Yochai Benkler, a Harvard law professor and one of the expert witnesses in the Bradley Manning case, has a long and very compelling article in the New Republic about the dangers of that prosecution and how it is being pursued primarily as a deterrent to future whistleblowers. I found this passage particularly prescient:
A country’s constitutional culture is made up of the stories we tell each other about the kind of nation we are. When we tell ourselves how strong our commitment to free speech is, we grit our teeth and tell of Nazis marching through Skokie. And when we think of how much we value our watchdog press, we tell the story of Daniel Ellsberg. Decades later, we sometimes forget that Ellsberg was prosecuted, smeared, and harassed. Instead, we express pride in a man’s willingness to brave the odds, a newspaper’s willingness to take the risk of publishing, and a Supreme Court’s ability to tell an overbearing White House that no, you cannot shut up your opponents.
But it isn’t enough to tell such stories to congratulate ourselves for how much we love the First Amendment and how committed we are to freedom of speech and of the press, especially in light of the government’s relentless attempts to keep secret its own misdeeds:
Whistleblowers play a critical constitutional role in our system of government, particularly in the area of national security. And they do so at great personal cost. The executive branch has enormous powers over national security and the exercise of that power is not fully transparent. Judicial doctrines like the “state secrets” doctrine allow an administration to limit judicial oversight. Congress’ oversight committees have also tended to leave the executive relatively free of constraints. Because the materials they see are classified, there remains little public oversight. Consider the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the interrogation torture practices during the immediate post 9/11 years: Its six thousand pages, according to Senator Dianne Feinstein, are “one of the most significant oversight efforts in the history of the United States Senate.” But they are unavailable to the public.
Freedom of the press is anchored in our constitution because it reflects our fundamental belief that no institution can be its own watchdog. The government is full of well-intentioned and quite powerful inspectors general and similar internal accountability mechanisms. But like all big organizations, the national security branches of government include some people who aren’t purely selfless public servants. Secrecy is necessary and justified in many cases. But as hard-earned experience has shown us time and again, it can be—and often is—used to cover up failure, avarice, or actions that simply will not survive that best of disinfectants, sunlight.
That’s where whistleblowers come in. They offer a pressure valve, constrained by the personal risk whistleblowers take, and fueled by whatever moral courage they can muster. Manning’s statement in court yesterday showed that, at least in his motives, he was part of that long-respected tradition. But that’s also where the Manning prosecution comes in, too. The prosecution case seems designed, quite simply, to terrorize future national security whistleblowers. The charges against Manning are different from those that have been brought against other whistleblowers. “Aiding the enemy” is punishable by death. And although the prosecutors in this case are not seeking the death penalty against Manning, the precedent they are seeking to establish does not depend on the penalty. It establishes the act as a capital offense, regardless of whether prosecutors in their discretion decide to seek the death penalty in any particular case.
One of the things that has come out recently is that Manning approached the New York Times, the Washington Post and Politico about leaking those documents to them but got no interest. That’s why he went to WikiLeaks instead. If one of those more mainstream media outlets had taken him up on the offer, it’s likely that they would have not been as indiscriminate with the release of documents that either show nothing (most of what he leaked were just routine diplomatic cables and the like, of no real consequence) or that might genuinely be too sensitive to release, at least in unredacted form.
But all of this must be understood in the context of the government’s relentless quest for secrecy and for preventing anyone who has been harmed by its actions to have any chance at having their case considered, on the merits, in court. It is only because of whistleblowers over the last few years that we know of the NSA’s data mining program, of the installation of splitters on the trunk lines of the telecoms that allow them to intercept virtually every electronic message sent in the country, and many more dangerous and illegal actions.
Yes, whistleblowers may from time to time go too far and put out information that legitimately should remain secret. But on balance, we are far better off having our freedoms in the hands of brave people who risk their lives to get the truth to us than in the hands of the government that wants to keep their illegal actions secret from those who pay for them.