Last week, after an astounding 567 days in prison, Bradley Manning – the US Army private accused of leaking the WikiLeaks documents – finally began his pre-trial hearing.
In the year and a half since he has been in jail, Manning has been severely mistreated by his jailers, has been assumed guilty by the president and now potentially faces life in jail. Yet the "crime" he is accused of is something many US officials do with regularity: leak classified information in the public interest to news organisations.
When Manning was held at Quantico military base earlier this year, he was shamefully subjected to extremely harsh, even torturous, conditions. He was forced to sit alone in his cell for 23 hours a day, was barred from exercise or socialising with other inmates, and stripped naked at night – all despite showing no behavioural problems.
Over 250 law professors, including President Obama's Constitutional law professor at Harvard Law School, Laurence Tribe, signed a letter calling the treatment of Manning illegal, unconstitutional and possibly torture. Former State Department spokesman PJ Crowley, the State Department's lead critic of WikiLeaks, was even forced to resign when he called the treatment of manning "ridiculous and counter-productive and stupid".
Around the same time President Obama was defending Manning's treatment, he was also publicly stating that Manning "broke the law" – despite not being convicted of any crime. Many legal observers found the remarks inappropriate and potentially "unlawful command influence". As Salon's Glenn Greenwald asked, "How can Manning possibly expect to receive a fair hearing from military officers when their Commander-in-Chief has already decreed his guilt?"
The government should have to answer for its statements and treatment of Manning in court no matter what his alleged crime, but the government's own assessments of the disclosures and similar acts makes its reaction that much worse.
According to Manning's lawyer, the White House, State Department, and Defence Department have each conducted secret reviews of the WikiLeaks disclosures. Each review found the disclosures did not damage national security. Reportedly, the reviews conclude the facts revealed in the WikiLeaks disclosures were "either dated, represented low-level opinions or [were] already known because of previous public disclosures". The government has so far refused to release the alleged studies, even though they could potentially impact Manning's case.
Of course, anyone who has been paying attention already knew that the government's hysteria over the disclosures has been wildly exaggerated from the beginning. Officials have quietly, but consistently, admitted they cannot point to single person who has died because of the WikiLeaks disclosures, despite constantly claiming WikiLeaks was putting "hundreds of lives at risk".
Misleading the public in order to shut down WikiLeaks
More than a year ago, when asked for the Pentagon's official response amidst calls for WikiLeaks to be labelled a terrorist organisation and the alleged leaker to be charged with treason, then-Secretary of Defence Robert Gates said the disclosures were "embarrassing" and "awkward", but downplayed any real damage.
When then-State Department spokesman PJ Crowley was publicly saying the disclosures created "substantial damage", State Department officials were privately admitting the disclosures were "embarrassing but not damaging".Reuters reported that "the administration felt compelled to say publicly that the revelations had seriously damaged American interests in order to bolster legal efforts to shut down the WikiLeaks website and bring charges against the leakers."
In other words, they were lying to help their case against Manning.
At the same time, the documents have provided the public a much-needed window into US affairs that is increasingly and ludicrously secret, and the most consequential foreign policy event that WikiLeaks did influence – the democratic revolution in Tunisia – was an event the US State Department applauded. Unfortunately, Manning's lawyer has been severely restricted in raising questions such as "Why is this information classified in the first place?" As Denver Nicks wrote in the Daily Beast, "By truncating the conversation, the state has robbed the public of a unique opportunity to learn about the secrecy system operating in its name and on its dime."
It's important to note that the regular leaking of classified information by high-ranking US officials has continued unabated – and unpunished – since Manning has been in jail. In the past year, US officials have leaked non-WikiLeaks related classified information to many of the US' most established news publications about Afghanistan, Pakistan,Russia, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Iran, China and others. Much of the information is likely classified at a higher level than anything Manning is accused of leaking.
Just two weeks ago, "several US officials" anonymously leaked classified information to Bloomberg News about the drone – one of the most classified in the US arsenal – that crashed in Iran. US officials did the same for the Associated Press the day before.
The sole leak investigation involving a high-ranking official is that of former CIA general counsel John Rizzo, whose only mistake was apparently speaking on-the-record about the same drone program. But as National Journal reported, the investigation will most likely end not with life in prison, but "with some sort of formal reprimand, and possibly a financial penalty such as a decrease in his government pension".
It's clear the US has lost more because of its treatment of Manning – and the extreme double standard it has held him to – than because of any crime he allegedly committed.
Trevor Timm is an activist and blogger for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He specialises in free speech issues and government transparency. The views expressed here are his own.