The Ethical Consistency of Bradley Manning's Apology

Unlike the US government's vindictive behaviour, Pfc Manning's expressions of regret are of a piece with his moral earnestness

Pfc Bradley Manning, the American soldier responsible for transmitting hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and US army reports to WikiLeaks, took the stand Wednesday during the sentencing phase of his trial to apologized to the presiding military judge, Col Denise Lind. His three-minute unsworn statement was delivered before defense rested its case.

In July, Manning was convicted of 20 offenses. He currently faces a maximum punishment of 90 years. Manning said Wednesday:

I am sorry that my actions hurt people. I am sorry that it hurt the United States.

Because much of the 19-month trial has been conducted without a public record of court documents until the 1,103rd day of the legal proceeding, many might be surprised to learn that Manning's statement on Wednesday is consistent with others he has made in court.

Many readers are familiar with excerpts from a 20-page statement Manning read at a February hearing, where he pled to nine "lesser included offenses" of the Espionage Act and one failure to obey a lawful regulation for wrongly storing classified material. In that statement, Manning explained his motive for releasing charged information, including a video of a July 2007 US airstrike in Baghdad, Iraq, which killed two Reuters journalists, at least 12 civilians, and injured two children.

"While his incredible earnestness is evident to many in court, it is hard to convey to those who haven't experienced it."

In his statement, Manning described the conduct of the Apache pilots as dehumanizing and "similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass". Audio of him delivering his statement was later leaked and published by the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

In addition to the 20-page statement at the February Providence Inquiry, however, were lengthy colloquies he had with the judge about the nature of his admitted conduct.

It is important to note that Manning's unsworn statement on Wednesday did not say that he "harmed" the US. While much of the sentencing hearing has been conducted in closed session away from public scrutiny. In open sessions, prosecution witnesses have testified that no actual damage occurred and no deaths resulted from Manning's leaks. During the sentencing phase, prosecutors have presented evidence of government mitigation efforts and "expert" opinion testimony by federal employees and contractors that the leaks impacted diplomatic reporting, relationships with foreign governments, and could possibly be used in the future propaganda efforts by al-Qaida.

Explaining his guilt to nine offenses of discrediting the service in February, Manning said:

[T]he public sees that these documents have been released and then it damages their perception and their feeling about whether the armed services as a whole can safeguard information at all.

On Wednesday, Manning also said:

I did not truly appreciate the broader effects of my actions. Those effects are clearer to me now through both self-reflection during my confinement in its various forms and through the merits and sentencing testimony that I have seen here. I look back at my decisions and wonder, 'How on earth could I, a junior analyst, possibly believe I could change the world for the better over the decisions of those with the proper authority?'

Explaining his February plea to nine offenses of prejudice to good order and discipline, Manning said:

In the military, we have rules and regulations and structures designed to safeguard sensitive information, whether it be classified or unclassified; and I circumvented those ... I'm not the right pay-grade to make these decisions or anything.

And now, on Wednesday, Manning also said:

In retrospect, I should have worked more aggressively inside the system as we discussed during the Providence Statement and had options and I should have used these options.

In February, Manning declined to use either a justification (legal duty) defense or a necessity (imminent threat) defense, which may have been unavailable to him. He also told the judge back then that:

I didn't even look at the possible channels of ... of having this information released properly, so. That's not how we do business.

Manning's apology is not a zero-sum game. To understand Manning, one must see his acts in light of his moral, not political, agency. Defense has argued at trial that Manning is a humanist. Manning did not want to hurt anyone; in fact, he wanted to inform the American public.

On Wednesday, a defense forensic psychiatrist testified to Manning's motives:

Well, Pfc Manning was under the impression that his leaked information was going to really change how the world views the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and future wars, actually. This was an attempt to crowdsource an analysis of the war, and it was his opinion that if ... through crowdsourcing, enough analysis was done on these documents, which he felt to be very important, that it would lead to a greater good ... that society as a whole would come to the conclusion that the war wasn't worth it ... that really no wars are worth it.

Deficient press coverage and the lack of public access, until lately, to some of the 35,000 pages of court documents from his trial have only exacerbated Manning's legal predicament. Manning's history with gender identity issues, the lack of public court documents, and the prejudicial and reactive statements by US government official for the last three years have left Manning prey to a feeding frenzy of salacious and hyperbolic coverage and a famine of serious media consideration.

Manning directed his counsel to only engage with the press using text-based media, and to be as "accurate as possible, and try to get to the actual topic and try to be as factual as possible, and try to be as neutral as possible". While his incredible earnestness is evident to many in court, it is hard to convey to those who haven't experienced it. At the hearing concerning his unlawful pre-trial confinement at Quantico, in November 2012, Manning's expressions of admiration and respect for his current command, and his friendly self-effacing charm, even disarmed the lead military prosecutor, Major Ashden Fein, who was smiling at Manning by the end of his cross-examination.

A remarkable aspect of this historic trial is how Manning's conduct, hiscandor to the court, and his reserved relationship with the press have shown in stark relief how bombastic and prejudicial the US government's approach to his trial has been.

Manning is expected to be sentenced next week. Perhaps, once his trial is over, the truth about it can finally be learned.

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