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Bradley Manning: Ruled by Conscience, Not Law

April 1, 2011

Alleged WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning again made headlines recently, this time for being forced to strip naked in his prison cell at the US Marine base in Quantico, Virginia. Continuing to pay for his alleged crimes, Army Private Bradley Manning is locked in solitary confinement while being subjected to sleep deprivation and other humiliation tactics. But is it right for him to be forced to pay such a cost?

After public outcry at this act of humiliation, as well as harsh comments from the now-fired State Department spokesman PJ Crowley, many more people are aware of the abuse of Manning and are rallying for him to be treated justly. Nevertheless the media most often portray Manning as someone who indiscriminately stole the hundreds of thousands of secret documents without reason. But from what is known about Manning, this is utterly false.

Manning’s apparent motive in leaking the secret documents was not vindictiveness, but a sincere belief that public awareness would help right wrongs. In the partially released chat logs that are purportedly between Manning and hacker Adrian Lamo (who turned Manning in), Manning writes:

I want people to see the truth . . . regardless of who they are . . . because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public . . . I don’t believe in good guys vs bad guys anymore . . . I only [see] a plethora of states acting in self-interest . . . with varying ethical and moral standards of course, but self-interest nonetheless.

This supports what friends and family have said about Manning’s moral convictions and political ideas. Always intelligent and opinionated, Manning then started to get into politics in high school. Frontline correspondent Martin Smith, who interviewed Manning’s family and friends, recently told NPR: ”He opposed the war in Iraq and talked about that with friends. And he also start[ed] to get a reputation for being somewhat hot-headed.”

For Manning, whose job allowed him to spend hours digging through military databases while stationed in Iraq, the abuses of power he uncovered perhaps collided with those opinions. Documented abuses of power, including possible war crimes committed by the American military in Iraq and US diplomatic manipulations around the world, as well as the infamous Collateral Murder video showing the killing of Iraqi civilians and Reuters journalists by the crew of a US military helicopter. All of these could have been what pushed Manning into the realm of principled law-breaking. In defense of such law-breaking, historian and political activist Howard Zinn writes: ”Can a decent society exist. . . if people humbly obey all laws, even those that violate human rights? And when unjust laws and policies become the rule, should not the state (in Plato’s words) ‘be overthrown’?” Manning felt he had to do his part to bring about this “decent society,” even at great personal risk, which is currently being borne out in his imprisonment.

Meanwhile, human rights activists continue to advocate for an end to the military’s campaign of discrimination, torture, and humiliation against Manning. The military accuses Manning of thirty-four charges related to the document leak. At this time, Manning has not been convicted of any crimes, but a pre-trial hearing is tentatively set for late May 2011. Many see the punitive measures Manning is being subjected to as an effort by the Obama administration to intimidate other potential whistleblowers, saying quite clearly, “Your actions will not be tolerated”. While candidate Obama pledged to protect whistleblowers, his actions as president contradict his promise, as his administration deals with whistleblowers more harshly than any prior administration.

Others suggest that the treatment of Manning for such crimes is an attempt to wear down his resistance in order to implicate WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, because if evidence of collaboration between Manning and Assange is unearthed, the US can then charge and prosecute Assange. These suspicions seem warranted and would explain the lengths to which the US government has gone to imprison the 5’2″ physically harmless man in the conditions usually reserved for Supermax prisoners.

The military’s treatment of Manning is not so different in character from the corruption and war crimes he has been accused of exposing, as both are morally wrong and unlawful. In a public letter, around 300 of the nation’s leading law educators have decried the abuse of Manning as a direct violation of the Fifth and Eighth Amendments, which protect due process and prohibit cruel and unusual punishment. Manning’s lawyer will also use Article 13 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in Manning’s case, according to which he is not to be “subjected to punishment or penalty other than arrest or confinement upon the charges pending against him.”  The US military and the Obama administration are ignoring these foundational laws, while simultaneously upholding other laws in an effort to further their own self-protection. The US government continues to imprison Manning for allegedly breaking laws that, in comparison, pale utterly to their law breaking he may have exposed and their law breaking they are using to imprison him.

Beyond the legal questions of the Manning case, the moral issues are at stake as well. Is breaking the law to expose such unlawful acts as corruption, war crimes, and backdoor dealings wrong? Our political tradition often upholds laws as a foundation for moral decision, yet this is often not the case. Departing from this tradition, whistleblowers adhere not to the laws made and upheld by corrupt institutions and people but to a higher law, a moral code. This is right. Laws are made to protect people, not serve as cover ups and a retaliatory means to condemn whistleblowers, so when these laws are being abused, it is the right of the people to seek to alter the law. The laws of our country should serve those who seek to right the wrongs at great personal risk, for it is these people who challenge our unjust laws that keep our democracy and freedoms alive and growing. Bradley Manning was willing to put himself at risk to right wrongs, and we owe it to him and every other whistleblower to hold our government accountable.


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