For over a year, in a soundproofed courtroom located in the confined wasteland of Fort Meade, the U.S. Army is prosecuting the most consequential and unprecedented leak trial of the digital age in secrecy and managed obscurity. A twenty-five year old whistleblower, Private First Class Bradley Manning is charged with indirectly aiding Al Qaeda for allegedly providing information to WikiLeaks, who published the information on the Internet. Prosecutors have recommended life in prison; but the presiding military judge has the authority to impose the death penalty.
At issue in the Manning trial is the danger posed to democracy and the rule of law by the government’s expanding control over information in the digital age; and the use of prejudicial prosecutions that turn whistle-blowing into treason and journalism into espionage or an act of war.
The Whistleblower Inquisition
Manning’s trial extends the Obama administration’s unmatched inquisition prosecuting unauthorized disclosures to the press employing a 1917 statute originally intended for spies. The Department of Justice argues that leaks to the press are a “greater threat to society” than when spies sell classified information to a foreign government, because “every foreign adversary stands to benefit,” according to documents in the espionage prosecution of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA employee accused of leaking classified information to a reporter at the New York Times.
Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the National Security Agency, began disclosing unclassified information to The Baltimore Sun in 2006, detailing billions of dollars lost to fraud and waste. He was subsequently charged with espionage. On the eve of the trial, the government dropped its case, having already stripped Drake of his job and pension. Such prosecutions, says Drake, send “the strongest possible message to those who would dare hold up the mirror from within and without regarding government misconduct, fraud, waste, abuse, war crimes, and wrongdoing, while also sending the real message to the Fourth Estate that they cannot hide behind the First Amendment as protection or refuge when printing the same.”
Journalism on the Internet is an Act of War
Manning’s prosecution is also part of the government’s larger battle for control over information in the digital age; a battle waged, in part, against what Mike Rogers, Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, called the internet’s “culture of disclosure.” Echoing Rogers’ concern, James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, declared WikiLeaks disclosures a current and projected counterintelligence threat to the national security of the United States — on par with corporate espionage, drug trafficking, and climate change. “From an intelligence perspective, these disclosures have been very damaging,” he said, warning of their “chilling effect” on the “information-sharing environment”.
Yet the “chilling effect” invoked by Clapper typically connotes the immeasurable harm to First Amendment rights and democratic governance caused by prohibitions on speech, association, and publication. WikiLeaks publication of censored material has greatly benefited the fourth and fifth estates by revealing and disseminating information about, for instance, mass extra-judicial assassinations by the Kenyan police; inept and corrupt banking practices that facilitated the Icelandic financial collapse; the cover up of U.S. secret cluster bombing in Yemen ; and Shell Oil’s infiltration of the Nigerian government.
Managing Obscurity at Fort George ‘Orwell’ Meade
In a case where the First Amendment and access to public information is vulnerable to chill or prohibition, neither the public nor press have had access to over 30,000 pages of court filings and rulings, or a transcript of the legal proceedings.
“Military confinement. That’s like a term of art,” said Captain John Haberland, the former legal spokesman for the Military District of Washington, which is responsible for convening an impartial trial for the accused, “but the practical effect. He is in jail.”
By the time of his trial on June 3, 2013, Manning will have been in pretrial confinement for 1,101 days– longer than any accused awaiting court-martial in the history of U.S. military law. At the next session, the court is expected to rule on whether the government has violated Manning’s right to a speedy trial.
For five and a half months, Captain Haberland did not disclose to the anemic and anesthetized press pool at Fort Meade that he was a former member of the prosecution. Captain Haberland’s emails, however, are part of the evidentiary record concerning Manning’s unlawful pretrial punishment at the Quantico Brig, where he was stripped of his clothing against the recommendation of mental health providers.
Through out proceedings, journalists and legal observers have complained that requests for press credentials have been arbitrarily denied or lost by the Military District of Washington. The “Army Times, gets easy access while those who fund and publicize Bradley Manning’s defense are either stonewalled or misled,” says Nathan Fuller, press coordinator and courtroom reporter for the Bradley Manning Support Network.