"I believe that if the general public ... had access to the information ... this could spark a domestic debate as to the role of the military and foreign policy in general. I felt I accomplished something that would allow me to have a clear conscience."
This was Pfc. Bradley Manning’s statement in February regarding his decision to leak hundreds and thousands of classified military and diplomatic files to the whistleblower website, WikkiLeaks.
Domestic debate? Check
Clear conscience? Check (based on Manning’s statement)
Criminal Conviction? As of Tuesday, Check.
A military judge has found Bradley Manning guilty of six counts of violating the Espionage Act of 1917, five charges of theft, a computer fraud charge, and a set of military infractions. For the biggest leak of classified information in US history, Manning faces a theoretical maximum sentence of 136 years in prison.
This price seems too high for a whistleblower by any measure. A healthy democracy needs a vigilant press to act as watchdog to the government and whistleblowers play an important role as well. But decades behind bars is a lot to ask for.
Manning’s words are reminiscent of those said by former US military analyst Daniel Ellsberg who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Both claim to have felt the weight of their conscience.
“I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision.”
Ellsberg however was acquitted due to a mistrial.
Manning’s supporters breathed a sigh of relief when Col. Denise R. Lind announced him ‘not guilty’ verdict for the most serious charge of aiding the enemy. But his convictions on all other counts are enough to make government employees think twice before following Manning’s example.
What does this mean for fellow whistleblower Edward Snowden whose future is still undecided? After hearing news of Manning’s verdict from his temporary hideout in Moscow airport’s Transit lounge, did Snowden regret his actions? He has yet to issue an official statement after the Manning verdict.
The former NSA contractor blew the whistle on one of the country’s most controversial anti-terrorism surveillance programs. Facing similar charges of Espionage, Snowden is now on the run after revealing information of mass NSA spying to the Guardian.
After Tuesday’s verdict, Snowden will find it harder to stand by the argument that his intentions were simplyto expose wrongdoing at the highest level of the government. Because as Manning's case illustrates, this defense may not protect him at all from charges of espionage.
Lon Snowden, Edward Snowden’s father was previously advocating for his son to come back to the US and face a fair trial. But after observing the Manning trial and news of the verdict, he spoke to Russian state television on Wednesday stating that, "if it were me, I would [have him] stay in Russia and that's what I hope my son will do."
Manning and Snowden may have made the most headlines over recent years, but they are not alone in the state’s pursuit of their punishment.
From the ‘9/11’ generation, there have been other whistleblowers who have borne the wrath of the law. ‘Guerilla Open Access’ activist, Aaron Swartz, was arrested for openly distributing copyrighted academic material. He later took his own life. Twenty-nine-year-old Jermey Hammond is currently facing prosecution for releasing the sensitive files of a private spying agency.
Perhaps this is a good time to revisit one of the most controversial leaks that Manning is being put behind bars for.
What shocked millions around the world was a video depicting a United States Apache helicopter firing on civilians in New Baghdad in 2007, including two Reuters staff members and two children. The video, titled ‘Collateral Murder’ included the disturbing audio exchange between two US soldiers during and after the shooting. The Pentagon insisted that the soldiers had no way of differentiating the photojournalists from insurgents.
In a YouTube video allegedly compiled of illegal audio recordings of Manning’s testimonies, the army private allegedly explains his justification for leaking the video, stating that he was disturbed by how the US soldiers ‘dehumanized the individuals they were engaging.”
If it weren't for the Mannings and Snowdens of the world, would videos like these ever meet the public eye? If the law keeps punishing whistleblowers with decades behind bars, it seems less and less likely.