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Column: Danger of Manning’s Leaks Had Little to Do With Security

A military judge did the right thing — amazingly — by acquitting Pfc. Bradley Manning on the charge of aiding the enemy in the biggest leak of classified documents in U.S. history.

The charge — traditionally punishable by death or life in solitary — had been hammered home by Manning’s prosecutor. “He was a traitor,” said Maj. Ashden Fein, “a traitor who understood the value of compromised information in the hands of the enemy and took deliberate steps to ensure that they, along with the world, received it.”

No, Manning wasn’t a traitor. Nor was he a spy, though the judge convicted him of violating the Espionage Act of 1917, a law more commonly used to repress radical speech than to jail secret agents. Like Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers fame and Edward Snowden of the National Security Agency’s military-intelligence complex, he was given the power to see deep inside a secret world.

He found it terrifying, thrilling, mind-bending. Like them, he decided the United States and the world would be a better place if the secrets were spilled. He decided to lift the hood of history and tinker with the engine.

At the time he began leaking the information, in 2010, he was in a state of psychological and emotional crisis, wrestling with his gender identity and his rage. Judging by his computer chats, he found unleashing classified information liberating. But he knew he could face execution for what he was about to do.

Manning was 19 when he decided to follow in the footsteps of his father, a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst, in seeking a military career. A tiny kid, openly gay in the days of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” he barely made it through basic training in 2007. He was set to be discharged six weeks after enlisting. But the Army took him back, sent him to its best intelligence school, gave him a “Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information” security clearance, and shipped him to Iraq in 2009.

Big mistake. Manning should never have been given the keys to the secret kingdom.

Nearly 1.2 million Americans now hold “Top Secret” clearances, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. A clearance for “Sensitive Compartmented Information” is above Top Secret; the compartments are lock boxes opened by classified code words corresponding to thousands of secret military and intelligence programs costing tens of billions of dollars.

That a lowly soldier had security clearances sufficient to snatch files about detainees at Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay camp, half a million military field reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, and a quarter of a million diplomatic cables from the State Department remains one of the more staggering facts of the case.

Manning first gave fame to WikiLeaks and the vainglorious Julian Assange by leaking video shot from a U.S. Apache helicopter in Baghdad. In 2007, the chopper fired on a group of Reuters journalists and a van of civilians, including children. The gunner evidently mistook a video camera for a weapon. It is soul-searing to see innocent people die. But that’s what war looks like. Manning evidently found it so horrifying that he set about leaking everything he could.

Manning told the military court that he wanted his leaks “to start a public debate of the wars.” He wrote online to the man who turned him in — a man convicted in 2004 of hacking The New York Times — of his hope that they would spark “worldwide discussion, debates and reforms.” In a few places, they likely did. The people of Tunisia were unhappy to learn that the profligate ruling family flew in a crate of ice cream from St. Tropez for a sumptuous dinner with the U.S. ambassador. Soon, the crooked dictator was gone.

The State Department cables are the most interesting material Manning leaked. Significantly, few are stamped “secret.” They show U.S. diplomats trying to accomplish good things in the name of the U.S. These people do hard jobs in dangerous places and they report fascinating information; they write well, too.

Manning knew that stealing these files was a crime; his sentencing, which will take weeks, will likely be severe. By volume, there never has been a leak like this: The Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the U.S.’s role in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967, ran 7,000 pages; Manning copied more than 700,000 documents.

Stealing the files was illegal, but reading them is not — not in this country. Not yet. The question is whether reading the information they contain could damage national security.

I think not. It is no secret that Guantanamo is a blot on the honor of the country, or that innocent civilians are killed in war, or that U.S. diplomats dine with dictators.

What the files reveal is a slice of what life during wartime was like under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. And understanding what war is, and what it does to people, is dangerous knowledge.

When the Pentagon Papers were first leaked to The New York Times, White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman shared a fascinating insight with President Richard Nixon. Haldeman had been talking about the papers with another Nixon aide — Donald Rumsfeld — who had said that “to the ordinary guy, all this is a bunch of gobbledygook.”

“But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing,” Haldeman told Nixon. “You can’t trust the government. You can’t believe what they say. And you can’t rely on their judgment. And the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it’s wrong, and the president can be wrong.”

Tim Weiner, a former national security correspondent for The New York Times, is the author, most recently, of Enemies: A History of the FBI.