Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Imprisoned Private First Class Bradley Manning is now being transferred from Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
The leak of US classified documents that Mr. Manning allegedly downloaded and provided to WikiLeaks for distribution on the internet has had national and international repercussions. At the least, the US and countries who shared confidences with the US have been deeply embarrassed. One consequence is that countries may be much more circumspect in sharing confidences with the US in the future. At the worst, the lives of US personnel, of our allies, and of our informants may have been jeopardized.
There have been many bizarre twists and turns to this story. The coverage of this story has been dominated by the politics involved and, I believe, has generally not focused on the most important issues.
First, to be clear, if Manning is guilty of the charges against him, he has committed extremely serious crimes and should be severely punished. The US cannot tolerate its intelligence officers stealing and circulating its classified documents.
Unless WikiLeaks assisted or conspired with Manning in stealing the documents, the US government’s and press’ focus on WikiLeaks and its leader Julian Assange (and his strange escapades) would seem to me to be misplaced. Once electronic documents are stolen, they can be distributed and posted on the internet in myriad ways. WikiLeaks was not a critical required player. Manning could have distributed those documents through numerous electronic channels.
The really critical question that should be raised is why did a PFC based in Iraq have had the access to download over 260,000 classified diplomatic cables as well as 90,000 intelligence documents from Afghanistan and have done so without being detected? The theft reportedly was detected only because Manning disclosed the theft during online chats.
How many people prior to the theft also had had access to these classified documents? – estimates reported in the press range from many hundreds of thousands to millions of individuals. I understand that globalization of classified information was implemented to avoid the excessive pigeonholing of data that would make it difficult for an intelligence analyst to access information he/she legitimately needed. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine that a PFC in Iraq needed to have unfettered access to diplomatic cables between the US and every other country in the world. Why wasn’t there an automated security monitoring system in place that could detect suspicious activity such as a PFC downloading hundreds of thousands of disparate documents? Could one reasonably expect a system to be secure when at least hundreds of thousands of individuals had access to the documents within it? Why was the government’s security system so poor that these documents could have been stolen so easily without detection? These are the critical questions that need be investigated.
It should not have been possible for Bradley Manning to do what he is alleged to have done. The failure of the US government’s security system is the important story here. If hundreds of thousands of documents are put into a pool, and if hundreds of thousands or millions of individuals have access to that pool, one has to expect that one of those individuals might cause that pool to spring a leak.
The government’s public reaction to this affair was to arrest Manning (appropriate), denounce and attempt to shut down WikiLeaks by various means (but not attempt to shut down newspapers that reported the leaked documents), and then to warn government employees and those who aspire to government positions not to read the leaked documents on the internet because the documents are still “classified.”
This last step is especially bizarre. The entire world has ready access to the leaked documents but our government personnel responsible for dealing with our allies and foes should be handicapped by not also having access to these documents? Does the US government not understand that once billions of people have access to the documents on the internet that the documents are no longer “secret?” They cannot be withdrawn from the internet and rendered “secret” once again. The government here seems to be acting with all of the insight of the famous “wise men” of Chelm.
The most recent troubling aspect of this story are the reports that Bradley Manning, who is not yet convicted of anything, has until just now been held naked in near solitary detention and been subjected to constant sleep interruption and been forcibly administered psychiatric drugs at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. It is claimed that these conditions were imposed to prevent him from injuring himself or committing suicide. It seems to me that on this basis one could justify inhumane treatment for just about anyone. Forced isolation, humiliation, sleep deprivation and administration of mind-altering drugs are reminiscent of Soviet Union tactics. The US Constitution mandates that not even convicted criminals be subjected to “cruel and unusual punishment.”
When President Obama was queried on this matter, he reportedly replied “I have actually asked the Pentagon whether or not the procedures that have been taken in terms of his confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards. They assured me that they are.” Apparently, the President felt that he had really gotten to the bottom of the matter by asking the people in charge whether they were doing the right thing. Might I suggest that the evidence would have been more reliably procured if the President had sent over a few people to conduct an independent investigation?
In contrast, PJ Crowley - who had been the State Department spokesman - was fired for reportedly making the following far more candid remarks to an audience at MIT, “What is being done to Bradley Manning is ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid on the part of the Department of Defense."