Over 1,000 days without a trial: Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks, and the culture of secrecy

Bradley Manning lede

You could be forgiven if you’ve forgotten Bradley Manning.

Even before his arrest in May 2010, the 25-year-old Army intelligence analyst could go unnoticed. He was of slight stature, just over five feet tall, a self-proclaimed nerd who’d come to the Army, and then come to Iraq. While there, it is alleged, he downloaded a massive trove of information using his access to classified military databases. That information — including videos of two airstrikes that killed civilians; a collection of over 250,000 United States diplomatic cables; and a half-million logs from the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — he passed on to WikiLeaks, the disclosure portal founded by Julian Assange. As WikiLeaks began publishing the material, Manning allegedly confessed his role in the leak to Adrian Lamo, a hacker who promptly alerted the authorities. Manning was arrested soon after.

Manning has spent over 1,000 days awaiting his trial, longer than any accused in the history of U.S. military law

Since then, Bradley Manning has virtually disappeared. He has spent over 1,000 days awaiting his trial, longer than any accused in the history of U.S. military law. He has spent that time in "military confinement," a term the government concedes as synonymous with "jail," partly under conditions his defense attorney describes as "degrading and humiliating" — Manning at one point spent seven months under Prevention of Injury (POI) Watch, during which his clothes were removed from him nightly, leaving him to sleep naked in his cell. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley called the treatment "ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid." The White House criticized his remarks, and Crowley resigned soon after.

Meanwhile, Bradley Manning’s case has slowly crept closer to trial. He faces 22 charges, including revealing classified information to unauthorized persons, violating orders, and aiding the enemy. If convicted of aiding the enemy, he could be executed, though prosecutors have recommended life imprisonment. Citing the conditions of Manning’s confinement, his defense had asked to have the charges dropped; the judge ruled that while the conditions were excessive, they did not warrant dropping the case. Instead, Manning should get 112 days cut from any sentence he receives if convicted.

the trial is about the mere possibility of controlling access to information when secrets can be so easily copied and disseminated

Pretrial hearings resumed today. Manning’s defense had again asked for a dismissal, arguing that his right to a speedy trial had been abridged. The court disagreed, rejecting the motion. The remainder of the hearing, scheduled to run through March 1, will likely address Manning’s offer to plead guilty to some charges.

Again, you’d be forgiven if you’ve forgotten all of this. After all, the trial of the largest leak of government documents in history has happened in relative obscurity, behind closed doors and with little press coverage. Bradley Manning, unlike Julian Assange, has virtually disappeared. Yet his case goes to the heart of the national security state in America, post-9/11. In the soundproofed courtroom in Fort Meade, Maryland, questions are being debated about government’s claims to secrecy, the ability of whistleblowers breach that secrecy, and the role of a free press in publishing such disclosures. On an abstract level, the trial is about the mere possibility of controlling access to information when secrets can be so easily copied and disseminated. It’s also about the laws a democracy chooses to enact when guarding its secrets — and how it punishes those who transgress those same laws.

And it all centers on Bradley Manning.

Who is Bradley Manning?

The Espionage Act became a weapon against anyone who shared classified information with the press

In the chat logs of his alleged conversations with Adrian Lamo, Manning writes, "im such a ghost" — suggesting that he has very little presence, few connections that might make him knowable. For the public, that’s in many ways true; with his friends and family understandably wary of talking to the media, and the man himself largely silenced, only a sketchy picture has emerged of Bradley Manning. Perhaps fittingly, it’s emerged primarily through digital artifacts Manning left behind: specifically, chat transcripts.

Through the transcripts, and particularly thanks to Denver Nicks’ profile in This Land, based on conversations with Manning’s childhood friends, we see the kind of man who’d once been a quiet, bookish kid in small-town, rural Oklahoma, competing in science fairs and starring on the quiz team. Growing up he spent hours on the computer, playing SimCity and exploring the internet. He read encyclopedias and played with LEGOs, or watched the lone television channel he could receive — PBS.

With just a few details you can imagine young Manning in his self-protective isolation, among his books and his computer, among the fuel he fed his brain; you can recognize why he gravitated to Immanuel Kant, the Enlightenment philosopher who challenged readers to know the world, to apprehend it through the intellect — and with that intellect build a moral code by which one could live. (Awaiting trial, he still has copies of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Critique of Practical Reason.)

"He was basically really into America," a friend and former roommate named Jordan Davis told This Land. "He wanted to serve his country." The boy became a conservative, patriotic young man; his father had been in the Navy, and he’d long dreamed of military service. In another chat, Bradley Manning wrote,"i actually believe what the army tries to make itself out to be: a diverse place full of people defending the country… male, female, black, white, gay, straight, christian, jewish, asian, old or young, it doesnt matter to me; we all wear the same green uniform…"

But his real experience with military life fell short of that ideal. He describes bullying of the same type he’d known in civilian life: being singled out for his size, his intelligence, and his sexuality. He describes fighting back. He describes his growing political activism, particularly around gay rights.

And to Adrian Lamo he describes "the thing that got me the most… that made me rethink the world more than anything." In Iraq he found his idealism shaken in another way:

was watching 15 detainees taken by the Iraqi Federal Police… for printing "anti-Iraqi literature"… the iraqi federal police wouldn’t cooperate with US forces, so i was instructed to investigate the matter, find out who the "bad guys" were, and how significant this was for the FPs… it turned out, they had printed a scholarly critique against PM Maliki… i had an interpreter read it for me… and when i found out that it was a benign political critique titled "Where did the money go?" and following the corruption trail within the PM’s cabinet… i immediately took that information and *ran* to the officer to explain what was going on… he didn’t want to hear any of it… he told me to shut up and explain how we could assist the FPs in finding *MORE* detainees…

He describes realizing that "i was a *part* of something… i was actively involved in something that i was completely against." Previously Lamo had commented, "Your MICE seems to be ideology," employing spy jargon for the reasons someone might engage in espionage (Money, Ideology, Compromise, or Ego). Manning, Lamo speculated, was motivated by abstract ideals.

Depending on your notions of justice and punishment, this might affect how you judge Bradley Manning. His defense attorney sought to portray the leaker as a whistleblower acting out of conscience. When pressed by Lamo as to why he didn’t simply sell the information to Russia or China, Manning had responded, "because it’s public data. It belongs in the public domain." But the court prohibited any discussion of Manning’s political motives.

Do motives matter? In 1985, the Reagan administration prosecuted Samuel Loring Morison, an intelligence analyst who’d leaked information about a Soviet shipyard to Jane’s Fighting Ships, a British reference work on the world’s navies. Morison justified himself in part by saying "if the American people knew what the Soviets were doing, they would increase the defense budget." While the British declared Morison a patriot (patriotism falling under the "I" in MICE), prosecutors argued he’d been influenced more by frustration with his government job and the promise of a Jane’s paycheck. Morison was convicted.

The Reagan administration had used Morison as test case for a novel reading of the Espionage Act of 1917. Originally intended to prosecute spies for delivering information to the enemy, under these new way of thinking, the Espionage Act became a weapon against anyone who shared classified information with the press. Morison’s conviction made the threat very real; CIA Director William Casey later leveraged it against five major news organizations.

If this sounds familiar, it should: the Obama administration has since used the Espionage Act to prosecute more whistleblower leaks to the media than in all previous administrations combined.

Adrian Lamo

Enter the espionage act

Never before has the simultaneous crackdown on "unauthorized" leaks been so severe

The Espionage Act of 1917 arrived at the beginning of World War I, based on earlier law that included the British Official Secrets Act. President Woodrow Wilson had lobbied hard for the bill, though in its final form the law lacked the censorship authority he’d sought for the executive branch. The act made conveying information with intent to interfere with the operations of the U.S. military, a crime punishable by up to 30 years imprisonment — or death.

Socialists were among the first to be prosecuted under the law; Kate Richards O’Hare delivered an anti-war speech in North Dakota and received a five-year prison sentence. Similarly, Socialist Party presidential candidate, Eugene Debs, gave a speech encouraging listeners to resist the draft; he soon found himself sentenced to ten years. (Both were later pardoned by President Warren Harding.) The act was also used for mass arrests and deportations.

In 1950 the government indicted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg under the act. The husband and wife stood accused not just of making speeches, but of passing information to the Soviets, including technical details about the atomic bomb. They were convicted and executed in 1953, the only spies ever put to death in the U.S.

Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, faced espionage charges in 1971. "I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public," he said upon surrendering himself to a U.S. District Attorney. "I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision." The government’s case imploded when it surfaced that the Nixon administration had illegally wiretapped Ellsberg’s phone and broken into his psychiatrist’s office.

The Ellsberg and Manning cases share a number of similarities, and Ellsberg has voiced his support for Manning. But in the intervening years the court decided the case against Morison, broadening the use of the statute from "classic espionage" of the type practiced by the Rosenbergs — providing information directly to the enemy — to cover disclosures to the press as well. (Ellsberg’s case never got far enough to test a similar interpretation of the law.)

The Obama administration has made particularly strong use of the Espionage Act

That expansion has proven a boon to the executive branch, and the Obama administration has made particularly strong use of the Espionage Act. Thomas Drake for example, was a senior executive at the National Security Agency. In 2006, he began disclosing unclassified information to The Baltimore Sun, detailing billions of dollars lost to fraud and waste. He was subsequently charged with espionage — a charge which, by statute, can carry the death penalty. Drake lost his job and his pension; meanwhile, he had to deal with the skyrocketing legal costs of fighting the Department of Justice. He eventually pleaded to a minor charge and now works in an Apple store.

Such prosecutions, Drake told journalist Alexa O’Brien, send "the strongest possible message to those who would dare hold up the mirror from within and without regarding government misconduct, fraud, waste, abuse, war crimes, and wrongdoing, while also sending the real message to the Fourth Estate that they cannot hide behind the First Amendment as protection or refuge when printing the same."

Former CIA officer John Kiriakou faced a similar situation as one of the first people to make public the agency’s use of waterboarding. Convicted of revealing a covert operative’s name to a reporter, he’ll soon be entering prison for a 30-month sentence. Initially charged under the Espionage Act, he pled guilty to lesser charges under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.

Meanwhile, selective leaks continue about the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, the use of drone strikes around the world, and the cyberwarfare program that created Stuxnet as a weapon against Iran’s nuclear program. As always, members of the government use leaks to serve their own ends, but never before has the simultaneous crackdown on "unauthorized" leaks been so severe. The use of the Espionage Act against Manning is generally seen as an attempt to leverage him against Julian Assange, who is likely the subject of grand jury proceedings. But the increasingly expansive use of a nearly century-old law — the constitutionality of which legal scholars still debate — has journalists such as Raffi Khatchadourian concerned. An Espionage Act indictment against Assange would be unprecedented, and could erode freedoms that reporters enjoy during their normal work of cultivating sources in government," he writes, "I, like other journalists, oppose the idea entirely."

Time magazine encapsulated the problem way back in 1985, writing of the Morison case, “The Government does need to protect military secrets, the public does need information to judge defense policies, and the line between the two is surpassingly difficult to draw.” Today, Thomas Drake says, that line increasingly favors government secrecy. "There are secrets in the public interest worth knowing and those who disclose those secrets (in a manner deemed unauthorized by the government)," he writes via email, "are violating the Prime Directive of the national security state — silence is loyalty and secrecy keeps you employed and out of trouble — so keep your trap shut."

A regime of overclassification

A regime of overclassification

Much of the government’s case against him will be classified, not offered for public adjudication

Yet even complaints about a lack of government transparency are not new. Ellsberg believed the Pentagon Papers, had they been released sooner, would have turned Americans against the war. In 1999, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan published Secrecy: The American Experience, arguing that since World War I, secrecy had become a mode of regulation in American government — controlling information meant controlling the understanding by which democratic citizens manage their self-governance. "The culture of secrecy that evolved," Moynihan wrote, "was intended as a defense against two antagonists, by now familiar ones: the enemy abroad and the enemy within."

The umbrella of secrecy now approaches an absurd width and breadth. According to The Washington Post, nearly half a million government employees and contractors had access to the diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks; 4.2 million had the security clearance necessary to access the highest level of classified information allegedly leaked by Manning. A secret shared among 4.2 million people, one might suggest, is not much of a secret at all. Yet a legal regime enabling harsh penalties for anyone who spills such "secrets" sends a very clear message about authority and control of information.

Conversely, while Daniel Ellsberg had to spend a year collecting and disseminating the Pentagon Papers, the WikiLeaks documents were exfiltrated likely in a matter of hours. Many of them were published directly to the web, with no need for a traditional journalist outlet such as The New York Times. The same technology that enables collecting secrets often allows their diffusion — "The lesson of WikiLeaks is that shared secrets leak," says journalist Andy Greenberg. And yet as Chase Madar notes, the massive WikiLeaks document dumps are a miniscule percentage of the 92 million items classified by the government last year.

The Manning defense plans to emphasize this theme, arguing that much of the WikiLeaks material should not have been classified at all — that it was primarily open-source intelligence from publicly available sources. A description of the "Collateral Murder" airstrike video, for example, appeared in The Good Soldiers, a book by Washington Post journalist David Finkel. The account appeared before the date Manning is accused of leaking the video, but Finkel will not be on trial.

Instead, Bradley Manning will be tried in a small room in Fort Meade. By June 13, when his trial is scheduled to begin, he will have spent over 1,100 days in military confinement, and he will enter a courtroom that allows no recording devices, audio or visual, to participate in proceedings for which no official transcript will be offered. Much of the government’s case against him will be classified, not offered for public adjudication. Bradley Manning — the ghost — will ultimately be judged under the same veil of secrecy he sought to pierce.

Photos courtesy Bradley Manning Support Network, Gwydion M. Williams, Ryan Somma, and the Center for American Progress / Thinkprogress.org.

Thomas Drake

John Kiriakou

The Verge
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