On Tuesday, Pfc. Bradley Manning was found guilty of a long list of crimes, and in a few hours comes the sentencing hearing, leading to what may be a very long prison term for the leaker and whistleblower. The one bright spot for Manning supporters — and First Amendment advocates — was that though this still sets a precedent for prosecution under the 1917 Espionage Act, Manning at least wasn’t found guilty of “aiding the enemy.” As various commentators, journalists, activists, and supporters have noted, the inference from that tacked-on charge was that the media, and by extension the public, American or otherwise, was the enemy. Also, that if making information freely available (and therefore probably accessible to any old terrorist with a WiFi connection or a New York Times subscription) is all that’s needed for that charge to stick, we’re all in for a serious cold snap when it comes to freedom of the press.
To the hawkiest of hawks in Congress, the failure to pin Manning with that most serious charge is a downer. But South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham (R) told Slate‘s Dave Weigel that everything seems to have worked out pretty well. Even Graham admitted that a leaker probably has to mean to do it, but said “I think [Manning] should have been tried for all the crimes, including aiding the enemy.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif) has been gunning for Manning and Wikileaks’ Julian Assange since 2010, so she was no doubt disappointed by the scrap of good news Tuesday.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the quality spectrum in politics, should-be friends to the whistleblower remained oddly quiet. Congressman Justin Amash (R-Mich), whose anti-NSA amendment came heartstoppingly close to success last week had no comment for Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray. Neither did Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky), or Ron Wyden (D-Ore), or Mark Udall (D-Colo), three of the senate’s toughest fighters for privacy and government accountability on behalf of the American people. (If you haven’t read Wyden’s anti-NSA speech from July 23, please do. It’s great, and scary as hell.) Gray briefly muses that even for most civil liberty – and leak-friendly — politicians, there’s a difference between pushing for the government to voluntarily release information and actually praising someone who dared to take the law into their own hands and supposedly endangered national security, the military, or the public.
And again, poor, heroic Manning, maybe more than his comrade Edward Snowden, faced an uphill battle in gaining support for his actions. This website and other high-profile supporters not withstanding, Manning was still seen by many as having betrayed his duties as a soldier. For example, on June 6 a Rasmussen poll reported that 52% percent of people said Manning was a “traitor.” A July 29 poll revealed that a third of people believed Manning deserved life in prison, and just a little over half believed that he had damaged national security. A June 12 Gallup poll reported that 44% of total respondents approved of Snowden’s decision to become a leaker. Even if people disapprove of government spying, they often seem to be waiting for a morally pure angel to acquire important information without sullying themselves in any way.
Regardless, the job of a politician is to uphold the law, or, at best to rally to change the is as Amash, Wyden, Udall, and Paul do. It’s tempting to ask why they don’t all support Snowden and Manning hell-bent for leather. Maybe they were all too busy to comment, but even the best politicians (which is…them) have to sell out daily as part of their job. And we need those men in Congress. This means they probably need to stay timid on some issues the rest of us should be shouting about.
We should be shouting about Bradley Manning. Or at least thanking him for treating us all like adults and individuals who deserve to know the truth about what’s done in our name; even while most officials demand we put our fingers in our ears and scream that no, no, no, we don’t want to know what war really looks like.