Bradley Manning and Our Real Secrecy Problem

The dilution of vital state secrets with information that isn't truly sensitive made Wikileaks and Bradley Manning inevitable

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Army Private First Class Manning is escorted in handcuffs as he leaves the courthouse in Fort Meade
Jose Luis Magana / REUTERS

Army Private First Class Bradley Manning leaving the courthouse in Fort Meade, Maryland June 6, 2012.

Is he a traitor or a hero? This is the question surrounding Bradley Manning, the army private currently being court-martialed at Fort Meade for aiding the enemy by wrongfully causing defense information to published on the Internet. But among the questions arising out of his case, it is also the least important.

At his trial this week, Manning will be portrayed by the prosecution as a conniving turncoat who knowingly endangered fellow soldiers by giving sensitive information to al Qaeda via WikiLeaks. The defense will tell of an idealistic young man who was troubled by troubling things, like the Orwellian nightmare of prisoners at Guantanamo and the cheapness of life in war torn Iraq. What will not be discussed—because the judge has forbidden the defense from touching the subject— is that Bradley Manning is as much a product of historical forces as an agent in them, that we have stumbled into such a secrecy morass that something like this leak was probably inevitable, and that, worst of all, we were warned.

(MORE: Private Bradley Manning: Hero or Traitor?)

Manning’s leak was the biggest ever not because he was the most dedicated secret spiller in history, but because he joined the army in the age of big data and the collaborative ethos of the Internet. He enlisted in 2007, a year after the State Department launched the Net-Centric Diplomacy program through which classified embassy cables were made available on computer networks like those used by low-level army intelligence analysts in Iraq, like Bradley Manning.

Manning was not a member of an elite cadre of people with special access to the country’s secrets. He was one of more than 1.4 million people with a Top Secret security clearance in 2010 and one of the nearly 5 million with at least some clearance to see classified information. So many people had security clearances that until Dana Priest’s groundbreaking investigation into the matter, and subsequent internal government reviews, no one knew just how many security clearances there were.

By leaking three quarters of a million classified documents to WikiLeaks, Manning didn’t reveal all or even most of the United States’ secrets. In the decade after 9/11, the number of newly classified documents in the U.S. tripled to more than 23 million, all protected by the overworked staff of the Information Security Oversight Office at a cost of $10 billion a year, according to Priest’s book, Top Secret America: The Rise of a New American Security State.

(MOREIs “Don’t Ask” to Blame for Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks?)

And Manning’s leak didn’t reveal the country’s most sensitive secrets. None of the information he sent to WikiLeaks was classified Top Secret and some of it—like the famous Collateral Murder apache helicopter video—wasn’t classified at all. 11,000 of diplomatic cables he leaked were classified Secret, a designation ostensibly reserved for information “the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security.” That’s “serious damage to the national security” times eleven thousand. And yet, the country survives. One is given to wonder just how sensitive those secrets really were.

In the years after the Cold War, a government commission led by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan looked into the state of secrecy in America with disturbing results. Years before 9/11, the Moynihan Commission warned that secrecy was already so out of control that, by diluting the well of vital state secrets with information that wasn’t truly sensitive, secrecy was sure to undermine itself; echoing Justice Potter Stewart in the Pentagon Paper’s case, the commission wrote that “when everything is secret, nothing is secret.”

In his 1998 book on the subject, Moynihan saw what was coming. With the Cold War over, the Soviet Union in tatters, and something called The Internet gaining steam, it was clear then that, as Moynihan said, “Secrecy is for losers.”

“Openness is now a singular and singularly American advantage. We put it in peril by poking along in the mode of an age now past,” he wrote. “It is time to begin building the supports for the era of openness that is already upon us.”

Needless to say, we did not, and a decade later, Bradley Manning inelegantly opened up the national security state against its will. With so many poorly protected secrets accessible to so many people, it was only a matter of time. We can be grateful that Bradley Manning rather than someone less charitably inclined perpetrated this leak. Manning leaked information for the world to see rather than selling it to a foreign power. As it is, Manning’s actions have proven fairly harmless with no serious damage to national security yet, but the next leaker may not be so benign. The question before us now, 15 years after Senator Moynihan’s prescient warning, is whether we will leave Manning’s warning unheeded too.

MOREThe Nobel Betrayal Prize?

35 comments
SharonTipton
SharonTipton

Manning exposed the CRIMES of the government. Future leaks may not be so benign? The crimes of our government are certainly not benign. When whistleblowers are prosecuted so ferociously, what other alternatives to concerned citizens have? Journalists certainly aren't calling out the crimes that need to be exposed.

josjoyce
josjoyce

There is no doubt in my mind that sometime, somewhere a pile of horse manure has been classified as a secret. 

asong86
asong86

He's already been punished. He has been tortured and kept behind bars for three years. Shame on you, Obama administration. Bradley Manning is a hero, a humanist, and a true patriot. If he's convicted of "aiding the enemy", the public is the enemy and the only crime he committed was telling the truth and exposing war crimes. 

MarkHolland
MarkHolland

The "Collateral Murder" video was important. Americans NEED to see how dirty their wars, like all wars, truly are. That way, hopefully we fight fewer of them in the future. As the article points out, it's hard to point to any real harm caused by Manning. He's not Klaus Fuchs. I can't really tell what he is but a kid with some problems and a vague but generally proper notion of fairness who is being treated very harshly. I think the government might be better served reducing the charges and focusing on internal policy. I hold no ill will towards Manning.

MustBeReallyBored
MustBeReallyBored

Do the crime, do the crime. I hear a lot of folks whining on both side of the aisle - "he's a hero, he's a traitor".. Fact is he's probably just an immature, opinionated kid that didn't like the service life and decided to do whatever he felt like doing, consequences be damned.

He for certain abandonded the oath he took upon entering the service, and probably was fooling around with his iPod instead of paying attention during his securtiy briefings, particularly the part that says you get a long stay in the federal penitentiary system if you get caught transferring classified information.

This is pretty simple folks, if it's "classified" or above, keep your howling yap shut about it, do your time in service, then you can go do something stupid like write a book about what you've seen and probably get away with it.

He made his choice, now he must pay for it just like anyone else.

anarcho
anarcho

When we take the oath we are to defend the Constitution from all enemies both foreign and domestic,  not keep war crimes and crimes against humanity a secret - or bad faith dealings with countries which we publicly call allies.  Nor are we supposed to defend the machinations of a government  which by its actions endangers the lives of the American people,  or subjugates the American people to a National Security State which spies on them indiscriminately with the help of corporate minions aborting the 4th Amendment .  If you are going to call Bradley Manning a traitor then you have sown your allegiance to other then what was written,  and you have a markedly convoluted view of patriotism.

RobinDonaldDeVallon
RobinDonaldDeVallon

Unless I can say my piece w/o being labled a thread to my own country or "hurting" you Amis fractual pride... I will not comment.. Donah..//

jonB
jonB

you people do not read nor study history wake up

jonB
jonB

you are SO right anton..................tell me genius how does an "industry" relate to Bradley Manning..............and do you really believe our government "is in the biz of protecting our citizens...............

antonmarq
antonmarq

Frankly, it should be a practice by all our industries to keep their secrets from getting into the wrong hands. Most corporation are spend billions and just hand over their ideas to foreign nations, a real anal process. Our government is in the business of protecting its citizen, and the idiot who gave those rights away should be jailed for treason.

jonB
jonB

or better yet go to irag and look at the graves of dead children..................do you not know WE supplied Saddam with his weapons and GAS during the Irag/Iran war? no you don't.............if you did you would not be fodder for the military

jonB
jonB

so why don't you read...........can you spell that word?

jonB
jonB

and no my friend dropping hot lead on children is not honorable..........as I tell my children...........getting paid to kill people...............well we put people in jail for that mister honorable

jonB
jonB

study.......cointelpro

jonB
jonB

And guess what military boy..........the government uses youth like you to fight and die and their wars............wars of money and greed............not "protect old glory"............are you that clueless? Do you like being used and watching your buddies die in vain? Do yourself a favor and read "Economic hit man"............then you will see why the young boys we all love are really dying

jonB
jonB

A traitor? you are a loser....................Bin Laden won by making people like you fear the truth..............think about it. Since when is honesty a flaw?

JeffLeonard
JeffLeonard

1.4 million Americans have TOP SECRET clearance? Really? That is close to 1 in every 200 people in this country, including the children and the infirm. If that many TOP SECRET people are on 'the inside', then what's the big secret? Or worse, what is the mission of our nation and what am I paying taxes for?

ToddCarnes
ToddCarnes

There is NO question. He is a traitor and anyone who tries defend his actions is either un-American or an idiot. Take your pick. And before the haters out their even ask, yes, I served for 20 years in the US Navy.

DanBruce
DanBruce

No question about it. Manning is a traitor. He swore an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America, and he broke that oath. Clever-tongued lawyers and supporters (and journalists) who try to portray Manning's actions as in any way heroic are misguided, or worse.

suddendepth
suddendepth

@MustBeReallyBored The oath issue is a huge one but not a deal breaker. The only slack I will give him is that he did unwittingly report some unethical activity which could give him some form of whistle blower protection. The problem is that his actions were not focused on a specific illegal activity. He made a mindless pass through of data, consequences be damned. So, was his intent to prevent a specific activity that was illegal? I think the answer to that is no and why he will fry.

MustBeReallyBored
MustBeReallyBored

You skipped the second half there Sparky! You know, the part apart giving true faith and allegiance, obeying orders given by the ole president and officers appointed over me....

You know, that part that says you'll be faithful to your country and do as yer darned well told by your betters. Nothing in the oath that says you can wander off the path and act like a knothead whenever you feel like it, or only follow the orders you feel good about.

Simple fact of service life is that you will be ordered to do something objectionable (like killing folks, there's an example for you), and we have to have explicit, unwaivering faith in our chain of commands' ability to make the right decisions in ordering us to perform those tasks, otherwise our country would be a vision of something from the Postman.

Long story short, if your gonna distort the oath of service, be so kind as to get all of it in there.

RobinDonaldDeVallon
RobinDonaldDeVallon

@jonB Dear Jon... ´has nothing to do with history but everything with mentallity... Just find out for yourself... Donah..//

ToddCarnes
ToddCarnes

@jonB Wow... I guess you forgot to take your medication this morning.

suddendepth
suddendepth

@JeffLeonard Top secret isn't anything amazing. It's not like it gives you the keys to the informational city. You just get access to levels within your area of scope. Manning just happened to be in a place where he could get to info that would hurt. 

daveyroi6
daveyroi6

Your forgot the rest of the oath, all enemies foreign and DOMESTIC, he upheld the first amendment of the constitution.Everyone who wrote the constitution was a traitor.

robertclee13
robertclee13

@DanBruce What about people who think Obama is a tyrant, although he is Commander-in-Chief? Are they traitors? 

Elihude
Elihude

@DanBruce You ever wondered why you are the only commenter, so far?

MustBeReallyBored
MustBeReallyBored

I agree, he did nothing like what the Pollards did in the 80's, so I would hope he doesn't get life. At worst he let it be known what we think our "allies", but I am certain our allies say much, much worse about the U.S.

Other than the passing of sensitive information, I would think Uncle Sam is going to have to prove exactly how Manning "aided then enemy" to make anything stick. What information got read by whom, and did they act upon that information to bring harm to the U.S. or our troops?

As for the actuall passing of information, time served in the brig should be enough I'd say.

DanBruce
DanBruce

@daveyroi6 Nowhere in our Constitution or other laws does it say that an unelected individual has the right to determine, on his or her own, that someone is a foreign or domestic enemy. Consider this. The Constitution also set up a judicial system to determine guilt and to administer punishment accordingly, but that does not mean that I, as an individual, have the right to determine, on my own, guilt and administer punishment. That right is reserved to the state. So it is with classified data. Manning, as an individual, decided on his own to assume to himself the right of the state, which means that he thumbed his nose at all of us, saying in effect that he considered his wisdom to be more important that our collective wisdom. It is essentially the same offense as stealing a vote. If you can't see that, you don't understand our form of government. 

DanBruce
DanBruce

@Elihude @DanBruce It's probably because most people reading this have never served in the military or have never been charged to protect strategic military information, and thus have no concept of how important it is to work as a team in combat situations, where trust and secrecy can make the difference between life and death.Or, ot could be those folks who haven't don't feel qualified to comment, which is the truth. As someone who has been in combat and in charge of strategic classified information, I do realize how destruction Manning's actions are to maintaining trust and security in combat situations. Do you?