Bradley Manning Convicted of Espionage…Obama Achieves What Nixon Couldn’t
President Barack Obama has achieved the dubious distinction of accomplishing what even Richard Nixon could not: Get someone convicted of espionage for telling the truth about the government’s crimes and lies to the American people. Too often lost in the legal controversy surrounding Manning is the fact that materials he provided included evidence of war crimes, including video footage from a U.S. helicopter showing the unprovoked and indiscriminate killing of more than a dozen civilians in Iraq.
Obama did it by convincing military judge Col. Denise Lind to do what the Supreme Court and Congress have refused for years to do: turn the Espionage Act of 1917 into an American “Official Secrets Act.” Passed during World War I, the Act has been used against actual spies like Robert Hanson, but more ominously against anti-war dissidents like Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs, who was convicted in 1918, and Vietnam-era whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who, along with Anthony Russo, was charged but not convicted while Richard Nixon was president.
The Act makes it illegal for anyone to “knowingly and willfully communicate…to an unauthorized person…or use in any manner prejudicial to the safety or interest of the United States or for the benefit of any foreign government to the detriment of the United States any classified information.” Based on this case, and to guard against the obvious dangers the Act poses to free speech, the courts over the years required the government to prove that the information could potentially damage the U.S. or help a foreign nation.
Ever since, Washington’s military and intelligence establishment has tried to get that rule overturned, either by the Supreme Court or by Congress, in order to transform the Espionage Act into what other countries call an “Official Secrets Act,” which criminalizes all unauthorized leaks, even if they benefit the public by revealing official criminal behavior. Both the Supreme Court and Congress resisted the pressure, but Judge Lind did not, ruling that the government need not prove any detrimental impact arose from Manning’s revelations.
In light of the possibility of a 90-year prison sentence, the Manning conviction will likely have a chilling effect on investigative journalism, which relies on the willingness of government officials to reveal secrets in order to benefit the public interest, especially at the federal level.
“This will discourage the average whistleblower, an official who maybe has just a few classified documents that reveal corruption or wrong-doing and who ensure[s] accountability in the system. This will shoot down the least offensive, and the most valuable leaks,” predicted Liza Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program.
To Learn More:
In re Bradley Manning (Sentencing Hearing) (pdf)
Manning Conviction under Espionage Act Worries Civil Liberties Campaigners (by Ed Pilkington, The Guardian)
What the Verdict in Bradley Manning’s Trial Means for Whistleblowers (by Kevin Gosztola, Firedoglake)
CCR Condemns Manning Verdict, Questions Future of First Amendment (Center for Constitutional Rights)
Manning was charged under the Espionage Act. It doesn’t have a proud history. (by Caitlin Dewey, Washington Post)
Pentagon Documents Refer to WikiLeaks Members as Enemies of the United States…Equal to Al-Qaeda (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)
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