We still don’t know if he did it or not, but if Bradley Manning, the 24-year-old Army private from Oklahoma, actually supplied WikiLeaks with its choicest material -- the Iraq War logs, the Afghan War logs, and the State Department cables -- which startled and riveted the world, then he deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom instead of a jail cell at Fort Leavenworth.
President Obama recently gave one of those medals to retiring Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who managed the two bloody, disastrous wars about which the WikiLeaks-released documents revealed so much. Is he really more deserving than the young private who, after almost ten years of mayhem and catastrophe, gave Americans -- and the world -- a far fuller sense of what our government is actually doing abroad?
Bradley Manning, awaiting a court martial in December, faces the prospect of long years in prison. He is charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917. He has put his sanity and his freedom on the line so that Americans might know what our government has done -- and is still doing -- globally. He has blown the whistle on criminal violations of American military law. He has exposed our secretive government’s pathological over-classification of important public documents.
Here are four compelling reasons why, if he did what the government accuses him of doing, he deserves that medal, not jail time.
1: At great personal cost, Bradley Manning has given our foreign policy elite the public supervision it so badly needs.
In the past 10 years, American statecraft has moved from calamity to catastrophe, laying waste to other nations while never failing to damage our own national interests. Do we even need to be reminded that our self-defeating response to 9/11 in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia) has killed roughly 225,000 civilians and 6,000 American soldiers, while costing our country more than $3.2 trillion? We are hemorrhaging blood and money. Few outside Washington would argue that any of this is making America safer.
An employee who screwed up this badly would either be fired on the spot or put under heavy supervision. Downsizing our entire foreign policy establishment is not an option. However, the website WikiLeaks has at least tried to make public scrutiny of our self-destructive statesmen and -women a reality by exposing their work to ordinary citizens.
Consider our invasion of Iraq, a war based on distortions, government secrecy, and the complaisant failure of our major media to ask the important questions. But what if someone like Bradley Manning had provided the press with the necessary government documents, which would have made so much self-evident in the months before the war began? Might this not have prevented disaster? We’ll never know, of course, but could additional public scrutiny have been salutary under the circumstances?
Thanks to Bradley Manning’s alleged disclosures, we do have a sense of what did happen afterwards in Iraq and Afghanistan, and just how the U.S. operates in the world. Thanks to those disclosures, we now know just how Washington leaned on the Vatican to quell opposition to the Iraq War and just how it pressured the Germans to prevent them from prosecuting CIA agents who kidnapped an innocent man and shipped him off to be tortured abroad.
As our foreign policy threatens to careen into yet more disasters in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and Libya, we can only hope that more whistleblowers will follow the alleged example of Bradley Manning and release vital public documents before it’s too late. A foreign policy based on secrets and spin has manifestly failed us. In a democracy, the workings of our government should not be shrouded in an opaque cloud of secrecy. For bringing us the truth, for breaking the seal on that self-protective policy of secrecy, Bradley Manning deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
2: Knowledge is powerful. The WikiLeaks disclosures have helped spark democratic revolutions and reforms across the Middle East, accomplishing what Operation Iraqi Freedom never could.
Wasn’t it American policy to spread democracy in the Middle East, to extend our freedom to others, as both recent American presidents have insisted?
No single American has done more to help further this goal than Pfc. Bradley Manning. The chain reaction of democratic protests and uprisings that has swept Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, and even in a modest way Iraq, all began in Tunisia, where leaked U.S. State Department cables about the staggering corruption of the ruling Ben Ali dynasty helped trigger the rebellion. In all cases, these societies were smoldering with longstanding grievances against oppressive, incompetent governments and economies stifled by cronyism. The revelations from the WikiLeaks State Department documents played a widely acknowledged role in sparking these pro-democracy uprisings.
In Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and Yemen, the people’s revolts under way have occurred despite U.S. support for their autocratic rulers. In each of these nations, in fact, we bankrolled the dictators, while helping to arm and train their militaries. The alliance with Mubarak’s autocratic state cost the U.S. more than $60 billion and did nothing for American security -- other than inspire terrorist blowback from radicalized Egyptians like Mohammad Atta and Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Even if U.S. policy was firmly on the wrong side of things, we should be proud that at least one American -- Bradley Manning -- was on the right side. If indeed he gave those documents to WikiLeaks, then he played a catalytic role in bringing about the Arab Spring, something neither Barack Obama nor former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (that recent surprise recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom) could claim. Perhaps once the Egyptians consolidate their democracy, they, too, will award Manning their equivalent of such a medal.
3: Bradley Manning has exposed the pathological over-classification of America’s public documents.
“Secrecy is for losers,” as the late Senator and United Nations Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say. If this is indeed the case, it would be hard to find a bigger loser than the U.S. government.
How pathological is our government’s addiction to secrecy? In June, the National Security Agency declassified documents from 1809, while the Department of Defense only last month declassified the Pentagon Papers, publicly available in book form these last four decades. Our government is only just now finishing its declassification of documents relating to World War I.
This would be ridiculous if it weren’t tragic. Ask the historians. Barton J. Bernstein, professor emeritus of history at Stanford University and a founder of its international relations program, describes the government’s classification of foreign-policy documents as “bizarre, arbitrary, and nonsensical.” George Herring, professor emeritus at the University of Kentucky and author of the encyclopedic From Colony to Superpower: A History of U.S. Foreign Policy, has chronicled how his delight at being appointed to a CIA advisory panel on declassification turned to disgust once he realized that he was being used as window dressing by an agency with no intention of opening its records, no matter how important or how old, to public scrutiny.
Any historian worth his salt would warn us that such over-classification is a leading cause of national amnesia and repetitive war disorder. If a society like ours doesn’t know its own history, it becomes the great power equivalent of a itinerant amnesiac, not knowing what it did yesterday or where it will end up tomorrow. Right now, classification is the disease of Washington, secrecy its mania, and dementia its end point. As an ostensibly democratic nation, we, its citizens, risk such ignorance at our national peril.
President Obama came into office promising a “sunshine” policy for his administration while singing the praises of whistleblowers. He has since launched the fiercest campaign against whistleblowers the republic has ever seen, and further plunged our foreign policy into the shadows. Challenging the classification of each tightly guarded document is, however, impossible. No organization has the resources to fight this fight, nor would they be likely to win right now. Absent a radical change in our government’s diplomatic and military bureaucracies, massive over-classification will only continue.
If we hope to know what our government is actually doing in our name globally, we need massive leaks from insider whistleblowers to journalists who can then sort out what we need to know, given that the government won’t. This, in fact, has been the modus operandi of WikiLeaks. Our whistleblower protection laws urgently need to catch up to this state of affairs, and though we are hardly there yet, Bradley Manning helped take us part of the way. He did what Barack Obama swore he would do on coming into office. For striking a blow against our government’s fanatical insistence on covering its mistakes and errors with blanket secrecy, Bradley Manning deserves not punishment, but the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
4. At immense personal cost, Bradley Manning has upheld a great American tradition of transparency in statecraft and for that he should be an American hero, not an American felon.
Bradley Manning is only the latest in a long line of whistleblowers in and out of uniform who have risked everything to put our country back on the right path.
Take Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Pentagon Papers, a Pentagon-commissioned secret history of the Vietnam War and the official lies and distortions that the government used to sell it. Many of the documents it included were classed at a much higher security clearance than anything Bradley Manning is accused of releasing -- and yet Ellsberg was not convicted of a single crime and became a national hero.
Given the era when all this went down, it’s forgivable to assume that Ellsberg must have been a hippie who somehow sneaked into the Pentagon archives, beads and patchouli trailing behind him. What many no longer realize is that Ellsberg had been a model U.S. Marine. First in his class at officer training school at Quantico, he deferred graduate school at Harvard to remain on active duty in the Marine Corps. Ellsberg saw his high-risk exposure of the disastrous and deceitful nature of the Vietnam War as fully consonant with his long career of patriotic service in and out of uniform.
Transparency in statecraft was not invented last week by WikiLeaks creator Julian Assange. It is a longstanding American tradition. James Madison put the matter succinctly: “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both.”
A 1960 Congressional Committee on Government Operations report caught the same spirit: “Secrecy -- the first refuge of incompetents -- must be at a bare minimum in a democratic society… Those elected or appointed to positions of executive authority must recognize that government, in a democracy, cannot be wiser than the people.” John F. Kennedy made the same point in 1961: “The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society.” Hugo Black, great Alabaman justice of the twentieth-century Supreme Court had this to say: “The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic.” And the first of World-War-I-era president Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points couldn’t have been more explicit: “Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.”
We need to know what our government’s commitments are, as our foreign policy elites have clearly demonstrated they cannot be left to their own devices. Based on the last decade of carnage and folly, without public debate -- and aggressive media investigations -- we have every reason to expect more of the same.
If there’s anything to learn from that decade, it’s that government secrecy and lies come at a very high price in blood and money. Thanks to the whistleblowing revelations attributed to Bradley Manning, we at least have a far clearer picture of the problems we face in trying to supervise our own government. If he was the one responsible for the WikiLeaks revelations, then for his gift to the republic, purchased at great price, he deserves not prison, but a Presidential Medal of Freedom and the heartfelt gratitude of his country.
Bio: Chase Madar is a lawyer in New York and a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books, the American Conservative magazine, CounterPunch.org, and Le Monde Diplomatique>. His next book, The Passion of Bradley Manning, will be published by O/R Books this fall. This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.