On Wednesday, Private First Class Bradley Manning was handed a verdict on charges he faced in relation to leaking classified material — after 1,160 days of pre-trial detention. His crime was to release military documents to WikiLeaks.
Contained within this material was footage of a US military helicopter gunning down a father taking his children to school; evidence of a death squad operating in Afghanistan, and files showing that rather than containing just “the worst of the worst”, Guantánamo held dementia patients, taxi drivers and prisoners of the Taliban.
Millions worldwide regard Manning as a hero, but he was always going to face prosecution for his actions. Not pursuing him would have been politically untenable given the national security climate in the US. Military leaders would have feared the repercussions of allowing a soldier to get away with such a large-scale leak.
But the Obama administration didn’t merely go through the motions in pursuit of Manning. Military authorities imposed a charge that should have sparked far greater alarm than it did. They argued that by talking to the media, Manning had “aided the enemy” — a charge tantamount to treason, which can carry the death penalty (though this was not pursued in Manning’s case).
This is not so much the beginning of a slippery slope for a democratic nation as a headlong plummet. A guilty verdict would have redefined the media — from outlets such as WikiLeaks to bastions of the establishment like the New York Times — as proxies for the enemy. It would have ended any distinction between a traitor selling military secrets to the highest bidder and someone speaking to a journalist on a matter of conscience and for no reward.
By finding Manning not guilty on this dangerous charge (though guilty of espionage and theft), military judge colonel Denise Lind has pulled the US back from the precipice — for now.
The Manning prosecution has represented, in essence, a proxy war on watchdog journalism. Rather than targeting reporters — for the moment — the administration has focused on journalists’ sources. Since Manning was indicted, other cases have been brought against sources and whistleblowers, and the surveillance of journalists from AP and Fox News has been uncovered.
Double standards are evident in the fact that semi-sanctioned ‘leaks’ from security sources, of material that shows the US military in a good light, happen daily. In principle, such disclosures are crimes equal in severity to those of Manning. Yet no one has been taken to court.
All of which is to say nothing of Manning’s shameful pre-trial treatment: held in a 6ft by 12ft cell, deprived of sleep, forced to stand naked, and more. In recompense for these actions — which were found even by the military court to be inappropriate – his detention was reduced by just 112 days.
The prosecution of Manning was intended to send a signal. If nothing else, it has done that. It has shown that when faced with evidence of its own wrongdoing, the current US administration focuses on punishing the messenger. It shows the first amendment is easier to honour in the abstract than in reality. And it risks sending a message to nations that routinely imprison, assault or even kill journalists and activists, that when it comes to the crunch, the supposed leader of the free world is not much different.
This trial has not been the proudest moment in America’s history. It should serve as a warning to those who care about its future. And hopefully, it can also be a turning point.