The Manning Commutation: Three Thoughts

Yesterday, President Obama commuted the sentence of Bradley/Chelsea Manning, the whistle blower who leaked information, including documentation and videos of Americans killing civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, to Wikileaks in 2010. Manning was arrested that same year and was convicted of 17 charges in 2013, later being sentenced to 35 years in prison. The story of Manning and Wikileaks was documented in the 2013 film We Steal Secrets.

From the beginning, American opinion of Manning has been divided along political lines. When the leak was revealed, conservatives condemned Manning as a traitor and Wikileaks as a dangerous organization. Liberals and libertarians have generally been more charitable to Manning, with libertarians especially upholding him as a hero for revealing the government’s secrets. Despite the dramatic shifts in the political landscape that have occurred since 2010, these battle lines have remained consistent all the way through this week, with the news of Obama’s commutation of Manning’s sentence. Conservatives are upset while libertarians (and any liberals not busy setting themselves on fire) are generally pleased.

I’m not especially concerned with the issue of Manning’s guilt. It’s quite obvious that his leak to Wikileaks was against the law, just as Edward Snowden’s leak of the NSA’s spying program to Glenn Greenwald was. But oftentimes the really interesting part of a news story is not the story itself. As I’ve observed this story and the reactions to it, I’ve been struck by three thoughts.

First, it’s very interesting that Obama has commuted Manning’s sentence while maintaining the guilt of Edward Snowden, the government contractor who in 2013 informed the world of the NSA’s extensive data collection activities. Certainly the two cases are not entirely analogous, and yet both have the same essential features: a government employee acquiring information that he cannot keep secret and subsequently releasing it to the public. If Manning has done his time in prison, as Obama said today, why can’t Edward Snowden be brought back from his exile?

Theories abound on this question. Some believe that Obama has an easier time letting someone who blew the whistle on Geroge W. Bush off the hook than someone who implicated his own administration in the violation of civil liberties. Others believe that Snowden’s leak was much more damaging to the government than Manning’s, and was therefore unpardonable.

Whatever the answer, Obama’s gesture to Manning will always be half-empty if the same is not extended to Snowden.

Second, it’s pretty funny to watch conservatives, who just two months ago were hailing Assange and Wikileaks as the last vestige of journalism, quickly pivot to condemn Manning, the person who put Wikileaks on the map. During the election conservatives were quick to point out that Wikileaks’ exposure of Hillary Clinton’s secrets was a great service since Americans deserved to know what she and the DNC wanted to hide.

That the same logic might apply to what the government would like to hide about our foreign wars is mostly a lost point on the right. Ironically, Wikileaks’ reporting on Hillary Clinton seems much more like tabloid material compared to the real journalism that detailed the killing of foreign civilians in America’s wars.

It may turn out that Assange, a hero to Republicans in 2016, reverts to his villain status as the calendar turns.

But third and most importantly, the reaction of the American right to Manning is troubling in one very important aspect: it shows that conservatives care more about how (or even if) information is released than they care about the information itself. They have consistently been bothered more by Manning’s release of the files than by the videos that show, for instance, an American helicopter firing on Reuters cameramen and children on their way to school.

When Manning leaked the documents, conservatives were quick to condemn him by saying that national security demanded secrecy. And perhaps it does. But if national security matters more than the tens of thousands of civilian deaths that Manning documented, American conservatism has lost its way. The humanity of the conservatives of old would not have permitted them look the other way in the interest of “national security.”

To the old conservatives, a nation’s honor was more important than its security. Both Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver feared in the middle of the twentieth century that America’s honor had already been lost. I wonder what they would say today if they were to observe the state of the nation and the movement they created.

I think that Kirk would simply reiterate a point that he had already made: that “there are circumstances under which it is not only more honorable to lose (a war) than to win, but quite truly less harmful, in the ultimate providence of God.”