Bradley Manning’s trial is still an unmitigated disaster for press freedom

On Tuesday, US Army Private Bradley Manning, the whistleblower who leaked evidence of US government misdeeds (including torture and other war crimes) to WikiLeaks, was convicted by a military judge on 20 counts, including 5 counts of violating the Espionage Act. Army Col. Denise Lind acquitted Manning, however, of the most severe and outrageous charge, that of “aiding the enemy” by helping to publish documents that were then (allegedly) read by Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

As legal experts and civil liberties advocates have been pointing out, besides carrying a life sentence for Manning, the prosecution’s “aiding the enemy” charge posed an existential threat to the future of US journalism, particularly on national security issues. The Obama administration and federal prosecutors have essentially claimed that it is an act of treason to make public any information about the government – classified or not – that could be of interest to “the enemy” (whoever that might be).

It’s hard to overstate how radical this theory is – even for an administration notorious for having prosecuted more whistleblowers for “espionage” than all other administrations combined. For that reason, there was something about the “aiding the enemy” charge, beyond the simple injustice of it, that didn’t sit quite right with me.

Then, after the verdict was read, I scanned the corporate media headlines, which ranged from some form of “Manning Is Acquitted of Aiding the Enemy” or “Manning spared on ‘aiding the enemy'” to the truly ludicrous, like this headline from MSNBC’s Now with Alex WagnerManning supporters relieved over verdict”.

The truth is that there’s very little cause for relief, whether you’re Manning, a prospective whistleblower, a serious journalist, or just a good person. This verdict leaves Manning facing up to 136 years in prison – much more than a life sentence – for exposing state crimes. Instead of equating whistleblowing with treason, this military court has magnanimously equated whistleblowing with espionage.

Julian Assange made exactly this point on Wednesday’s Democracy Now!, arguing that the “aiding the enemy” charge seemed fishy precisely because it was a “red herring”: “[W]hile it has attracted a lot of people’s attention, because it has a possible life sentence or death penalty, really, it was just part of the extent of overcharging in this case.”

Let’s be clear: small victories should be celebrated and learned from. Tuesday’s verdict, regardless of what Manning’s sentence will be, is nothing of the sort. In response to the verdict, the ACLU released a statement that read,

While we’re relieved that Mr. Manning was acquitted of the most dangerous charge, the ACLU has long held the view that leaks to the press in the public interest should not be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. Since he already pleaded guilty to charges of leaking information – which carry significant punishment – it seems clear that the government was seeking to intimidate anyone who might consider revealing valuable information in the future.

The press freedom group Reporters Without Borders echoed this concern, adding that fellow whistleblower Edward Snowden “would have every reason to fear persecution, as defined by the Geneva Conventions, if he were to return to the United States.”

RWB brings up another point as well, which I think is crucial: “Persecution” doesn’t just refer to the charges against Manning or the final verdict, but also to the Obama administration’s treatment of him since his arrest. On June 1, two days before the court martial was set to begin, I wrote,

The response of the Obama administration has been ruthless, charging Manning with “aiding and abetting” Al Qaeda and imprisoning him for over 1,000 days without trial. He has been held in solitary confinement for much of that time, prompting the UN special rapporteur on torture to denounce his treatment as “cruel, inhuman and degrading”.

Notwithstanding the US government’s habit of redefining torture to exclude its own “interrogation techniques”, the President who “ended torture” saw fit to subject this young man to prolonged psychological abuse. In addition to social isolation, Manning endured arbitrary “prevention of injury” measures (resulting in physical humiliation) and sleep deprivation (which even the US State Department considers “torture”).

President Obama had Manning tortured for three years. Why? As a matter of fact, to punish Manning before any judicial process violates both civilian and military law, no less than the President’s 2011 statement that Manning “broke the law” made a mockery of the presumption of innocence.

Never mind that top Pentagon officials, including then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, are on the record as saying that the government’s review found no harm has come about as a result of the leaks. Never mind the complete lack of evidence that Manning intended to “aid” anyone other than the people of the US and the world. Manning threatened the US government, and its clients worldwide, with transparency and accountability, and for that, Obama made an example of him.

At the same time, it’s possible that the administration wanted something more concrete from Manning as well, and hoped to “break” him through torture. The most plausible explanation is that Manning would be very useful in the US government’s persecution of WikiLeaks and Assange, who has been claiming for some time that the Justice Department has prepared a sealed indictment against him.

If so, then Manning’s show trial, as grotesque a performance as it’s been, is also a prelude to the next act of the Obama war on dissent. The President’s personal intervention to keep Yemeni reporter Abdulelah Haider Shaye in prison isn’t so much an anomaly as it is a sign of what this administration does to dissident journalists when it thinks no one will care.

Until now, the White House and its lapdogs have been more or less successful in convincing US journalists that Assange and WikiLeaks are not “one of them”. And hardly anyone has heard of Barrett Brown, the journalist facing 105 years in prison for exposing a secret plan, cooked up by the private security firm Stratfor, to mislead and then publicly discredit WikiLeaks and Glenn Greenwald.

Peter Ludlow’s Nation article about Brown’s reporting on Stratfor, and the DOJ’s wildly fallacious charges, is worth reading in full, but maybe the most startling thing is this: One of the main charges is that Brown committed fraud by posting a link to hacked Stratfor data, which happened to contain someone’s credit card information. I can’t think of a more straightforward example of how the government and multinationals can abuse electronic surveillance to punish those who publish leaks without White House authorization.

This past May, it was revealed that, in an FBI affidavit used to seize James Rosen’s emails, the DOJ had named the Fox News reporter not as a witness to a leak, but as a “co-conspirator” in the leak. And only two weeks ago, a DC Circuit Court ruled that the First Amendment doesn’t protect New York Times reporter James Risen from having to testify against the source of a leak he published. 

The Obama personality cult has convinced many liberals that this President is really “on our side”, that they can trust him not to abuse authoritarian powers. There doesn’t seem to be much we can say to change their belief. But maybe they can learn from one of Obama’s heroes, a President who, after being caught in a lie, once admitted to his Fellow Americans: “My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.”

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7 thoughts on “Bradley Manning’s trial is still an unmitigated disaster for press freedom

  1. Thanks for yet another informative article. Since the public finds out about the news mostly through headlines, it’s crucial to draw the attention to the practical impact of the verdict on the maximum time Manning may spend in prison, 136 versus remainder of his life. We need to keep shining the light on the government and media’s propaganda, which attempts to restore the public’s confidence in America’s “Justice System.” In addition, as much as demanding justice for Manning is important, we need to focus the conversation on the content of the revelations and what the citizenry can do to change the direction of our foreign policy away from maintaining hegemony toward cooperation in order to create a world worth living in. This may also be the only way Manning can take comfort in his ordeal.

  2. FACT CHECK: Kumars Salehi calls the Obama administration “notorious for having prosecuted more whistleblowers for ‘espionage’ than all other administrations combined.” Actually, the Espionage Act of 1917 and its companion Sedition Act of 1918 were used by Woodrow Wilson’s Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer during the Red Scare of 1918-19 to prosecute hundreds of cases, most notably against socialist Eugene V. Debs and anarchist Emma Goldman. All told, the U.S. government has prosecuted over 2,100 people under these acts—dwarfing the handful on Obama’s watch.

    • I’m aware of that. I’m careful to specify that the Obama administration’s record pertains to prosecuting whistleblowers – government employees who leak information about the government – under the Espionage Act. I made no such claim about overall prosecutions under that legislation.

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