Tuesday, a military judge found U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning not guilty on the charge of aiding the enemy. She found him guilty, however, of most of the 21 crimes he had been charged with, including espionage, theft and fraud. Manning could be sentenced to as many as 128 years in prison.
In the end, though, the case leaves more questions than answers, starting with: Was this about protecting vital national security information or vengeance for embarrassing the government? And why are President Barack Obama’s critics not more interested?
A conviction for aiding the enemy – a charge The Washington Post says “has not been used since the Civil War” – would have carried with it the possibility of life in prison without the possibility of parole. That the government pressed for that conviction, even after Manning pleaded guilty to a number of the lesser charges, seems vindictive and simplistic. He was already bound for prison, and it is not clear that the United States has an enemy in the clear sense of a properly declared war.
China is the focus of much of the U.S. military’s current planning and design. It is also one of this country’s largest trading partners. Is it our enemy? Saudi Arabia is our ally – and backs Islamist groups that most assuredly are not. Does that count?
That is part of the problem with the “Global War on Terror.” The imprecision of the language reflects fuzzy thinking. In a war on “terror,” who would surrender? How would it end?
Beyond that, if the files Manning divulged were so sensitive, why did a 20-something private have access to them? Did nobody vet this guy? Manning admitted giving more than 700,000 battlefield reports and diplomatic cables to Wikileaks, but the better question might be why he had them to begin with. If the military is leaving important secrets lying around, that may be a topic more worthy of attention than little Bradley Manning.
Or is it simply that Manning embarrassed the Pentagon and by extension the Obama administration? Among the items Manning made public was a 2007 video of a U.S. helicopter attack that killed civilians, including a photographer from Reuters. The clip included audio of airmen laughing and mocking those killed. Which is the scandal: that American troops would act that way or that the American public would find out?
For that matter was it established at Manning’s trial that there was actual harm done by his release of the files? Or is that something we are expected to take on faith?
The Nixon administration made a similar argument 40 years ago against Daniel Ellsberg for his release of the Pentagon Papers. What was harmed then was not the United States but Americans’ trust in those who had lied to them.
The Associated Press has reported that the Obama administration has prosecuted more espionage cases than all other presidencies combined. But it seems preoccupied, not with cases of true spying by a foreign power, but with leaks to the American public.
By fixating on Benghazi, Fast and Furious and the president’s purported connections to miscellaneous radicals, Fox News and the House Republicans might be missing the real thing.