WikiLeaks: Bradley Manning isn't a criminal. He's a hero.

Many are condemning Bradley Manning for allegedly providing WikiLeaks with sensitive reports about US foreign policy. But a government that can make war while keeping essential information about its justification and conduct secret is neither open nor fit for free people.

First it was a video of a helicopter gunship killing and injuring unarmed Iraqi civilians, including two children, and two newsmen as they walked down a street in Baghdad.

Then in two separate document dumps, hundreds of thousands of classified military field reports from Iraq and Afghanistan were released to the public. Now more than a quarter-million State Department cables, more than 15,000 of which are classified “secret” and/or “noforn” (not to be shared with foreign governments), have been released without authorization.

The US government’s problems with WikiLeaks continues, and the Obama administration “condemn[ed] in the strongest terms the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents and sensitive national security information.”

IN PICTURES: Wikileaks and the war in Iraq

The White House said the release of “stolen cables” was “reckless and dangerous.”

It attributed the leaks to Pfc. Bradley Manning, who has been in custody since the release of the Baghdad video, which WikiLeaks titled “Collateral Murder.” In July, Mr. Manning was charged with “transferring classified data onto his personal computer and adding unauthorized software to a classified computer system” and “communicating, transmitting and delivering national defense information to an unauthorized source.” He faces up to 52 years in prison.

Naturally, WikiLeaks refuses to confirm that Manning was the source of the documents, but assuming he was, what are we to make of him? Is he a hero or a villain?

I say hero. When a government secretly engages in such consequential activities as aggressive wars justified by at best questionable and at worst fabricated intelligence, covert bombings and assassinations, and diplomatic maneuvering designed to support such global meddling, the people in whose name that government acts – and who could suffer retaliation – have a right to know.

Related: ‘We cannot deal with these people’: WikiLeaks shows true feelings on Guantánamo

Are 'we the people' really in charge?

How can the American system be regarded as participatory if the most potentially explosive government conduct is hidden? Are “we the people” really in charge or not?

Or is “government of the people, by the people, for the people” so much pabulum to keep us contentedly ignorant?

The same Obama administration that condemns the leaks has said: “Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing.” But if the government decides what constitutes transparency, how can it achieve either objective?

War is the most serious thing to which a government can commit a society. A government that can make war while keeping essential information about its justification and conduct secret is neither open nor fit for free people.

President Obama, like his predecessors, asks for our trust. He'd say he can’t tell us everything, but government in a democratic society requires confidence in its leaders. A similar appeal for trust failed to impress Thomas Jefferson in 1798.

Bogus appeals for trust

In his protest of the Adams administration’s Alien and Sedition Acts (which essentially criminalized harsh criticism of the government), Jefferson wrote in the Kentucky Resolutions, “[I]t would be a dangerous delusion were a confidence in the men of our choice to silence our fears for the safety of our rights: that confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism – free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence; it is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power.”

Or as the Irish statesman John Philpot Curran said eight years earlier, “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.”

Yet how can Americans exercise vigilance against government threats to their liberty if critical information is systematically withheld? They can’t. That’s why people such as Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers 39 years ago, and perhaps Manning heroically risked personal ruin and defied authority to bring that information to us.

Foreign policy vs. imperial foreign policy

WikiLeaks’ critics will say that foreign policy cannot be conducted in public. As stated, that assertion is false. It is only an imperial foreign policy that cannot be conducted in public. A policy of global policing and intervention does indeed require secrecy and intrigue, but the pacific foreign policy envisioned by Jefferson and George Washington – “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible” – does not.

It is the rejection of George Washington’s advice that has caused Americans to be concerned about their safety, especially when flying.

Many foreign policy “experts” hype the “dark, violent side” of Islam. Yet anti-American terrorism originating in the Muslim world has been solely in retaliation for US military invasions, occupations, and covert wars that have taken countless innocent lives. The work of Robert Pape, founder of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, establishes this beyond a reasonable doubt. How would Americans react to a foreign occupation?

Moreover, foreign intervention and the inevitable retaliatory “blowback” have brought a frightening devaluation of our privacy and other civil liberties. As the late professor Chalmers Johnson put it, either give up the empire or live under it.

Can't afford to police the globe

Policing the globe poses another kind of threat to Americans: economic. All told, American military and “security” spending exceeds $1 trillion a year. Nearly 20 years after the end of the cold war, the United States accounts for almost half the world’s military spending. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost $1 trillion and are far from over.

Yet our $14 trillion national debt is quickly approaching 100 percent of GDP, and trillion-plus-dollar budget deficits loom for the foreseeable future. If we are to get our fiscal house in order, the military budget must be slashed. No government can play global policeman yet remain small and nonintrusive at home. War hawks make poor budget hawks.

We have a choice. Peace, nonintervention, and low government expenditures? Or perpetual war and out-of-control government? Knowing the legal consequences of his brave action, Bradley Manning made an apparently difficult choice. For us, it’s not a hard choice at all.

Sheldon Richman is the editor of The Freeman magazine and blogs at Free Association.

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