A Final Word on Chelsea Manning

The Australian government’s rejection of former intelligence analyst 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 (in particular, the right of whistleblowers to be heard without fear of retaliation) many of her local supporters, including Greens leader Richard di Natale, seem to be unphased by the details of her criminal past. On this however, Manning’s defenders would do well to reconsider their position.

Far from a discriminate act of whistleblowing, Manning’s decision to 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 that there was no public interest in any of the material leaked by Manning. A small selection of it was worth bringing into the limelight. The infamous “Collateral Murder” video (which showed the air-to-ground obliteration of Reuters journalists by a pair of US Apache helicopters) is an obvious example here. Similar caveats also apply to incriminating evidence from 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. These stories were indisputably newsworthy, which is why they were picked up and re-reported by serious journalists at The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel.

The came cannot be said for the rest of the leak however, much of which visited real harm on the United States and its allies. Rather than expose wrongdoing, what Manning’s unexpurgated data-dump of 734,119 US government documents did was inundate. In other words, by drowning truly pressing news items in a genuinely harmful leak, Manning all but ensured that the killings at Nangar Khel would be buried by legitimate complaints that  “sensitive items” had been revealed as well.

Predictably, the safety of the US military’s Afghan and Iraqi sources doesn’t seem to have been a subject of special importance for either Manning or Julian Assange. According to David Leigh, an investigative journalist at The Guardian, during a heated internal debate over whether the names of US military sources would be redacted upon publication, Assange countered with: “well, they’re informants. So, if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.” Even where Assange did take steps to redact some names, the publication of the actual raw reporting still had the potential to identify informants by appraising who had access to what information. According to the US government, there are strong indications that Assange’s actions led to reprisals against some individuals.

Manning on the other hand (as her prosecutors would successfully demonstrate in court) had become essentially indifferent to classification markings. Source protection, it’s fair to say, was never a priority.

This general apathy to the real-life repercussions of unredacted reportage is what distinguishes Manning and Assange’s leaks from, say, the reporting done 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 methods employed to bring Australian war crimes into the public eye was measured, cerebral and noteworthy.

No “raw data” – just careful fact-checking. No unredacted patrol reports – just executive briefs of documents with key passages quoted and highlighted. No names attached where reputations might be unjustly and gratuitously at risk – just the testimony of tried-and-true whistleblowers stating what they had seen firsthand. By comparison, Manning’s decision-making failed to pass ethical muster.

Having said that, there is still some merit to having this debate.

Some commentators, like Lieutenant Colonel Greg Colton, have persuasively argued that Manning’s attempted entry to Australia is indeed a free speech issue – a test of the government’s willingness to hear things it doesn’t like from someone who has already served their time.

Certainly, most people would agree that ruthless fealty to the principle of free speech (which encompasses the right to speak truth to power) is a baseline for a well-functioning democracy. But speaking freely also comes with certain responsibilities. And even from a free speech perspective, Manning’s actions were more than irresponsible. 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 a reckless and dangerous 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 they should also have been anticipated.

Why would Australians award somebody who evinces such criminal lack of judgement the privilege of entering their country?

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