Army Pfc. Bradley Manning pleaded guilty Thursday to 10 charges related to the misuse of federal documents. He will likely spend 20 years in prison for these offenses. He may face further charges, and we hope the military prosecutes him on as many of them as possible.
Manning dumped thousands of pages of classified and confidential information into the hands of a foreign entity with an obvious animus against the United States. As employees of a newspaper, we appreciate the help of people inside the government who provide nonpublic information. But we are also citizens and patriots who understand an obligation to exercise judgment with classified information, and know that such leaks are only useful as a means to a positive end.
Manning is no hero for contemptibly sending classified military documents to WikiLeaks. He should consider himself lucky that he isn't facing a charge of treason, a capital crime under military law.
The classified information Manning chose to release included battlefield reports, diplomatic cables, classified intelligence assessments and the like. The release of the information threatened U.S. military and diplomatic sources, strained relations with other countries (including allies), and damaged counterterrorism efforts. If anything, Manning has made every American and every person who has ever cooperated with our foreign policy efforts abroad less safe -- including his former brothers in arms, who now go into the field against an enemy that has access to their strategic plans.
When he took his oath of enlistment in the Army, Manning vowed to follow the orders of his superiors. He lied, but that was not his worse offense.
Most major news media outlets, even when exposing classified or confidential information that is important to the national debate, take care to screen the information so that nothing is published that could endanger lives or irreparably damage national security. Manning not only flouted such precautions but insisted on leaking the information in a way that would cause maximum damage to American interests and endanger as many lives as possible. He specifically abandoned an effort to give the documents to the Washington Post when a reporter there indicated the information would have to be screened. This is why Manning's claims of high-minded motives should not be taken seriously.
Manning told the court that he "believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information ... this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general." Not only was this not his call to make, his actions have done nothing whatsoever to further that debate.
Americans have been conducting a very robust debate on foreign policy over the past decade, upon which the elections of 2004, 2006 and 2008 may have all turned. The WikiLeaks documents have added virtually nothing to that debate. Outside the relatively small circle of people in the military and the diplomatic corps directly affected or endangered by the revelations, the general public has shown no interest in the documents' actual contents beyond the considerations that were already widely known.
American policy is often questionable and should always be questioned. That is no excuse for what Manning did. Loyalty to country still means something, and remains both a virtue and a duty. Manning's just punishment will remind all Americans of this fact if they have forgotten.