No Free Speech for Soldiers

7 07 2010

I spent four years in the US Army, and remember finding it more than curious that we were prohibited from speaking to the press without permission. I never really had an occasion to do this, as I was never involved in anything too terribly interesting. I got out well before our current wars began. Several years ago, I saw a news story where US Army Arabic linguist Sgt. Erik Saar, someone I once served with and knew personally, became a whistle-blower for Guantanamo Bay. I presume he was already out, at which point it’s legal to talk as long you’re not divulging classified information. The thing I remember from the story was that he was writing or had written a book about his experience and would have to wait for government approval for it to be published, to make sure it was free of classified information. This is what you get to deal with when you get a Top Secret security clearance. Until today, I hadn’t heard anything about him since, but it looks like his book was published in 2005. Saar didn’t like the interrogation methods he saw there, particularly in light of the fact that the bulk of the detainees where clueless men of no particular importance. My point isn’t to go on about Guantanamo interrogation methods, but simply to point out that he had to get permission to speak and that it’s possible that details had to be removed from his book before it could be published.

Fast-forward to 2007 when US forces in Iraq engaged and killed a group of men, some known Reuters reporters, with big cameras and no apparent weapons. In April of this year, video of this incident from one of the helicopters’ gun cameras was uploaded to Youtube by WikiLeaks and embeded on their website. This is that graphic video:

I found it very interesting that defenders of the military took two very different approaches in reacting to this video. The first and obvious reaction was to claim that this was an “isolated incident” (there is no such thing) and that it is not representative of the US military in Iraq. The second reaction, more popular among people who’ve actually served in Iraq, is to claim the opposite – that there’s really nothing controversial about what happened here – that these men had large devices that could’ve been weapons and you really can’t be too careful when your life may be in danger. One thing I would keep in mind when watching the video is that there are forces on the ground and another helicopter involved in the conversation. It’s possible that things occurred outside the view of the gun camera. Having said that, it’s a bit disturbing how quickly US soldiers decide to err on the side of caution, how they can look at cameras and see guns.

Now, fast-forward to a month ago when “hacker” Adrian Lamo turned in US Army Intel Analyst Pfc. Bradley Manning as the source of the video. Lamo claimed that Manning had leaked a great deal more classified material and that he felt that lives might be in danger, and that was the reason he turned Manning in. Whatever, everything this Lamo guy says is suspect. It could be that Lamo gave this guy up to keep himself out of trouble for something else or simply to keep in good standing with uncle sam. It could even be that the FBI or some other government agency leaned on him to find this information.

One month later and Manning is being held on eight charges for leaking the video.

Pfc. Bradley E. Manning, 22, of Potomac, Maryland, is being detained in Kuwait and faces charges on eight violations of the U.S. Criminal Code for allegedly illegally transferring classified data, according to a charge sheet released by the military.

It accuses Manning of “wrongfully introducing a classified video of a military operation filmed at or near Baghdad, Iraq, on or about 12 July 2007, onto his personal computer, a non-secure information system.”

Of course, his actual crime is making the US look bad, not via libel or slander, but via the truth. I find it indefensible to maintain that such information remain classified. It helps the Army’s case to charge him with a violation of Information Security occurring so soon after the incident.

The military said it detained Manning, a U.S. Army intelligence analyst deployed with the 10th Mountain Division’s 2nd Brigade, in June. The website identified Manning as the one who had leaked the video of the helicopter assault. reported that Manning confessed to the leak in a series of online chats with a former computer hacker. He allegedly owned up to leaking other items to WikiLeaks, including the classified Army document assessing the threat level of the website, as well as State Department cables, according to the article.

I can’t begin to understand why would throw this kid under the bus. Are they afraid of the big bad government? Do they hate whistle-blowers? At this point, I trust neither Adrian Lamo nor

I’m of the opinion that free speech is for everyone and that the leaking of classified information ought not be a crime if it turns out to be of no immediate consequence. Loose lips sink ships, except all those times when they don’t.