What would you do if you had evidence of war crimes? What would you do if "following orders" meant participating in grave abuses that you opposed? Would you have the courage to risk everything — even your life — to do the right thing?
Most of us would keep our mouths shut. Not Bradley Manning.
In a 10,000-word statement that he read aloud last month at a pre-trial hearing in Fort Meade, Maryland, Bradley Manning detailed how his conscience led him to expose crimes, abuse, and corruption, by releasing the Iraq and Afghan War Logs, the Collateral Murder video, State Department cables, Guantanamo Bay files, and more to WikiLeaks.
An historic document in its own right, the statement lays out Manning’s work as an intelligence analyst, what he saw while working in eastern Baghdad, and how he concluded that the American people needed to know what really happens in our wars abroad.
Manning stored backup versions of the Iraq and Afghan War Logs — databases of "Significant Activities" (or SigActs, in Army terminology), which document enemy engagements and casualties — on rewritable CDs, initially because he believed that he and fellow analysts would need to access them during the frequent computer network failures at the base in Iraq.
"I believed and still believe that [the Iraq and Afghan War Logs]are two of the most significant documents of our time," he declared in court last week.
Manning went on to describe how he began to see that these documents exposed a horrible mess of a war that Americans couldn’t fully see:
"I felt that we were risking so much for people that seemed unwilling to cooperate with us, leading to frustration and anger on both sides. I began to become depressed with the situation that we found ourselves increasingly mired in year after year. The SigActs documented this in great detail and provide a context of what we were seeing on the ground.
"In attempting to conduct counter-terrorism or CT and counter-insurgency COIN operations we became obsessed with capturing and killing human targets on lists… ignoring the second and third order effects of accomplishing short-term goals and missions."
Manning realised that the American people needed to see these documents:
"I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information contained within the [Iraq and Afghan War Logs] this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general as well as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan."
In January 2010, while home on leave from Iraq, Manning attempted to give the cables to major US newspapers, to no avail. He called the Washington Post, but the reporter he reached didn’t seem to take him seriously, and said her superior editors would need more information. Manning turned to the New York Times. He called the Times’ public editor, and when he got an answering machine, he left a message with his phone number. The Times didn’t call back.
So he turned to WikiLeaks. On 3 February 2010, taking shelter from a blizzard in a Barnes and Noble in Rockville, Maryland, Manning anonymously uploaded the Iraq and Afghan War Logs:
"I felt this sense of relief by [WikiLeaks] having [the information]. I felt I had accomplished something that allowed me to have a clear conscience based upon what I had seen and what I had read about and knew were happening in both Iraq and Afghanistan everyday."
While WikiLeaks reviewed the documents in preparation for later release, Manning returned to Iraq.
Later that month, he listened to a debate within his intelligence shop over a 12 July 2007 video of a US aerial weapons team gunning down civilians, including two Reuters journalists, in Iraq. At first, he said, the video seemed like any other "war porn" incident he saw routinely. But when Manning further investigated the video, now known around the world as Collateral Murder, he was appalled.
"The most alarming aspect of the video to me … was the seemly delightful bloodlust the Aerial Weapons Team seemed to have. They dehumanised the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life, and referred to them as quote-unquote ‘dead bastards,’ and congratulated each other on their ability to kill in large numbers. At one point in the video there is an individual on the ground attempting to crawl to safety. The individual is seriously wounded. Instead of calling for medical attention to the location, one of the aerial weapons team crew members verbally asks for the wounded person to pick up a weapon so that he can have a reason to engage. For me, this seemed similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass."
Furthermore, he learned that Reuters sought a copy of the video under the Freedom of Information Act, but were stonewalled by the US government. Manning also learned that Washington Post reporter David Finkel had chronicled the incident for his book The Good Soldiers, but was "aghast" at how Finkel portrayed it.
Believing that Reuters needed to see the video, and investigation of it, to better protect their journalists — and that the American people deserved to see it to get an accurate portrayal of the types of incidents our government keeps secret, Manning decided to release the video files to WikiLeaks.
"I hoped that the public would be as alarmed as me about the conduct of the aerial weapons team crewmembers. I wanted the American public to know that not everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan were targets that needed to be neutralised, but rather people who were struggling to live in the pressure cooker environment of what we call asymmetric warfare. After the release I was encouraged by the response in the media and general public who observed the aerial weapons team video. As I hoped, others were just as troubled-if not more troubled-than me by what they saw."
On 2 March 2010, Manning was ordered to investigate the Iraqi Federal Police’s detention of 15 individuals for distributing "anti-Iraqi literature." He quickly realised that "none of the individuals had previous ties to anti-Iraqi actions or suspected terrorist militia groups".
In fact, the literature these academics were distributing was "merely a scholarly critique" of the "corruption within the cabinet of [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki’s government and the financial impact of his corruption on the Iraqi people."
Manning brought this to the attention of his superiors, but they told him to "drop it" and help the Iraqi police find more of these dissidents to detain.
"I knew if I continued to assist the Baghdad Federal Police in identifying the political opponents of Prime Minister al-Maliki, those people would be arrested and in the custody of the Special Unit of the Baghdad Federal Police and very likely tortured and not seen again for a very long time — if ever…
"Instead of assisting the … Baghdad Federal Police, I decided to take the information and expose it to [WikiLeaks], before the upcoming 7 March 2010 election, hoping they could generate some immediate press on the issue and prevent this unit of the Federal Police from continuing to crack down on political opponents of al-Maliki."
WikiLeaks has yet to publish those files. But they did publish a cable that he released called Reykjavik 13, revealing how two European countries were bullying Iceland. The publication inspired Manning to persist in exposing covert abuse.
"I always want to figure out the truth. Unlike other analysts in my section [or other sections], I was not satisfied with just scratching the surface and producing canned or cookie-cutter assessments. I wanted to know why something was the way it was, and what we could do to correct or mitigate the situation."
This led him to more extensively explore the State Department’s diplomatic cables, throughout March 2010. Like well over a half-million other government employees and contractors, then 22-year-old Manning had access to those documents via his secure workplace computer.
"With my insatiable curiosity and interest in geopolitics I became fascinated with them. I read not only the cables on Iraq, but also about countries and events I found interesting.
"The more I read, the more I was fascinated by the way that we dealt with other nations and organisations. I also began to think that the documented backdoor deals and seemingly criminal activity that didn’t seem characteristic of the de facto leader of the free world…
"The more I read the cables, the more I came to the conclusion that this was the type of information that — that this type of information should become public. I once read and used a quote on open diplomacy written after the First World War and how the world would be a better place if states would avoid making secret pacts and deals with and against each other. I thought these cables were a prime example of a need for a more open diplomacy."
Yet, he was also careful to consider how their release would affect the US.
"Given all of the Department of State information that I read, the fact that most of the cables were unclassified, and that all the cables have a SIPDIS caption [messages intended for automatic Web publishing, according to the US Department of State Foreign Affairs Manual], I believed that the public release of these cables would not damage the United States; however, I did believe that the cables might be embarrassing, since they represented very honest opinions and statements behind the backs of other nations and organisations."
On 5 April 2010, WikiLeaks published the Collateral Murder video. Heartened by the international reaction to that video, he uploaded the diplomatic cables five days later.
The rest is history — WikiLeaks’ releases changed the world, although maybe not to the extent Bradley hoped. Tunisians, who recently nominated Bradley Manning for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, learned more about the corruption of their government, helping spur democratic revolt there. After learning from WikiLeaks releases that the US had covered up its summary executions of innocent Iraqi civilians in 2006, the Iraqi government refused to allow President Obama to keep US troops in Iraq beyond the 2011 withdrawal deadline.
Manning read his statement to supplement his guilty plea to 10 lesser offences and plea of not guilty to the other 12 more-serious offences. He made it clear that responsibility was his alone. "No one associated with [WikiLeaks] pressured me into giving more information," he said. "The decisions that I made to send documents and information to [WikiLeaks] were my own decisions, and I take full responsibility for my actions."
His plea is not part of a deal with the government. In fact, military prosecutors attempted to block Manning from even reading the statement, arguing it was "irrelevant." The Army has since announced that they are proceeding on all 22 counts — including the egregious "aiding the enemy" charge, as well as the Espionage Act-related charge — that could land Manning in jail for life without parole.
So when Manning’s court martial comes on 3 June 2013, the proceedings will focus a little less on the forensics of what happened and more on why it happened, and what effect it had. It couldn’t be clearer. Bradley Manning did not "aid the enemy," but aided the public in making better-informed decisions regarding our government’s secret abuses, and the horrors of war. Manning deserves gratitude and celebration, not prosecution and continued incarceration.
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