Pfc. Bradley Manning’s conviction on multiple violations of the Espionage Act affirms that he broke rules by sharing classified documents with the anti-secrecy group, WikiLeaks. For that, he will face punishment.
But — and it’s a big but — his potentially dangerous decision revealed serious military failures that deserved public disclosure and debate. In particular, the data included video of a U.S. military helicopter in Iraq shooting at two vans and killing civilians, including two journalists. Manning’s data helped the public judge the conduct of the Iraq war.
The judge in the court-martial acquitted Manning on the most serious charge — that he had aided the enemy, al-Qaida. A conviction on that count would have threatened free speech in broad ways.
The Manning verdict comes as the nation grapples with news from another leaker, Edward Snowden, a private military contractor, whose information confirmed the existence of widespread data mining on Americans’ private communication as part of an anti-terrorism effort. The public deserves a say in how far government should be allowed to delve into private communications.
The free press has long tangled with government over its excessive reliance on secret documents, and whistleblowers are an important ally in the effort to inform the public about the conduct of government. But the government’s continued closed-book penchant on many military matters and anti-terrorism programs makes the public watchdog responsibility of media ever-harder to fulfill. More openness is clearly needed.
Given Manning’s statements and willingness to plead guilty to certain counts, we hope the judge offers some leniency in punishment. There are times when the greater good of public disclosure merits consideration in devising punishment for obvious wrongs.
Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.