They’re stealing Bradley Manning’s life

Nicole Colson reports on the conviction of military whistle-blower Bradley Manning–and the chilling message it sends about political dissent in the “war on terror” era.

MILITARY JUDGE Col. Denise Lind found Pfc. Bradley Manning guilty of almost every charge leveled against him for his role as a military whistle-blower–but not guilty of the most serious charge of “aiding the enemy.”

While the outcome on the “aiding the enemy” charge is seen by supporters as a victory, Manning, who released classified documents and video to the muckraking WikiLeaks website, still faces as many as 136 years in prison on 19 other charges, including six counts of violating the Espionage Act and five counts of stealing government property.

The sentencing phase of the trial will begin on July 31 and is expected to take at least a month before Lind rules. But Manning will almost certainly spend most of the rest of his life behind bars–unless pressure is brought to bear on the military to relent.

The not guilty verdict on the most serious charge against Manning–of aiding the enemy–is important. The failure of the government to make this charge stick is an indication of its overreach.

Prosecutors tried a desperate eleventh-hour move to win a guilty verdict on this charge, too. Toward the end of the case, they recalled former Army Specialist Jihrleah Showman–a one-time supervisor of Manning’s–who suddenly claimed that Manning had expressed “anti-American” sentiments, and that she had at one time suspected Manning of being a spy. Showman had never documented any of these alleged concerns.

The wild accusations were in keeping with the prosecution’s attitude throughout the trial. Manning was portrayed as a traitor and “anarchist,” maliciously bent on harming American interests–rather than what he is: someone who believed the American people have the right to know about the crimes being committed by their government in their name.

The outcome on the “aiding the enemy” charge is important for another reason–it represents a small pushback against the Obama administration’s all-out war on whistle-blowers. If Manning had been convicted on this charge, it would have opened the door to accusing anyone responsible for publishing classified information, including journalists working for mainstream publications, of treason.

Accoridng to the New York Times, the judge’s decision “pulled back from the government’s effort to create a precedent that press freedom specialists had warned could have broad consequences for the future of investigative journalism about national security in the Internet era.”

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EVEN SO, the conviction on 19 of 21 counts will send a chilling message to other potential government whistle-blowers to not come forward. That Manning likely will spend decades more behind bars–perhaps his whole life–is a travesty of justice for a young soldier whose “crime” was to expose the illegal and barbaric behavior of the U.S. government.

As Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said following the conviction, “Whistle-blowers always know they are taking risks, and the more they reveal, the bigger the threat is against them. But we know they are not betraying the government. And when they contribute vital information to an important public debate, it should not be a crime–especially the kind of crime that sends you to jail for the rest of your life.”

There can be no doubt about the importance of what Manning brought to light with his act of conscience in handing over documents to WikiLeaks. According to a statement from Reporters Without Borders:

The information that Manning allegedly passed to WikiLeaks–used by newspapers such as the New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel and Le Monde in coordination with Julian Assange’s website–included revelations of grave abuses in the “war on terror” launched by the Bush administration…Should this reality have been concealed from the U.S. public and international opinion? Which was more serious–committing such crimes or revealing them to the public?

For the Obama administration, the answer to the latter question is obvious. That’s why the administration has made a practice of prosecuting whistle-blowers under the 1917 Espionage Act. The law has traditionally been used, as its name implies, against those accused of spying.

Manning is now the seventh whistle-blower during the Obama years to be charged under the Espionage Act. National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden is the eighth. Under every previous administration combined dating back to 1917, there were just three similar prosecutions.

As Widney Brown, senior director of International Law and Policy at Amnesty International, wrote after the verdict:

The government’s priorities are upside down. The U.S. government has refused to investigate credible allegations of torture and other crimes under international law despite overwhelming evidence.

Yet they decided to prosecute Manning who it seems was trying to do the right thing–reveal credible evidence of unlawful behavior by the government. You investigate and prosecute those who destroy the credibility of the government by engaging in acts such as torture which are prohibited under the US Constitution and in international law.

The real priorities of the former constitutional law scholar president are all too clear. As the National Lawyers Guild’s David Gespass wrote:

Obama came to office promising the most transparent administration ever. He claims that we need an open and frank discussion of what the government should be able to do to protect ourselves from threats, but did so only after its secret operations were exposed. And he aggressively prosecutes those whose actions give rise to the questions he claims should be answered through a national debate…

There are two ways in which any government can seek to control security leaks. The first is by honesty and transparency, by allowing the public to know enough to make democratic decisions about how far is too far. That is the path that the United States, and this president, claims to follow. The second is by threatening draconian consequences to anyone who exposes questionable policies and practices to the light of day. That is the path the United States, and this administration, has chosen with the prosecution of Bradley Manning and others.

No amount of sophistry can hide that truth, try as the administration might. The result, for Bradley Manning, is many years in prison.

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