Eight weeks after it began, the military tribunal of Army Private Bradley Manning for uploading classified documents to WikiLeaks concludes this afternoon. Over that time, the once-sensational case was pushed to the background by the Edward Snowden revelations. Despite the significance of Manning's experience — the leak's role in international politics, his experience as a prisoner, a potentially significant reconsideration of a key law — the case has been largely ignored. One of the few people who learned from Manning's experience, it seems, was Snowden himself.
Consider what we know now that we didn't before Bradley Manning walked into a Maryland Barnes & Noble and uploaded video and documents to WikiLeaks. That upload included diplomatic cables that helped spur the revolution in Tunisia, a point from which the Arab Spring uprisings caught fire. Manning's incarceration included long stretches of solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, and forced nudity — treatment that prompted editorial outcry and a rebuke from the UN's special rapporteur on torture.
The case also promises one more significant development. The most severe charge Manning faces is that of "aiding the enemy," a charge under the Espionage Act that mandates a life sentence. Historically, such charges have centered on the release of information directly to an enemy. In this case, prosecutors argue that Manning's leak was indirect, that Manning knew that Al Qaeda was likely to see the files published by Wikileaks and, with "general evil intent," leaked so that they would. The Washington Post summarizes the effect of a guilty verdict in that light:
A conviction on the most serious charge, if upheld on appeal, “would essentially create a new way of aiding the enemy in a very indirect fashion, even an unintended fashion,” said Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. David J.R. Frakt, a visiting professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh.
Despite all of this, the case ends with a whimper. Over the weekend, BoingBoing's Xeni Jardin lamented the lack of press interest. In part, that's because the case has dragged out for four years, along a timeline well documented by journalist Alexa O'Brien. (O'Brien's summary of the trial to this point is an excellent guide). The summary of the key points we list above covers those four years. In the aggregate, staggering. As a slow drip, easy to miss.
But the main reason the media is distracted is the still-emerging set of information on the NSA's rampant surveillance efforts released by Snowden. His revelations are less than eight weeks old, of course, but the extent to which he learned from Manning can't be underestimated.
Snowden's leaks, as he himself noted, were more discriminate than Manning's. While Manning quickly gave up on involving traditional media entities, Snowden was patient, waiting months for The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald to respond favorably. Manning's involvement of WikiLeaks necessitated arguments about the group's journalistic value; Snowden would face no such critique. Most significantly, Snowden saw the treatment and arrest of Manning and learned two things. First, that avoiding capture made sense and, second, that Manning's treatment could be used as a political point. Attorney General Eric Holder's remarkable letter to Russia last week, articulating that Snowden would not be tortured, was almost entirely the result of Snowden and his advocates using Manning as an example.
One (often tacit) argument that the government uses in its push for charges against Snowden and has used in its prosecution of Bradley Manning is that prosecutions are necessary in order to curtail future leakers. It's the rationale behind the administration's unprecedented whistleblower prosecutions. But — just as the government claims that leaks make our enemies more capable — the prosecution of Manning seems to have done little to deter and a lot to facilitate the more embarrassing leaks from Edward Snowden.
The Manning trial, for as little attention as its gotten, could end up playing the same role that Manning's leaks did in Tunisia: indirectly inspiring sweeping change in the United States government, by way of the leaker currently absorbing the spotlight.