Marc Ambinder

Why the government won't prosecute me

And why they insist on prosecuting Bradley Manning

It does not surprise me that the Commander of the Military District of Washington has decided to ignore PFC Bradley Manning's contrition, and his time served, and seek the secrecy leak equivalent of the death penalty.

The government has a lot of equities to protect in the case. Some are legitimate, others are not, and others are incidental to the case itself but essential to the functioning of a democracy with secrets.

Manning committed a crime by disclosing secrets. He saw himself as a revolutionary, a political critic who would spark debate about U.S. foreign policy. The Army should not have deployed him; he fell through the large but unavoidable holes that make up the service's mental health screening process. His 1,000-day imprisonment without trial was exceptional and unwarranted.

That said, I don't blame the government for not accepting the narrative that Manning's ardent defenders have put forth. Their Manning is a projection of their own fantasies and fears. The real Manning is a human being who got in way over his head.

The government has a funny relationship with secrets. At the level of policy, it almost facilitates leaks of classified information.  Political appointees, senior government civilian executives, generals, and admirals leak in a permissive environment. Only views that are at odds with the administration's are punished. Leakers rarely are. In fact, the government does not do the one thing that it could to easily crack down on high-level national security policy leaks: It does not prosecute the distributors.

I am a distributor. I've just published a book that, I am led to believe, contains classified information. Now, perhaps an agency will ask the DOJ to investigate the source of a leak to me, the one-to-one channel of information. But unless, for the sake of kicks, the government decides to be bold, they will not prosecute me. 

Manning gave his information to one person. That person gave the information to millions of people. Journalists have some legal protections, and there is some Supreme Court precedent that appears to give reporters some leeway that others don't have. The First Amendment remains a strong force. But still: If leaking secrets were truly a problem, actually harmful to national security, then journalists would be touchable. The worst the government can do — and it is bad, at times — is get a judge to jail us for not divulging our source. Even though WE committed the act of disclosing information too — arguably, the act that led to people knowing about it — we're untouchable. 

I'm glad the government doesn't go after journalists in the way they do the leakers. Actually, it's unfair to one category of leakers: the category of government employees who are LEAST likely to leak. Those are the grunts, the worker bees, the men and women who get stuff done. They very rarely disclose classified information inappropriately, which is one reason why Manning's case was so significant. But every government counter-intelligence program aimed at leaks focuses on these people. I sometimes think it's a way of pretending to punish leakers to satisfy Congress while leaving for themselves huge avenues for them to shape policy or perception by leaking.

There absolutely is a double standard. And it may be a necessary one (from the standpoint of the executive branch), in that leaks and the control of secrets often help grease the wheels of some of the more seamier parts of democracy. 

But the person who actually gave up Valerie Plame's identity has never been prosecuted. 

The person who told David Sanger the unclassified program nickname and confirmed that Stuxnet was a U.S. computer network attack against Iran will not be prosecuted, even though the universe of people who knew the nickname was vanishingly small. Sanger won't be prosecuted. 

But Bradley Manning — Manning will be held as an example.  

If the government really wanted to crack down on leaks, they should prosecute me.

But they won't.


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