National Security: Time to Fix the Leak

Despite frenetic efforts by some of his supporters, Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is currently on trial for providing thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks, is no hero.

Manning was trained to guard classified information and — on at least two occasions — signed an agreement not to disclose classified information without authorization. It was obvious to any individual with even a sliver of intelligence that by making the material public it would likely fall into hands of America’s enemies, yet Manning had no compunctions about doing so.

The defense insists that he meant no harm to fellow soldiers, confidential sources or national security when he released the sensitive material to WikiLeaks. There is little doubt about what Manning did. What is less clear is his motivation. Was it humanist ideology or an act of rebellion against the United States government?

Manning has claimed that he was inspired by an incident in Iraq in which a vehicle with two adults and three children pulled to the side of the road to let an Army convoy pass, only for the passengers to be seriously injured by a roadside bomb. All five of the occupants were taken to the hospital and one died en route. According to Manning’s attorneys, what really upset him was the fact that U.S. soldiers had cheered because their convoy had missed the bomb.

If true, this touching anecdote would serve as proof of the need for sensitivity training courses for U.S. soldiers. It doesn’t in any way grant any sort of legitimacy to, let alone an excuse for, his actions.

As the trial — which is expected to last through the summer — continues, one of the key questions for the judge overseeing his court martial to decide is whether Manning, who has already pled guilty to lesser charges, is guilty of aiding the enemy, a charge that could earn him the death penalty. Even if he knew that the classified information could fall into the hands of al-Qaida, it remains to be proven that he believed the files would be useful to those seeking to harm the United States or its citizens.

But even if he is not guilty of this heinous crime, his actions are morally indefensible.

In a published column, one supporter tried to compare Manning to Benjamin Franklin who, back in 1773, played a crucial role in leaking private letters written by the royal governor of Massachusetts. What proved so embarrassing to the British was the letters’ disclosure that people in high places secretly believed “there must be an abridgement” of the liberties that American colonists enjoyed.

The letters became a smoking gun for the colonists, proof that Parliament had been plotting all along to place unprecedented restrictions upon American freedoms. Up and down the Atlantic seaboard, as news of the letters spread, more than a few people living in British North America began to question their status as British subjects.

In the battle over public opinion, the stolen letters that Franklin transmitted to the Sons of Liberty were a decisive weapon for American patriots such as Sam Adams.

Franklin was soon under investigation for what many in Britain viewed as an act of treachery and worried that he might wind up in London’s infamous Newgate prison.

The comparison is absurd on several counts, including the point that leaking private letters may be unethical. Franklin’s actions were a far cry from publicizing classified military information. But more importantly, while Benjamin Franklin is widely seen as a genuine American hero, he was widely seen as a traitor by England. In the Manning case, it is the United States that Manning sought to discredit, and it is the United States that has placed him on trial.

But as wrongful as Manning’s decision and activities were, he isn’t the only one who should be on trial.

The notion that a low-level, disgruntled, 22-year-old Army private was given wide, unfettered access to the nation’s top-secret vault, which allowed him to compromise an estimated 700,000 state secrets, is indefensible.

Manning had previously exhibited violent outbursts. Had the army done its most elementary homework, it would have known better than to assign him to such a sensitive position.

During this week’s testimony, Chief Warrant Officer Kyle Balonek, who was reprimanded for failing to supervise Manning in Baghdad, acknowledged that there were no restrictions on the type of information intelligence analysts could download.

In her testimony, Jihrleah Showman, who worked with Manning in Baghdad, gave a hairsplitting explanation of the system:

“It was your responsibility to look at things you needed,” she said. “Just because you had a secret clearance doesn’t mean you have legal access to see everything that has secret classification over it.”

However, two other witnesses — who rank higher than Showman — testified that there was no prohibition on analysts looking at any material on the network, as long as it was for a legitimate purpose. Whether or not such a purpose existed was apparently up to each individual analyst to decide, which, combined with lack of oversight, basically paved the way for the material to be sent to WikiLeaks.

This doesn’t lessen Bradley Manning’s guilt. However, those who made this leak possible ought to be brought to justice as well.