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An Unsettling Verdict

Daryl Copeland on the big questions left unanswered by the Bradley Manning case.

By: /
31 July, 2013
By: Daryl Copeland

Former diplomat; research fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute

There is something for almost everyone in the judgement delivered yesterday against Bradley Manning, the army private who single-handedly conveyed hundreds of thousands of classified diplomatic documents and military battlefield reports to the so-called whistleblowing web site WikiLeaks.

This is the largest unauthorized transfer of government-origin classified information ever recorded.

Manning’s detractors – those who see him as a criminal and a traitor – will look with satisfaction upon his conviction on charges of espionage, computer fraud , possession of restricted documents and theft.  These could bring him a total of over 100 years behind bars.

Manning’s defenders – those who see him as a patriot and a hero – will be relieved that he was acquitted on the two most serious charges of aiding the enemy. Daniel Ellesberg, for instance, commented that:  ‘It could’ve been worse’ – a lot worse, not just for Bradley but for American democracy and the free press on which it depends”. 

Whatever the sentence, the mixed messages implied by the judgement may end up satisfying no one completely.

Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, was ambiguous:  “We won the battle, now we need to go win the war…  Today is a good day, but Bradley is by no means out of the fire.”

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, himself a fugitive and holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London,  described the verdict on Twitter as “dangerous  national security extremism.”

If reflecting on what to make of the verdict seems difficult, consider this. The most critical issues of public policy raised by the Manning case have yet to be broached:

Government secrecy versus the public’s right to know.

Confidentiality, and the protection of sensitive sources is essential to effective diplomacy. On the other hand, taxpayers are underwriting the costly generation of intelligence and analysis, and should in principle have access to material they have paid for. There is a delicate balance here; citizens have a right to know, but not all information needs to be free. How, then, to best manage the trade-offs, and to find a reasonable equilibrium between competing public goods?

In a statement about why he revealed the documents, Manning said he acted to expose American diplomatic deceit, as well as the U.S military’s “bloodlust” and disregard for human life. He claimed that he wanted to start a debate on foreign and defence policy, and that he chose information that was dated and would not the harm the interests of the United States. The US government, for its part, maintains that Manning’s disclosures flaunted the law and have seriously compromised security.

 These fundamental issues of civics and statecraft, which rise well above the particulars of the judgement, deserve to be better ventilated.

Exposing the costs of the Global War on Terror.

It can be argued that the most serious threats and challenges facing the planet have little to do with religious extremism or political violence, and flow instead from a constellation of issues which are rooted in science and driven by technology. Climate change, diminishing biodiversity, pandemic disease, and resource scarcity afflict us all, while the likelihood of being involved in a terrorist incident is roughly the same as being hit by lightening or drowning in the bathtub. Put another way, there are no military solutions to the most vexing problems of globalization, yet the lion’s share of international policy resources continue to be allocated to defence, rather than to diplomacy or development.

Manning’s release of the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, and especially the Apache  helicopter gun sight video of the killing of a Reuters crew in Baghdad, have helped to illuminate the inner workings of Global War on Terror. Together with the disastrous outcomes associated with the armed interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and memories of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, the Koran burnings, drone strikes on civilians, and various other atrocities associated with war, Manning has underscored the consequences of misplaced priorities on the part of the US and its NATO allies – including Canada.

If his actions stimulate a long overdue debate about the true nature of security, the public interest will be well-served.

Obama’s record on whistleblowing.

Since taking office less than six years ago, Obama has pursued more espionage charges against government employees than all other past presidents combined.  It was therefore unsurprising that when Manning pleaded guilty earlier this year to several lesser offences that would have brought him about 20 years of imprisonment, the government refused to bargain and opted instead to prosecute the most serious charges.

By throwing the book at, and making an example of Manning, Ed Snowden and all other alleged whistleblowers, the US administration clearly hopes to send an intimidating chill throughout the civil service, and in so doing reduce the incidence of leaking.

Is this strategy, in combination with the imposition of curbs on civil liberties and constitutional rights, transforming the erstwhile land of the free into a something disturbingly Orwellian – a national security state? Not an insignificant query.

Accountability versus responsibility.

Manning copied the classified “Cablegate” material in several tranches onto a Lady Gaga DVD. He then transmitted that digitalized data to Julian Assange, who by cutting publication deals with five of the largest media organizations in the world leveraged his possession of the material to propel himself to celebrity. Those events have had profound consequences, and they may well illustrate the element of immediate responsibility for the disclosures. Yet it must be asked: where is the more extended institutional and personal accountability in all of this? Who designed and approved the data management system that allowed low level operatives like Bradley Manning access to such sensitive information? Manning, moreover, was reportedly considered mentally unstable by his employer, had been demoted for punching a woman officer in the face, and was about to be discharged. Given that there were apparently hundreds of thousands of people with similar clearance and access, Manning could be considered a scapegoat for an event which was virtually inevitable. In that case, his conviction amounts to shooting the messenger.

The 9/11 Commission Report identified a lack of coordination among law enforcement and security agencies, and criticized the inadequate sharing of intelligence between organizations that resembled sealed information silos. Clearly, remedial action was required, but moving from an overly restrictive interpretation of the need to know to a free-for-all with no control over the copying and distribution of secret information amounts to an accident waiting to happen.  This inexcusable failure of oversight represents a colossal lack of judgement and discretion at senior management levels.

Manning is being held legally responsible, but the larger questions remain unaddressed. Where is the accountability for the decisions which made these disclosures possible?

Like so many of the thorny issues begged by the Manning case, the answers are nowhere in sight.

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