The similar cases raise the nagging question of whether the Daniel Ellsberg case or that of Bradley Manning produced the most consequential result. Ellsberg’s disclosure of the Pentagon Papers ultimately led to the Watergate scandal and the resignation of the president.
A further question will concern the punishment each received. Daniel Ellsberg has observed the results of his action as a free (and often celebrated) man.
As a pariah in a prison cell, Bradley Manning will hear where his actions — or those of the Mssrs. Snowden and Assange — will lead. This is anybody’s guess, and though it is certainly true that each of these has revealed serious intrusions into the privacy U.S. citizens have expected, it is almost certain that none of the three will ever be celebrated.
Thinking about these cases is confusing for Americans. Since about a third of the U.S. population was under the age of 18 according to the 2010 census, this means that these citizens have no memory of the Ellsberg case and it is likely that their parents, now approaching 50 years of age, have slight, if any, concern. Conversely, living as they do in the age of extraordinary technological advances, they are certainly aware of the Manning case.
So what does the country think of Manning’s actions and his potential punishment? In the time of the Pentagon Papers matter, Ellsberg was a traitor in the eyes of most of the country. Later there emerged an approving assessment of his role in exposing the miscalculations of our government in the Vietnam War. Is it even possible that this will happen in this case?
In the sentencing phase of Bradley Manning’s trial, there has been compelling testimony from such authorities as Brig. Gen. Robert Carr, the leader of a Defense Department review of the WikiLeaks matter.
He stated unequivocally that there is no link between any death and Manning’s disclosures to WikiLeaks. There is more testimony to be cited and more to come that discredits claims that Manning is responsible for widespread mayhem.
Nevertheless, Bradley Manning, a dopey-looking young man, is branded as a traitor and is facing up to 90 years in prison. This may say less about the consequences of his crime and the need for national security vigilance than it does about our collective paranoia, paranoia which receded as the Cold War wound down but which has had a determined resurgence since the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001.
As a reasoning, responsible country, we have to overcome this self-destructive mindset. Neither individuals nor their society can live and progress in an atmosphere of constantly perceived threat. Certainly there have been remarkable examples in U.S. history of traitors as there have been remarkable instances of government deception. All of these have been extensively reported and analyzed in media. In the past, media was only print and television; now the favored medium of disclosure is the Internet, which reaches millions in this country and around the world every day. It’s no wonder that Julian Assange and, through this medium, Bradley Manning’s stolen documents found a golden opportunity.
Stealing is a crime, but a perpetual question in this country concerns whether using available and willing media to reveal information is legal. The Supreme Court, with a strong concurring opinion written by Alabama native Hugo Black, declared that such action is legal, guaranteed by the under First Amendment.
The WikiLeaks disclosures are today’s Pentagon Papers, and though Bradley Manning is hardly Daniel Ellsberg, it is worth examining the national motive for vilifying him and the use of the media for dissemination of information.
Josephine Ayers is editor-in-chief of Longleaf Magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.