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."
How blind is the entrenched government secrecy apparatus to this problem? Consider that in the aftermath of the cable release, the U.S. government instructed its employees to continue treating the cables as secret, and to never access them. It would be a cliche to say the executive branch instructed its functionaries to stick their heads in the sand, but that's exactly what they did. Even worse, it means that the foreign officials whom our representatives are interacting with definitively know more about the ongoing actions of the American government than do the members of the American government.
A final point, this one on the government's charge against Manning of "aiding the enemy." Shortly after the New York Times published the first round of leaked cables, Robert Gates offered an honest appraisal of the situation to the press. There are few men alive today who know the secrets that Gates knows; he was Secretary of Defense then, during a time of war, and before that a Director of Central Intelligence. His opinion is therefore quite worthy of deep consideration. Gates pointedly questioned the alarmists in Washington at the time. He said:
Let me just offer some perspective as somebody who's been at this a long time. Every other government in the world knows the United States government leaks like a sieve, and it has for a long time. And I dragged this up the other day when I was looking at some of these prospective releases. And this is a quote from John Adams: "How can a government go on, publishing all of their negotiations with foreign nations, I know not. To me, it appears as dangerous and pernicious as it is novel."
When we went to real congressional oversight of intelligence in the mid-70s, there was a broad view that no other foreign intelligence service would ever share information with us again if we were going to share it all with the Congress. Those fears all proved unfounded.
Now, I've heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think -- I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is: governments deal with the United States because it's in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets.
Many governments -- some governments deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation. So other nations will continue to deal with us. They will continue to work with us. We will continue to share sensitive information with one another. Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.
Fairly modest. In the years that followed the actions of Bradley Manning, it's hard to peg exactly what horrors have befallen the U.S. government aside from the Gates-prophesied embarrassment. The meandering war in Afghanistan certainly didn't need Manning's help to get that way. If he "aided the enemy," perhaps someone should tell that to the enemy. For all that Bradley Manning revealed, he didn't really reveal much. But by its shameful non-application of justice in Manning's prosecution -- 1,000 days in chains for a nonviolent offense, without the dignity of a trial by jury -- the U.S. government has itself revealed the most terrible truth imaginable.
Some of the material in this article appears in Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry, by Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady, available in hardcover in April.