And, so, we’ve finally come down to end of this miserable affair.
This week Army Private First Class Bradley Manning was acquitted on charges of aiding the enemy.
He was, however, convicted of violating the Espionage Act.
As such, Manning will avoid a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole, but he’s still facing something more than a century behind bars in a military prison.
He won’t serve that, of course, even if the court gives him the maximum possible sentence, but there it is nonetheless hanging like a sword over his head.
Few, supporters and detractors alike, are happy with the verdicts.
Likely the sentencing won’t make them happy either.
To some, Manning is a hero who blew the whistle on war crimes and who should be set free.
To others, Manning is turncoat traitor who betrayed his sworn duty in time of war and should be taken out back and shot.
As in the previous essay about a highly polarizing case, the two opposing opinions are arrayed more or less according to political affiliations, automatically taking sides in a predictable fashion.
Such is the nature of the world we live in.
Given what regular readers know of my background, it’s probably no surprise that I’ve gotten dozens of letters in the last twenty-four hours asking my opinion on the verdicts.
And I suppose, given my background and my nature, it’s also probably no surprise that I would have an opinion on this subject.
And so I do.
But first, a disclaimer: while I’ll attempt to be as dispassionate as possible, I admit right up front that my opinion is strongly influenced by my experience as a US military intelligence officer.
Of course it is, and I won’t try to blow smoke up your ass by attempting to pretend otherwise.
I spent nearly my entire adult life in the field of classified military intelligence at levels far above anything Manning ever had access to. I have extensive experience in this field. I have detailed knowledge of the kind of material Manning compromised and the networks he got it from and, in fact, some of that material might have been things I was involved in and information that I helped acquire and produce. For more than twenty years it was my sworn duty to protect the military secrets of the United States of America and her allies. This was an obligation I accepted of my own free will and I took my oath very, very seriously indeed. And like everybody else who has retired from my former profession, I am still under certain restrictions regarding the protection of classified information, not just the information, but also the methodology surrounding its collection and processing and use – an obligation that I also take seriously and will not violate.
Now, the reason I mention this right up front is not to make myself sound all mysterious and important, because I’m neither, but because it means that what follows is written from a position of authority that, unless you’ve spent time in the same field, you will just have to take my word for.
That’s unfair to you.
And it’ll get more unfair, to you and me both, because when you attempt to argue Manning’s status as a “hero” in the comments section, likely my only response is going to be, “you’re wrong and you don’t know what you’re talking about, but I can’t tell you why” (and if I don’t respond to your contrary comment at all, you may assume the silence means pretty much the same thing).
Given that unfairness, I’ll completely understand if you bail out now. Thanks for dropping by. See you on the next post.
Ok, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I’ve written about Bradley Manning before, my position likely seems harsh to the uninitiated – or to those who have mistakenly pegged me as a tofu-eatin’ Prius-drivin’ bunny-huggin’ big-L Liberal – but as I said in that previous article, it’s personal to me, just as is my position on Edward Snowden.
I called Manning a “shitbag traitor” in that previous post, perhaps my opinion has softened slightly since I first penned that piece, but not by much.
That said, let’s talk about the Bradley Manning verdict:
First, the charge of aiding the enemy: It’s pretty obvious that Manning did, at least to some extent, aid the enemy.
Manning had to know that the information he stole and fenced to Wikileaks would find its way to our enemies – his training and experience made that an absolute certainty. Manning most certainly knew that his pilfered information would end up in the hands of anybody with an interest and an internet connection, that’s the whole point of Wikileaks in the first place – and some of those folks were going to be our enemies.
Manning had plenty of training in this subject, including numerous examples from history.
Copies of documents he leaked were found in Osama bin Laden’s compound and there is no doubt that our adversaries, those beyond just al Qaida, are combing through that trove right now with great interest. How damaging is that? Unknown, but just because you read those documents, just because Wikileaks and Anonymous and Manning’s own fan club “analyzed” that information and decided that it contained nothing of significant value to our enemies doesn’t mean that it’s so.
Manning gave aid to the enemy, to many enemies – or adversaries, depending on how you define the terms.
But was that “aid” significant?
There’s giving aid to the enemy and then there’s giving aid to the enemy.
Hell, any incompetent commander can be said to be aiding the enemy through his own poor decision making process – and some of them have been tried and convicted for exactly that (it’s pretty rare, and tends to happen mostly in Third World dictatorships nowadays).
War is test of wills. War is a contest of luck and skill and daring, of assets and terrain and most especially of information. History is full of battles that were won or lost because a single piece of obscure information arrived at just the right time, and because a commander was savvy enough to then recognize that slight advantage and because he was daring or cunning enough to use it in the right place and in the moment when it would make a difference. Don’t believe me? Don’t believe that a single tiny piece of apparently innocuous information can turn the tide of an entire war? Look up the WWII Battle of Midway Island and the significance of the desalination water plant and its role in breaking the Japanese navy’s JN-25B code.
American commanders, and Japanese, risked all on that tiny piece of information.
And that one tiny piece of information gave the US Navy a small but very real chance at victory and combined with a little luck and the giant brass balls of Chester Nimitz, it helped send the Japanese fleet to the bottom of the Pacific. The US Navy’s victory at Midway changed the entire course of the war in the Pacific and ultimately altered the face of history.
Our enemies, whatever else they are, have repeatedly proven themselves to be experienced and capable and savvy and cunning.
Manning handed them a windfall of information, not just a tiny scrap. Time will tell what use they can make of it. Perhaps it’ll be nothing, perhaps there’ll be no consequences from Manning’s betrayal.
The odds are against it given the vast amount of information, but we can certainly hope for the best.
However, those charged with protecting the United States cannot, repeat cannot, operate on wishful thinking. It is our duty and our job to plan for a worst case scenario.
Manning knew that, absolutely he knew that, he used to be one of us.
Does that mean Manning intended to aid the enemy? Again, beats me. Only Bradley Manning knows what motivated Bradley Manning to do what he did. He’s said plenty of things and he’s made plenty of excuses for his actions, but those things are exactly that, excuses.
Now, looking at it dispassionately through the eyes of the court, I doubt Manning intended to aid the enemy, the judge certainly didn’t think so.
But, does intent matter?
Manning committed a crime, ipso facto he’s a criminal whether or not that was his intention, right?
True, but in the case of treason, intention does very much matter – just as intention is the determining factor between murder and manslaughter.
Well then, whatever his intent, did Manning’s actions cost lives, American or otherwise?
Certainly it can be argued that Manning put Allied forces at increased risk, and I’m about to argue exactly that, but it’s a qualitative assessment not a quantitative one. That risk is something military commanders, and especially those of us in the intelligence field, know to be true but cannot measure.
Those of us engaged in this grisly business know just how important every single piece of information can be. Information is never just what you see. Information is always wrapped in layers upon layers of other information – i.e. the mere fact that I’m interested in such information tells my enemies something, as does my level of interest and my degree of certainty in the information’s validity, how much effort I put into its acquisition and verification and protection, how I acquired it, who I allowed to access to it, who I shared it with (or didn’t share it with), and especially what other information it might be connected to, and so on. In many cases, this associated information tells an experienced intelligence analyst more than the actual information itself – as was abjectly demonstrated at Midway. The mere fact that my enemies (or my friends) know that the information exists increases my risk in the battlespace (whether that battlefield is in the warzone or at the negotiating table … or in the boardroom). Manning’s betrayal most certainly increased that risk.
Just how significant was that increased risk? There’s no way to measure that, but war is an inherently deadly business, any increase in risk, no matter how small, increases the danger – hell, the mere idea that the risk has perhaps changed can have a direct and measurable impact on your own decision making process. Again, victory is often the result of daring, but commanders are rarely inclined to throw away the lives of their soldiers (despite what you might have been led to believe by popular media) and any perceived increase in danger or threat can adversely affect a commander’s willingness to engage in a risky course of action – or, worse, drive commanders to overcompensate for the perceived increase in risk (take off, nuke the site from orbit, it’s the only way to be sure. Kill ‘em all and let God sort it out, only then send in ground troops. Increased perception of increased risk whether real or not can, and does, lead to a scorched earth strategy which very well might reduce our own casualties, or not, but the consequences can be terrible. See the later stages of the Vietnam war, see Dresden, see Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
That said, so far, no single death, allied or enemy, has yet to be directly attributed to Manning’s actions.
But the risk exists nonetheless.
Did Manning’s betrayal compromise diplomatic efforts? Did it harm military missions or put US personnel (further) into harm’s way? Did it damage military intelligence operations? The answers to all of those questions are: Yes, or perhaps no, or, well, it’s hard to say for certain. The scale of this conflict and the scale of Manning’s betrayal was such that all of those answers, yes, no, maybe, are true to some degree or another depending on where you look and and at what. Again, the answers are almost impossible to quantify in any useful fashion – it’s like the Bible, depending on your viewpoint you can likely find proof of any position based on how you massage the data.
Ultimately, all the questions boil down to this one:
Did Bradley Manning’s betrayal weaken the United States?
As compared to what?
The chicanery of those in charge of the mortgage industry? The staggering greed and avarice of Wall Street? The ever widening gap between rich and poor, the haves and the increasingly disenfranchised have-nots? The ongoing pigheaded gridlock of an intractable Congress? The fact that gleefully ignorant creationists in the guise of the Texas State Board of Education yesterday took the entire American educational system hostage at the muzzle of their fantastical worldview? The ever growing national debt? The ever increasing divide between Left and Right that won’t be satisfied until blood runs like rivers in the streets and Washington burns to the ground?
I mean, seriously here, compared to that and all of the rest of our continuing self-flagellation, how much damage did Bradley Manning really do to the United States?
And so, Manning was found not guilty on the charge of aiding the enemy.
And that sounds about right to me.
I can live with that verdict.
He was, however, found guilty (or pled guilty) to twenty-two additional charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, including five counts of espionage and theft.
And that too, sounds about right to me.
See, unlike in the civilian world, in the military your oath has the force of law.
Your oaths, both that of enlistment, and those additional ones you might swear when entering into positions of trust, are legal instruments and you, and you alone, are strictly accountable for living up to the obligation.
Because of the nature of what we do, the consequences for breaking those oaths are dire – and for damned good reason.
Again, some of you will likely disagree and feel that military discipline, your knowledge of which was likely acquired through fictional portrayals in the media, is too harsh. Again it is here that I’ll say to you that if you’ve never worn the uniform, especially in the position of a senior NCO or an experienced officer, especially in the warzone or under fire, then you have no idea of what you’re talking about.
Our oath defines us. It is the core of everything we do. Either it is good, or it is not, there is no middle ground.
Our discipline holds us together in the test of adversity, in the face of horror most of you can’t even begin to imagine.
Even if compelled (as is permitted by law under the Constitution) the oath of enlistment holds the force of a binding contract between us and the citizens of the United States.
The oath you swear upon assignment of a security clearance is entirely voluntary and cannot be compelled.
Either your word is good or it’s not – and in the military world, if it turns out that your oath isn’t good there are immediate and dire consequences, all of which are made clear to you up front before you ever raise your hand.
Manning voluntarily swore both of these oaths and deliberately violated them – that’s a jail sentence without any further need of embellishment.
Unlike the charge of treason (which is what aiding the enemy is), for a conviction under the charges of espionage and theft intent doesn’t matter.
Now, this is the point where Manning’s supporters start making excuses for his actions.
Okay, sure, they say, he broke his oath, big deal, so what? The war is wrong, it’s immoral, unjust, unlawful. He shouldn’t have enlisted in the first place.
Wrong. Or, rather, right for you as a citizen, but wrong for Private Manning.
See, we, those of us in uniform, we don’t get to decide.
Ours, as Tennyson said, is not to reason why, ours is to but do and die.
This war, whatever history ultimately judges it, was approved by the lawful government of the United States of America with the willing support of the majority of the citizenry. We were ordered into battle by our lawful commanders under the authority of our elected leaders. As citizens we might argue the lawfulness and wisdom of the war itself, but as sworn members of the military our duty under penalty of the UCMJ is to carry out the lawful orders of our commanders. Period. There is no gray area here. We don’t get to decide (outside of a very narrow and sharply defined window) which orders to obey and which ones to ignore, which wars are moral and just and which ones aren’t.
Whether or not the war itself is immoral and unlawful, that’s for you, American Citizen, to decide.
It’s for you to hold your elected leaders to account.
Nothing Manning was ordered to do was illegal. He might not have agreed with it, but his agreement was not required and that was clear to him before he ever held up his right hand and swore the oath.
We don’t get to decide.
And there’s a good, a damned good, reason why it should be so.
In America the military is under command of civilian authority. This is one of the fundamental pillars of our republic. The military does not decide when to go to war or when to come home. The military, from the mightiest general to the greenest private, doesn’t decide the morality of the conflict. The elected civilian leadership does, and through them the American citizens do. The implications of this should be obvious and I’ve outline them in the preceding paragraphs.
Citizen Manning may cast his vote right along with the rest of us, but Private First Class Manning doesn’t get to decide which orders and regulation he’ll obey and which ones he won’t. If you allow this kind of rot in the ranks, if you allow the military to decide morality for the nation, sooner or later you’ll end up looking down the barrel of a military junta – history is rife with examples and you don’t have to go very far to find them.
And I’m going to let you in on a little secret, war is immoral.
No matter how just your cause, no matter how righteous, war is immoral.
No matter how you whore it up, no matter how many patriotic slogans you toss about, no matter that you wave the flag and trot out the drum and fife and sound the bugle call, it’s a dirty, horrible, immoral business and make no mistake about it.
Maybe if more Americans understood that, we wouldn’t have a war every ten years or so.
Yeah, but doesn’t Manning, or any sworn member of the military have an obligation, indeed a duty, to disobey, to stand up, to break ranks if he or she believes they’ve uncovered evidence of a war crime.
Isn’t that exactly what Manning did?
Over on Truthout and reposted on The Huffington Post, writer Marjorie Cohn attempts to make that exact argument: i.e. that Manning was justified in his actions because he had a legal duty to report war crimes.
Manning fulfilled his legal duty to report war crimes. He complied with his legal duty to obey lawful orders but also his legal duty to disobey unlawful orders.
Actually, no, Manning did not comply with his legal duty to obey lawful orders – or we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place.
This is what I mean when I say that unless you’ve worn the uniform, it’s pretty likely that you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Just because you don’t like the orders, doesn’t mean they’re unlawful.
The Uniform Code of Military Justice sets forth the duty of a service member to obey lawful orders. But that duty includes the concomitant duty to disobey unlawful orders. An order not to reveal classified information that contains evidence of war crimes would be an unlawful order. Manning had a legal duty to reveal the commission of war crimes.
Cohn is correct in essence, but she left a few critical things out – either on purpose or because she didn’t do her homework.
There is a proper and lawful way to report such concerns. That method is drilled into every military member. Every one. The procedure for reporting such crimes is clearly posted on every bulletin board on every base from Anchorage to Antarctica. That procedure doesn’t include handing over hundred of thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks. Manning had plenty of legal options if he felt his chain of command was ignoring war crimes. He chose instead to violate his oath and his own legal responsibilities.
If you think you’ve got evidence of a crime, you don’t get to commit another crime as a result.
And then there’s this: what war crime?
No really, what war crime?
Where is it?
It’s not the helicopter video – which I discussed in detail in the previous post on Manning. As horrific as that is, that’s war. Cohn tries to make a case that the pilots committed a war crime by first shooting the wrong people and then by shooting the people who came to help the wounded.
Again, this is what happens when you don’t do your homework.
Cohn, and indeed a significant fraction of Manning’s supporters, cherry pick military regulations and the Geneva Conventions to justify Manning’s actions while conveniently ignoring the rest of the law.
The civilians in the video made famous by Manning are armed. Clearly so. As such, they make themselves lawful targets in a war zone.
Medical personnel are required to be clearly identified, including ambulances, through the use of international symbols such as the red cross or the red crescent. That was not the case here. Those responding were armed, were not clearly identified as rescue personnel, and by international law that makes them legitimate targets.
Whether you like it or not, whether that video turns your stomach or not, it’s not a war crime – it’s war.
Jesus Haploid Christ, you should find it sickening. Welcome to the fucking party, Rambo.
Manning felt certain information he found in classified military databases constituted in his words “war porn,” in other words he thought his fellow soldiers might be enjoying those images too much.
His commanders had a different opinion. And it wasn’t Manning’s call. War porn, whatever that means and as provocative as that sounds, isn’t a war crime.
Manning didn’t like that. Too damned bad. He could have gone to the IG with it if he thought it was an actual crime, hell, he could have even called in a Congressional investigation (and don’t think that doesn’t happen, I’ve personally witnessed a dozen such investigations, or more), he didn’t do that either. And you want to guess why? Because he damned well knew he was wrong. So, instead, he betrayed his oath.
Likely you’ll disagree, that’s your right. But ask yourself something: where’s the war crime?
Where is it?
In all the days of testimony, in all the reams of information Wikileaks has published, where’s the war crime?
I don’t mean the dirty immoral business of war itself, those filthy horrific things that turn your stomach when you realize you’re watching real people die (but cheer wildly for when Sly or the Govinator act the same thing out on the silver screen), I mean where’s the actual war crime?
In all the articles, in all the blog posts, in all the comments, how come nobody mentions the war crime Bradley Manning supposedly exposed?
Answer me this: If there was an actual war crime, an actual no shit real provable war crime, the kind we haul people in front of The Hague for, why didn’t Manning’s defense use that as justification for his actions? Why didn’t Manning’s defense use that war crime to prove the correctness of Marjorie Cohn’s Truthdig article? Why didn’t Manning’s defense show that the only way, the only way, for him to get the truth out was to do what he did?
Because in all the information Manning stole nowhere is there any actual evidence to justify his excuses.
Because he had legal and lawful ways to report his concerns to the chain of command and to the public.
What you see in that information is the fact that war is a dirty rotten immoral business – something you as a responsible informed citizen should have goddamned well known before you threw us into the meat grinder, God knows you’ve had enough examples over the last hundred years.
Here’s the bottom line, Manning directly and purposely violated his military oath. There’s no gray area there. He did it. He admitted it. Evidence proves it beyond any shadow of a doubt. The violation is not in question. Manning goes to jail. Period.
It does not matter if Manning was confused about his gender or his sexual identity or any other damned thing – a lot of people have personal issues in the war zone, Manning’s personal crisis isn’t anything special.
It doesn’t matter if Manning felt his commanders were unresponsive to his protests – that’s not his call, he had options for a legit complaint, he chose not to exercise them.
It doesn’t matter if Manning felt he’d uncovered a war crime – even if he actually had, it doesn’t justify giving classified information to Wikileaks.
It doesn’t matter if Manning felt he was doing the right thing – people like Manning always think they’re doing the right thing.
It doesn’t matter if Manning felt he was serving a higher purpose – people like Manning always think they’re serving a higher purpose.
It doesn’t matter if Manning was treated poorly while under military detention.
It doesn’t matter if you think he was a hero, or a traitor.
Those things are separate issues.
And while some of those things may be legitimate mitigating factors, when it comes to Manning’s deliberate violation of his oath all of those things are nothing but excuses.
Those things might influence the military judge’s decision when it comes to sentencing, and perhaps they should, but this is not a civilian court.
By taking that oath, Manning voluntarily placed himself under the authority of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Manning violated his oath, deliberately and with malice aforethought and he has admitted such.
And now he’ll have to face the consequences.