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Mounting public support for the Army private at the center of the WikiLeaks scandal could be very bad news for Washington.
BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — It is highly unlikely that Army Pfc. Bradley Manning will go from prisoner to Nobel laureate any time soon.
For one thing, the 25-year-old soldier who allegedly sent hundreds of thousands of classified documents to the WikiLeaks website is only one of a record 259 candidates whose names have been sent to the Nobel Committee as a candidate for the Peace Prize.
Other possibilities include Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot for defying the Taliban, and three female human rights activists from Russia.
Manning’s name was submitted by a group called The Movement of the Icelandic Parliament. The choice was not accidental: Reykjavik voted in 2010 to make the country a haven for freedom of expression by offering legal protection to whistleblower websites like WikiLeaks.
But the campaign to urge the Nobel Committee to award Manning the Peace Prize is gathering steam in the United States as well.
Heavyweights like filmmaker Oliver Stone have taken up the cause on social media.
“Whistleblower Bradley Manning has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize,” Stone tweeted last week. “Let’s make sure he receives it.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, nearly 36,000 people had signed an online petition organized by RootsAction, which describes itself as “an online initiative dedicated to galvanizing Americans who are committed to economic fairness, equal rights, civil liberties, environmental protection — and defunding endless wars.”
The comments posted with the signatures spell a growing disillusionment among the American public with its government, and with the recently re-elected president who promised greater transparency but who critics say has delivered unprecedented secrecy.
“Having the courage to stand alone for truth and conscience should be rewarded, not punished,” wrote Peggy Witsell of Ranchos Palos Verdes, California.
Many took issue with the decision to award the Peace Prize to President Barack Obama in 2009, and called on the Nobel Committee to redeem itself by singling out Manning this time around.
“I agree with the many others who have said giving this prize to Obama was a disgrace to humanity,” wrote Matthew Schweder, of Lexington, Kentucky. “If this prize should mean something it should go to those who sacrifice their lives or livelihood to hold power accountable, as opposed to giving it to the powerful, who commit, by way of drones, bombs, and economic sanctions, the highest crimes against the people and the planet.”
The mainstream media have devoted relatively little space to Manning’s detention and the pretrial hearing, which opened in Fort Meade, Maryland in December. But over the past few weeks major outlets have begun to criticize the government’s handling of the case.
“A public trial over state secrets was itself becoming a state secret in plain sight,” wrote New York Times media observer David Carr, in a piece that lambasted what he termed the “pattern of … reflexive and sometime capricious withholding of information on the government’s part.”
In addition to being charged with leaking classified information, Manning is facing the more serious indictment of “aiding the enemy,” which, under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, could theoretically get him the death penalty. The prosecution says it is not seeking Manning’s execution, “only” life imprisonment without parole.
The young private does not deny that he leaked more than 700,000 documents to WikiLeaks in 2010. But he insists he did it out of a sense of moral responsibility, rather than any intent to aid Al Qaeda or other enemies of the United States.
Manning worked as an intelligence analyst for the US Army in Iraq, and had unfettered access to sensitive data bases.
“I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information … this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general as well as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan,” Manning said in his statement before the court on Feb. 28.
Manning eventually uploaded his data to WikiLeaks, after trying, and failing, to make contact with The Washington Post and The New York Times.
Once the information was in the public sphere, several newspapers, including Britain’s The Guardian, Germany’s Der Spiegel as well as The New York Times, published hundreds of the documents.
The data released by Manning was so copious and detailed that its impact was somewhat blunted: few had the time or the patience to comb through hundreds of thousands of pages looking for news nuggets.
But some of the material was too sensational to be ignored.
A video that Manning released in April 2010, made it onto the WikiLeaks website under the title “Collateral Murder.” The 40-minute film shows, in excruciating detail, how a US aerial weapons team shot and killed two Reuters journalists in the course of an attack on what seemed to be civilians in Baghdad back in 2007. What was almost worse was the audio that accompanied the film.
“[The soldiers] dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life by referring to them as quote dead bastards unquote and congratulating each other on the ability to kill in large numbers,” said Manning in his statement to the court.
The video went viral, and Manning was soon arrested.
Manning’s treatment while in detention has been more than harsh. The various techniques used — extended periods of solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, forced nudity, stress positions — have recently been outlined by Rolling Stone magazine in “The Trials of Bradley Manning.”
Manning’s defense team is charging that this treatment constitutes torture, and the judge in the case, Col. Denise Lind, conceded that it may have been “excessive.” But rather than throw out the case, as the defense had requested, she gave Manning a 112-day reduction in his ultimate sentence — although how one would calculate life minus four months is a difficult question.
Daniel Ellsberg, himself a famous whistleblower, has publicly hailed Manning as a hero.
Ellsberg was the high-level military analyst who exposed what's now widely considered the futility of the Vietnam War by leaking a trove of classified documents known as "The Pentagon Papers." He was charged with espionage, but his ordeal ended in a mistrial.
“I was that young man; I was Bradley Manning,” he told CNN in March 2011, after being arrested during a protest outside the White House in support of Manning.
Manning is an unlikely hero, a small, myopic, emotionally fragile young man who was subjected to constant harassment in the military for being openly gay.
But his cause is catching on, and the White House’s ham-fisted treatment of Manning is rallying many to his cause.
An op-ed titled “Death to Whistleblowers?” published on March 13 in The New York Times focused on the government’s insistence on charging Manning with “aiding the enemy.”
“If successful, the prosecution will establish a chilling precedent,” write Floyd Abrams and Yochai Benkler, both prominent lawyers. “Anyone who holds freedom of the press dear should shudder at the threat.”
The White House itself is keeping mum.
On its “We the People” website, where more than 6,000 people have signed a petition to free Manning, it explained its reticence.
”The military justice system is charged with enforcing the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Accordingly, the White House declines to comment on the specific case raised in this petition,” ran the statement.
For now, Manning remains in prison, with little relief expected in the near future. But perhaps a trip to Oslo in December is not out of the question?