Why persecuting Bradley Manning is a futile gesture
Whistleblowers have an important part to play in democratic societies - as Obama himself has said
The news that Private Bradley Manning may face the death penalty on charges of "aiding the enemy" is a startling indication of the lengths to which the US government is prepared to go in its war with WikiLeaks.
Since his arrest, Manning has been held in conditions that would seem more appropriate for Hannibal Lecter than a man who chose to reveal classified information on grounds of conscience.
So far Manning has spent more than seven months in solitary confinement under CCTV cameras. Over the weekend, his lawyer complained about the latest humiliation: Manning's jailers are allegedly forcing him to sleep naked every night and then stand naked at attention for morning roll call.
The death sentence is unlikely to be carried out. It is more likely that Manning or what is left of him psychologically - will spend the rest of his life in custody.
It is difficult to know what all this is intended to achieve. Is Manning merely a suitable object for exemplary punishment? Or are the US authorities trying to pressure him into incriminating Julian Assange and facilitate an extradition process against the WikiLeaks editor?
These objectives are not mutually exclusive and neither is likely to succeed.
There is no evidence that Assange even knew who Manning was until after he was arrested, which means that espionage charges will be difficult to sustain. And even if the US government manages to get its hands on Assange, the organisation that he represents is already too large and too far-flung to be deterred or inhibited by such tactics.
To some extent Manning and Assange are symbolic targets in a futile and ultimately doomed attempt to eliminate the WikiLeaks phenomenon - an attempt that smacks of desperation as well as vindictiveness.
In democratic societies, as Barack Obama himself observed three years ago, whistleblowers have an important role to play in holding governments to account. Their significance increases when the established mechanisms for subjecting the powerful to public scrutiny prove unable or unwilling to fulfil this task.
In such periods, whistleblowers may act as the canaries in the coalmine, drawing attention to the dissonance between what governments say and what they actually do, and alerting the public to institutional corruption, manipulation and abuse of power.
The decade of the 'war on terror' has been particularly prone to such manipulation and deception, and the last 10 years have proved to be something of a boom period for the whistleblower.
The former FBI translator Sibel Edmonds, Craig Murray, Carne Ross even the tragic figure of David Kelly have all provided testimony that contradicted the official narratives emanating from their governments.
All these individuals have been subjected to some extent to attempts to muzzle, smear and discredit them. But WikiLeaks has gone much further and mounted an unprecedented challenge to the very concept of secret diplomacy that has been the essence of statecraft for centuries.
Thanks to the information allegedly provided by Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks has provided rare firsthand glimpses into an international state system based on realpolitik, cynicism and cold self-interest, in which moral calculations are conspicuously absent.
These revelations have been particularly damaging to the United States, which regards the control of information as a key instrument of 21st century warfare.
It is not surprising that these efforts have proved unpopular and not only with governments. Much of the media coverage of WikiLeaks has consisted of speculative gossip and malicious character assassination of its two most principal messengers.
Manning has been portrayed as a pathetic figure with delusions of grandeur. Assange has been variously depicted as a rapist - a charge which has yet to be proven - a deluded megalomaniac, a conspiracy theorist and a narcissist.
This media hostility is not necessarily orchestrated. Some of it is due to the instinctive reaction of journalist courtiers and cheerleaders for war who suddenly find themselves unable to compliment the emperor on his new clothes.
WikiLeaks is not classic investigative journalism - a genre which has in any case largely faded from the mainstream media. It consists of raw unprocessed information that others can analyse or interpret, but it has already told us a great deal more about America's wars and strategic relationships in the Middle East than the likes of David Aaronovitch or Christopher Hitchens have ever done.
This flow of information may not have "elevated the world to a better place", as Julian Assange once claimed, though it has certainly played a role in the momentous events now unfolding across the Middle East and North Africa.
But it is part of a phenomenon that cannot be stopped. Today anyone with the technological prowess can do what WikiLeaks has done, and potential whistleblowers can always find some outlet on the internet for the information they want to reveal.
The only way to limit this possibility would be to exert the kind of global control over the internet that the Chinese government has tried to impose inside China or perhaps to shut down the internet altogether.
The Obama administration knows it cannot do this, but hell hath no fury like a superpower made to look sleazy, dishonest and ridiculous. As Hillary Clinton argued last week, the United States is losing the 'information war' and is clearly determined to make someone pay.
The face of Bradley Manning, with the slightly nerdy smile and the army beret, may simply have become the most accessible object for its vengeance. ·
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