Last month Private First Class Bradley Manning pled guilty to charges that could land him 20 years in prison for his role in releasing thousands of classified documents obtained and published by WikiLeaks.
Twenty years might seem like adequate punishment for a whistleblower, particularly one who exposed a trove of wrongdoing in America’s war in Iraq and its dealings around the world—exemplified by a 2007 viral video showing a U.S. Apache helicopter gunning down civilians and a Reuters journalist in Baghdad, a revelation extensively covered by The New York Times.
Two decades, however, apparently isn’t good enough for the government. Prosecutors are pursuing a life sentence for Manning, for the far-reaching charge of “aiding the enemy.”
Noted lawyers and constitutional scholars Floyd Abrams and Yochai Benkler summed up the military’s argument against Manning in a New York Times op-ed titled “Death to Whistleblowers”:
Under the prosecution’s theory, because Private Manning knew the materials would be published and that Al Qaeda could read them once published, he indirectly communicated with the enemy. But in this theory, whether publication is by WikiLeaks or The Times is entirely beside the point. Defendants are guilty of “aiding the enemy” for leaking to a publishing medium simply because that publication can be read by anyone with an Internet connection.
In effect, Manning is being formally tried as a traitor because Al Queda can read the information he leaked on the Internet.
“This charge is incredibly troubling,” Trevor Timm, cofounder and executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, tells TakePart. “The charge is so vague, it doesn’t exclusively encompass classified information. It’s any information that could be accessed by ‘the enemy.’ That means it doesn’t just affect Manning, or even just future whistleblowers. Any active military member who writes an op-ed critical of U.S. policy could be aiding an enemy. It could affect military members on Twitter or Facebook.”
“It is troubling to see how much the mainstream media has ignored the Manning case,” says Timm. “Manning gave the media a treasure trove of information that they have been using for the past two years. Yet many in the press have been ignoring the ‘aiding the enemy’ charge and how it could affect their work going forward.”
The charge, if upheld, could also fundamentally alter journalists’ ability to uncover wrongdoing by the military, or the government at large. After all, newspapers are on the Internet too.
“Osama bin Laden once told all of his followers to read Bob Woodward’s book—one of the most esteemed journalists in America—for information,” says Timm. “Woodward’s sources are high-ranking military members. He’s talking about top-secret information—often far more classified than what Manning shared.
“By this logic, Woodward’s sources are aiding the enemy.”
Despite the seemingly ominous potential consequences Manning’s case could have on future whistleblowers and the ability of journalists to conduct high-profile investigations using anonymous sources, many news outlets are only now picking up on the broader implications of Manning’s case.
“It is troubling to see how much the mainstream media has ignored the Manning case,” says Timm. “Manning gave the media a treasure trove of information that they have been using for the past two years. Almost every day you see a story that originated from Manning’s leak. It has enriched the public’s knowledge of what the government is doing in their name. Yet many in the press have been ignoring the ‘aiding the enemy’ charge and how it could affect their work going forward.”
Whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, the man behind the Pentagon Papers, is revered in media circles and among government transparency and First Amendment advocates as a paragon of virtue. Why not Manning? Especially after news broke last year that the military was virtually torturing him in captivity.
The reason may be simple generational pettiness and old media snobbery.
“I do feel that, unfortunately, if Manning had given information directly to The New York Times [instead of the upstart WikiLeaks], his case would receive more attention,” says Timm. “And that’s a shame, because this case will affect the world of journalism regardless of who broke the story.”
Now, with the military pursuing aiding the enemy charges full bore, it may be too late to stop the case’s chilling effect on the First Amendment.
“If the media made noise about this earlier, the prosecution may not have pursued it,” says Timm. “Hopefully, as the trial comes close, the chorus will get louder and louder and the charges will be dropped.”
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