In wake of Private First Class Bradley Manning releasing hundreds of thousands of classified documents to Julian Assange's Wikileaks, governments have crumbled and public officials have been shamed. The 25-year-old U.S. Army soldier, who served as an intelligence officer in Baghdad with access to huge databases of information, now faces court-martial. The U.S. military will determine if Pfc. Manning is guilty of high crimes while the public comes to grips with the legacy of this incredibly consequential young man.
Bradley Manning could be placed beside the textbook definition of a polarizing figure. Some hail him as a patriotic hero, a Tiananmen Square Tank Man of the 21st century. Some view him as a disgruntled traitor who broke his solemn oath to the U.S. military and betrayed his country. Some see him as a pioneer for gay rights, some as a champion of civil liberties, some as an arrogant officer with mental problems. Regardless of how one views Bradley Manning and his actions, there is no denying that he has left a mark on history by contributing to the Arab Spring and causing the United States to openly debate the transparency of the federal government.
By orchestrating the world's largest release of classified material in history, Bradley Manning and Wikileaks revealed corruption in presidential palaces around the world. Through candid conversations, diplomatic reports, messages, travel logs, and more, the diplomatic cables embarrassed world leaders and U.S. diplomats and revealed a treasure trove of insights into how leaders and governments worldwide act and think. The revelation of the abject corruption of Arab dictators and their families is considered by many to be one of the direct catalysts of the Arab Spring. Buried in poverty and oppression, the leaks gave people hard evidence of corruption in their governments and a reason to demand change.
Manning also gave Wikileaks a terribly disturbing video of U.S. soldiers killing civilians, including journalists. He additionally released thousands of documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, highlighting potential war crimes committed by the United States and allied forces. These releases helped accelerate American withdrawal from Iraq and further weakened support for the unpopular wars at home.
While Manning gave the world unparalleled insight into the workings of the U.S. military, intelligence, and diplomatic communities, it also came at a cost. A tremendous amount of embarrassment was heaped at the United States, much of it earned and some of it not. Similar to some of the criticism thrown at the Obama administration for seizing Associated Press phone records, secrecy does have some uses. Diplomats, informers, and foreign dissidents may now be less willing to talk if they fear a security leak can make what they say public. Diplomats must be able to make candid reports and have off-the-public-record discussions with people; leaks make it harder for them to do their jobs. Similarly, foreign dissidents and informants may have more concern coming forward if they fear they cannot be protected by confidentiality.
Nonetheless, this collateral damage to diplomatic confidentiality plays a small role in the grander scheme of things. Many of the documents that Bradley Manning released revealed corruption, crime, and things that the American public should rightfully be outraged at. His leaks have spawned a greater conversation, in two parts: first, how did a disgruntled young intelligence officer have so much access to classified information? Second, why was so much information classified in the first place and hidden from the public and legislative oversight? With growing concern over government secrecy, Bradley Manning is directly responsible for the increased discussions on government transparency, executive power, and the war on terror.
As a catalyst for the Arab Spring and the man who fired the opening salvo in the discussion of government transparency in the post-9/11 world, Bradley Manning's legacy will be that of one of the most consequential people of the 21st-century. As he did break his oath to the U.S. military, he will likely be found guilty and thrown into prison for his crimes. He will probably eventually be seen as his defense attorney has argued he ought to be seen: a naive young man with good intentions who "thought he could make the world a better place."
Perhaps it is too soon to tell if Bradley Manning's actions and the chaos they have created have made the world better or worse, but it is impossible to deny that he has changed the world. Information is power, and Bradley Manning placed that power into a lot of hands. His legacy will largely depend on how that power is used.