It seems clear that Bradley Manning, the US soldier accused of supplying a massive quantity of state secrets to Wikileaks, is a troubled and vulnerable individual who was not well looked after during his Army service. After his arrest, he was detained at the Quantico military base in solitary confinement for almost a year under conditions that his supporters claim contravened the US Constitution and internationally recognised human rights standards. There are strong grounds for suspecting that Manning’s alleged treatment was intended to deter others from following in his footsteps. If true, such conduct is appalling for a liberal democracy that purports to promote human rights around the world.
Manning’s treatment in pre-trial detention, though, is a distinct issue from the crimes he is alleged to have committed and for which he has, in the past week, begun to acknowledge his guilt. Much has been made, rightly, of the videos of reckless US military attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan that resulted in civilian deaths. If these videos were all Manning had released to Wikileaks, then he would have a legitimate claim to be a “whistleblower” driven by his conscience to expose a greater act of illegality. But what Manning is actually alleged to have done is to leak all of the huge cache of classified documents he had access to, consisting of approximately 250,000 US diplomatic telegrams to and from their Embassies all over the world and 500,000 army reports.
Manning had chosen to serve as a soldier in a US Army that, like it or not (and, on the whole, I do not), was fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at the behest of a government that was democratically elected by its people. His alleged exposure to the enemy of military plans and secrets was made from the relative safety of an IT room on base. This leak put his comrades fighting on the front line at great risk and was traitorousness of the worst kind.
By its very nature, diplomacy is a greyer area. For centuries, countries have exchanged diplomats in order to understand each other better and transact the business that allows a world based on nation states to function. At its starkest, diplomacy sometimes fails and conflict is the result. But for the most part, the constant daily exchange of views, information and ideas that goes on globally via Embassies, governments and other influential figures plays a crucial role in preventing conflict and promoting cooperation on a huge range of issues that matter to all of our lives.
It is essential that much of this work remains unseen. Just as in private life, relationships cannot function if the parties cannot talk to each other without fearing that everything they say will be broadcast to the entire world. Diplomats need to be able to report discreetly on the true nature of other governments and offer confidential advice to their political masters about how to conduct their country’s essential business with them. In many countries, particularly those with authoritarian regimes, the best information often comes from dissident figures or even people still working within the system. Such courageous individuals are exposed to serious harm when their actions are revealed to their governments. Indeed, it has been claimed that the US had to relocate several sources quietly and urgently in the wake of the Wikileaks affair. It is impossible to establish how many others have been punished as a direct result of the leaks or simply stopped talking to foreign Embassies out of fear that their comments might appear on the front page of the world’s press.
All democracies have an accountable system of oversight over diplomatic and military activities, exercised by elected governments and parliamentary committees and bolstered by institutions such as a free press. Even so, there is still, in exceptional circumstances, an essential role to be played by “whistleblowers” using their privileged official position to expose abuses of power, crimes and cover-ups committed by organs of the state.
Manning’s alleged actions, though, were not those of a “whistleblower” seeking to use his position to expose official misconduct. Rather, they were the product of a disgruntled individual who sought to wreak maximum damage on his country for his own narcissistic reasons. The crimes of which he is accused put numerous other people, and a diplomatic system that is essential for global peace and prosperity, at great risk.
Manning’s trial should be conducted in accordance with the standards of due process and human rights that are fundamental to a democracy governed by the rule of law. Then, if he is found guilty and of sound mind, the judge should throw the book at him.