Bradley Manning presents a tough, complicated case. Either you believe he is a great whistle-blowing hero or a confused young man who broke every rule in the book. Along the way there were questions about treatment in jail, media involvement, and the role of Julian Assange.
As often happens in what passes for American “public discourse”, everyone has an opinion and clamors to offer it while confusing salient facts.
Did Bradley Manning Break the Law?
Yes, unequivocably. Manning is subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (the UCMJ), and not the civilian legal system. The UCMJ is a very different animal, and for good reason.
The official oath of enlistment: “I, (NAME), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
Wars are not civilian life.They are horrid affairs where civilian-style democracy doesn’t work. Troops must follow lawful orders — the UCMJ requires you to refuse unlawful orders — regardless of your personal feelings. Civilian law leaves considerably more room for choice.
Troops ordered to attack must attack whether they agree or not. If troops simply say, “Nah, that looks dangerous to me, I’m not going” an army can’t conduct a war, it can only create more chaos. Releasng classified information is the same.
Did the Media Break the Law?
This is a bit less clear, but in my opinion no. Laws about journalists releasing secret information are not always clear, but reporters are absolutely not subject to the UCMJ. Threatening journalists with prosecution is a chilling act with implications beyond military whistle-blowing. National security is one case, protecting a CEO as crooked as a dog’s hind leg is another.
The media may have acted irresponsibly, but didn’t break the law. Unfortunately, the Obama administration took the short view and didn’t carefully consider the implications beyond Manning. Journalists need the freedom to report information as they receive it and threatening that is a serious infringement on the freedom of the press.
To compare the sparse Manning coverage to the 24×7 circus that was Jodi Arias or the royal baby is apples and oranges. Manning coverage was less sparse than Arias and royal baby coverage was overblown, embarrassing twaddle. Advocating none of one and much more of the other isn’t the answer, balancing both legitimate stories is.
What About Julian Assange?
Well, he is a self-serving egotist with dubious opinions about Manning (Manning also displays some of these traits too). His actions point to releasing information as a shameless act of self-promotion and not a deeply held conviction about making the world a better place. His life in limbo bears this out.
No country trusts him, even anti-American ones, and no country truly wants to harbor him. He moves around like a self-propelled chess piece to avoid facing judgment. Manning faced the music. Assange hides in whatever embassy will reluctantly harbor him.
What About Manning’s Treatment in Jail?
Military prisons have much more latitude in prisoner treatment than civilian ones and they are the final arbiters of the treatment. There are extreme cases like Abu Ghraib where treatment was clearly abysmal. By all accounts Manning’s treatment was the same. But there is another salient point here.
Regardless of his treatment, the military tried him on the laws he broke. With respect to his trial, his treatment meant zero. It is another matter for a different investigation or trial. However, those should come later, regardless of Manning’s conviction.
Guilty or Not Guilty?
He wasn’t convicted of aiding the enemy — in fact, he caused more political damage than gave aid to the enemy — but he did break dozens of other laws under the UCMJ. He was tried by a UCMJ court under UCMJ laws. Not only did he clearly break those laws, he violated the voluntary oath he took when he joined the Army. No one made him join, take the oath, or break the laws he swore to uphold. Personal opinions don’t enter into it. He was tried, convicted, and will now pay the price.
And in that respect, this isn’t as tough and complicated as it may seem.