The judge, Col. Denise Lind, pressed Private Manning to explain how he could admit that his actions were wrong if his motivation was the “greater good” of enlightening the public. Private Manning replied, “Your Honor, regardless of my opinion or my assessment of documents such as these, it’s beyond my pay grade — it’s not my authority to make these decisions” about releasing confidential files.But that is not all that happened. There is a critical fact in Thursday's proceedings that has been omitted - I suspect intentionally - by the zealous supporters of WikiLeaks. While many of the "friends of Bradley" made it a point to tell us that Manning claims to have first approached the Washington Post and the New York Times, he also admitted that he did not want to meet in person with a reporter.
He approached his "local paper" first: The Washington Post. After a five-minute conversation, he said, he felt the reporter didn’t take him seriously. (Later, during questioning by [Judge] Colonel Lind, he admitted he was nervous about physically visiting the Post offices.)Manning, seemingly assured of the moral correctness of his actions, could not muster the courage to meet a reporter in person. I can only think of two reasons why this may be the case: first, Manning feared being turned in to the government by the paper (paranoia), and second, he did not want a journalist to go through and decide what is and isn't justified release for the public's right to know, or even to decide what information (such as names) needed to be redacted before the release.
And that is why we have journalists - to balance the need for the public's right to know with the national security imperative to keep certain information classified. Even Daniel Ellsberg - perhaps America's best known whistleblower, went through a news organization, a reporter, and a journalistic process that protected not only its source but also the integrity of the process during the infamous release of the Pentagon Papers.
That brings us to the point of this column: the danger inherent in an organization like WikiLeaks. By Julian Assange's own admission, WikiLeaks makes the process so anonymous that even they cannot identify their sources. Assange might claim that it is something to brag about, but it isn't. Journalists are responsible for their sources - and for that they have to be responsible for knowing their sources, if for no other reason than to judge the motive, honesty and the credibility of the source. Real journalists are also supposed to be responsible for going through meticulously the material provided, and redacting things that could identify and endanger individuals.
Manning's is a case in point that shows us the potential dangers of using wholesale publishers to put out sensitive documents, even if the intention is to be nothing more than a whistleblower against crimes and corruption. Journalists and news organizations aren't useless "middle men" - they are the necessary check between a government's power to hide information for political purposes and zealous conduits that either don't think about, willingly ignore or do not have the capacity to judge the potential havoc their "heroic" activities can rein on the lives of covert intelligence operatives, volatile international relations and needed operational secrecy of battlefield tactics.
What Manning admitted to was more than 10 counts of unauthorized release of classified information. He admitted that he either willingly or negligently participated in compromising operational security and putting lives at risk - lives we will never know about because some patriots serve our country without any recognition or even any mention. It is those true heroes who were compromised by the idealistic and ideological zeal of a young private and the journalistic aversion of a "publishing organization." Manning admitted essentially that he found it more convenient - and more anonymous - to have the information he had (whatever he believed about it) published without the check of the journalistic process, and WikiLeaks was happy to help him do just that.
Whatever these actions are - confused idealism, ideological super-dogma, actions upon a strongly held moral belief, or negligent publishing - heroism they are not. There is nothing heroic about intentionally or derelictly risking lives; there is nothing heroic about jeopardizing international relations without bringing any evidence of criminal wrongdoing (as in the case of the State Department cables); there is nothing heroic about lacking the clarity of one's moral conviction so much that one is not willing to meet a reporter to tell the story of what he believes to be great injustice. Was what he did an act of his own moral conscience? Perhaps. But if every act of self-defined moral conscience were an act of heroism, a lot of the greatest villains of history could claim the title of a hero.
The Bradley Manning story - itself a sad saga of an isolated private whose zeal for transparency led him to release potentially operationally critical classified documents in droves - should not just serve, in our society, as simply a battle, or even a balancing act, between the need to keep some information classified and the pull for information transparency in a free society. It should also serve as a reminder as to why that free society needs independent journalistic examination when critical, classified information is available to be released.
Our founders preserved freedom of the press - and told us that a free press was the most important cornerstone of a Republic - not simply because the press could write and widely distribute stories, but could strike a delicate balance between investigative reporting in the public interest and indiscriminate dissemination of raw data. There is a reason the Constitution protected the free press but not the indiscriminate leakers. That reason is that our founders contemplated government corruption but did not presuppose the public's right to know everything about everything. The press - bound by journalistic ethic as well as public interest but undeterred by brute, legal government force - would be the arbiter of the balance. We still need that balance. We still need that arbiter.
I am not here to defend the current state of American media. For the most part, it is reprehensible. But I am here to defend the critical role of a free press. I am here to defend the role of the press as the aforementioned arbiter. There are still journalists in this country who take their jobs seriously and don't aim to become a television infotainment talking head. I am here to say that whatever the pervasive decay of our media, the hole that decay created cannot be filled with publishers who publish indiscriminately empowered by individuals who are incapable or unwilling to understand the full consequences of their actions. The decay in our media has to be filled instead by better journalism. The answer to bad journalism is not no journalism; it is good journalism.