Ethical Binds in a Digital World

Ethical Binds in a Digital World

  • AuthorDavid Stockdale
  • Published Monday, August 12th, 2013
  • Comments0

In this new digital age, information travels fast. The only limitations are the speed at which reporters and whistle-blowers can type and send their respective correspondence, and the speed at which we read them, often with a certain impotent rage. And ours is a culture where misinformation travels with the same vivaciousness. So how do we decide what’s important? With a torrent of unsettling scandals and discrediting news items now forefront in the national consciousness, how do we begin to make sense of what is happening in this country? Maybe the answer rests somewhere in the noise, somewhere in between the lines.

In the calm eye of this hurricane, Bradley Manning — accused of disclosing classified information to WikiLeaks — stands trial for aiding the enemy. It’s not a topic that has been forefront in our national discourse, perhaps because so many disturbing things have come to light as of late: the sexual assault epidemic occurring in the military, the massacre in Afghanistan committed by U.S. soldier Robert Bales and the recent revelation that the National Security Agency has been collecting the phone and Web information of American citizens. But amid these scandals, Manning’s fate is all the more significant.

“This is a case about what happens when arrogance meets access to sensitive information,” Capt. Joe Morrow said about Manning in his opening statement. Morrow is a prosecuting attorney in the trial. He goes on to paint Manning as an attention-craving, desperate man seeking notoriety by any means, even the endangerment of his fellow soldiers. Morrow lays out a plethora of evidence to be presented against Manning — evidence which, Morrow argues, proves that Manning knowingly released classified documents into the hands of the enemy. Among the many items of evidence to be presented are: chat logs with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, sets of data collected from Manning’s computer, and testimony from various government officials, computer forensic analysts and even a few of Manning’s fellow soldiers. But much of this evidence has been called into question as the trial has progressed.

“Young, naive, but good-intentioned,” is how defense counsel David Coombs characterized Manning in his opening statement. The statement began with an anecdote about Manning’s hellish experience during his first deployment in Iraq. It was Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2009. There was an explosively formed penetrator (EFP) alert, indicating something had happened involving a roadside bomb. EFPs had killed many soldiers, and the alert sent Manning’s unit into a panic. He was sent to get information about the alert, but none was available. A few moments after Manning returned to his unit, news came back that, despite a U.S. transport being hit by an explosive, no soldiers had been harmed or killed. His unit rejoiced. But later, a report surfaced, indicating that there was a civilian car ahead of the transport–a car that was carrying two adults and three children. The  driver pulled over to the side of the road to let the convoy pass, unfortunately right in front of where the bomb exploded. All five civilians were injured and one eventually died. And all of the soldiers celebrated that night, so the story goes — everyone, that is, but Manning. He couldn’t stop thinking about the person that was killed and everyone that was affected by the explosion. The defense also claimed that Manning was put under a lot of pressure at the time he made the release of classified documents. Manning was especially concerned about the safety of his unit. As an informations analyst, it was his responsibility to ensure that the command had been properly informed about the day to day operations in Iraq. Coombs also pointed out that Manning had customized dog tags that indicated he was a humanist, a philosophy that places high value on human life and agency.

The defense went on to detail the various documents Manning released and why he released them. Coombs claimed that Manning specifically chose information that could not be used against the United States. For instance, he leaked many SigActs (i.e., reports that took into account the day-to-day activities in Iraq, things that already happened). Furthermore, SigActs typically documented engagement with the enemy; as such, the enemy would already be well-informed of those incidents. Coombs explained that by definition these documents couldn’t strategically harm the United States. They did, however, reveal to the American public “the true nature of 21st century asymmetric warfare,” Coombs argued in his opening statement. This revelation was Manning’s intention all along.  It’s also why he chose to release the video of the 2009 Granai airstrike in Afghanistan, an attack that killed an estimated 140 innocent civilians. In addition, Manning released a video of the 2007 airstrike on Baghdad, an attack that left two Reuters employees dead. These videos, along with the release of the SigActs, gave the American public a needed dose of reality — a realistic picture of what was really happening in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time.

Manning also released diplomatic cables, the importance of which was significantly downplayed by Manning’s defense counsel. Coombs argued that these cables didn’t require a special login or password, and it was available to anyone who had access to SIPRNET — at least a million people. It was information that could only be widely shared across the various government agencies. As such, the sensitivity of these documents was quite low and unlikely to aid the enemy in real terms. “He was 22 years old. He was young,” said Coombs, concluding the defense counsel’s opening statement. “He was a little naive in believing that the information he selected could actually make a difference. But he was good-intentioned in that he was selecting information that he hoped would make a difference.”

With all the arguments laid out, it’s difficult to maintain a sense of context. There must have been a lot for Manning to consider when he decided to release all those documents. How do we reconcile the respective pictures painted of Manning? Is he a hero or a villain? A naive pawn manipulated by outside sources or a devious brat who just wanted his 15 minutes of fame? Maybe it’s not our job to give him a label. Only Bradley Manning truly knows why he did what he did; everything else is speculation. Despite media depictions, it is entirely possible to refrain from attacking the man’s character while still having reservations about what he did. And it is possible to hold the position that perhaps he went a little too far with what he released, without disrespecting his beliefs and defaming his reputation. If arrogance is the most damning quality the prosecution has come up with, that’s not a very convincing argument. Similarly, the naivety argument is not a particularly solid defense of a man who is undoubtedly quite a bit more thoughtful than the media makes him out to be. A conversation has begun because of Manning. What happens to him now — good or bad — will be a clear indication of how our society values whistle-blowers.

The Guardian newspaper recently exposed a court order that allows the NSA to collect the telephone and Internet records of millions of Verizon customers in the U.S. In fact, it has been revealed that operatives in the United States government are collecting various kinds of information from Facebook, Google, Skype, Microsoft, Yahoo! and AOL— all as part of an NSA program called PRISM. “I welcome this debate,” President Barack Obama said in a press announcement in early June, arguing that the very presence of this conversation is a sign of maturity in the public discourse. The condescending tone of this statement must have been lost on the president. A thought occurs to me, one that may be reactionary and extreme, but also one that Manning might himself espouse: maybe we should be listening to their phone calls. Maybe we should be reading their emails and collecting their “metadata.”  Edward Snowden, a former employee of an NSA contractor, risked a six-figure income and a fruitful life in Hawaii to make this revelation. In his interview with The Guardian, Snowden said, “I can’t in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”

There is a sacred trust between the people of the United States and our government. And whatever you think of Manning — whether you think he’s a media whore basking in his own notoriety, or a patriotic hero who has sacrificed his freedom and well-being for the greater good of free information — our government betrayed that sacred trust long before Manning did. The only real conclusion to be drawn from this entire debacle is that the system has failed us. It fails us every time innocent civilians are actively targeted and belittled as their corpses lay on the ground, as shown in the videos released by Manning. The system fails us whenever a soldier like Manning feels he has been forced to choose between his conscience and his country. It fails us every time another member of our armed forces is sexually assaulted and, furthermore, every time these crimes go unpunished. It fails us every time the military doesn’t identify one of its soldiers going through a difficult time before he or she does the unthinkable. And the system fails us on a grand scale, our trust is betrayed, every single time a warrantless search is performed, every time a piece of private data is collected, every phone call, Web log — without us knowing about it. It fails us because all of these things are simply not in the best interest of the people. They are definitively and fundamentally against everything for which the United States ought to stand.

This essay began as a follow up to “Bradley Manning and the Ethics of Secrecy,” a piece that attempted to identify the ethical justifications behind Manning’s release of classified documents. But it’s become obvious that the problem is bigger than Manning. It’s bigger than the NSA, the sexual assault epidemic and all of the incidents in which our soldiers have acted maliciously toward innocent people. It’s bigger than the United States. The problem is human nature. People instinctively protect their own interests and as such there is no incentive for our system to change until public opinion changes in a dramatic, sweeping fashion. And as long as there is only a tepid media reaction to the PRISM surveillance program, the administration has no reason to eliminate or even curtail the program’s scope. As long as people remain complacent and believe that if they’re not doing anything wrong, there’s no need to worry, the government will always put security before privacy concerns. And until the system is such that transparency is in everyone’s best interest, a harmful kind of secrecy will thrive.

Something has to spur that change. It doesn’t just happen by itself. The very fact that this conversation is happening is testament to the merits of whistle-blowing. But whether or not Manning has actually initiated change is up to us. We have to decide how much violence can occur before it becomes too much. We have to decide where to draw the line when it comes to privacy and security. We can take an active part in the conversation. Or we can, the majority of us, remain complacent. Would that we consider Manning’s moral struggle, and indeed the turmoil he endured to maintain an identity in the Iraqi barracks, as a metaphor that keenly represents the plight of the American people. In light of the sheer incompetence and apparent brutality of our system, let’s ask the question that Manning asked, the very same question that the prosecution facetiously asked in their opening statement: “If you had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day, seven days a week for eight-plus months, what would you do?”  Think about it.

Update: On July 30, Manning was convicted of 17 of the 22 charges brought against him, including espionage and theft, though he was acquitted of aiding the enemy. During Manning’s sentencing hearing, he said the following in a statement: “I am sorry that my actions hurt people. I’m sorry that they hurt the United States…I’m apologizing for the unintended consequences of my actions. I believed I was going to help people, not hurt people.” Manning faces up to 90 years in prison.

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

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