I was in a military courtroom at Ft. Meade in Maryland on Feb. 28 as Pfc. Bradley Manning admitted giving classified government documents to WikiLeaks. The hundreds of thousands of leaked documents exposed U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as government misconduct. A statement that Manning made to the court was a powerful and moving treatise on the importance of placing conscience above personal safety, the necessity of sacrificing careers and liberty for the public good, and the moral imperative of carrying out acts of defiance. Manning will surely pay with many years — perhaps his entire life — in prison. But we too will pay. The war against Bradley Manning is a war against us all.
This trial is not simply the prosecution of a 25-year-old soldier who had the temerity to report to the outside world the indiscriminate slaughter, war crimes, torture and abuse that are carried out by our government and our occupation forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a concerted effort by the security and surveillance state to extinguish what is left of a free press, one that has the constitutional right to expose crimes by those in power. The lonely individuals who take personal risks so that the public can know the truth are from now on to be charged with “aiding the enemy.” All those within the system who publicly reveal facts that challenge the official narrative will be imprisoned, as was John Kiriakou, the former CIA analyst who exposed the U.S. government’s use of torture and began serving a 30-month prison term the day Manning read his statement. There is a word for states that create these kinds of information
The cowardice of The New York Times, El Pais, Der Spiegel and Le Monde, all of which used masses of the material Manning passed on to WikiLeaks and then callously turned their backs on him, is one of journalism’s greatest shames. These publications made little effort to cover Manning’s pretrial hearings, a failure that shows how bankrupt and anemic the commercial press has become. Rescuing what honor of our trade remains has been left to a handful of independent, often marginalized reporters and a small number of other individuals and groups. But if our domesticated press institutions believe that by refusing to defend or report on Manning they will escape the wrath of the security and surveillance state, they are stunningly naive. This is a war that is being played for keeps. And the goal of the state is not simply to send Manning away for life. The state is also determined to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and try him in the United States on espionage or conspiracy charges. The state hopes to cement into place systems of information that will do little more than parrot official propaganda.
The government has decided to press ahead with all 22 charges, including aiding the enemy and espionage. It has refused to settle for Manning’s admission of guilt on 10 lesser offenses that could bring him as many as 20 years in prison. Manning’s leaks, the government insists, are tantamount to support for Al-Qaeda and international terrorism. The government will attempt to prove this point by bringing into court an anonymous witness who most likely took part in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. This witness will reportedly tell the court that copies of the leaked documents were found on Bin Laden’s computer and assisted al-Qaeda. This is an utterly spurious form of prosecution — as if any of us have control over the information we provide to the public and how it is used.
When he was secretary of defense, Robert Gates said a Defense Department review determined that the publication of the Iraq War Logs and the Afghan War Diary had “not revealed any sensitive intelligence sources and methods.” In the trial, however, the government must prove only that the “disclosure could be potentially damaging to the United States” and need only provide “independent proof of at least potential harm to the national security” beyond mere security classification, writes law professor Geoffrey Stone.
Manning has done what anyone with a conscience should have done. In the courtroom he exhibited — especially given the prolonged abuse he suffered during his thousand days inside the military prison system — poise, intelligence and dignity. He appealed to the best within us. And this is why the government fears him. America still produces heroes, some in uniform. But now we lock them up.
An extended version of this article originally appeared at truthdig.org.