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Observations

Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Is Bradley Manning Guilty or Innocent?

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Photo by SaveBradley / flickr

Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier responsible for the public release of more than 700,000 classified documents, was acquitted July 30 of the controversial "aiding the enemy charge" by a military judge, further inflaming public discussion about Manning's role: was he a heroic whistleblower or a treasonous leaker of government data?

Although acquitted of the most serious charge, Manning was found guilty of several other crimes, which will be further addressed in court starting July 31, to determine sentencing. (The Guardian is doing great live coverage of the trial.)

Manning, who has been labeled by critics as a traitor who should be executed and by advocates as a hero who should be set free, testified in February that he had transmitted hundreds of thousands of military files and diplomatic cables to the whistleblower site WikiLeaks, which published the files and sparked a media storm. The files included battlefield reports, confidential diplomatic conversations and a brutal video of a U.S. military helicopter crew firing upon and killing a group of people, two of whom were Reuters journalists.

Prosecutors claimed Manning's actions aided the enemy indirectly, as the documents released were accessible by al Qaeda and other enemies of the state. The judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, wouldn't throw out the possibility of finding Manning guilty when proceedings started several months ago, but eventually she aquitted him of aiding the enemy, ruling that his actions were "not enough to convict the young soldier of the military equivalent of treason."

Before the trial began, I cautiously viewed Manning as a whistleblower. But as I explored the published cables, listened to the prosecutor's arguments, learned how Manning was treated and read the international reaction to his actions, I began to have second thoughts. I've come to realize that I can't draw any conclusions today about Manning's guilt or innocence.

Scientific American has been exploring Manning's case for several years now, and I've organized our coverage along a few simple questions. Consider these questions when you debate Manning’s case with friends or contemplate your personal stance.

Was leaking the diplomatic cables beneficial to the public or damaging to international relations?

Many of the leaked documents are frank, subjective assessments of political leaders around the globe, leading the Obama administration to decry their release as detrimental to foreign relations. The truth is a little less clear: some international leaders have shrugged off the cables, such as Saudi Foreign Ministry official Osama al-Naqli who said the memos “do not concern us.” Others, such as the finance minister of Afghanistan Omar Zakhilwal, said the leaks would damage U.S. relations, and it would no longer be “business as usual.” Here is a list of reactions to the leaks from officials around the world—ranging from hilarious to downright ominous. Is it possible to quantitatively measure the effect of these leaks on diplomacy?

Does this case set a precedent for future whistleblowers and leakers?

Manning is not a civilian, and thus has slightly different legal obligations than a civilian has. Still, news reports about Manning’s alleged solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, being forced to sleep naked without pillows, and being restricted from physical activity could be enough to intimidate potential leakers. Many of his actions did directly violate military codes, and he has pleaded guilty to 10 of the charges. Does Manning actually deserve a total acquittal or the death penalty? Does the cultural impact of this case justify throwing out long-established military law, or should we adjust our legal standards?

Are there such things as “necessary secrets?”

Many Manning (and Edward Snowden) supporters rally for a more transparent government, but anyone who has played a game of Risk understands the political power of diplomatic secrets: they can keep the peace or totally destroy it. Government agencies pledged to improve their employee screening methods following Manning’s release of data, but Snowden’s actions raise questions about the effectiveness of these methods. Is it justified to think some things shouldn’t be known to the public for the sake of international diplomacy? And on that note:

In our digital future, is expanding transparency going to be embraced by our society or frowned upon?

Transparency is becoming a buzzword, especially after the revelations in June about the National Security Agency’s PRISM surveillance program. Truth be told, just as Big Data has begun to reveal more about the public’s personal communications with corporations and government agencies, the Internet has provided a window into these same organizations’ questionable practices. Should Manning’s prosecution be seen as representative of our government’s reaction to those working toward transparency? Or should society as a whole more fully embrace transparency as the new norm, as advocated by WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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