June 5, 2013

Bradley Manning

I went into the Bradley Manning case -- he is the young soldier accused of leaking a massive amount of diplomatic cables and Army reports to a group called Wikileaks -- thinking it was black and white. After reading up on it, I decided that perhaps this was not quite as clear-cut as I had thought, or maybe hoped, it would be. Don't get me wrong. He's guilty as hell. Manning will serve time, but I hope it isn't life in prison. How did I get there from here?

Let's start with the fact that this guy should never have been in the military, let alone given a job where he had pretty much unrestrained access to Top Secret materials. Coming out of a bad Basic Training experience during which Manning was teased and bullied, Manning's superiors wrote that he could be "a risk to himself and possibly others". While he was still in training as an intelligence analyst, Manning was reprimanded for posting a YouTube video bragging about his access to classified materials. Hello! So let's take that guy and and send him to Iraq where he can spend "14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months" looking at classified material. And they say military intelligence is an oxymoron.

On top of that, the Army seems to be engaging in over-kill. Manning has already confessed to 10 counts of misusing classified material. Not satisfied with that, Manning is being charged with aiding the enemy, a charge that comes with a life sentence. The charge is based on the discovery that Osama bin Laden personally requested a copy of the materials coming out of Wikileaks. Some might think that Wikileaks should be the ones to be held accountable, but the prosecution argues that it makes no difference who actually leaked the materials to the public, Manning is responsible because he was the source. Well, yeah, but consideration could have been given to the fact that the kid was a mess, the Army knew he was a mess, and they still put him in a position where he could do incredible damage.

We used to say, "War is hell, but combat's a motherfucker." To which I would add, "and occupation is a soul-killer." Manning -- a ''ferociously smart, computer-addicted and psychologically fraught" kid who had "humanist" stamped on his dog tags -- was plunged into a nightmarish world populated by the inevitable percentage of cover-your-ass officers and morally-eroded soldiers who had long ago lost sight of whatever sense of mission and purpose their might have been to the Iraq War. For months on end, he read reports and saw videos that documented indifference to collateral damage and willful attempts to cover up the worst of the abuses under the veil of military secrecy. He was right to be shocked and appalled. Anyone should have been. Revulsion hardened into resolution, and Manning vowed to "do something to make a difference in this world."

Does that mean he should have done what he did? Not in my book. If you sign up to be part of a war that everyone knows is a mess, you have to accept moral responsibility for that choice. If you sign an oath pledging your secrecy, you need to honor that oath. If you see things you don't like -- and God knows, Manning saw more than his share of the terrible things that happen in a war -- do something about it, but do so in a legal way. At the very least, be smart about it. Don't do something that will land you in jail. Get out, file FOIA requests based on what you know, became a background source, write a book, get the story out. But don't just take hundreds of thousands of documents and throw them out there for everyone to peruse and then claim that you never meant to hurt anyone. How could you possibly know?

I said earlier that the government was perhaps engaging in over-kill in its pursuit of more serious charges against Manning. But it could also be argued that the government is playing a long game here, using Manning to catch a much bigger fish -- Julian Assange, the mastermind behind Wikileaks. The government prosecutors may use Manning's trial to lay the basis for charges that Assange actively assisted Manning in deciding which files to leak and that Assange gave Manning advice on how to access secure databases without getting caught. Assange is currently in hiding at the Ecaudorean Embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden on charges of assaulting two women. Assange rightfully worries that once in Sweden he will be extradited to the United States to face charges.

It's hard to know what to make of all this. On one level, I feel bad for Manning. He was a kid who probably should have been washed out of the Army during Basic Training and who almost certainly should never have been allowed to complete training as an intelligence analyst. On the other hand, you have to be accountable for what you do. When you sign an oath, that should mean something. On the third hand, the war in Iraq is inevitably on trial here as an unindicted co-conspirator. It is hard to separate the cause from the effect.

For a lot of people that's what this is really all about, a chance to find a symbol for all the anger and disappointment so many of us feel about this war. Bradly Manning has become that symbol. For me, he was a symbol of broken trust. For others, he was a whistle-blowing truth teller. Lost in the shuffle was his personal struggle to come to terms with himself and with the things he encountered in Iraq.

Maybe Manning's biggest mistake was in thinking that we the people were somehow being duped and that he could wake us up to what was happening in Iraq with his shocking revelations. The sad truth is that we knew or could easily find out what was going on but chose to turn a blind eye to it. In that sense, we are all part of the Bradley Manning story.

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