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Bradley Manning and the Ethics of Secrecy

  • AuthorDavid Stockdale
  • Published Tuesday, March 19th, 2013
  • Comments6

February 23, 2013 marked the 1000th day of Pfc. Bradley Manning’s incarceration. In May 2010, Manning was arrested for passing classified information to Wikileaks, a nonprofit organization that has gained notoriety for exposing a multitude of secrets from various governments and regimes. The materials Manning sent to Wikileaks included videos of the 2007 Baghdad airstrike and the 2009 airstrike in Granai, Afghanistan,  250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables, and 500,000 army reports, often referred to as the Iraq War Logs and the Afghan War Logs, respectively. The video of the Baghdad airstrike later was later condensed, edited and released by Wikileaks, in an effort to expose what both Manning and Wikileaks operatives saw as crimes against humanity. On February 28, Manning pleaded guilty to 10 of the 22 charges against him, including “misuse of classified material.” Among the charges, one of the most inauspicious is “aiding the enemy,” which could mean life in prison for Manning. Notably, he did not plead guilty to that charge. Manning also read from a 35-page statement, which claimed that he intended to spark domestic debate regarding military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was the first time Manning openly admitted to releasing the documents.

With Manning’s trial expected to commence in June, it seems poignant to explore the ethics of secrecy in an increasingly open world. With information becoming more readily available at the click of a mouse, can anything be kept secret? At best, Manning’s actions could be construed as a patriotic stand against an oppressive, war-mongering U.S. military-industrial complex. With little regard for his own future, Manning aired out some of the U.S. military’s dirty laundry for the world to see. But at worst, Manning’s idealistic crusade is a naïve grab for attention that has caused considerable harm to U.S. military operations overseas. How can we reconcile these two views? The path to what is right is paved with murky hypocrisies on both sides.

Whatever one’s views are on secrecy, it’s clear that Manning has proven that he is brave when faced with near-certain punitive action. In his statement, Manning described how he felt watching the video of the airstrike in Iraq, particularly with respect to the apparent disregard by American troops for the lives of innocent people. “I wanted the public to know that not everyone living in Iraq were targets to be neutralized,” Manning said. Indeed, the details of the Baghdad airstrike video are deeply troubling. The video depicts an American helicopter assaulting a small group gathered in Baghdad. Among the men who were attacked on the ground, one was later revealed to be a journalist and two were Reuters employees. The men were carrying cameras that were mistaken for grenade launchers. A military review concluded that the Reuters employees were in the company of armed insurgents. Crew members can be heard referring to the innocents as “dead bastards,” and congratulating one another on their large kills. Later, a bus comes to retrieve the bodies of the dead. One U.S. gunner can be heard requesting to engage the bus, later revealed to be carrying two children. “Come on, let me shoot!” the soldier says gleefully, almost as if playing a video game. Permission is granted, and the bus takes on massive gunfire from the helicopter. Later, ground troops carry the injured children to be evacuated. Most officials, when questioned, dismiss the video as out of context. Though the 2009 Granai airstrike video has not been released, up to 147 Afghan civilians were estimated to have been killed in the assault, with the majority of the casualties being women and children.

The Obama administration contends that by releasing classified material, Manning put the lives of American soldiers in danger and strained diplomatic relations, a charge that should not be taken lightly. But not once has the president addressed the willful killing of civilians depicted in these videos. It would appear that American troops are straining quite a few relations between themselves and civilians. This “shoot first, ask questions later” mindset is directly harmful not only to our military overseas, but also to the American people. Every innocent civilian harmed overseas becomes a martyr, and a justifiable reason for tension and hostility among foreigners. There must be an ethical distinction between Manning’s release of the videos—which he argues ought to be public domain—and the irresponsible actions of soldiers who actively target unarmed people. It seems pertinent to ask, what is more harmful?

Obama has expressed concern that Afghan informants were named in the documents, which would put them in immediate danger. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed similar concerns in 2010, stating, “the battlefield consequences of the release of these documents are potentially severe and dangerous for our troops, our allies and Afghan partners, and may well damage our relationships and reputation in that key part of the world.” The immense volume of Manning’s leak of classified material does suggest some irresponsibility on his part. If Manning did indeed intend for his leaks to stir a debate, wouldn’t the videos depicting the brutality of the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions alone suffice? What accounts for the astounding half million army reports allegedly leaked by Manning? And what of the quarter million diplomatic cables? By any account, this gratuitous amount of information has done far more than spur a debate. It’s set a precedent in the zeitgeist of American history. What exactly is the extent of the damage done to U.S. military operations in the long term? Has Manning truly aided the enemy, as prosecutors argue? This factor is the most damnable in Manning’s case, and it’s also one that is the most questionable.

Manning didn’t exercise much discretion when it came to protecting the names of informants. He merely deferred the responsibility onto Wikileaks’ founder, Julian Assange, and his cohorts. Because Wikileaks is outside of the bounds of U.S. jurisdiction, one could argue that this whistleblowing organization serves as a kind of independent watchdog. That’s a rosy thought. But an organization outside the realm of prosecution is a dangerous thing. What gives someone like Assange the kind of moral authority to decide which classified documents get published?  Assange claims that the release of classified information exposes war crimes. And there is certainly a case to be made for that. But where is this principled rigor when it comes to exercising discretion with the amount of classified documents published? There is a clear line between than exposing war crimes and simply wanting to shed an unfavorable light on the United States government.

Wikileaks operatives were careful to never confirm any dealings with Manning in an effort to prevent further incriminating the young soldier. However, Assange has called Manning “America’s foremost political prisoner.”  Is this the case? Manning has framed his crime in a political context—this much is true—but were there political motivations behind his incarceration? Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years because of his tireless work to end apartheid in Africa. One of the world’s most prominent political prisoners, Aung San Suu Kyi, was detained numerous times for enduringly long periods because of her attempts to seek democratic reforms in Myanmar. Could the same kind of reverence be given to Manning?   Many have already ascribed him with this stature. Manning was among the many nominated this year for the Nobel Peace Prize. Activists have waged numerous campaigns demanding his release. If the zeal of political martyrdom has already been ascribed to Manning within the three years since his arrest, it wouldn’t be controversial to posit that a favorable light will be cast upon the Manning in the broad scope of history.

This series of leaks and the controversy that followed is ultimately a catastrophe of U.S. government’s own making. During the time of both the War on Terror and the Iraq War, the United States military gave the same kind of classified access that Manning had to thousands of other soldiers, putting many soldiers in a compromised place. At the very least, the U.S. government is culpable for putting Manning in the unfortunate position of having to choose between his principles and his country. A savvy legal team might argue that Manning’s actions were intended to expose atrocities, many of which blatantly violate the Geneva Convention. It certainly is pertinent to ask what the moral responsibility of military personnel who witness such atrocities might be. After all, the United States government has agreed to a specific set of combat terms. The Geneva Convention explicitly forbids the willful harming of civilians. And in the videos released by Manning, there is clear evidence of U.S. soldiers not only targeting civilians, but of the soldiers reveling in the deaths of civilians. After witnessing something like that, what was Manning’s ethical obligation?

Manning has set a precedent by which others can follow. Among the entire U.S. military, how many soldiers have been influenced by Manning’s actions? While Manning’s leak of classified information has certainly tarnished the reputation of the United States military, Manning himself may very well be the prime extrapolation of the idea that the U.S. possesses a superior moral fortitude, precisely because it is a nation that produces ethically bound, principled minds like that of Bradley Manning’s. The free and near limitless exchange of information that has been brought forth by the digital age is something of a liberating factor for oppressive constructs of the war machine. Whatever harm has come from the release of these documents, here is the silver lining: this series of leaks by Manning is evidence enough that secrecy is becoming a thing of the past, and that secrecy in the future may be completely implausible. Though government officials can double their efforts, they’ll have to contend with an expanding, morally conscious, techno-savvy generation that could soon possess the key to a dark infinity: access to the atrocious secrets of a once proud empire—redemption through transparency.

David Stockdale is a freelance writer from the south suburbs of Chicago. His op-ed essays have appeared numerously at AND Magazine, and his fictional shorts have been featured in The Commonline Journal and Behind Closed Doors. He can be reached at, and his URL is

6 Responses to “Bradley Manning and the Ethics of Secrecy”

  1. Brian Connolly says:

    When we all have Tourette’s, stop wearing clothes, and poop in the streets… is about when I’ll take arguments for radical transparency seriously. Lying and secrecy in their many and various forms are inextricably related to being human. That includes art, culture, and healthy relationships. That includes every transaction be it on Wall Street or in the pews of Holy Name.

    Sure there are abuses;and vetting them according to laws and norms is just as important. But to propose a wholesale abandonment of those laws and norms as a good thing, is ludicrous.

    • David Stockdale says:

      I’m not advocating radical transparency. I’m simply stating that systematized secrecy is becoming increasingly implausible, especially when it comes to covering up war crimes. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

      • Brian Connolly says:

        Surely covering up crime, war or otherwise, is not good. But I’d argue that “systematized secrecy” should be protected.

        • David Stockdale says:

          Julian Assange would argue that freedom of the press is a construct that morally precedes all other rights and laws. Because people are informed by the press, and the people (theoretically) make laws, it follows that freedom of the press ought to precedence over any kind of institutionalized secrecy imposed by the state. The line of thought is compelling, though I’m not convinced. It kind of falls apart when you consider the ramifications.

          I’m simply saying that the age of information has brought forth a new set of checks to the system for oppressive regimes. It would behoove our government to learn from past mistakes and not tolerate the kinds of inhuman acts depicted in the aforementioned videos, because they’re likely to be exposed one way or another.

          • Brian Connolly says:

            I strongly believe in freedom of the press. I strongly believe that war crimes should be investigated and prosecuted. But I don’t believe Manning acted legally or ethically. And I don’t believe promoting more of the same is prudent.

          • David Stockdale says:

            Prudence is hardly the issue. I agree with you that Manning broke the law. That much is clear. But did he act ethically? That’s a big more murky of an issue. I think it’s a bit naive to suggest that Manning was supposed to simply sit on this evidence of war crimes and wait for the military to take care of it. Clearly, they allowed the atrocities to happen. If you don’t believe he acted ethically in releasing documents that reveal war crimes, the burden is on you to explain why, because he’s clearly stated his ethical justifications. I object to the idea that Manning hasn’t acted in accordance with his own principles. He believes that evidence of war crimes is public domain, and that’s an interesting idea. That’s why I wrote this essay.

            And I have to point out that I’m not promoting Manning’s actions. He broke the law, and he should face the consequences. He is right now, obviously. I suspect he’ll be in prison for a long time. I’m not one of the many advocating his immediate release. Of course, there’s a reason for the laws we have in place with respect to classified information. Nowhere in this essay do I advocate more soldiers to release classified documents. I’m simply stating that it’s an increasing likelihood in the information age. And that actually might not be a bad thing.

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