Private Bradley Manning has admitted breaking the law. The 25-year-old former intelligence analyst pleaded guilty to releasing secret government documents, including a video of an American helicopter attack in Baghdad. What the judge in the court-martial, Col. Denise Lind, determined in weighing the remaining charges against Manning is that his release of hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic documents did not amount to “aiding the enemy.”
In that way, Col. Lind performed a service for those who hold high the public getting to know what the government is doing in its name. The prosecution described Manning as an “anarchist” and a “traitor.” Little of what is known suggests something so sinister. Manning has done what so many others have in the past, sharing information to spark debate and understanding.
Imagine the fallout if Col. Lind had found Manning guilty of “aiding the enemy,” a crime punishable by death. A chilling message would have been sent to those considering the release of secret documents, almost certainly making the task of investigative reporters more difficult, national security decision-making becoming even harder to penetrate, the public more often left in the dark.
No question, Manning violated the law, as Col. Lind found, and he should pay a price. How high? The volume of the release was huge, roughly 700,000 documents routed to WikiLeaks. What must be evaluated are the costs and benefits. Hard to believe many today would hold, say, that the release of the Pentagon Papers four decades ago wasn’t beneficial to the country.
The next few weeks will be spent assessing the punishment Manning should receive, the maximum sentence 136 years in prison. Here is a moment to think candidly about the value of information in a democracy such as ours. What is the greater harm, keeping secrets, officials too eager to stamp “classified,” or sharing documents that shed light? Punish Bradley Manning too harshly and the former more likely would prevail, those in the know reluctant to take the necessary risk.