The outcome of the Pfc. Bradley Manning trial has broad and grave consequences for America as a democracy, warns Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the classified Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers some 40 years ago, exposing widespread governmental misconduct.
Mr. Manning, the Army intelligence analyst who released some 700,000 classified documents online, is charged with violating the Espionage Act and aiding the enemy and could face life in prison.
In a conference call with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange Friday afternoon, Mr. Ellsberg pointed out that President Obama has charged twice as many people under the Espionage Act as all previous presidents.
Yet Manning, rather than someone interested in aiding America’s enemies, is a patriot responsible for “without a doubt the most influential leak in history,” Mr. Assange argues.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki cited documents given by Manning to WikiLeaks in his decision not to renew a Status of Forces Agreement with the US military, which in turn led to the formal end of the Iraq War, Assange noted.
According to Amnesty International, the leaks were one of the leading factors in triggering protests that led to the Arab Spring, he added.
Mr. Ellsberg also reiterated warnings about the chilling impact the Manning trial could have on journalism and the interpretation of the First Amendment protecting freedom of the press.
“If the ‘aiding the enemy’ charge is permitted to stand, this case will forever change the ability of journalists to reveal the most important crimes of the state,” and, in so doing, to change the course of US foreign policy with which the public might disagree.
That’s because the US government is increasingly naming journalists as co-conspirators in whistle-blowing cases, Assange argues, which in turn has the effect of embroiling journalists in prosecutions that could potentially carry the death penalty.
“It directly connects journalists and publishers into the Obama administration’s new attempt to define journalism about national security as conspiracy to commit espionage.”
If Manning is found guilty of aiding the enemy “it will be the end of national security journalism in the US,” he adds, “at a time it is needed the most.”
The US government’s disregard for the press has been evident in its treatment of journalists covering the Manning trial, Ellsberg said further, noting that armed US troops have been patrolling the courtroom.
In a Twitter feed Thursday, New York Times reporter Charlie Savage wrote, “Creepy having armed MPs [military police] in camo [camouflage] patrolling behind each row of reporters and looking over shoulders as we take notes on Manning trial.”
Ellsberg and Assange pushed back, too, against the picture painted by US government prosecutors of Manning as an attention-seeker interested in basking in the glory of his WikiLeaks revelations.
To make their case that he was hungry for glory rather than an intelligence analyst with a conscience, the prosecution, for example, cited a note from Manning to a colleague in which he wrote, “If you had unprecedented access to classified networks, 14 hours a day, seven days a week – for eight plus months – what would you do?
Yet defense attorney David Coombs argued that prosecutors intentionally left out far more relevant writings from Manning, in particular one in which he asked the same colleague, “Hypothetical question: If you had free reign over classified networks over a long period of time – if you saw incredible things, horrible things, things that belonged in the public domain and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington, D.C. – what would you do?”
Given this reasoning, Manning is a “hero,” Ellsberg says. “He doesn’t owe a debt to society, in my opinion. Society owes a debt to him.”