In less than ten minutes, Judge Colonel Denise Lind delivered the verdict in the court martial of Bradley Manning, the soldier who leaked more than 700,000 classified military and diplomatic documents to Wikileaks for publication on the Internet. It was an act that has made the Army intelligence analyst the “first mass digital leaker in history” and that has opened anew the debate about government secrecy and the public’s right to know.
Manning’s leaks exposed how readily digital data, including personal information uploaded by you and by me, can be accessed and made public. Companies can say that our data is “secure” on their cloud servers and “protected” thanks to encryption software but, as former government contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks about NSA surveillance of phone and other online communications records revealed, privacy as we once knew it has become a thing of the past. Manning’s and Snowden’s leaks have been a harsh reminder that, when we started to store so much information online, we tacitly let go of our control of it.
Manning Convicted of Most Charges
For the Wikileaks disclosures, Manning faces a harsh punishment. He was cleared of the harshest charge of “aiding the enemy,” but found guilty of 17 of the 22 charges and of an amended version of four others.
Manning was convicted of seven out of the eight counts brought against him under the Espionage Act, for leaking war logs about Afghanistan and Iraq, embassy cables and Guantánamo files “with reason to believe such information could be used to the injury of the US or the advantage of any foreign nation.” He was also convicted of”wrongfully and wantonly” causing intelligence belonging to the U.S. to be published on the Internet while himself having “knowledge that intelligence published on the internet is accessible to the enemy.”
Manning now faces a maximum sentence of up to 136 years. His sentencing hearing begins on Wednesday.
Criticism of the Verdict
Human rights advocates immediately condemned the verdict on Manning. Noting that “the government’s priorities are upside down,” Amnesty International’s senior director of international law and policy, Widney Brown, charged the U.S. with deciding to “prosecute Manning who it seems was trying to do the right thing – reveal credible evidence of unlawful behavior by the government.”
Civil liberties advocates, lawyers and journalists had closely watched the verdict as it impinges on “whistleblowing, investigative reporting and the guarding of state secrets in the digital age.” The American Civil Liberties Union indeed termed the verdict as a government attempt “to intimidate anyone who might consider revealing valuable information in the future.”
Media lawyer Jen Robinson, who worked on the unsuccessful effort to quash a request from Sweden to extradite Wikileaks founder Julian Assange from England, wrote via Twitter that the “verdict in #Manning proceedings means that whistleblowing = espionage. First ever successful espionage conviction against a whistleblower.”
Via a statement, Assange himself said that “Bradley Manning’s alleged disclosures have exposed war crimes, sparked revolutions, and induced democratic reform” and that verdict not only sets a “dangerous precedent” but is also an “example of national security extremism.”
While U.S. government has been cracking down on whistleblowers in order to deter future leaks, the prosecution of Manning has rather done “a lot to facilitate the more embarrassing leaks” such as those by Snowden, The Atlantic Wire points out.
Snowden, who remains in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, must have certainly been watching the verdict on Manning’s trial. Snowden has said that the treatment of Manning — who has been in detention since his arrest in Iraq in May of 2010, sometimes under excessively harsh conditions that the United Nations denounced as akin to torture — was one reason he chose to seek asylum in another country rather than face prosecution in the U.S.
What both Manning and Snowden have egregiously shown is that the tools of the Internet, which have so dramatically transformed how we communicate and facilitated the sharing and gathering of information, have drastically changed the stakes about what others, including government security agencies, can know about us and what we do. As a result, the momentum to crack down on government and NSA surveillance has been on the rise in the American public and in Congress. Last week, only eight more votes were needed for the House of Representatives to pass an amendment to defund the NSA program that collects telephone metadata.
While a June poll by the Pew Research Center revealed that most Americans are willing to trade some liberty for security and do not disapprove of government surveillance, 70 percent of those surveyed “thought the government uses this data for purposes other than investigating terrorism,” with many thinking that the the content of their phone calls (and not just metadata) was being collected. We want our easy access to information but then are alarmed that others can so easily access it to0 — for all of us, and more than certainly for Manning and Snowden, this lesson has come at a harsh price.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons