Bradley Manning: The Conscience of America

"I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information... this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general..." --Pfc. Bradley Manning in his plea statement, February 28th, 2013

This past Thursday, I was among a handful of individuals seated in the small windowless room at the military court facility in Fort Meade, Maryland, where Private First Class Bradley Manning would confess as the source of the largest leak of classified information in history.

Sitting in his dark blue full military uniform, Private Manning responded thoughtfully each time the judge addressed him, as he prepared to read aloud a 35-page statement that precisely detailed his actions and motivations for each of 10 charges. But as I witnessed this momentous occurrence, I was struck by a glaring inconsistency: the young soldier I saw in front of me - poised, resolute - bore absolutely no resemblance to his common depictions in the media from the last three years.

For over 1000 days, Private Manning has been held in military detention, in Iraq, Kuwait, Quantico, Virginia and Leavenworth, Kansas. Reports from these facilities and the media depicted Manning as unstable, depressed, weak, and worse. While imprisoned, he has endured some of the worst treatment imaginable at the hands of his own government, notably characterized by the UN special rapporteur for torture as "cruel, inhuman, and degrading," possibly amounting to torture. Worse yet, this abuse comes in response to actions which Manning believed, and continues to believe, were in the service of both his country and international human rights law. Given all that he has endured, if the characterizations about his mental state were accurate, it would hardly come as a surprise.

Yet, facing life in prison, possibly execution (which the government says it will not request), and all but sealing his fate for at least a lengthy prison term by his guilty admission to 10 of 22 charges against him, Bradley Manning exhibited calm, collection, great intelligence and, yet again, incredible bravery. In fact, if there was any room for doubt about Manning acting from a powerful moral compass, and representing the best and bravest of our military, the plea into which Manning entered must remove it.

The last 10 years have brought to light egregious acts committed by U.S. soldiers who, when exposed, cower under the defense of "just following orders," or claim to have been influenced by institutional culture. Yet, remarkably, at just 22 years of age, a heroic young man began exposing the worst of this culture not to harm the country, but to better it. He saw wrongdoing and he acted.

Over the course of nearly two hours, Private Manning detailed with startling clarity his precise motivations for each leak. On the Iraq War Logs and Afghan War Logs, he expressed his shock and dismay at the rampant use of targeted killings as a conflict-resolution tactic. On the Reykjavik 13 cable: the world should know of the U.S. and U.K.'s bullying tactics against Iceland to accept austerity measures in the wake of the global financial meltdown. On the Iraqi police's arrests and disappearances of anti-corruption leafleters: that U.S. should not support those stifling democratic processes in Iraq. On the Guantanamo detainee files: the Obama administration's stance is two-faced, claiming on the one hand to want to close the prison, yet on the other, knowingly holding innocent and low-level prisoners. On the State Department cable leak: the so-called "leader of the free world" engaged in "seemingly criminal activity" via backdoor deals is wrong and hypocritical. And on the most famous of his leaks, the "Collateral Murder" video: the soldiers' "bloodlust" as they wantonly shot Reuters journalists whom they had mistaken for insurgents from an apache helicopter, along with the ensuing cover-up must be open to public review.

And though the words imply powerful moral and ethical motivations for the actions, Manning did not allow for any ambiguity regarding his ownership of the leaks. Toward the end of his statement, Manning added, "the decisions that I made to send documents and information to [Wikileaks] were my own decisions, and I take full responsibility..."

One might question why Private Manning would make such a naked admission of guilt. To this, it should be stated clearly that the plea into which he entered does not function in the same way as those in civilian court: as a deal with a prosecutor to confess to lesser charges for leniency in sentencing. On the contrary, Manning's plea, actually designated a "naked plea" in colloquial terms, not only leaves the door open for the U.S. government to pursue the remaining 12 charges against him - charges which, ridiculously, include "aiding the enemy" - but provide them with ammunition in the form of his confession statement, should they decide to do so. The implications of such an action are unsurprising given Private Manning's record: simply that his commitment to placing the truth into the public record is a priority that exceeds concern for his personal well-being.

Unfortunately for Private Manning, he faces an administration that seems intent on criminalizing every conceivable act of whistleblowing, in effect deleting its vital function from our democratic system. Not only has the Obama Administration pursued a greater number of whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined, but it has recently announced that Private Manning's plea will have no bearing on its pursuit of the remaining charges.

The sad irony in Private Manning's case is that while the Obama Administration throws the book at him, even accuses him of aiding the enemy by exposing great wrongs in U.S. foreign policy, he actually serves as one of the most redeeming examples of service our country could ask for. The last 10 years have brought to light egregious acts committed by U.S. soldiers who, when exposed, cower under the defense of "just following orders," or claim to have been influenced by institutional culture. Yet, remarkably, at just 22 years of age, a heroic young man began exposing the worst of this culture not to harm the country, but to better it. He saw wrongdoing and he acted.

In processing these actions another quote comes to mind:

"I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision."

No, these are not the words of Private Manning; they were spoken by Daniel Ellsberg on June 28, 1971 upon his admission to leaking the Pentagon Papers to the press.

The fact that these words ring as true now, in Private Manning's current circumstance, as when they were spoken, is no coincidence. Daniel Ellsberg too was maligned by many at the time of his confession. Now history regards his action as a profound contribution to the public good. There is little doubt that Bradley Manning's contributions will be regarded with the same heroism in due time.

Bradley Manning is being punished for failing to follow authority. Yet, from a very young age, he realized an unshakable moral and ethical imperative to answer to a higher authority than his superiors: the Constitution, and the rule of law.

Hopefully, Bradley Manning's statement will someday be read in classrooms all across the country as example of the duty each of us has to act in the face of criminality and evil. Hopefully, he will be free to add to the discussion, remark on his terrible ordeal and be recognized as the hero he is. But no matter how long he is imprisoned, we all must recognize that to lock him up for even a day is to lock up the conscience of our nation.

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