Patriot or Traitor? Views on Bradley Manning's Treatment Differ

If I refused to volunteer, I should be called a traitor, I am well aware of that- but that would not make me a traitor. The unanimous vote of the sixty millions could not make me a traitor. I should still be called a patriot, and, in my opinion, the only one in the whole country.

 -Mark Twain


Ask me in five years -- or 10 or 20 -- whether Army Pvt. Bradley Manning is a patriot or a traitor for allegedly turning over all those secret files and documents to Wikileaks' Julian Assange. All I really know today is that the nation is sharply divided on the topic and probably always will be. The chasm may be only a little smaller when it comes to the treatment Manning has received from his military jailers since he was placed in Stateside custody nine months ago. Some call it torture. Others yawn and change the channel.

I am one of those who bridges that particular gulf. I don't consider Manning a hero for what he allegedly did. Not at all. But I don't like the way he is being treated either. I think that military officials are, for lack of a technical term, fucking with Manning unreasonably, if not unlawfully, while he awaits trial in a military brig. While I am not willing to go as far as the New York Times' editorial board, which this week called Manning's treatment "abuse," or the Los Angeles Times' editorial board, which this week called Manning's treatment "punishment," I argued for too long against the Bush Administration's ghastly treatment of terror law detainees to suddenly go soft now on the Obama White House and Pentagon.

That's not to say I agree with P.J. Crowley, either. The State Department spokesman lost his job last week after calling Manning's treatment by the Pentagon "ridiculous and counter-productive and stupid." It may or may not be. But even if it is we are all doing ourselves a disservice if we isolate the Manning case and consider it differently from other cases just because it happens to track, at the highest levels, fundamental First Amendment principles like free speech and government transparency. A person can be a hero and a criminal at the same time, after all. It happens all the time in America.

One complaint about the government's treatment of Manning has to do with the aggressive approach of his military prosecutors. They've evidently overcharged him, throwing in all sorts of claims and causes. So what? Prosecutors almost always overcharge criminal defendants. It happens every day in this country, in federal and state court. It is part of the kabuki dance that is our justice system. Manning's lawyers now will try to whittle down those charges before trial -- something that criminal defense attorneys do all the time -- and will likely succeed on some level in doing so. Just because he's now charged with "aiding the enemy," in other words, doesn't mean he'll be tried on that charge or convicted of it.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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