Food for Thought From the Bradley Manning Trial – Whistleblower?

Posted by Shannon Walker

on August 8, 2013

photo bradley manningThe ongoing trial of US military intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, who leaked hundreds of thousands of compromising battlefield reports and diplomatic cables related to the United States’ actions in Iraq and Afghanistan on WikiLeaks, continues to provoke the discussion of important issues surrounding the ethical implications surrounding whistleblowing as it pertains to sensitive government material.  Manning has been in custody since May 2010, and on July 30th, was found not guilty of aiding the enemy, which was the most serious of the charges levelled against him.  He was, however, convicted of espionage, among other charges.  His leaks, then, are not seen to be endangering to American soldiers in Iraq, but simply problematic based on the exposition of what he termed ‘bloodlust’ and ‘diplomatic deceitfulness’[1].

The question therefore becomes whether or not Manning should be considered a criminal or traitor when it appears as though his intention was not the encouragement of harm to the United States or its citizens.  Is the act of exposing in and of itself indictable?

The notion that a whistleblower like Manning might be termed a traitor even after being found not guilty of acts which might endanger the lives of American citizens is troubling.  One should not feel as though they have let down their country by exposing its faults, and in fact, America is perhaps doing its reputation more harm than good by treating Manning as harshly as it has.  There is no doubt that there is a need to maintain confidentiality when it comes to sensitive diplomatic and military material, but in this particular case, the fact that Manning was officially acquitted of aiding the enemy perhaps provides an opportunity to engage a more in-depth discussion of some of the obvious problems brought to light by his leaking.  While the implications of his actions are complex and the topic of much debate, the heart of the issue appears to be that the United States government is reacting not to the act of whistleblowing, but rather to the fact that the information made public by Manning’s leaks compromises certain notions of integrity the country hoped to project.  By suggesting through his acquittal that Manning had not caused direct harm to the US but continuing to convict him of 20 other charges, the government is in fact highlighting its discomfort with the damage to its international reputation and appearing less transparent in the process.

The overarching rhetoric of Manning as traitor is misguided, and should prompt questions into the way in which whistleblowers are perceived by their superiors.  If, as in Manning’s case, there is no evidence of endangerment surrounding the exposition of information, it should be seen as a chance for reflection and perhaps the re-evaluation of policies and best practices.  The Bradley Manning case is incredibly complex and has international implications, but the issues and lessons it brings to light can be applied on a corporate scale.  Companies should not see whistleblowers as threatening or traitorous, but should instead view the bringing forward of issues within their organization as a chance for open discussion.  It is key to not only properly manage ethics violations cases, but also to be willing to re-evaluate and alter policies and best practices if necessary.  Transparency hinges on the ability to accept when established methods are not effective and the willingness to make necessary changes.  With proper ethics reporting and case management practices in place, and a corporate culture that sees whistleblowers as a vehicle for meaningful change rather than a problematic burden, there is potential for continued development and growth.

[1] “Wikileaks Source Bradley Manning Sentencing Hearing Begins” BBC News, July 31, 2013