Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Bradley Manning: A Tale of Liberty Lost in America

The US does nothing to punish those guilty of war crimes or Wall Street fraud, yet demonises the whistleblower

Glenn Greenwald

 by The Guardian

Over the past two and a half years, all of which he has spent in a military prison, much has been said about Bradley Manning, but nothing has been heard from him. That changed on Thursday, when the 23-year-old US army private accused of leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks testified at his court martial proceeding about the conditions of his detention.

The oppressive, borderline-torturous measures to which he was subjected, including prolonged solitary confinement and forced nudity, have been known for some time. A formal UN investigation denounced those conditions as "cruel and inhuman". President Obama's state department spokesman, retired air force colonel PJ Crowley, resigned after publicly condemning Manning's treatment. A prison psychologist testified this week that Manning's conditions were more damaging than those found on death row, or at Guantánamo Bay.

Still, hearing the accused whistleblower's description of this abuse in his own words viscerally conveyed its horror. Reporting from the hearing, the Guardian's Ed Pilkington quoted Manning: "If I needed toilet paper I would stand to attention and shout: 'Detainee Manning requests toilet paper!'" And: "I was authorised to have 20 minutes sunshine, in chains, every 24 hours." Early in his detention, Manning recalled, "I had pretty much given up. I thought I was going to die in this eight by eight animal cage."

The repressive treatment of Bradley Manning is one of the disgraces of Obama's first term, and highlights many of the dynamics shaping his presidency. The president not only defended Manning's treatment but also, as commander-in-chief of the court martial judges, improperly decreed Manning's guilt when he asserted in an interview that he "broke the law".

Worse, Manning is charged not only with disclosing classified information, but also the capital offence of "aiding the enemy", for which the death penalty can be imposed (military prosecutors are requesting "only" life in prison). The government's radical theory is that, although Manning had no intent to do so, the leaked information could have helped al-Qaida, a theory that essentially equates any disclosure of classified information – by any whistleblower, or a newspaper – with treason.

Whatever one thinks of Manning's alleged acts, he appears the classic whistleblower. This information could have been sold for substantial sums to a foreign government or a terror group. Instead he apparently knowingly risked his liberty to show them to the world because – he said when he believed he was speaking in private – he wanted to trigger "worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms".

Compare this aggressive prosecution of Manning to the Obama administration's vigorous efforts to shield Bush-era war crimes and massive Wall Street fraud from all forms of legal accountability. Not a single perpetrator of those genuine crimes has faced court under Obama, a comparison that reflects the priorities and values of US justice.

Then there's the behaviour of Obama's loyalists. Ever since I first reported the conditions of Manning's detention in December 2010, many of them not only cheered that abuse but grotesquely ridiculed concerns about it. Joy-Ann Reid, a former Obama press aide and now a contributor on the progressive network MSNBC, spouted sadistic mockery in response to the report: "Bradley Manning has no pillow?????" With that, she echoed one of the most extreme rightwing websites, RedState, which identically mocked the report: "Give Bradley Manning his pillow and blankie back."

As usual, the US establishment journalists have enabled the government every step of the way. Despite holding themselves out as adversarial watchdogs, nothing provokes their animosity more than someone who effectively challenges government actions.

Typifying this mentality was a CNN interview on Thursday night with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange conducted by Erin Burnett. It was to focus on newly released documents revealing secret efforts by US officials to pressure financial institutions to block WikiLeaks' funding after the group published classified documents allegedly leaked by Manning, a form of extra-legal punishment that should concern everyone, particularly journalists.

But the CNN host was completely uninterested in the dangerous acts of her own government. Instead she repeatedly tried to get Assange to condemn the press policies of Ecuador, a tiny country that – quite unlike the US – exerts no influence beyond its borders. To the mavens of the US watchdog press, Assange and Manning are enemies to be scorned because they did the job that the US press corps refuses to do: namely, bringing transparency to the bad acts of the US government and its allies around the world.

Bradley Manning has bestowed the world with multiple vital benefits. But as his court martial finally reaches its conclusion, one likely to result in the imposition of a long prison term, it appears his greatest gift is this window into America's political soul.


© 2020 The Guardian
Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, constitutional lawyer, commentator, author of three New York Times best-selling books on politics and law, and a former staff writer and editor at First Look media. His fifth and latest book is, "No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State," about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around the world. Glenn’s column was featured at Guardian US and Salon.  His previous books include: "With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful," "Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics," and "A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency." He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism, a George Polk Award, and was on The Guardian team that won the Pulitzer Prize for public interest journalism in 2014.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Store Walkout Over Firing of Starbucks Union Organizer Racks Up 20 Million Views on TikTok

"Starbucks continues its rampant firing of union leaders."

Jake Johnson ·


70% of Americans Support Deciding State Abortion Rights by Ballot Measure: Poll

After an "enormous victory" in Kansas, some progressives argue that ballot measures "are the next frontier" for protecting access to reproductive healthcare.

Jessica Corbett ·


Judge Rules Walgreens 'Substantially Contributed' to San Francisco Opioid Crisis

"Walgreens knew its system to detect and stop suspicious orders was nonexistent but continued to ship opioids at an alarming pace to increase profits," said an attorney for the California city.

Brett Wilkins ·


Historic Climate Bill, Say Clear-Eyed Critics, Still 'Pours Gasoline on the Flames'

"This was a backdoor take-it-or-leave-it deal between a coal baron and Democratic leaders in which any opposition from lawmakers or frontline communities was quashed," said one activist.

Jessica Corbett ·


Doctors Against Oz Launch Campaign Denouncing GOP Candidate as 'Quack'

"ShamWow guy + stethoscope = Dr. Oz," said John Fetterman, the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in Pennsylvania.

Julia Conley ·

Common Dreams Logo