Dan K. Thomasson
---- — Bradley Manning’s conviction by a military court for his leaks of military documents should be a cautionary tale for all those who fashion themselves guardians of righteousness dedicated to protecting us from ourselves.
The baby-faced Army private may have escaped the charge of aiding the enemy, which ultimately might have ended his life. But he faces years of isolation in prison, which amounts to the same thing although at a much slower pace. This is not a bad kid, merely a dumb one convinced that he was a patriot who was heroically sacrificing his well-being for his fellow Americans by exposing their government’s secrets.
He had help in that misguided interpretation of right and wrong from a sleazy figure named Julian Assange. The WikiLeaks founder may be an assaulter of women and a coward who has helped another, Edward Snowden, pervert the concept of liberty while hiding from the bar of justice from this country and Sweden. Assange is an information anarchist, and WikiLeaks is a dangerous collection of misanthropic cult followers.
The Manning decision — handed down by a military judge, Army Col. Denise Lind — brings a possible sentence of up to 136 years in prison. The betting is that those considering similar acts in the future will think twice.
In the meantime, the focus will return to the role Assange played in Manning’s massive distribution of classified information, and whether the United States, with its long arm, will reach out to prosecute him under the Espionage Act. Again, the odds seem good that it will.
There is a difference between legitimate whistle-blowing and the unauthorized leak of highly classified documents. As Mark Twain said in another context, it is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. One frequently uncovers malfeasance while the other is a direct violation of the law and a threat to national security. The Justice Department, guided by the White House, has come dangerously close to stepping over the barrier of constitutionally protected press freedom in prosecuting these cases.
Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers and Watergate fame, was quoted in news reports as predicting that the government had dodged a bullet in not convicting Manning of aiding the enemy. Otherwise, he said, it could have been disruptive to press freedom by deterring sources. In retrospect, Ellsberg’s leak of the think-tank version of the Vietnam War was far less potentially disruptive than either that of Manning or Snowden. That leak was causing dwindling attention until the Nixon administration tried to restrain publication, much of which already had been published.
Snowden’s case is different. He has conceded that he took the job at the National Security Agency to get access to its activities with the goal of making them public. That seems to me to be a calculated job of spying, no matter what he did with the information. It also is an indictment of a system that obviously failed to vet its contract applicants.
There is some worth in Snowden’s leaks, however. They have stirred up controversy in Congress and elsewhere about the extent of NSA electronic surveillance activities — especially of Americans — and have stimulated debate over whether the court that oversees eavesdropping requests should be reorganized.
At the same time, it is difficult to excuse Snowden or feel sorry for him in his predicament. The programs and the activities he revealed had as much impact on our allies and enemies overseas as it did here. It would not be a big step to consider him a traitor and he clearly realized that as he waited weeks for asylum, now granted in Russia. Snowden, too, is being managed by an Assange disciple.
Manning now faces the sentencing phase of his conviction. Those following the trial think he ultimately will spend a major chunk of his life in prison. He already has claimed he was abused by his military jailers while awaiting trial. One can only wonder if Manning’s zeal for righting what he considered government’s wrongs has diminished. If it hasn’t, a prison sentence just might do it.
Dan K. Thomasson is the former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.