Clarence Page: Must be a better way

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WikiLeaks leaker Bradley Manning has been found guilty of exposing possible crimes by other people that sound a lot more serious than the ones for which he was convicted. No wonder Edward Snowden doesn’t want to come home.

A court martial at Fort Meade, Md., found Army Private Manning guilty of a list of offenses in connection with biggest military leak in history. He slipped hundreds of thousands of highly sensitive classified military and diplomatic documents, along with some videos to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks while he worked as an intelligence analyst in Baghdad in 2009 and 2010.

The presiding judge, Colonel Denise Lind, convicted Manning of six counts of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and most of the military prosecutors’ other charges, which carry possible sentences of more than 100 years.

But she wisely rejected the most serious and overreaching charge of “aiding the enemy,” which is punishable by death. She apparently couldn’t buy the prosecutors’ charge that slipping information to the media was the same as handing it to al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, who was still on this earth at the time.

That rejection should come as a relief to anyone who cares about the ability of the whistleblowers and media to hold government accountable. One person’s traitor is another person’s whistleblower. The high-profile cases of Manning and fugitive NSA whistleblower Snowden raise important questions about how we tell which is which.

Snowden, who was granted asylum by Russia recently, aroused a firestorm of new suspicions about the growth of the surveillance state with his revelations of widespread secret monitoring of phone and e-mail records. Like Manning, there’s little doubt that the revealed information is important to public debate. Unlike our conventional view of whistleblowing, the surveillance is not necessarily illegal.

Significantly, laws to protect whistleblowers date back at least to President Abraham Lincoln’s day. The 1863 False Claims Act encouraged insiders to blow the whistle on fraud by suppliers during the Civil War.

It was ironic, then, that Manning’s prosecutors reached back to the Civil War to press their “aiding the enemy” charge. They cited the case of a Union private named Henry Vanderwater of the 1st District of Columbia volunteers. He was convicted in 1863 for giving a command roster to a newspaper across the Potomac River in Union-occupied Alexandria, Va.

The newspaper published it, which offered the rebels a pretty good idea of how well or poorly the town was protected. His sentence: three months of hard labor and a dishonorable discharge. Even then, Manning’s prosecutors said, the military was well aware of the impact media could have on enemy actions.

Yet in today’s world of Twitter and YouTube, the prosecutors had a tough time arguing that Manning’s actions were motivated by anything more treasonous than a reckless, immature or naive urge to expose government wrongdoing.

More likely, as his defense attorney David Coombs said in closing arguments, Manning was “willing to pay a price” in order to “spark a worldwide discussion” about what the 25-year-old soldier saw as abuses that were going unnoticed and unpunished.

To back up his argument, Coombs played the widely seen video clip that WikiLeaks titles “Collateral Murder.” It shows a chilling gunsight view of a July 12, 2007, operation in Baghdad during which U.S. Apache helicopter pilots opened fire on a group of Iraqis that included children and two Reuters news staff members, who both were killed. A later investigation concluded regrettable errors led to the tragedy.

Sometimes it takes a scandal like those ignited by Manning and Snowden to shock us into paying new attention to old problems. Maybe we need to come up with new alternatives for whistleblowers whose concerns fall on deaf ears in their regular chain of command. There must be a better way than simply waiting for the next scandal — and prosecuting the messenger for delivering an uncomfortable message.

CLARENCE PAGE’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.

 


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