A statement Pfc. Bradley Manning read in court yesterday as part of his guilty pleas provided further evidence of how organizationally establishment US media organizations are incapable of responding to tips from whistleblowers. It also included much to ponder as President Barack Obama’s administration continues to maintain a war on whistleblowers, especially those whose work involves so-called national security.
According to a near verbatim transcript of his statement produced by Alexa O’Brien, who has been covering the court martial every day there have been proceedings, Manning recounted how he tried to share the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs with US media outlets before submitting to WikiLeaks:
At my aunt’s house I debated what I should do with the SigActs [war logs]– in particular whether I should hold on to them– or expose them through a press agency. At this point I decided that it made sense to try to expose the SigAct tables to an American newspaper. I first called my local news paper, The Washington Post, and spoke with a woman saying that she was a reporter. I asked her if the Washington Post would be interested in receiving information that would have enormous value to the American public. Although we spoke for about five minutes concerning the general nature of what I possessed, I do not believe she took me seriously. She informed me that the Washington Post would possibly be interested, but that such decisions were made only after seeing the information I was referring to and after consideration by senior editors.
I then decided to contact [missed word] the most popular newspaper, The New York Times. I called the public editor number on The New York Times website. The phone rang and was answered by a machine. I went through the menu to the section for news tips. I was routed to an answering machine. I left a message stating I had access to information about Iraq and Afghanistan that I believed was very important. However, despite leaving my Skype phone number and personal email address, I never received a reply from The New York Times.
Spokespeople for both the Times and the Post said they had no knowledge of Manning ever trying to offer up copies of the war logs.
What seems to have happened is a comedy of errors. There may be no single person at fault. The staff involved with these newspapers may be able to say a receptionist did not pass along the news tip or, in terms of the message left for the public editor, the Times can say we get eighty to a hundred of these in a day. Only about ten seconds of each are listened to before deleting and moving on to the next message because many are from crazy people. But, does that excuse what happened?
Do press want to be able to accept disclosures from soldiers who believe they have uncovered something they believe the public has a right to know? If outlets do, it would seem the process for accepting news tips is in disarray. He was only on leave for a short period in January 2010 and that was the time when he could share what he had with media organizations. He had a small window and, when the papers he wanted to publish did not appear interested, he decided to try WikiLeaks and submit the war logs from a Barnes & Noble in Rockville, Maryland.
Though WikiLeaks did not publish the war logs for months, the organization did not give him the feeling that he was being blown off because they had the material. He felt a sense of relief that they had the documents. It “allowed [him] to have a clear conscience” on what he was seeing happen every day.
Had the Times or Post obtained the logs and begun to examine them for publication, what would the organizations have done? Would they have published? Would they have notified the government they now possessed the documents? The Times communicated with the government when preparing to publish State Department cables:
Because of the range of the material and the very nature of diplomacy, the embassy cables were bound to be more explosive than the War Logs. Dean Baquet, our Washington bureau chief, gave the White House an early warning on Nov. 19. The following Tuesday, two days before Thanksgiving, Baquet and two colleagues were invited to a windowless room at the State Department, where they encountered an unsmiling crowd. Representatives from the White House, the State Department, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the C.I.A., the Defense Intelligence Agency, the FBI and the Pentagon gathered around a conference table. Others, who never identified themselves, lined the walls. A solitary note-taker tapped away on a computer.
What would have happened to Manning? Would they have been able to protect the identity of the lower-level soldier who had passed on information because he believed they were “some of the most significant documents of our time, removing the fog of war and revealing the true nature of 21st Century asymmetric warfare”?
In conversation with military judge Army Col. Denise Lind, Manning claimed he had talked to somebody there and they said they “might be interested if they saw the information.” He considered “physically going to the Washington Post‘s downtown office.” But, he said, “I was nervous, your honor.”
This is why leaks organizations like WikiLeaks are needed. Not only do they have the power to reveal what governments are doing in secret, they also are uniquely positioned—if constructed appropriately—to protect the identity of sources in such a way that makes it near impossible for governments to pursue those blowing the whistle. It creates the possibility that employees in militaries or national security agencies can reveal what they are seeing, be conscientious citizens and at the same time keep their job and, perhaps, not risk their livelihood.
Manning was caught by the military and arrested, however, in the evidence presented so far, it does not appear the military knew he was making unauthorized disclosures until hacker Adrian Lamo informed them he was talking to a soldier who claimed to have classified information in his possession.
Counterfactually, it is unclear if the military would have been able to detect he was making submissions to WikiLeaks. They have forensic evidence of submissions happening and they now can prove transmissions. Again, that evidence was only subsequently obtained because Manning was chatting with someone who became a government informant.
More generally, Bloomberg reported yesterday on an Obama memo that showed government agencies might be claiming the authority to fire certain individuals in national security positions if their job is considered to be “sensitive.” This could potentially be used administratively against an employee if an agency thinks that person is sharing too much about the nature of operations. It would not matter if the information was unclassified.
The Obama administration has already declined to ensure national security whistleblowers are afforded protections under the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA) signed last year. He does not believe their free speech rights deserve the same protections as whistleblowers in other federal agencies.
And, yesterday, CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou reported to prison in Loretto, Pennsylvania to begin a thirty-month sentence. His case was a First Amendment case—one of six cases pursued by the first term of the Obama administration under the Espionage Act. He began to talk about the official policy of torture of the CIA that included waterboarding and senior officials at the CIA, the FBI and the Justice Department began to work together to nail Kiriakou on some charge for speaking with media organizations. They caught him in the act of a mistake when he provided the name of an intelligence agent to reporter Matthew Cole. They exploited the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (along with the Espionage Act) and finally nailed him after years of attempting to destroy his life.
There was a remarkable confluence yesterday, with Manning reading his statement where he was pleading guilty to offenses and Kiriakou reporting to prison to serve a sentence. Both are prisoners of conscience caught up in a system that is more concerned about the system than humanity. Both are victims of a US government that silences and fights people from the military and national security agencies, who dare to challenge or open debates about how the government is operating secretly and publicly.