Being a messenger these days has a built-in risk. If the message is a welcome one, the chances are that the messenger will be warmly received. But if the message is not welcomed, the chances are that the messenger will be shunted aside or even punished.
At the center of our national debate over what kinds of information are important for U.S. citizens to have, and whose responsibility it is to make this information available to us, is a non-profit media organization called "WikiLeaks." It describes its mission as "bringing important news and information to the public" through "an innovative, secure and anonymous way for independent sources around the world to leak information to our journalists." It is interested in publishing "material of ethical, political and historical significance while keeping the identity of our sources anonymous, thus providing a universal way for the revealing of suppressed and censored injustices."
The founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks is Julian Assange, a citizen of Sweden. Pfc. Bradley Manning, a U.S. Army intelligence analyst, is being incarcerated, but not yet tried, for passing hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and corporate documents to WikiLeaks which has redacted them to remove any names that might cause the death of individuals, and then distributed them through five well-known newspapers: the New York Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and El Pais.
Manning has shared the following reasons for his actions: "Hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms." "I want people to see the truth regardless of who they are because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public." Daniel Ellsberg, responsible for "The Pentagon Papers", has been a champion of Manning and has also spoken in defense of Julian Assange.
The New York Times has acknowledged that WikiLeaks has supplied Americans with vital information about the war that their own government was denying them and which had not been provided by the U.S. mass media. In a similar vein Iraq Veterans Against the War commented "We believe that real national security is created where government transparency and accountability, free press, and an end to spending on illegal wars and occupations are the norm."
It's apparent from these leaks that our leaders, as has been pointed out, have come to see secrecy as a casual right instead of a rare privilege, and that much of their secrecy has unfortunately been used to protect antidemocratic actions.
Back in 1961, President John F. Kennedy said in a speech to the Newspaper Publishers Association, "No president should fear public scrutiny of his program, for from that scrutiny comes understanding, and from that understanding comes support or opposition, and both are necessary... Without debate. Without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed, and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian lawmakers once decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment."
There have been demands that both Manning and Assange be brought to trial and hopefully given the death penalty, despite what Defense Secretary Robert Gates had to say about the leaks: "I've heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer and so on. I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought...
Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest."
Meanwhile Manning has been severely punished during the last ten months. He has been incarcerated in the Quantico, Virginia, Marine brig — kept in a small isolation cell for twenty-three hours a day. He was permitted no contact with other prisoners, forced to strip naked at night (but given a blanket), and was forced to appear naked for early morning inspection. During the night the guards would inspect him every five minutes, and if he did not answer, they would awaken him. Whenever he was moved, he was forced to wear chains and leg irons.
Such treatment over the months began to affect his bodily and mental health. Despite the fact that Manning had never been convicted of any crime, such punishment suggested a desire to break him and thus to send a threatening message to future would-be whistleblowers. Prison officials refused to give representatives from U.N. and human rights organizations access to Manning.
Harvard professor Laurence Tribe (who taught constitutional law to Barack Obama) has stated that the treatment of Manning was objectionable "in the way it violates his person and his liberty without due process of law and in the way it administers cruel and unusual punishment of a sort that cannot be constitutionally inflicted even upon someone convicted of terrible offenses, not to mention someone merely accused of such offenses."
Growing protests and pressure from around the world have finally brought about a transfer for Manning to a medium-security facility at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, where he will have some freedom of movement, contact with other prisoners, and access to books and television.
His incarceration continues, however. I wonder what President Thomas Jefferson would have thought of such a case. It was he who once stated that "information is the currency of democracy" and that given a choice between government and a free press, he would take the latter.
The chances are that he would have welcomed both the messenger and his message.