This morning, Private First Class Bradley Manning was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison. Already his admirers are decrying his punishment as a miscarriage of justice. Tonight there will be a pro-Manning rally in Times Square.
But Manning is lucky he did not receive life, which he should have. The sympathy for this “troubled young man” is emblematic of a post-accountability society. No one, it seems, is to be held responsible for their actions any longer. Instead, blame is shifted to a difficult childhood, bullying, loneliness, or—my personal favorite—“the system.” In Manning’s own words, he was “dealing with a lot of issues.”
Three weeks ago, a military judge correctly found Manning guilty of stealing and disseminating 750,000 pages of classified documents and videos to WikiLeaks, the international movement of leakers founded and led by Julian Assange, who is currently hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid deportation to Sweden where he faces charges of sexual assault. Manning was found guilty on twenty of twenty-two counts, including six violations of the 1917 Espionage Act. But he was found not guilty of “aiding the enemy.”
This was a mistake.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had accused the government of seeking “to establish the dangerous precedent that leaks to the press could be equated with ‘aiding the enemy.’” What does this term actually mean? According to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, anyone who “without proper authority, knowingly harbors or protects or gives intelligence to, or communicates or corresponds with or holds any intercourse with the enemy, either directly or indirectly” is guilty of aiding the enemy.
However, in the Manning prosecution, the focus was on the wrong enemy. Manning might not have directly aided al Qaeda, the enemy in question in the recent prosecution, but he certainly aided WikiLeaks. Wikileaks is a movement that views itself as an enemy of the United States, so why shouldn’t U.S. law see it in the same light? WikiLeaks is an anarchist movement dedicated to, in Assange’s own words, “the total annihilation of the current U.S. regime.” It does not by any stretch of the imagination, constitute “the press,” as the ACLU claims.
In my view, Assange’s political ideology is an intellectual descendant of the nineteenth century anarchist thought of figures like Mikhail Bakunin, who once wrote, “History tells us that while small States are virtuous because of their feebleness, powerful States sustain themselves only through crime.” In his 1866 “Revolutionary Catechism,” Bakunin called for “[a]bsolute rejection of every authority including that which sacrifices freedom for the convenience of the state.”
In a 2006 essay, Assange insisted that there were new ways to challenge “authoritarian regimes.” He called attention to “technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not.” Assange apparently views the United States as an authoritarian conspiracy composed of interconnected nodes. Assange founded WikiLeaks to sever the links between those nodes in order to reduce the “conspiratorial power” of the United States to “zero.” Assange says, “An authoritarian conspiracy that cannot think efficiently, cannot act to preserve itself against the opponents it induces.” Through leaks, Assange hopes to destroy his adversary’s confidence in how it communicates with itself. As such, he has explicitly positioned himself as an enemy of the United States. Indeed, in an internal WikiLeaks listserve discussion in 2007, Assange identified the goal of his movement as the “total annihilation of the current US regime and any other regime that holds its authority through mendacity alone.” He denied saying this, but the evidence suggests he did.
This is dangerous stuff. The difference, of course, between a Bakunin or a Kropotkin and Julian Assange is the integrity of their convictions. The latter was happy to host the Julian Assange Show on Russia Today. To people like Assange, Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, Russia is somehow a better exemplar of human rights and free speech than the United States.
Manning himself has admitted that he understood what he was getting into when he agreed to provide these documents to WikiLeaks. To those who argue that he should not be held accountable for that decision, I ask: Why not? The ACLU argues that “Equating whistle-blowers with traitors is not only crude, but also fundamentally antidemocratic.” Hold on. Leaking the names of Iraqis and Afghans who provided information to U.S. forces and diplomatic cables is not “whistleblowing.”
If the goal of “total annihilation of the current US regime” does not qualify one as an enemy of the United States, I’m not sure what does. WikiLeaks certainly would not be the first non-state actor to be recognized by law as an enemy power. Manning committed treason. This traitor got off easy. Way too easy.
Ryan Evans is the Assistant Director of the Center for the National Interest and the Editor of War on the Rocks.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Bradley Manning Support Network. CC BY 2.0.