NEW YORK — The honors and accolades proliferated over three years: international peace prizes, solidarity campaigns by celebrities, an effort to designate him – in absentia, of course – as grand marshal of San Francisco‘s gay pride parade.
All the while, Bradley Manning was imprisoned by the military, branded a traitor by the U.S. government and reviled by many Americans. Some called for his execution for giving troves of classified secrets to WikiLeaks for global distribution.
Few Americans in living memory have emerged from obscurity to become such polarizing public figures – admired by many around the world, fiercely denigrated by many in his homeland.
The contrasting portraits of Manning were summarized by his defense attorney, David Coombs, during the trial that culminated Tuesday with Manning’s acquittal on a charge of aiding the enemy and his conviction on charges of espionage, theft and computer fraud.
“Is Pfc. Manning som ebody who is a traitor, who has no loyalty to this country, or the flag?” Coombs had asked. “Or is he a young, naive, good-intentioned soldier who had human life, in his humanist beliefs, center to his decision?
“Which side of the version is the truth?”
His supporters embraced the second of those versions, as illustrated by a full-page ad last week in The New York Times, headlined “WE ARE BRADLEY MANNING.” The ad’s 850 signatories included writer Alice Walker, activist intellectual Noam Chomsky, singer Joan Baez, and Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Vietnam War-era Pentagon Papers who has praised Manning as a worthy heir to his legacy.
“This 25-year-old, openly gay soldier from Oklahoma does not deserve to spend one more day in prison for informing the public of our government’s policies,” the newspaper ad said. “We will not relent until this American hero is free.”
His detractors had a different view.
“We need to get very, very serious about treason,” Fox News analyst Ralph Peters said on a recent newscast. “And oh by the way, for treason – as in the case of Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden – you bring back the death penalty.”
The lead prosecutor at Manning’s trial, Maj. Ashden Fein, depicted the Army private as a “gleeful, grinning” malefactor who savored the glory of being a whistleblower.
“The only human Pfc. Manning ever cared about was himself,” Fein said.
From the highest levels of the U.S. government, civilian and military leaders argued that Manning had violated pledges made to get his top secret clearance, potentially endangered U.S. agents, and made classified information accessible to America’s enemies.
“Some information which is sensitive, which does affect the security of individuals and relationships, deserves to be protected and we will continue to take necessary steps to do so,” said Hillary Rodham Clinton while serving as secretary of state when Manning released classifi ed diplomatic cables.
One leaked dispatch referred to the president of Turkmenistan as “a practiced liar” and “not a very bright guy.” Another said Sweden engaged in military and intelligence cooperation with the U.S. in contradiction with its public stance of nonalignment.
One of Manning’s leading defenders believes he decided to reveal secrets without any expectation of fame.
“I don’t think he intended to become a hero in the sense of having followers all over the world,” said Emma Cape, campaign organizer for the Bradley Manning Support Project. “I do think he was intending to do the right thing, knowing his actions would affect people all over the world.”
“It was very brave what he did,” Cape said. “He is a hero to people not because he is Superman … but because he’s somebody who stood up for democracy and government transparency and accountability at a time when it was needed.”
Widney Brown, senior director of international law and policy for Amnesty International, said Manning – whether it was his goal or not – had become a symbol.
“His revelations have become symbolic of challenging a post-9/11 world in which national security has gone awry,” she said. “It has piqued the imagination and interest of people who are asking if 9/11 gave carte blanche for the government to do whatever it wants as long it says it’s in the name of national security.”
Support for Manning has been particularly notable in Europe, where he was widely viewed as a conscience-stricken whistleblower incurring the wrath of American authorities for disclosures that embarrassed them.
The Geneva-based International Peace Bureau this month awarded Manning its annual peace prize. Several European lawmakers have urged the U.S. to free him outright. Vigils and protests have regularly been held in his honor outside of U.S. embassies across the continent.
“Manning is a true patriot, not a traitor,” British gay-rights activi st Peter Tatchell said Tuesday. “At great personal sacrifice, he exposed grave crimes that were perpetrated and then hidden by the U.S. government and military.”
With his slight build and bespectacled, boyish looks, Manning embodied neither a superhero nor arch-villain. Indeed, Widney Brown suggested his case provided a counterpoint to the macho imagery that sometimes envelops military and national security matters.
Norm Kent, a criminal defense lawyer and publisher of the South Florida Gay News, likened Manning to the Chinese man shown in an iconic photograph confronting a line of army tanks amid Beijing’s Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
“I’d like to think Manning is one of the people who rose to the moment when he was faced with a moral crisis,” Kent said. “Maybe, having been a gay man and an outcast before, and understanding what it was like to be alienated, he wasn’t afraid to become the little engine that could.”
Steven Bucci, a foreign policy expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Manning’s personal traits would contribute to a mixed legacy.
“People see a troubled young man as much as a hero or a complete villain,” Bucci said. “I don’t think there are many people who think he’s Benedict Arnold, but they think he broke the law and his reasoning is skewed. I don’t know that he’s going to become a folk hero except for the most rabid civil libertarian kind of folks.”
Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, said he initially shared the perception that Manning was psychologically frail, but changed his view after hearing the private testify while pleading guilty to some of the charges leveled against him.
“I had an image that turned out to be completely false,” Ratner said. “I was shocked by his intelligence, his politics, the firmness of his voice. It showed a person with tremendous presence.”
“His plea was so moving,” Ratner s aid. “Someday maybe people will read it and begin to understand what it means to act on your conscience.”
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