What’s At Stake With Chelsea Manning’s Verdict

Note: This article has been updated since its original publication to accurately reflect Chelsea Manning’s gender identity. 

In a matter of hours the military will decide whether Chelsea Manning is guilty of aiding the enemy, amongst other charges. The corporate media has done a remarkably poor job of covering Manning’s trial (those outlets that have covered it all) so what is at stake in tomorrow’s verdict has been relatively obscured.

I am certainly willing to debate anybody about whether Manning is a whistleblower and as a result deserves protection under the law not persecution under it, but that is ultimately not the issue of today’s verdict. Manning has already pled guilty to leaking classified information and will be serving 20 years in a military prison.  Even the most ultra-orthodox authoritarian should be satisfied since the absolute importance of maintaining the secrecy of information deemed secret by the government even if said information details criminal activity has been upheld. End of story.

Instead Manning is being charged with the lunatic charge of “aiding the enemy.” Aiding the enemy not only carries life imprisonment, a truly sickening thought in this case, but it has serious ramifications for freedom of speech, freedom of press, and whistleblowers everywhere.

Manning did not seek to give information to a hostile terrorist organization or state in hopes of furthering their military campaigns against the United States. She did not leak troop positions, military strategies, and his leak has in no way endangered US lives or military actions. Instead, it embarrassed the government, documented violence against civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, and exposed war crimes.

The argument is that because she put this information in the public domain bin Laden or other evil doers can access it. Because bin Laden has a lab top he can access Wikileaks or the New York Times and read about how the most powerful country on Earth used its diplomats to try to bully one of the poorest countries in the world (Haiti) into not raising its minimum wage at the bequest of a private corporation. She could learn that the United States keeps a causality count in Iraq or that they have found new ways of making sure Iraqis they don’t like are being tortured in a way that allows the US not to actually get its own hands dirty. None of this information helps the hypothetical evil doer in anyway really other than maybe confirming their preconceived biases against the United States or giving them new ideological capital. But if that’s the case should all wrongdoing or unflattering information about the United States should be hidden in case it might make people do bad things? Doesn’t it also have the power to inspire the American people to stand up and take charge of the government which is carrying out these distasteful policies in their name? To use their democratic process to say “Enough is Enough?”

Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler,testifying for the defense during a hearing to dismiss the aiding the enemy charge, stated that if Manning can be found guilty of aiding the enemy so can any of media outlet publishing the information online (like The New York Times).

The question is where is the line become drawn? If I read a New York Times article that has potentially embarrassing information about the United States government’s foreign policy and discuss it with a friend at a Starbucks should I be concerned than if an unknown evil doer is listening that I may be aiding the enemy? Should I be afraid to write about the case against Manning on my blog or mentioning information that I learned from its coverage in the New York Times, NPR, PBS, CNN, etc? After all, there is no device on blogger to block evil doers from reading this blog.

And why stop just at foreign policy or even classified information? Don’t people who point out the buffoonery of the Tea Party Republicans in Congress embarrass the American government and make it appear weak and inept? Is that aiding the enemy?

Of course, this nightmare totalitarian situation, while a logical extension of the case against Manning, is never going to happen. The New York Times will not be shut down and its editorial board will not be imprisoned. No one will be dragged out of Starbucks unable to finish their latte for discussing today’s headlines on NPR. However, this extension of what it means to aid the enemy will be used selectively and its victims will be those who oppose the policies of endless warfare and corporate domination. And that’s ultimately what this trial is about. If it was merely about protecting classified information the government would have quit when Manning pled guilty to essentially leaking classified information. Instead, they have forged ahead with this insane charge in hopes of fashioning a new tool to be used to intimated whistleblowers, journalists, and any dissidents who oppose global empire and neoliberal capitalism.

As a result, we should be viewing this case not through the prism of whether Manning leaked classified information, but through the prism of one of the most important freedom of speech and freedom of press cases in decades. It is important that everyone understand what is at stake.

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