Military / Military Law, Politics, Trials

Bradley Manning Thinks He Knows Best: The Hubris of a Leaker

On Tuesday, Army Colonel Denise Lind found Private First Class Bradley Manning guilty of 17 of 21 counts of charges related to Manning’s leak of some 700,000 classified documents to the website WikiLeaks. (See here for Alexa O’Brien’s helpful graphical summary of the counts and here for Freedom of the Press Foundation’s full trial transcripts.) Although Colonel Lind did not find Manning guilty of charges of “aiding the enemy,” she found him guilty of seven of eight counts of violating the Espionage Act for leaking intelligence “with reason to believe such information could be used to the injury of the U.S. or the advantage of any foreign nation.” Manning was also found guilty of “wrongfully and wantonly” causing to be published on the internet intelligence belonging to the U.S., “having knowledge that intelligence published on the internet is accessible to the enemy.” Sentencing proceedings, which progress rapidly in the military justice system, began Wednesday. Manning faces a possible 136 years in military prison.

Manning’s detailed statement offered to the court martial in February explains how a gawky, barely post-pubescent Army intelligence analyst from Oklahoma came to publicize virtual reams of national security security secrets with which his country had entrusted him. Manning said: “I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information contained within [the military’s own databases], it could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Bradley Manning wanted to spark a debate. Like a high school civics teacher trying to rouse his dozing students, he wanted to get us all talking. See? He’s not a turncoat willing to endanger the lives of Americans or a vainglorious and disgruntled soldier. He’s just a patriotic facilitator of conversation.

Rubbish. Manning’s acts were, at best, absurdly naive, and at worst, paternalistic and hubristic….

Manning’s defense team limned an image of an alienated but good-hearted young private. Indeed, it’s hard not to feel some compassion for him. He did poorly in basic training, taking months longer to complete it than most recruits do. As an Army analyst, he enjoyed working with computers and chatting on IRC about Linux and BSD, but felt disconnected from his peers. Manning’s own description of his earliest leaks suggest a sort of aimless recklessness.

For example, when explaining his leak of the 10 Reykjavik 13 State Department cable, he said:

“I read the cable and quickly concluded that Iceland was essentially being bullied diplomatically by two larger European powers. It appeared to me that Iceland was out viable options and was coming to the U.S. for assistance. Despite the quiet request for assistance, it did not appear that we were going to do anything. From my perspective it appeared that we were not getting involved due to the lack of long term geopolitical benefit to do so.”

Manning admits later in his statement that he “was not absolutely certain [the cables] couldn’t harm the United States” and that he hadn’t even been aware of what might be going on in Iceland until shortly before he leaked the cable. He just “decided the cable was something that could be important.” He “felt that [he] might be able to right a wrong by having [WikiLeaks] publish this document.”

He further said:

“I once read a quote on open diplomacy written after the First World War [about how] the world would be a better place if states would avoid making secret pacts and deals with or against each other. I thought these cables were a prime example of the need for more open diplomacy.”

Despite the sincerity of his speculations and the seriousness of the choice to leak classified information, Manning was no expert on these matters. Here he acted as an armchair political scientist and amateur diplomat.

Manning described how he continued to leak classified documents, cables, and videos in historically enormous quantities while chatting online with operatives from the WikiLeaks Organization whom he believed to be his friends. He told Colonel Lind:

“I felt we were developing a friendship. The conversations covered many topics and I enjoyed the ability to talk about pretty much everything—not just the publications that the WLO was working on. In retrospect, I realize that these dynamics were artificial and were valued more by myself than Nathaniel [from the WLO]. [ . . . ] It seems that as I tried harder to fit in at work, the more I seemed to alienate my peers and lose the respect, trust, and support I needed.”

If Colonel Lind’s verdict was correct, Manning did not specifically intend for Al-Qaeda or other U.S. adversaries to harm Americans with the information that he gave WikiLeaks. Even so, he acted impermissibly.

Manning did not in many cases even claim to understand the significance of the intelligence he was setting loose on the public, yet he did so because of some vague, inchoate sense that something might be wrong and the whole world ought to know about it immediately. His own account makes clear that, when uncovering troubling information, he automatically thought only of releasing it to a major newspaper (none of which took his tips) or dumping it onto WikiLeaks for all to see — not trying, for example, to reach out to a member of Congress. In all but one case, he did not attempt to report his concerns to his Army superiors. Moreover, he was emotionally seduced into the largest national security breach in our country’s history by little more than the promise of apparent friendship.

Manning decided that he — personally, individually, all by his lonesome self — knew what was best for all of us, for the whole world. Pfc Manning wanted us to have a debate, even at the expense of the safety of Americans and American interests, if that’s what it took. What curious strain of paternalism must he have to presume that he had the moral or legal right to unilaterally make that momentous decision for the countless people who were or could have been imperiled by his acts? Why does he get to make that choice?

Bradley Manning, with his limited knowledge of the significance of the military intelligence he had, acted as if he knew both (a) that intelligence’s full and true significance, and (b) what the consequences of indiscriminately publicizing that intelligence to world would be. He broke laws and promises on an epistemic gamble. He bet a lot of people’s well-being on the presumption that he individually could foresee all of the relevant effects of unloading 700,000 classified documents on the internet. That is a lot of confidence in, not his convictions, but rather in his own predictive abilities.

Before the left further lionizes Bradley Manning as a fearless whistleblower and martyr, consider this: Bradley Manning thought he knew better than everyone else entrusted with that same intelligence, and he was willing to risk the lives of Americans because of that self-confidence. That’s not only a crime and a threat to our national security. That’s hubris.

Tamara Tabo is a summa cum laude graduate of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the school’s law review. She has clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and worked as a researcher for multiple projects on the intersection of cognitive science and law, including Baylor College of Medicine’s Initiative on Neuroscience and the Law. She looks forward to a career of teaching and writing about, but never practicing, law. You can reach her at

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