NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Bradley Manning has been found guilty of most of the counts against him, including five counts of espionage. The sentencing hearing began this morning, July 31, and will likely continue for weeks. Facing a maximum 136 years, Manning could easily spend the rest of his life in prison.
My own view is that that would be a severe injustice. Setting him free might be a better choice.
Of the main facts in the case there is no dispute: He stole hundreds of thousands of secret documents, shared that classified information with the world, in doing so he reneged on his responsibilities as a member of military intelligence. I would go so far as to say he is guilty of working against the interests of his own government.
The judge in the case, Col. Denise Lind, stopped short of the most ominous charge of "aiding the enemy," finding that the government failed to prove that point. As an editorial on
points out, that decision shows a constructive measure of restraint and a practical use of the bench for reasons of statesmanship.
The Manning verdict bears the strong imprint of common sense. Lind rejected the government's contention that, by dint of his training in intelligence, Manning knew his disclosures of documents and videos related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would likely come to the attention of al-Qaeda. On the other hand, Lind found that Manning should have known that his actions could harm the U.S., even if that was not his goal.
The question that I'm left with, as we prepare to sentence him to X number of years in prison, is this: Whose government is it? Answering that question has led me to the conclusion that, nearly regardless of his personal motivations, Manning's sentence should at the very least be light. Possibly he should even be set free.
Granted the statesmanship angle is not one to be taken lightly. If the government does not aggressively pursue Manning or Edward Snowden then it loses significant, functional credibility in the eyes of the world. How do you assure the leader of another country of confidentiality when your secrets are being handed out to the media like Halloween candy?
Having deployed our young men and women into dangerous situations with our guns, putting their lives on the line, we must do everything we can to support them. A leak of military information could needlessly undermine their efforts, turning them into targets and even getting them killed before any strategy could be implemented.
I agree in part with the
piece: the military judge in Manning's case took a middle-ground approach, not further sacrificing press freedoms by accepting the "aiding the enemy" argument, while still pursuing Manning on counts of espionage for the inadvertent harm he may have caused to U.S. military and foreign policy interests.
But this argument assumes the interests of the government and military are in accordance with our interests. We are the government. Between the government and the citizenry, there is no clear line. The government is made up of us, of our decisions. Or so we would like to believe.
Take a look at
, but be warned it is disturbing. That is the famous clip that Manning reportedly leaked to
, showing helicopters firing on people in the street. People in the group had weapons, but no one appears to have fired on the helicopter. No one returned fire once the shooting started.
Would a majority of us citizens -- mothers and fathers, lovers, clergy, poets, politicians, businessmen and women, firefighters and surfers, rich and poor, saints and sinners -- have opted to let that helicopter fire on a group of Iraqis, killing 11? With kids in the van, would we have given the order to fire?
Some of us would, clearly. Some of us did.
But I'm hopeful that, in the obviously hypothetical scenario where all the American people together were able to weigh in on the decision to pull the trigger, we as a country would have said, no. No, absolutely not. No end justifies that means. As a nation, that's not what we're about.
employees were among the noncombatants reportedly killed in that shooting. When
called for an inquiry into the incident, a spokesman for the multinational forces in Baghdad gave the insufficient response, "coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force."
It appears that our government, our military, claiming it needed to keep its intelligence and its military operations a secret, was not going to tell us the truth about that operation. We apparently weren't going to see the video.
If killings we would not approve of happen in our name and we don't know about it, is that somehow
? Should we imprison Manning for confronting us with the truth?
Again, I think the answer is clearly, no.
I think the government, in its zeal to protect us, sometimes acts contrary to our intent and to our beliefs. Where it is aware that it has made such bad calls, there is at least a good chance that the government itself is not going to tell us and is going to use the need for secrecy as an excuse.
Secrecy is important in military operations. No argument. But such secrecy comes with an enormous responsibility because it has a tendency to erode the interests of democracy.
If we don't want to know when our government commits a crime, if we want to cede that much personal liberty to the military and to Washington, then punishing Manning to the fullest extent of the law makes perfect sense. If what we want is a government and a military responsive to us and to our sense of moral obligation, then we need to count on common citizens and soldiers to voice their discontent when they see it.
There is the point that Manning's disclosure may have been somewhat irresponsible. It may have hurt us, it may have cost soldiers their lives and opened up new targets for the enemy. Manning himself has said he felt the information was of little strategic consequence, but showed a troubling history of military and diplomatic decisions contrary to stated American foreign policy.
has compiled a list of 10 revelations about the Iraq and Afghan conflicts gleaned from the leaked documents, including that video and indications of thousands of unreported deaths. We have not yet seen a similar list of any direct harm caused by the leaks.
The prosecution's view of the damage done and the defense team's view of Manning's motives will be at the center of the sentencing hearings.
For Manning, and for us, the game is rigged. Pointing out a broken system means you yourself are put on trial, judged by the laws and expectations of that same broken system. Manning's treatment during the time after his arrest, a period during which he was held in solitary confinement 23 hours a day for 11 months and made to strip naked at night. A special U.N. investigator has labeled Manning's treatment by the U.S. cruel and inhuman and "violated his presumption of innocence."
Such actions, again, seem to run counter to our intent as a society and make our government's case against him even more suspicious.
So the question remains: Whose government is it? If it is ours, then Manning did us a huge favor and the system needs to be fixed. If it's not, then we have bigger problems.
-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in New York.