US Government tramples over civil liberties to make an example out of a whistleblower.
Between November 2009 and May 2010 US military intelligence analyst Bradley Manning downloaded over 700,000 classified files from a US intelligence database, which were subsequently sent to a Wikileaks cyberspace drop box and distributed globally both online and offline by mainstream media organisations. Last week the trial of Bradley Manning began in a Maryland Court in the US where 22 charges were levelled against him including espionage and ‘aiding the enemy’. In a digitised and interconnected communications world the US Government is battling with trends toward increasing information disclosure and transparency and in doing so is trampling over our civil liberties.
Humanitarian rights have been continually violated by the treatment of Bradley Manning since his arrest in May 2010. Mr Manning has been held in confinement for 23 out of 24 hours a day for five successive months, incarcerated in an eight foot by six foot sized cell, woken three times a night on suicide watch and forced to sleep in an anti-suicide smock for two months. These human rights violations spark a feeling of unease as we see a Government determined to make an example of Manning and flex muscular aggression to send a clear message to other potential whistleblowers in the shadows considering disclosure. Daniel Ellsberg, who was responsible for the leaking on the Pentagon Papers in 1971 containing unflattering details on the Vietnam War, warns ‘if the Government has its way, it will become very hard in the future to expose official corruption or disclose information in the public interest’.
Surely we should know what is being done in our nation’s name, both on the battlefield and at home by our Government who should act in our best interest? Bradley Manning stated his purpose for leaking the cables was for ‘people to see the truth…regardless of who they are….because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public’. Informed decisions wield an even greater authority in the digital age where information is disseminated globally with the click of a button. Hence Governments and whistleblowers in a post Wikileaks age are engaged in a tug of war between the need for secrecy and the need for transparency. Those arguing for secrecy in the name of national security in relation to the leaked cables fall short of locating a shred of evidence in the three years since the disclosures were released that US troops incurred any danger or that the information harmed the war effort. Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were a product of the unsettled social, economic and political climate and although the leaked cables may have had an impact, uprisings would have most likely occurred with or without the leaked information.
The information Manning leaked to Wikileaks was also completely reliant on the mainstream media for wider distribution and to maximise global and international impact. President Obama has prosecuted six individuals under the Espionage Act so far for releasing classified information to media organisations, but what responsibility do the press have for distributing disclosures? Should we hold them to account for the role they play? Newspapers publish classified information and leaked documents on a regular basis and we can ask ourselves whether Manning would have been prosecuted in the same way had he leaked directly to a mainstream news establishment rather than a digital and radical whistle-blowing organisation. Additionally, the Espionage Act outlines ‘communicating’ classified information as a crime and chooses to omit any mention of publishing, which surely is just as much of a threat to national security?
The trial of Bradley Manning itself seems to be concealed behind a veil of secrecy and hidden from public view as the judge permits witnesses to testify in secret, transcripts of the pre-trial hearings are refrained from being released and journalists are given heavily restricted access to hearings. Legal proceedings demanding greater transparency for the trial by the Center for Constitutional Rights have been continually rejected by the military courts. Hence, the wider world is prevented from access to this historic trial on the basis of classified information which has already been made available to anyone with an internet connection on the Wikileaks website for the past year. The public were given no opportunity to object to this un-necessary level of secrecy surrounding a trial whose outcome will set a historic precedent for whisteblowing, investigative journalism and information disclosure.
If Bradley Manning is found guilty of ‘aiding the enemy’ under the Espionage Act then the act of passing information to a media organisation which is turn is then consumed by an identified ‘enemy’ is a punishable crime. Whistleblowing rights will be affected as well as those of the US First Amendment. The US Government would also make a significant gain in its efforts to impose controls on wider information disclosure and dissemination. However, Bradley Manning did not disclose the information to benefit the enemy, but to spark a ‘worldwide discussion, debates and reforms’ and promote greater public transparency. The implications are grave for civil liberties as outlined by Benkler and Abrahams in a New York Times article where ‘anyone who holds freedom of the press dear should shudder at the threat that the prosecution’s theory presents to journalism, their sources and the public that relies on them’.
Emma Rees is studying a Masters in Politics & Communications at the LSE