manning broke laws governing the handling of classified materials. Manning's real motivations are irrelevant. The act is the only thing that matters. It's a slick way to avoid a public debate on free information and open government, which does matter to many people in America and abroad.

    Manning's act of civil disobedience also matters to those who see the value in whistleblowers and a free press. As Manning's lawyer, David Coombs, noted in his opening statement:

    "[Manning] needed to do something to help improve what he was seeing. And so from that moment forward, and that was January of 2010, he started selecting information that he believed the public should hear and should see. Information that he believed that if the public saw would make the world a better place. But, importantly, information that he specifically selected that he believed could not be used against the United States. And information that he believed, if public, and everyone knew it, could not be used by a foreign nation."

    Specifically, Manning chose SigActs, which are low-level "filtered reports" detailing, as Coombs notes, "the who, what, where, when and why of a particular incident." Manning, it seems, was most interested in SigActs because they typically deal with enemy engagement, in which there might be collateral damage (deaths of civilians, local nationals, civilian employees, etc.). Coombs and Manning describe them as diaries of day-to-day military operations. 

    Included in this material was video of a July 12, 2007 Baghdad airstrike, in which two Reuters journalists were killed. The fuck-up made international news. Reuters attempted to obtain the video with a FOIA request. The US government replied, a good two years later, with information on what they could find. Of course, it didn't include the video. Manning, aware of the FOIA request, and believing it valuable to a free press and an enlightened understanding of war, released the video to WikiLeaks. 

    Are we, as a nation and world, to go on watching atrocities unfold, witnessing power attempt to hide from a reckoning, and remain silent?

    In a way, the Baghad airstrike video, now known as the "Collateral Murder" video, is a microcosm of Manning's efforts, and, indeed, the motivation of war reporting in general. An event occurs. A government is not forthcoming. The free press attempts to investigate, filing an FOIA request, and the government responds with more self-interested secrecy.

    To make the free press work, and to break down this wall of secrecy, Manning took it upon himself to do the ethically right thing and release the video, allowing us all to see what the hell is happening in this war on terror. The ethical problems of the airstrike video, according to Coombs, were even acknowledged by Manning's fellow intelligence analysts. (See: United States vs. PFC Bradley Mannin, June 3 transcripts, pg. 80.)

    Are we, as a nation and world, to go on watching atrocities unfold, witnessing power attempt to hide from a reckoning, and remain silent? If so, what type of beings have we become? These are the type of questions Manning seems to have asked himself. And for that, he's most likely going to prison. (It's important to note that Manning has admitted that his breach of duty was illegal, although in this case military law and ethics do feel far apart.)

    Another thing to consider with Manning's trial is how secrecy is being piled upon more secrecy. For two years Manning was silenced as the government and his defense built their cases. Secret pre-trial hearings determined what defense evidence would be considered. The trial is not televised. There is no audio. Ironic, is it not, that Manning, who tried to ensure the press could do its job in the face of state secrecy, is being cloaked in that very same veil of secrecy.

    In an ideal world, Americans and the world would be able to see Manning's face in that military courtroom. They would be able to see and hear exactly what is in those published court transcripts. But just as with the Collateral Murder video, the government knows that it is far better to hide that visual narrative. Why? Out of sight is out of mind.