Private First Class Bradley Manning plead guilty this week to 10 charges associated with his role in leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks, according to NPR. Manning, who perpetrated the biggest leak in U.S. military and State Department history in 2010, did not plead guilty to aiding the enemy — the most serious charge — and will stand trial for that offense later this year.
During his allocution, Manning said he released the classified documents and military cables to spark a debate about the United States military and the goal of United States statecraft. Manning felt that the documents, which had been widely circulated within the military, would not endanger his fellow soldiers, so he decided to send the documents to WikiLeaks.
Manning’s actions, however, were harmful and illegal.
First and foremost, leaking classified military documents harms the effectiveness of United States military action and places American military men and women in danger. Manning leaked classified documents about American military practices and policies, forcing the military to change many of those practices and shift personnel.
In the time necessary to change military practices, the combat effectiveness of the American military was severely compromised, according to The New York Times. Consequently, the men and women on the ground in combat zones could not act effectively to accomplish their missions, and placing them in danger. Whether or not Manning disagreed with the mission of the military is irrelevant; he put the lives of fellow American soldiers in danger.
Furthermore, the method with which Manning attempted to bring about a public debate concerning the nation and its military was wrong.
Manning specifically mentioned an incident in which an American helicopter fired upon reporters who had a camera that looked similar to a rocket launcher, according to Yahoo, as being an impetus for the leaks. Manning was so aghast at the actions of the helicopter that he felt it needed to be shown to the public.
But if the American pilots acted improperly, then the court that should rule on the issue is a military tribunal. Manning attempted to move the jurisdiction of the case from the established military courts to some kind of court of public opinion. Yet the fact remains that the American public should not necessarily have much input in judging these soldiers because that is not how military infractions are dealt with.
Essentially, Manning was trying to bring the actions of the military to public attention to create a general outcry necessary to create change.
True, America’s democracy is predicated on the American people having a voice. That voice, however, cannot be consulted for every individual matter of criminal justice. Military cases are fraught with complexities and details that the public is not always qualified to judge, and opening up military trials to public opinion could lead to flawed decisions based on emotion rather than the needs and policies of the military.
On a broader note, Manning fails to realize is that public outcry cannot always be the major determining factor of the American justice system, as it could erode the basic legal ground on which the U.S. operates.
The United States is a liberal democracy, meaning that U.S. citizens are guaranteed certain inalienable rights that cannot be restricted by the majority. This is the reason that the United States has a Bill of Rights in the Constitution; those rights cannot be restricted by the tyranny of the majority. The Bill of Rights, however, only stands if the United States is a liberal democracy and not a true democracy, in which everything is put to a vote.
By leaking documents to WikiLeaks, Manning is trying to shift the existing justice system within the military toward that a true democracy. If the military’s actions are consistently controlled by public opinion, however, the rule-based system of war collapses. The Geneva Convention has already laid out internationally accepted and respected rules of war. Manning is trying to change that without regard to the integrity or the efficacy of the current system.
At that point, when American troops can be constantly questioned over conduct and the American military changes on the basis of the will of the majority, protections preventing helicopter pilots from shooting press members would theoretically fall into question, too. Even worse, the possibilities for increased aggressive action or retributive justice based on the will of the public, especially after an event that shocks and unifies the nation like 9/11, become far too likely.
At the point where American policy is being determined by a national conscience that can so easily be swayed, nothing and no one is safe. Manning has failed to realize that though the current system for military justice might not be perfect, his viewpoint has dangerous flaws all their own.
Dan Morgan-Russell is a freshman majoring in international relations.