What the treatment of the WikiLeaks detainee says about our government's most damning secret
Saturday, February 23, marks Bradley Manning's 1,000th day in prison without a trial. In 2010, he was arrested for allegedly passing a trove of diplomatic cables and military reports to WikiLeaks, a nonprofit sunshine organization that publishes state secrets. Manning has been charged with everything from bringing discredit upon the armed forces to "aiding the enemy." Much of his first year of confinement was spent in humiliating suicide watch and Prevention of Injury conditions.
The actions of Bradley Manning offer a moment to reflect on the meaning of secrecy in the information age. Regardless of one's opinion of the young private (traitor or hero, disturbed or determined, ideological or idiotic), he put the entire secrecy apparatus to the test. Manning downloaded a perfect geologic slice of what we don't know, and presented that information to the world. He took the catastrophic loss of "secret" information out of the theoretical and into the real world. He initiated the government secrecy industry's worst-case scenario.
What is perhaps most astonishing is that the U.S. government had no substantive contingency plans or response mechanisms in place for such an event, aside from a shameful mistreatment of a harmless, if unwell, twenty-three year old. And though Manning's actions have proven to be a black swan event, when one considers that 2.4 million people have access to sensitive material, coupled with the decisive societal shift away from privacy and toward openness and "oversharing," it's astonishing that we're not seeing Manning-like incidents every day. Bradley Manning is also the true -- and admirable -- ideological case. He wasn't cashing in. He wasn't attempting to overthrow the Republic. He wasn't blackmailed. He had no firsthand knowledge of torture. He wasn't an agent for foreign intelligence. Instead, he released the information for the cause of openness itself.
It seems clear that what everyone expected to find in the diplomatic cables were unspeakable horrors committed by the tentacles of the U.S. government. It is therefore interesting that instead, most of what came to light was fairly laudable -- a State Department that actually tries to do what it says it will do. Insofar as there were surprises, they typically came in the form missing puzzle pieces and instances of "I knew it!" A clear-eyed reading of much of the classified material suggests a more accountable government than WikiLeaks's Julian Assange -- or anyone, really -- ever imagined.
A more pressing problem revealed by the cable leak, and certainly a more long-term problem, is the banality and stupidity of the overwhelming majority of government secrets. The edifice of the American deep state is crumbling, and this is in large part because of a rampant, unchecked, and sometimes nefarious habit of over-classification. With too many secrets come too many persons requiring access. That is how an evidently troubled Army private at a forward operating base lacking even the slightest defensible pretense of "need to know" gained access to the entirety of the State Department's secret files.
What the U.S. government needs to accept with due diligence is that it is only going to get easier for others to do what Bradley Manning did. Instead of circling the wagons and imposing draconian punishments on people like Manning, and attempting to find ways to hermetically seal inane and ersatz secrets, the government should instead work to declassify as much material as it possibly can as quickly as it can. The state would have far greater success keeping under wraps a few necessary secrets -- continuity of government plans, the movements of nuclear weapons, the security of the president of the United States -- than it does with the present landfill of frivolity that currently passes for "state secrets."