The Hollowness of Bradley Manning

As the split verdict shows, Bradley Manning's leaks were neither noble and important nor traitorous.

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Patrick Semansky / AP

Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is escorted out of a courthouse in Fort Meade, Md., Tuesday, July 30, 2013, after receiving a verdict in his court martial.

Not all leaks of confidential information are created equal. Those in the media have a terrible tendency to treat every government informer as performing a noble and important service for the country. Those who would preserve national security at all costs are just as wrong to portray every government leak as existential.  And that’s what the curious case of PFC Bradley Manning shows.

Three years and 700,000 leaked documents later, the military judge in her split decision took a step toward clarifying the relative importance – or lack of importance – of what Manning did. He violated his commitments to his country and committed crimes by downloading all those confidential files and handing them over to Wikileaks. Even he admits as much. But despite its best efforts, the government could not prove that Manning actually “aided” our enemies.

(MORE: Bradley Manning Acquitted of Aiding the Enemy, Guilty of Espionage)

Some would like to make this into a titanic struggle between the forces of good and evil—whether the “good” is national security or the “good” is holding the government accountable. But it doesn’t turn out to be the equivalent of either publishing the Pentagon Papers or giving the Soviets the secret plans to build an atomic bomb.

For those who would liken Manning to a Daniel Ellsberg-type hero, it’s not at all clear exactly what wrongdoing Manning thought he was revealing by handing all those files over to Julian Assange for publication.  He provided the world with graphic video of civilians being killed by a U.S. military helicopter, but the video itself shows that the soldiers manning the helicopter at least believed they were firing on men armed with AK-47s and RPGs.  Seeing this video is disturbing, but it doesn’t show the need for any sweeping reform in the military – and it hasn’t triggered any such reform.  And, by the way, the judge refused to hold Manning guilty on the charge related to the video.

All those confidential cables from the State Department reporting on communications with foreign officials and assessments of the internal workings of foreign governments may be embarrassing to have out in the open.  But they don’t really show us any more than that our diplomats were doing the job we’d expect them to do.  Surely it doesn’t come as a big surprise that Putin’s Kremlin shows a “modern brand of authoritarianism” or that a Chinese official told one of our diplomats that North Korea was acting like a “spoiled child” trying to get our attention by firing rockets over Japan. The very fact that Manning’s revelation included 700,000 documents tells us that he couldn’t have been focusing on any particular wrongdoing he’d seen within the U.S. government.

For those who would paint Bradley a traitor, it’s hard to see that all these embarrassing revelations materially helped our enemies.  Even after the revelations, foreign officials continue to meet with our diplomats, our diplomats continue to pull together information and analyze what’s going on in foreign capitals, and we continue to execute military missions with a ruthless efficiency that would give any of us civilians pause.  Our friends may hesitate for a time in talking openly with us for fear it may end up on the Internet, but given human nature, I expect even this reluctance will fade with time

(MORE: The Geeks Who Leak)

The government acts well within its rights to enforce the law as an important deterrent to those – particularly those wearing the uniform – inclined to reveal things they’ve pledged to keep secret.  The many serious offenses Bradley Manning stands convicted of should provide plenty of that deterrence.  But it was excessive to charge that he was actively seeking to aid our enemies, and that’s just what the judge found.  Whatever some might say, we don’t want to set up a system that prevents important revelations about serious wrongdoing within our government.

There are two much more difficult questions that the Manning case doesn’t pose:  Should the press be deterred from publishing government secrets they’ve come by lawfully?  What should be done to those whose leaks both materially affect national security but also reveal government programs raising substantial issues?  These questions will have to wait for another day.  Maybe the day that Mr. Snowden returns to U.S. soil.

MORE: Bradley Manning and Our Real Secrecy Problem