Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private whom a military court convicted this week of violating the Espionage Act by leaking classified government documents, must bear the consequences of his lawbreaking. But his revelations can — and should — help make public officials more accountable for their actions, both in waging war abroad and in building the national secrecy state at home.
Col. Denise Lind, the presiding judge at Private Manning’s trial, properly acquitted him of the most serious charge: aiding the enemy, a crime punishable by life in prison or even death. Prosecutors noted that some of the 700,000 military and diplomatic documents he stole and gave to the WikiLeaks Web site turned up on the computers of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders.
But defense lawyers argued that Manning, a former intelligence analyst and Iraq veteran, had shown no intent to harm this country or help foreign terrorists. Instead, Manning said he wanted to use his disclosures to stimulate a vital public debate on U.S. war policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His whistle-blowing often was valuable, as with his release of a video of a U.S. helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed 12 civilians. At other times, his leaks were clumsy and reckless.
Some documents included names — which WikiLeaks did not conceal — of individual U.S. operatives and foreign nationals who risked their lives to serve this country. Manning’s release of a quarter-million confidential State Department cables, in the name of “open diplomacy,” has damaged this county’s conduct of international relations to an extent that is still undefined.
To his credit, Manning has not tried to escape responsibility for his actions, as has Edward Snowden, the fugitive private contractor who recently disclosed the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records. Manning conceded that he broke the law when he pleaded guilty to 10 of the charges against him.
This week’s conviction included other charges against Manning that could add up to a prison term of 136 years. Violating national security is a grave offense, meriting meaningful punishment.
But Manning already has faced harsh treatment: He was imprisoned for three years before his case came to trial. During that time, he was held in solitary confinement for as long as 23 hours a day, sometimes without clothing.
Colonel Lind said his confinement was “more rigorous than necessary.” It’s hard to see what purpose would be served by imposing a vindictively inflated sentence on Manning now.
More broadly, the issues that Manning has raised through his disclosures, however dubiously, remain to be engaged. Does the government’s system for classifying documents really protect national security, or is it as absurdly overbroad as critics assert?
When millions of civilians have security clearances, how secret are these documents? Has the Obama Administration’s aggressive use of the Espionage Act to prosecute alleged leakers — more than twice as many such cases as all prior administrations combined — made Americans much safer, or just deprived them of information they have a right to know?
Manning is neither a hero nor a traitor. He broke the law and must pay for that. But his conviction will have greater value if it generates a serious debate on national security, and the extent of government secrecy and limits on personal freedom needed to achieve it.