The dominating news in recent weeks, as we bid farewell to 2010, was the WikiLeaks affair. The leaks were the most important global news event because they involve the United States and the rest of the world, and the most important local news event in each and every country mentioned in the leaked U.S. diplomatic cables.
While the initial focus was on the work of the website’s founder Julian Assange, who became ‘Public Enemy Number One' and the ‘tech terrorist’ with a price on his head by the American Right, focus gradually shifted to the person of Julian Assange, after he was accused of rape in Sweden, and after the U.S. administration declared that it will request his extradition on charges of espionage.
Amid all this confusion, the name of the U.S. soldier Bradley Manning almost went out of mention. Manning is at the center of all the leaked documents, starting with the first scoop by WikiLeaks which was published on 3/4/2010, or that controversial video footage of ‘Collateral Murder’, or unintentional killing, which showed three U.S military helicopters on 12/7/2007 bombing Iraqi civilians and claiming they were militants, despite the fact that eyewitnesses said the opposite; the footage of the incident then corroborated their account.
The U.S. government found no charges to prosecute Assange, invoking instead the 1917 Espionage Act. When experts including professors of journalism in Columbia University said that prosecuting Assange also means the prosecution of all investigative journalism, it seemed that the government is attempting to get to Assange through Manning, who has been in solitary confinement since last July on charges of "transferring classified date onto his personal computer and adding unauthorized software to a classified computer system".
David House, an American journalist, was the only person who has been visiting Bradley Manning since September. He said that the 23 year old soldier looked “frazzled”. He is being punished before his trial and this is weakening his mental state. House also said that Manning is prohibited from reading political newspapers, or watching anything other than local television, which does not carry international news. House also said that the prison guards check on him every five minutes, that he was given a blanket so heavy that he cannot manage to sleep under it, and that the light is never put out in his cell. I also read that Manning is given only one hour each 24 hours to get out and exercise, and that the authorities started to give him drugs for depression after his health began to decline.
The treatment of Manning is a true American scandal. He is being held in a prison in a country that is supposed to be a pioneer of human rights, and was not sent to an Arab country to be tortured. The journalist House said that he is concerned about Manning’s deteriorating health and mental state, which prompted Manfred Nowak, the U.N special rapporteur on torture, to declare from his headquarters in Geneva that the United Nations will probe into the treatment afforded to Manning, and whether or not he was subjected to torture.
I had found the actions of Assange to be careless and irresponsible. He should have instead appreciated the controversy that the leaks will cause and refrained from anything that might give his enemies a way to get to him. Instead, he slept with two Swedish women over two days in a row, and when they discovered his 'cheating', they went to the police. Manning, who leaked the video footage of Collateral Murder, had revealed his secret to a colleague, Adrian Lamo. The latter then ratted him out to the authorities which subsequently arrested Manning. If he had not spoken, he would have perhaps been free today.
I believe that there is a race against time now. WikiLeaks has only released a small part of the diplomatic cables in its possession, and the U.S. administration wants to shut it down to prevent further leaks. Since Assange is currently in Britain and is wanted by Sweden, the U.S. authorities are hoping to reach him through Manning. But we did not yet hear that he will cooperate with the authorities against WikiLeaks and its founder, although some of Manning’s supporters accuse the website of failing to offer money to Manning’s defense lawyers. But this is an odd accusation because the website itself is being hounded, and its funds were frozen pending Assange’s case.
Today, many see Manning as a hero and a political prisoner. His defenders include Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, which published them in 1971. There is also a group called Courage to Resist which has taken it upon itself to defend Manning, and which distributes t-shirts bearing his name as well as other items. However, there are those who, by contrast, consider him a traitor, and I find his opponents to be stronger. If he falls, then Assange and perhaps even WikiLeaks will fall too.
*Published in the London-based AL-HAYAT on Dec. 28, 2010.