The Australian government’s rejection of Chelsea Manning’s visa application on a character grounds basis has triggered a furious public debate over the rightness of the decision.
Framed by some as a test of Australia’s democratic ideals – namely, the right of whistleblowers to be heard without fear of retaliation – it appears that many of her local supporters, including Greens leader Richard di Natale, are unphased by the former intelligence analyst’s previous criminal convictions. On this however, Manning’s defenders would do well to reconsider their position.
Indeed, far from a courageous and discriminating act of whistleblowing, Manning’s decision to illegally transmit hundreds of thousands of sensitive files which contained among other things, the identities of local Afghan informants and the social security numbers of American troops – was, plainly, simply, an act of espionage.
This is not to say, of course, that none of the material leaked by Manning and subsequently published by Wikileaks between April 5, 2010 and April 25, 2011 was in the public interest. A selection of it certainly was.
To argue, for example, that the infamous “Collateral Murder” video – which showed the air-to-ground obliteration of Reuters journalists by a pair of US Apache helicopters – was not a right-to-know news item requires absurd levels of devotion to government secrecy.
Similar caveats also apply to the documents which specifically detailed the March 2007 Shinwar shooting (in which US Marines killed more than nineteen innocent motorists during a “frenzied” highway rampage); the August 2007 Nangar Khel incident (when Polish troops mortared a woman, her baby and others as part of a revenge attack); and the March 2007 shooting of a deaf, mute Afghan man by a band of CIA paramilitaries in the remote mountainous hamlet of Malekshay.
The above stories were indisputably newsworthy and as such, they were picked up and selectively re-reported by serious journalists at The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel.
What Manning’s unilateral, unexpurgated data-dump of 734,119 US embassy cables and military patrol reports did however was deprive the public of a human frame of referent with which to digest unfiltered information. In other words, by drowning the truly pressing news items in assorted bytes of procedural government bureaucracy she all but ensured that the story of the mother and her child at Nangar Khel would be buried by The Pentagon’s legitimate complaints that rightfully “sensitive items” had been revealed in the documents.
Of course, the security of the US military’s Afghan and Iraqi sources was never a subject of importance for either Manning or Julian Assange. And given what we now know about Wikileaks’ alleged ties to Russia, it may even be fair to characterize the leaks as an act of information warfare against the United States and its allies.
According to David Leigh, an investigative journalist at The Guardian, during a heated internal debate over whether the names of Afghan civilians would be redacted upon publication, Assange reportedly said “well, they’re informants. So, if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.” An effective acknowledgement of a premeditated intent to harm the American mission.
Manning on the other hand – as the prosecution would successfully demonstrate in court – had become essentially (or at least functionally) indifferent to the value of classification even if her motives were not so palpably nefarious. Source protection, it’s fair to say, was never a priority.
Manning and Assange’s general apathy to the real-life repercussions of unredacted reportage is what distinguishes their leaks from, say, the reporting done by journalists at Fairfax and the ABC during the recent coverage of allegations related to Australian special forces in Afghanistan.
While Manning’s actions were, as the judge presiding over her trial described it “wanton and reckless”, the manner by which the alleged criminal malfeasance of Australian troops was most recently brought into the public eye was measured, cerebral and noteworthy.
No “raw data” – just careful fact-checking. No unredacted patrol reports – just document briefs, key passages quoted and highlighted, without carbon-copy facsimiles. No names attached where identities and reputations might be unjustly and gratuitously at risk – just the testimony of tried-and-true whistleblowers reporting what they saw. By comparison, and at a fundamental ethical level, Manning’s decision-making failed to pass muster.
Having said that, there is still some merit to having this debate.
Some, such as the Lowy Institute’s Lieutenant Colonel Greg Colton have persuasively argued that Manning’s attempted entry to Australia is a free speech issue – a test of the government’s willingness to hear things it doesn’t like from someone who has already served a commuted sentence.
Certainly, most would probably agree that ruthless fealty to the principle of free speech – including the right to speak truth to power – is a sign of a well-functioning democracy. So it’s a point worth considering.
But speaking freely, as we have surely come to realize in an age where violence and vitriol is begat upon the political pulpit, also comes with certain responsibilities. And even from a free speech perspective, Manning has historically demonstrated that she is not a responsible citizen of the world.
In purporting to exercise what her defence tried and failed to frame as “her First Amendment rights” at trial, Manning transmitted troves of protected information which compromised the security of many unwitting people – from Zimbabwe to China. Speaking freely yes, but also speaking in an utterly irresponsible manner, with catastrophic consequences.
Some of these consequences – such as, for example, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid’s pledge to investigate and “punish” the Afghan informants named in leaked US intelligence reports – may have been unintended. But these consequences should also have been anticipated.
Why would Australians award somebody who evinces such criminal lack of judgement the privilege of entering their country?