Manning in his own words: I tried not to leak anything dangerous

Manning in his own words: I tried not to leak anything dangerous

Late last night, in violation of military court rules, the Freedom of the Press Foundation released audio of Pfc. Bradley Manning’s personal statement before a Fort Meade, Md. court. The foundation, which openly supports Manning, immediately began using the audio to bolster the case that the military analyst deserves protection from laws against disclosing classified information and "aiding the enemy."

One such argument is that Manning went to great lengths to not leak anything that would do serious harm to the United States or its partners. Heard in his own words for the first time, Manning talks about the meticulous manner in which he handed over information. (Warning: It’s very jargony.)

Of the documents release, the cables were the only one I was not absolutely certain couldn’t harm the United States. I conducted research on the cables published on the Net Centric Diplomacy, as well as how Department of State cables worked in general. In particular, I wanted to know how each cable was published on SIRPnet via the Net Centric Diplomacy. As part of my open source research, I found a document published by the Department of State on its official website.

The document provided guidance on caption markings for individual cables and handling instructions for their distribution. I quickly learned the caption markings clearly detailed the sensitivity of the Department of State cables. For example, NODIS or No Distribution was used for messages at the highest sensitivity and were only distributed to the authorized recipients.

To the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, this testimony pours cold water on the Manning critics who accused the analyst of leaking files with abandon:

To impugn Manning’s conduct, it is often claimed – by people who cannot possibly know this – that he failed to assess the diplomatic cables he was releasing and simply handed them over without having any idea what was in them. Here is Manning explaining the detailed process he undertook to determine their contents and ensure that they would not result in serious harm to innocent individuals…

But this misses an important point. When it comes to disclosing classified information, you don’t get bonus points for trying hard not to release damaging information. Remember, the WikiLeaks dump reportedly outed the identities of hundreds of Afghan informants working for the United States. While it’s thankfully true that those informants haven’t been subject to reprisals from the Afghan Taliban, that doesn’t justify the leaking of those names.

In the aftermath of the leaks, the Pentagon had to scramble to protect those informants, which is one of the reasons the government retains the authority to decide when and how to publish sensitive information. Besides that, Manning also leaked materials that even WikiLeaks refrained from publishing as advised in its own "harm minimization review." This is not to say that Manning deserves the book thrown at him for what he did, but it’s important to keep in mind that there’s a reason every military analyst with a conscience isn’t simply allowed to decide what can be safely disclosed and what can’t.