Aban­don­ing Pri­vate Man­ning

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PERSPECTIV­E - BY ED­WARD WASSER­MAN Ed­ward Wasser­man is Knight pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism ethics at Wash­ing­ton and Lee Univer­sity.

Bradley Man­ning is the 23-year-old Army pri­vate who has been in mil­i­tary lockup since he was ar­rested last May for al­legedly down­load­ing a huge vol­ume of se­cret U.S. mil­i­tary and diplo­matic doc­u­ments to Wik­iLeaks, which be­came head­line news world­wide.

Man­ning is be­ing held in a Marine brig in Quan­tico, Va., in what the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union calls “pro­longed iso­lated con­fine­ment and forced idle­ness.” Ev­ery day he re­port­edly spends 23 hours in a 6-by-12-foot cell, and is al­lowed to ex­er­cise—shack­led for one hour in an­other win­dow­less room. He is of­ten stripped and forced to stand naked out­side his cell to be in­spected, has his sleep in­ter­rupted fre­quently, is pe­ri­od­i­cally de­prived of his read­ing glasses, and gen­er­ally is sub­jected to treat­ment the ACLU de­scribes as meant to “de­grade, hu­mil­i­ate and trau­ma­tize.”

Why this for­mer in­tel­li­gence clerk with­out ter­ror­ist con­nec­tions or se­crets to hide should be treated with a cru­elty that no dog pound would tol­er­ate re­mains a mys­tery. But that nas­ti­ness may be lucky, in a bizarre way, be­cause what the ACLU primly calls “the gra­tu­itously harsh” na­ture of his cap­tiv­ity has fi­nally put Man­ning in the news.

It’s this puni­tive han­dling that has drawn the ACLU’s in­ter­est, crit­i­cism from a hand­ful of colum­nists and ed­i­to­ri­al­ists, and some spo­radic cov­er­age pegged to his lawyer’s com­plaints.

It also drew scorn from se­nior U.S. State Depart­ment spokesman P.J. Crowley, who was sacked this month af­ter telling a con­fer­ence in Bos­ton that Man­ning’s treat­ment was “ridicu­lous and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive and stupid.”

And it even got Man­ning men­tioned at a White House news con­fer­ence, when Pres­i­dent Obama was asked if he agreed with Crowley. He doesn’t. The pres­i­dent said the Pen­tagon had as­sured him the con­di­tions of Man­ning’s im­pris­on­ment “are ap­pro­pri­ate and are meet­ing our ba­sic stan­dards.” (That’s some thor­ough re­view.)

Now, what’s in­ter­est­ing here isn’t that the mis­treat­ment of a pris­oner in a big case might be news­wor­thy. To me, what’s notable is that it has taken al­le­ga­tions of near-tor­ture to get the me­dia to pay at­ten­tion to this guy at all.

Don’t jour­nal­ists have some obli­ga­tion to their sources? Bradley Man­ning is, af­ter all, a source, maybe the most ex­tra­or­di­nary source of dis­clo­sures with truly global sig­nif­i­cance in liv­ing mem­ory.

And pro­tect­ing sources is sup­posed to be a ma­jor concern among jour­nal­ists. It’s the rea­son the re­porter gives for re­fus­ing to name the whistle­blower who handed over the ex­plo­sive doc­u­ments.

De­fend­ing sources against reprisal, the logic goes, makes it pos­si­ble for im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion to reach the pub­lic—in spite of the wishes and van­i­ties of of­fi­cial­dom, whether gov­ern­men­tal or cor­po­rate.

Bradley Man­ning, if guilty as charged, vi­o­lated oaths and broke laws in down­load­ing the mil­i­tary and diplo­matic se­crets he pro­vided to Wik­iLeaks. But then the world’s lead­ing news or­ga­ni­za­tions eval­u­ated that ma­te­rial and de­cided to make much of it pub­lic be­cause of its “im­mense value,” as New York Times edi­tor Bill Keller put it.

So? If these news me­dia be­lieve they were right to pub­lish the ma­te­rial Man­ning gave them, how can they stand aside as he faces life in prison for giv­ing it to them? If they did right and if the world ben­e­fited, did he do wrong? On what grounds can they say—as Keller and Guardian of Lon­don edi­tor Alan Rus­bridger have said—that they would help de­fend Wik­iLeaks boss Ju­lian As­sange if the U.S. charges him, while they won’t lift a fin­ger to protest Man­ning’s in­car­cer­a­tion?

Maybe the gov­ern­ment has some­thing un­de­ni­ably bad against Man­ning. There has been dark mut­ter­ing about com­pro­mised na­tional se­cu­rity, and talk of trea­son from Capi­tol Hill back­benchers au­di­tion­ing for Fox News. But if there’s ev­i­dence of real harm I haven’t seen it.

What I do un­der­stand is that the Wik­iLeaks ma­te­rial—es­pe­cially the frank com­ments of U.S. en­voys about the for­eign thugs and despots with whom they do busi­ness—has been de­voured by read­ing publics through­out the world, peo­ple stuck with lap­dog me­dia who are starved for re­li­able, in­sight­ful ob­ser­va­tions about their own cor­rupt lead­ers.

These dis­clo­sures have been cited by the pro­test­ers in Tu­nisia, the ones who touched off the breath­tak­ing in­sur­gency that’s sweep­ing North Africa and the Mid­dle East. To those young ac­tivists, Wik­iLeaks is a god­send, U.S. diplo­mats are trusted truth-tell­ers, and—even if they don’t know his name—Bradley Man­ning is a hero.

The news me­dia like to pose as cham­pi­ons of un­pop­u­lar causes. But there’s no ev­i­dence of that in their aban­don­ment of Pri­vate Man­ning.

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