The Manning Wikileaks Defense - Is It Free Speech?

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show  Floyd Abrams, a visiting professor of First Amendment Law at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, gave his legal perspective on Private Bradley E. Manning, an Army intelligence analyst who is suspected of disclosing hundreds of thousands of classified cables, intelligence reports and a video of a gruesome helicopter attack to WikiLeaks.

There are those who consider Private Manning a hero, and there are those who consider him a villain.

We know which side the Army is taking—they've put Manning in maximum security solitary confinement in Quantico, Virginia. But Manning has his defenders, and a group of them have set up a Bradley Manning Defense Fund that's lobbying for the government to ease the conditions under which he's being held. Allegedly Manning “is made to sleep in his boxer shorts with no pillow and no sheets and a heavy blanket so rough that he must turn carefully beneath it to avoid rug burn." Floyd Abrams doesn't understand that treatment.

Is there reason for some suspicion that people are so angry at what they think he's done that he's getting much tougher treatment then he deserves? Yes I think there is, it's certainly something that has to be looked into, because there are a great number of credible sources who are expressing doubt about the legitimacy of the conditions in which he is being held.

The Manning champions view him as a whistle blower who shed light on insidious behavior by the U.S. Army. They claim he exposed a war crime—a helicopter attack on civilians which killed 11 people including two Reuters employees—and other information the world has a right to see. His critics see him as someone who has endangered national security and put years of diplomatic relations at risk.

But was it within his first amendment free speech rights to release these documents? No. "He doesn't have much in the way of legally protected right to disseminate classified information that he obtained in his soldierly role," Abrams concedes.

I consider it reckless as well as illegal to just hand out tens of thousands of internal government documents whether they're cables within the State Department or military reports.

Assuming Manning did actually hand over the documents to WikiLeaks, some have compared his act to that of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971. But Abrams says this is fundamentally different, because Ellsberg purposely withheld from the New York Times the diplomatic documents he obtained because he feared they might interfere with the negotiations to end the war in Vietnam. Abrams doesn't sign on to the notion that Manning's act is admirable, he believes the leakage of diplomatic cables has jeopardized the ability of officials to get business done.

It is a form of non-violent resistance but it still might have violent consequences. That's why the question quickly becomes not one of law. If he did this, any government, any government—however dedicated to free speech—would punish him, and probably punish him severely.

But Abrams does concede that there's vast overclassification of documents in Washington. "The fact that something is classified does not mean that it is in and of itself harmful to national security," he said, pointing out that even the White House menu was classified under President Nixon. If Chairman Mao had known that he liked pot roast...


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Comments [13]

Joe B from Brooklyn

To all the Manning haters...

You are just more proof that some people love being lied to - because you live under the illusion that you are on the other side of the lies.

Crawl back into Plato's cave and enjoy the dark.

Manning is a hero.

Mar. 02 2011 11:47 AM

evan ps
and Manning needs to go to jail !
he will go to jail for what he believes. that's his right

Mar. 01 2011 11:15 AM

if u give a lot of people a lot info they don't need to do their job you can't say it was a secret.

Mar. 01 2011 11:13 AM

If it is proven that Mr. Manning disclosed the information he had access to in the course of his military duties, he should be sentenced to highest punishment legally available.

Mar. 01 2011 10:56 AM
Alvin from Manhattan

Glad to hear Floyd Abrams sees this the right way. There's a big difference between what Daniel Ellsberg and what Bradley Manning did: Ellsberg leaked specific documents that were of largely historic interest and witheld the sensitive diplomatic memos. Manning did a "document dump"; he couldn't possibly have reviewed 3/4 million documents. Regardless of whether you agree with the security classification of the documents, there are clear-cut laws, and everyone with clearance knows the rules. If you consider it to be civil disobedience, remember that such people act with full knowledge that they face punishment. Manning wasn't a whistle-blower, and he did significant damage to the U.S. The gov't. is trying to repair some damage with "Hillary Clinton - The Apology Tour", but Manning did damage nonetheless, and he violated the law in the worst way re being custodian of classified documents by doing an indiscriminate "document dump".

Mar. 01 2011 10:51 AM
Mr. Bad from NYC

Whether one adheres strictly to the theory of natural law or legal positivism is immaterial because this country honors neither one, nor has it, but only yields to the wishes of the powerful. Abrams would betray his own mother to further his career and keep his place in line, asking a sold out academic buffoon what he "thinks" is like asking an addict if he wants a hit - defending the establishment is his reflex, he wouldn't have his job otherwise

Mar. 01 2011 10:50 AM

I am not a lawyer, but I am a citizen.

I am deeply grateful for the actions of Bradley Manning in making it possible for us to learn the truth about many, many issues. This has been an eye opener for some, merely confirmation for others who felt we were not being told the truth.

Even for those of us who see hypocrisy in many of our leaders' actions, this has shown how wide spread and deep that occurs.

It has also been, apparently, not only an eye opener but a stimulus to finally act against some autocratic (to put it mildly), undemocratic governments, around the world.

John Mearsheimer has just written a new book about the lies leaders tell: It turns out they tend to lie more to their own citizens than to other leaders, in private discussions at least.

That is a sad finding, to me at least. For those who believe in real politik I suppose it's just the way of the world for elites.

However, I'm not sure a democracy can function under that kind of leadership, and I fear our democracy, with its actions creating a virtual empire, will long remain a democracy. We have an economic oligarchy -- how much longer will our civil liberties put forth in our Constitution remain?

Mar. 01 2011 10:48 AM
Cory from Planet Earth

Abrams is a first amendment lawyer only for the first amendment rights of rich, powerful members of the establishment, like The New York Times, not for anyone else. His opinions are purely those of those interests, not to protect the rights of the general public.

Mar. 01 2011 10:45 AM
Evan from New York, NY

hjs11211, why is his boss' mistake in entrusting him relevant? By your logic, we don't blame the arsonist but the person who trusted him with a lighter.

Mar. 01 2011 10:42 AM

why did Manning's boss feel he needed access to all these documents?

Mar. 01 2011 10:39 AM
Evan from New York, NY

I believe strongly in the First Amendment, but Manning needs to go to jail. He is a soldier and part of that job is to carry out orders. He was entrusted with a security clearance and he breached his obligations. It is not for him to decide what needs to be leaked. For all of those who defend him, if people died as a result, would you feel the same?

Mar. 01 2011 10:39 AM

Manning is a traitor, soldiers leaking classified information that he or she sees fit for the public at large to see is not a precedent we should establish as "ok", he should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Mar. 01 2011 10:38 AM
Jeff Pappas from Ct.

Its the old Oxymoron "Military Intelligence"
They cant admit their idiotic mistake of leaving a low ranking inexperienced person in reach of classified docs.
Bradley did what he thought was Right
I am glad the info is out there

Mar. 01 2011 10:36 AM

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