Bradley Manning and the Downfall of the Fourth Estate

Sometime this week, Judge Col. Denise Lind will render a verdict in the trial of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the young Army intelligence analyst accused by the government of making public thousands of classified documents, images, and videos (including the infamous “Collateral Murder” linked be). Manning has already admitted to leaking hundreds of thousands of documents, but has plead not guilty to several more serious charges, including a charge of “aiding the enemy” which could result in him spending his life behind bars. Manning’s attorneys have put up a spirited defense, arguing that he was a “good-intentioned” but naive youth who could not stand idly by as the US government commits war crimes. The government, on the other hand, argues that Manning is a ‘fame-seeking anarchist” who leaked the documents and videos to get attention and undermine American power.

The case being brought by the government is so disingenuous it strains belief. The essence of the “aiding the enemy” charge is that Manning knowingly released the documents so that members of al-Qaeda could view them, and that the documents and videos gave a material advantage to the terrorist organization. Much of the prosecution’s case for this charge revolves around the fact that several of Manning’s leaked documents were found in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Government prosecutors, somewhat ludicrously, claim that Manning was aiding the enemy because he knew that al-Qaeda had access to the internet. Col. Lind ruled in her instructions to the attorneys that the government must prove “evil intent” on the part of Manning – in other words, the United States must show that Manning wanted the information he leaked to be used against American forces, rather than simply showing that al-Qaeda had ultimately obtained it.

In response, the prosecution jumped to the even more ludicrous argument that “Pfc. Manning knew the consequences of his actions and disregarded that knowledge in his own self-interest.” Apparently, these days, “self-interest” means risking your freedom and life to secretly expose US military misdeeds. “Self-interest” means taking no credit for exposing the evils of US imperialism, with the only rewards being detention without charge for over a year and being subject while in prison to treatment that the United Nations special rapporteur on torture concluded was cruel, inhumane, and torturous. “Self interest,” in the eyes of the American government, means being disgusted with drone strikes, sickened by murder and torture and indefinite detention. “Self interest,” in other words, means responding with basic human decency to the depredations and overreaches of colonialist American foreign policy.

In their attempt to prove “evil intent,” the prosecution also pulled perhaps the most Orwellian move seen in any court, civilian or military, in this country in several generations: the prosecution refused to demonstrate the harm caused by Manning’s leaks on the grounds that doing so would cause harm to US forces and interests. In other words: we know he’s the bad guy because…we know he is. Trust us. For another stunning depiction of Orwellian language: the prosecutor at one point had cause to describe the events of the “Collateral Murder” video. The phrase he used? The video depicts “…the actions and experiences of U.S. service members conducting a wartime mission.” Cold, bloodless, and antiseptic; the exact opposite of the video’s contents (or US foreign policy, for that matter).

What is truly disgusting about the Manning trial, however, is not the case being brought by the prosecution – it is, sadly, the expected result of a deeply flawed system under attack – but rather the deafening silence of major news organizations in response. Manning’s defense has eloquently painted his prosecution as a dangerous precedent for future whistleblowers, as the charges leveled against Manning could potentially be applied to civilian officials as well as military members. Suspiciously – and notably – Obama’s campaign website, change.org, recently removed his promise to protect whistleblowers from prosecution as “Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government.” The prosecutor in the Manning case even stressed that the prosecution of Manning would have occurred had he leaked the documents to the New York Times or other “respectable” news outlets. These same news organizations have taken no steps to aid Manning’s defense, nor have they spoken out against the prosecution of an individual they should theoretically be most interested in protecting – an inside source revealing government transgressions. A far cry from the days of Deep Throat and the Pentagon Papers, indeed. Instead, the news media has continued a disturbing trend that has been ongoing for the last decade-plus: cooperate with the government, lead the charge for war and excess and abuse, throw dissenters under the bus. The refusal of the Times and the Washington Post to even accept the leaked documents when they were first offered screams their guilt and complicity. This is the first time in over 150 years that someone has been charged with aiding the enemy for releasing information to the media for general publication – and the same media is doing nothing to intervene. As Edward Wasserman of the Miami Herald writes: “He was a great source. His information was solid. The world’s best news organizations believed it was of immense public value. So now he goes to jail, perhaps for life, and the media stand in silence?”

The Manning case speaks volumes about the “fourth estate” and their newfound willingness to stand in silence as their sources are eviscerated by the government. It speaks volumes about the corporate media’s priorities and complicity with state power. The editor of the Times referred to the Manning leaks as a “treasure” that “contained the makings of many dozens of stories.” Yet his paper is, of course, content to take their cut of the sale of those stories while Bradley Manning faces life in a military prison. Those journalists that have bothered to attend the trial are mainly from online publications – Wikileaks itself, the Huffington Post, and others – and they have been met with utter resistance from the military, including drawn weapons and censorship of tweets and articles. This is America in the 21st century: the press is free, so long as they toe the government line and betray the trust of those who attempt to do the press’ job for them by keeping the government honest.

Regardless of the outcome of the Manning trial, the US government has certainly accomplished something: the next person will think twice before blowing the whistle on their crimes. Edward Snowden fled to Russia to escape the treatment given to Manning; who can guess how many more individuals now sit on evidence of government misdeeds but fear for their very lives? The role of the press is to encourage these people and offer them their protection…instead the American news media acts the part of the castrated lapdog of US policy – craven, beholden, and the true traitor in these sad proceedings.

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