Bradley Manning released hundreds of thousands of government documents and files to Wikileaks, most famous among them the unclassified video Wikileaks dubbed, "Collateral Murder”, a harrowing gun-sight view of an Apache helicopter slaughtering a couple of armed men and a much larger group of civilians on a Baghdad street in July, 2007.
The court-martial of Pfc. Manning, finally underway over three years after his arrest, is likely to cause a great deal of collateral destruction in its own right. In this case the victim will be American journalism.
Contrary to widespread panic, massive leaks of classified material tend to enhance national security as the new information can prevent the kind of reckless, poorly-informed decisions that have squandered so much blood and money, from Southeast Asia to Iraq
The most serious of the charges against Manning is the capital offense of "aiding the enemy.” (Team Obama has made it clear it won’t seek the death penalty, but a life sentence is possible.) The enemy that the prosecution has in mind is not Wikileaks or the global public but Al Qaeda; because this group had access to the internet, the logic goes, they could read Manning’s disclosures just like everyone else.
The government does not have to prove Manning’s conscious intent to help Al Qaeda, but must only meet the squishier standard of proving the defendant had "specific knowledge” that the terrorists might benefit from his cache of documents.
If this charge sticks, it will be a serious blow to American journalism, as it puts all kinds of confidential informants at risk of being capital cases. A soldier in Afghanistan who blogs about the lack of armoured vehicles - a common and very public complaint from the ranks in the Iraq War - could be prosecuted for tipping off the Taliban.
Whoever leaked Ambassador Karl Eikenberry’s long cable on the futility of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan could also be conceivably be put away for life, even executed. As Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union has explained, the use of this charge against sources, leakers and whistleblowers - like Bradley Manning - will criminalise a great deal of essential journalism - and not just the kind practiced by Wikileaks and various bloggers.
The Manning prosecution has asserted more than once that they would have pressed the Aiding the Enemy charge even if the private had passed his cache to the New York Times or the Washington Post (as the leaker had attempted).
This jolted the editorial classes, who do not much like imagining themselves as being implicated, however hypothetically, in terrorist acts. Op-eds in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times have blasted the Aiding the Enemy charges brought against Manning, explaining that they would not just "chill” but freeze a great deal of essential journalism.
The news media has always relied on leaks of classified material, from the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, to the preemptive disclosure of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate holding that Iran had no nuclear weapons program, a transparent attempt by the military brass to block Bush and Cheney from launching a third war.
And contrary to widespread panic, massive leaks of classified material tend to enhance national security as the new information can prevent the kind of reckless, poorly-informed decisions that have squandered so much blood and money, from Southeast Asia to Iraq.
Who is a journalist and who gets to decide?
Aiding the Enemy is of course not the only charge against Private Manning. One of the charges, "wanton publication,” hinges in part on whether Wikileaks is a bona fide journalistic entity. But who gets to decide who is and who isn’t a journalist, and how?
Defense witness Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School and expert on press freedom and the internet, provided an answer earlier this month. Benkler, who has published penetrating studies of the 21st century media landscape, took the stand July 11th to address the matter of who is and who isn’t a journalist.
Wikileaks is absolutely a media organization, one perfectly emblematic of the "networked fourth estate”, in which traditional news outlets like the Guardian and Der Spiegel collaborate with smaller non-profit and for-profit entities to produce news coverage. Supporters of Manning found Benkler’s testimony to be lucid, supremely well-informed and compelling - but will it convince Judge Denise Lind?
As for traditional news media, they have been largely AWOL, with the New York Times sending a correspondent to a few hearings, only after a shaming by the newspaper’s public editor. But a handful of independent correspondents, notably Kevin Gostzola of FireDogLake, independent journalist Alexa O’Brien and Bradley Manning staffer Nathan Fuller, as well as court artist Clark Stoeckley - have covered every breath of the legal proceedings.
|US judge rules not to drop Manning charge
And even as more established media have leaned heavily on these reporters for all manner of factual and logistical assistance, gracious acknowledgement of the professional debt has not always been forthcoming. Last month the New York Times rather snottily described O’Brien as a mere "activist” before being embarrassed into a correction.
Although smug torpor is Big Media’s default setting, a recent barrage of sucker-punches has shaken the Fourth Estate’s generally cosy partnership with the political class. The Obama administration has named James Rosen of Fox News as a co-conspirator in its case against State Department leaker Stephen Jin-Woo Kim; the government has also announced that it had been sifting through two months of the Associated Press’s phone records to hunt down the source of a leak.
Obama’s poison gift to journalists
Affecting a chastened air, the Obama administration now says it wants to make nice with journalists. To strike a finer "balance” between press freedom and security, Team Obama has offered to pass a Press Shield Law-a slightly revamped version of the same bill the White House threatened to veto back in 2009. (Senator Obama had been a liberal champion of just such a bill before). This Press Shield Law is intended as conciliatory basket of fruit, sent to the media as an apology for all those investigations.
If the Aiding the Enemy charge sticks, Pfc. Manning faces a possible life sentence - and the outcome might be only slightly less calamitous for American journalism
The government’s gift to journalists is poison, and should be rejected. The Press Shield Law would be more accurately titled the Media Prosecution Enhancement Bludgeon - as Trevor Timm of the Press Freedom Foundation has warned, the statute would override and erase many common-law protections currently enjoyed by reporters.
Just as with our whistleblower protection laws, the statute includes a cavernous carve-out for any leak-based reporting that affects "national security”, a term that is infinitely elastic in the hands of official Washington. (The law would not have "shielded” the Associated Press from the government’s investigation of their phone records, nor would it have protected Fox’s Rosen).
But wait: that’s not all that the new law won’t do! As the law’s primary author, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has crowed, the law would specifically exclude Wikileaks and other internet-based groups that he and his colleagues do not believe to be proper media organizations. (Bear in mind the average age in today’s United States Senate is 61). The language defining who is and who isn’t "a member of the media” is marvellously supple, to be loosened and tightened as the government sees fit.
Meanwhile, the State onslaught against American journalists continues: the dependably conservative Washington DC circuit court has ruled that James Risen of the New York Times must testify as to his sources in a story about CIA disruption of Iran’s nuclear program. (Risen has pledged he will go to jail first).
Former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden has casually called Glenn Greenwald a co-conspirator with NSA leaker Edward Snowden. With this roiling in the background, military judge Denise Lind announced on July 18 that she would not dismiss the Aiding the Enemy charge against Bradley Manning but will instead weigh that momentous accusation on its merits.
This is not necessarily a disaster for Manning or for American journalism: if Judge Lind rules against this charge, it will establish common law precedent protecting journalists from similar legal attacks, and Bradley Manning will likely serve (a little) less time in prison. (The Judge’s verdict is expected by next Tuesday, July 30th).
On the other hand, if the Aiding the Enemy charge sticks, Pfc. Manning faces a possible life sentence - and the outcome might be only slightly less calamitous for American journalism.
Chase Madar is a civil rights attorney in New York and the author of The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower.
Follow him on Twitter: @ChMadar
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.