Monday, January 16, 2012

In Defense of Manning?

I have been following the case of Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of passing over 700,000 classified documents to Wikileaks, with some interest.  I am curious how so many people seem to be defending him.  Since a preliminary investigation led an officer to recommend his prosecution on all 22 counts, we now get to see how his lawyers are going to defend him.  According to the Huffington Post, "defense lawyers say Manning was clearly a troubled young soldier whom the Army should never have deployed to Iraq or given access to classified material while he was stationed there from late 2009 to mid-2010."  Also, "others had access to Manning's workplace computers. They say he was in emotional turmoil, partly because he was a gay soldier at a time when homosexuals were barred from serving openly in the U.S. armed forces."

In other words, he didn't do it, and they shouldn't have let him near classified information anyway, and, besides, it didn't do any harm.

The first of these is the only legitimate defense -- he didn't do it.  I suspect that this is also going to be the weakest line of defense, since there are probably plenty of emails from Manning to Assange and others indicating his intention to release the documents.

Moreover, this defense flatly contradicts the two fallback positions:  it's the Army's fault for letting him near the information, and releasing it didn't damage U.S. interests.  These are two sophistical arguments that I happen to despise, seeing them frequently among high-profile court cases in which the defendant has no real defense.

The Army should certainly have good procedures to keep the unqualified away from classified documents, and from what I have read, Manning's superior officer was going to cut his access shortly before the documents were leaked, but didn't get around to it.  Still, is this a defense?  The law (or Army code) is pretty clear about protecting classified information.  Even if the Army slipped up and let someone near classified information when it shouldn't have, is that a reason Manning should not be prosecuted?  Manning could be a Taliban spy and the same logic would apply:  the Army would be, in that case, foolish to let him near the documents, but he would still be guilty.  Can a bureaucratic mistake excuse an illegal action?  And can anyone who knows how time-consuming a process it is to get a clearance on Manning's level really want the Army to add even more safeguards?

Manning's emotional state might at least count as mitigating circumstances, but the excuse that he was a homosexual at a time that homosexuals were barred from serving openly doesn't count for much.  The rules were in place, and well known, before he signed up.  If you were a polygamist and signed up for the Army, you might be stressed out about it -- don't sign up!  There was no draft that put Manning in this situation; he did it to himself.

The last argument is one of the most frivolous:  that the documents did no harm to U.S. interests.  While one or more of the charges on which Manning is being brought up may require actual damage to be done, surely he is in defeault of at least some rules regardless of the actual consequences of what he did.  I can understand that one would want some rule about significance; you wouldn't want to send someone to prison for a long period of time because he leaked a single, trivial document, for instance.  But Manning leaked over 700,000 documents.  It should not be up to the court to decide whether these documents actually harmed U.S. interests, because then every case of leakage would degenerate into a debate, not about the law, but about the effects of the leak.  People would be able to release classified documents with impunity as long as they did not rise to whatever level of "damage" a military court happened to hold.  It would be risky, of course, but I imagine there are people who would be happy to take the chance.

Unless Manning has some extraordinary exculpatory information that his defense lawyers have yet to bring up, therefore, the case against him looks very strong.  I have long since lost much faith in our jury system, but, since Manning will be tried by a military court, there is some hope that justice will be done.

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