It has been a very bad week for democracy. In particular, it has been a bad week for Americans who have placed the right of the people to know what their government is doing above their own well-being.
Today, Bradley Manning, a 25-year-old idealistic Army private who sacrificed his freedom to expose the criminality of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, was sentenced to 35 years in a military prison. His conviction under the Espionage Act–a World War I-era law, long discredited for its use to silence dissent–makes clear the political nature of his prosecution and persecution by the U.S. government. Like Daniel Ellsberg who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press a generation before him, Manning in truth committed a great act of patriotism.
Transparency and accountability are foundational values in a democratic society, and where government secrecy imperils the ability of the people to check the power–and the abuses–of their rulers, whistle-blowers like Manning play an essential role in preserving democracy. “The only effective restraint upon executive policy in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry–in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government,” Justice Stewart said in the Pentagon Papers case. But this time, the government has interpreted the law to silence whistle-blowers for years to come.
Manning has fared decidedly worse than Ellsberg did. Held in pre-trial detention for more than three-and-a-half years, the conditions under which he was held for eleven months of that time are widely recognized as torture: the young solider was held in solitary confinement, forced to sleep naked without sheets or pillows, denied exercise, denied access to any outside news. Now he has been condemned to spend the next three decades behind bars.
Manning’s barbaric treatment and draconian sentence are a testament to the lengths to which our government will go to silence, intimidate and punish those who dare to shine a light on its wrongdoing.
Which brings us to the events of this past weekend. Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was detained by British authorities at Heathrow Airport for nine hours under that country’s anti-terrorism laws. The U.S. says it knew of the plans to detain Miranda, but denies that the U.K. did so at its behest. Greenwald, of course, has provided extensive reporting on the NSA surveillance scandal and the materials leaked by Edward Snowden. As that news came to light, the Guardian also revealed that government agents had threatened the paper, ordered the destruction of all of the material Snowden had given them and then oversaw the physical destruction of hard drives at the paper’s offices. The futility of these actions–there was absolutely no basis for detaining Miranda, and the Snowden materials exist in multiple places throughout the world–only underscore their purpose: like Manning’s treatment and sentence, their primary purpose was to intimidate.
Cardinal Richelieu, the 17th century chief minister to Louis XIII, is said to have remarked, “a man with a family can be made to do anything.” Indeed, it has long been the hallmark of despotic governments to threaten and harm the family members of those it seeks to control or silence. That the U.S. and the U.K. would join the list of authoritarian governments willing to resort to such reprehensible behavior shows the dangers we all face from the increasing efforts to choke off any efforts expose government abuses of power.
We now live in an era in which “government transparency” apparently means a one-way view by Big Brother into our emails and phone records and fierce retribution against anyone seeking to peer in the other direction. “The U.S. considers journalism a crime,” Greenwald told Die Zeit in an interview Wednesday, “They’ve made that very clear.”
It’s incumbent on all of us to make sure this assault on democracy does not prevail. Manning and Greenwald are patriots, but the work of democracy cannot be borne by only a few heroes. We must all participate.