On Feb. 28, Pfc. Bradley Manning plead guilty to 10 of the 22 charges leveled against him by the U.S. government. He will serve up to 20 years in prison if convicted in June.
To the most serious charge of “aiding and abetting the enemy,” Manning plead not guilty. It is this last charge that has sparked controversy around Manning’s trial. Prosecutors argue that Manning’s actions put American military personnel in unnecessary danger. The defense is invoking the First Amendment, arguing that Manning’s decision to leak classified documents is protected by his right to freedom of speech.
Should the court rule in favor of the prosecution, it will set a dangerous precedent justifying the censorship of free speech. It is impossible to listen to the case of Pfc. Manning without thinking about the last great leak of government secrets, the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 by the New York Times. Daniel Ellsberg supplied the Times with excerpts from a 7,000-page classified study on the progress of the war in Vietnam. He distributed the classified papers to both the Times and to former Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska.
Gravel was constitutionally protected from prosecution by his membership in the Senate. The Times also evaded prosecution, but not in accordance with any constitutional mandate. The Nixon Administration filed an injunction preventing the Times from publishing any of the papers. The Times of course appealed, and the case quickly rose to the Supreme Court, where the justices declared the injunction a violation of the First Amendment.
With the Times and Senator Gravel safe from prosecution, the administration turned to Ellsberg. Along with Anthony Russo, a researcher at the RAND Corporation, Ellsberg was charged under the same law that is currently being used to prosecute Pfc. Manning, the 1917 Espionage Act. Both Ellsberg and Russo were found guilty, but that verdict was overturned when a federal judge declared a mistrial, citing alleged illegal wiretapping and tampering with evidence. Ellsberg and Russo’s conviction, followed by the almost immediate declaration of a mistrial, means that a clear legal precedent was never established. This makes Manning’s case more important but also more complicated.
With the lack of a legal precedent, this case essentially comes down to a question of ideology. Is Manning guilty of espionage? Do his actions constitute a threat to national security that endangered American lives? Or was he just following the American tradition of criticizing government and holding our elected officials accountable?
The answer lies somewhere in between. Manning’s actions came after a ten-year period of uninterrupted war. The U.S. was widely viewed as a global hegemon, unilaterally invading Iraq and maintaining a strong presence in Afghanistan. Popular support for these wars was at rock bottom, and no clear exit strategy existed.
Manning’s decision to reveal how fragmented U.S. policy was undoubtedly hastened the withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, just as the publication of the Pentagon Papers put pressure on U.S. officials to withdraw from Vietnam. Of course, by publishing such a large volume of classified material, Manning undoubtedly did put American lives in danger. But perhaps the greater danger lies in an uninformed public supporting a war it knew little about.
James Cameron is a freshman International Studies major from Boston, Mass. He is a staff writer for The News-Letter.