The trial of Pfc. Bradley Manning may have been about allegations of espionage and aiding the enemy, but it also went to the heart of what it means to be an American citizen and a patriot.
On the one hand, his champions speak of the need to reveal truth as if there are no distinctions to be made for consequences. On the other hand are those with a more pragmatic view toward opening floodgates of classified information. Significantly, Manning's deeds were revealed by a hacker with a conscience, who said, "it seemed incomprehensible that someone could leak that massive amount of data and not have it endanger human life."
And somewhere in the middle are people with a legitimate concern that this case could chill all whistleblowing within the military, keeping genuine abuses from seeing the light of day.
The judge, Col. Denise Lind did the prudent thing. She acquitted Manning on charges of aiding the enemy but convicted him on several other counts, including violating the Espionage Act, stealing government property and violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Manning now faces up to 136 years in prison.
The effect this will have on military whistleblowers remains to be seen. Unfortunately, it was not an ideal case to test whether someone who knows of an abuse or egregious violation of law has a right to make that information public.
Manning leaked about 700,000 files that included videos of airstrikes, front-line incident reports from battlefields and hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables, some of which revealed diplomatic strategies with U.S. allies that made the government look duplicitous. It is highly unlikely Manning could have examined each piece of information he gave to Julian Assange, owner of the website Wikileaks.
Assange operates under the ethic that says transparency is always good and necessary, regardless of content. Significantly, however, he has been less than transparent about the charges of sexual abuse he faces in Sweden, which have forced him into hiding.
When he first published the documents, Assange compared them to the release of archives belonging to the Stasi, the East German secret police during the Cold War. He apparently is oblivious to the ideologies that are central to the war on terrorism.
Manning copied the classified material while pretending to listen to Lady Gaga in order not to arouse any suspicion. Had he done the same thing as a member of the Taliban, his most serious offense may well have been pretending to listen to Lady Gaga.
Manning told the military court he did not think anything he leaked harmed the United States. That is a difficult thing to prove. Even a detailed account of a raid can help the enemy analyze what happened, what intelligence was available before the raid and who might have provided it.
True whistleblowers are necessary for free societies to be accountable. The military should not be above such scrutiny.
There is a difference, however, between revealing a heinous crime or official corruption and papering the world with hundreds of thousands of documents that seem to show only that war is nasty, innocent people sometimes die, people involved in war can be calloused and diplomacy is a delicate game.
The United States can't tolerate that kind of a mass leak. The difference between it and a targeted leak that seeks to right a wrong should be obvious.