Bradley Manning should consider himself lucky not to be headed to the electric chair.
In a plain reading of the term, the private first class is a traitor. He gave aid to America’s enemies when he indiscriminately shared a quarter-million secret diplomatic cables with the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. In perpetrating the largest dump of classified information in American history, he put the lives of countless innocent people worldwide in danger and compromised his country’s national security in manifold ways.
Tuesday, a military judge found him guilty of most of the charges against him that he was contesting, but not guilty of aiding the enemy by posting secret communications where Al Qaeda and others could easily find them, a rough equivalent to printing the names and home addresses of mafia informants in a daily newspaper.
Treason is the only crime defined in the U.S. Constitution, and it warrants the ultimate penalty: death. While Manning’s defenders decry the U.S. for “persecuting” a “whistleblower,” they should be thanking military prosecutors for not seeking capital punishment for Manning’s capital crimes.
With many people lauding the 25-year-old as a hero, it is worth recalling just what Manning wrought by turning over so much sensitive information to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Past revealing, for better or for worse, much about American foreign policy, the cables made targets of individuals standing up to authoritarian regimes.
A 2007 cable discussed possible judges for a United Nations tribunal investigating the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri — whom, it was later determined, had been assassinated by agents of Hezbollah and its Syrian patron in 2005. “Strictly protect,” read the cable from then-U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman. “These persons are at risk of being threatened or assassinated for agreeing to act as tribunal judges.”
In the same neighborhood, a 2009 cable about Syria named two human-rights activists who had been in contact with American diplomats about the depredations of Bashar Assad’s regime.
Other cables mentioned members of Vietnam’s Muslim minority and Chinese academics who revealed how government officials were suppressing information linking environmental pollution to birth defects. One Ethiopian journalist had to flee the repressive African country after an unredacted cable published by WikiLeaks revealed his conversations with U.S. embassy officials about the regime’s plans to shut down an independent newspaper.
The list goes on and on.
“Citation in one of these cables can easily provide repressive governments with the perfect opportunity to persecute or punish journalists and activists,” Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said at the time.
His warning was borne out: In the aftermath of the Wikileaks dump, the U.S. government secretly moved an untold number of individuals to safety after their identities were compromised.
But none of these individual stories capture the vast chilling effect that Manning’s treachery has had, and will continue to have, on American diplomacy. Effective statecraft is predicated upon discretion and, yes, secrecy.
Whether the goal is thwarting Iran’s illicit nuclear program or supporting democracy in sub-Saharan Africa, diplomats cannot do their jobs effectively if every conversation or missive is liable to end up as news. Now, thanks largely to Manning and his enablers at WikiLeaks, those seeking American help can no longer depend on us to the extent that they had before.
Had Manning stopped with his initial, isolated leak of a video depicting American pilots mistakenly killing television cameramen in Iraq, then the “whistleblower” label might be appropriate. But he dumped hundreds of thousands of classified documents without any regard for the fact that our enemies, too, would read them.
By insisting his case is black and white, Manning’s supporters reveal themselves to be inspired less by justice than by a vengeful, anti-state dogma directed mostly at one state: the United States.
Even had Manning’s disclosures been less damaging, he would still deserve the conviction the court passed down on Tuesday, and more — in part to send a clear message to any soldier or government employee (see: Edward Snowden) thinking of arrogating to himself the power to determine what information the world has a “right to know.”
According to one of his fellow soldiers who testified against him, Manning said he bore “no allegiance” to America and that its flag “meant nothing to him.” His behavior confirms as much, and his richly deserved punishment is no one’s fault but his own.