The Manning Verdict: Obama's Defining Injustice

A Commentary By Hans Hoyng

Photo Gallery: Manning on Trial Photos
AP/dpa

By using the Espionage Act to punish Bradley Manning, the Obama administration has shown how far it will go to intimidate leakers. His sentencing is a stain on the president's legacy and on America's global reputation.

It was never an issue whether Bradley Manning violated US law. Manning pleaded guilty to 10 charges at the beginning of his military trial. The maximum sentence for those charges was 20 years in prison -- an intolerable sentence, but unlikely to be the extent of his punishment.

That punishment could now be a 136-year prison sentence. Prosecutors have brought in the big guns -- and invoked the Espionage Act, which was passed in 1917 in reaction to fears of German spies and saboteurs.

It is political despotism to use this act in a trial that has to do with neither espionage nor sabotage. It means the defense can no longer argue that the defendant harmed no one, that he acted in the public interest. It deprives Manning of the only basis to justify his actions and the opportunity to avoid a guilty verdict.

This is why the appropriate reaction to this verdict would be to reverse it. It would be overzealous, both from a legal and political standpoint, to pass judgment on Manning as a warning to other possible politically motivated offenders. The 25-year-old soldier, a man who is unconvincing as a heroic figure and burdened with complexes, is the most recent casualty in a hysterically prolonged "war on terror."

Obama's War on Whistleblowers

The Manning trial isn't the first instance in which the United States under President Barack Obama has demonstrated its willingness to do everything it takes to prevent the spread of unwelcome truths. Former President Richard Nixon tried to use the Espionage Act to put the leaker of the Pentagon Papers -- about the planning of the Vietnam War -- behind bars. With a guilty verdict against Manning, Obama has now prevailed where Nixon failed.

This injustice -- more than his withdrawal from two wars, and more than his largely futile struggle to make the United States into a more socially equitable country -- will define Obama's presidency in the long term.

SPIEGEL, along with other leading international media organizations, edited and published the flood of data Manning disseminated through the Wikileaks whistleblowing website. Therefore, it is in SPIEGEL's interest that future sources are not intimidated, that this verdict not be upheld.

This should also be in Obama's interest. The reputation of the United States is at stake, along with its credibility as a country where freedom also means confrontation with the truth.

Why Leaks Matter

Leaks are necessary for the fight against abuses of power. Manning's leaks uncovered war crimes, albeit ones that have remained unpunished. His leaks revealed, at an early juncture, the disorientation of the US's Afghanistan operations. And the cables from US embassies, far from being high-level gossip, showed how eagerly those in power deceived their own people.

Obama must pardon Manning so that more whistleblowers do not find themselves compelled to seek refuge in the even darker realm of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Political lawbreakers like Nixon and Iran-Contra conspirators like former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane were pardoned. After all, there's honor among thieves.

Now it's also time to pardon someone willing to call a thief a thief.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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1. German?
sharon_st100 08/05/2013
When will Der spiegel publish classified German information from German leakers? When will Der spiegel publish classified French information from French leakers. For God sake, Der spiegle is an European magazine and it should be doing its journalistic duty by revealing classified German, French, Italian material. As Der spiegel put it so well, leaks are necessary for the fight against abuse of power. When will Der spiegel publish cable from German embassies, from French embassies? Where is the German Manning ? Where is the German Snowden? Where is the French Manning? Where is the French Snowden? While bashing the USA for its laws, can Der Spiegel kindly tell the public what are the German laws for leaking classified material? Better still inform the public about French laws for leaking classified material. There is a reason where there are no Germany or French manning & Snowden because the penalites for leaking classified information are much harsher in Europe. A dirty little secret that Europe does not want the world to know.
2. Spy or Whistleblower?
Jim in MD 08/05/2013
Translation, perhaps, gets in the way. A whistleblower, in American parlance, refers to someone who takes information of wrongdoing to a higher authority in one's chain of command. Do the Wikileaks really show anything that already was not being freely reported? No, journalists published reports of abuse at Abu Ghraib and drones and widespread surveillance years before Manning released videos of civilians killed by drones. Those simply were pictures meant to sensationalize the issue. Snowden simply claims that European governments knew about surveillance detailed in the US media years ago, although he also seems to have shared details with China and Russia. That's clearly esponiage. These men spied on their country in order to stop actions clearly approved by its president, congress and highest court. Elected German, French, and British authorities clearly worked with US authorities. If European media now are angry, then they should urge their people to vote those authorities out of office. The EU certainly could take the issue to international courts. However, SPIEGEL should stop misrepresenting US actions as covert or illegal, either in the US or Europe. Soldiers who betray details of authorized security operations to hostile foreign governments or entities are not whistleblowers, simply because it makes a journalist feel bad. Their governments are not ipso facto dictators or totalitarian either. As an ideological enforcer for a Communist university, Chancellor Merkel's viewpoint is valuable. She is a Russian-phillic anti-Anglo-Saxon member of the DDR turned German politician. When she says the US-Stasis comparison is irresponsible, it makes sense to listen to her. As a Russian-Orthodox academic who studied in the Soviet Union, I can understand SPIEGEL's nervousness about the US but find the comparison equally repugnant.
3. optional
vaxira 08/05/2013
There was an element of hope during GWB administration – four years and the insanity of the Compassionate Conservative will disappear. Four years turned into eight but the hope of better US was still with us. Then HE came and artfully capitalized on our despair and aspirations, HE even received a Nobel Prize of our expectations. Five years into our destroyed hopes is testing to believe the “Change We Can Believe In” - the change that drained my faith that the better US is possible ever.
4. Over-simplification
zyzzy77 08/05/2013
Unfortunately, you have over simplified the Espionage Act, or more exactly 18 USC Chapter 37. It is not a monolithic law with a single 136 year sentence for its violation The act spells out in great detail many different violations, with a sentence of ‘not more than 10 years’ each. They include; Gathering, transmitting or losing Defense information. Publication and sale of photographs of defense installations and Disclosure of Classified information. Leaks may be necessary to fight against the abuses of power, but laws are necessary to maintain a civil society. Under US whistleblower laws (5 U.S.C. § 2302(b)(8)(B)), Manning should have reported his finding of illegal activity to the DoD Inspector General, If he didn't agree with the IG's findings, he could appeal. But he instead chose to violate the law, and release classified documents on the internet.
5. Spy or Whistleblower...hmmmm
lowplaces 08/05/2013
He did take his concerns to a higher authority, the American people. Unfortunately for him, they seem to be just fine with committing war crimes.
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