Private Bradley Manning on trial

Bradley Manning, who served as an intelligence analyst in the US Army, is facing charges for leaking classified information to the public domain. The intention of this article is not to tackle the issue of whether what Manning did was illegal. It has no direct bearing on whether what he did was ethical, because the relationship between laws and ethics is loose at best. The issue that occupies us here is whether Manning is ‘guilty’ of acting unethically rather than unlawfully. I will argue that Manning’s actions were ethical, and that this is true in terms of both the intentions and consequences of his actions.



While serving in Iraq in 2010, Private Bradley Manning downloaded classified information from the military database he had classified access to and passed it on Julian Assange, editor of online whistle-blowing site, Wikileaks. Manning handed over entire logs of military operations and diplomatic cables, which included information that was embarrassing for the US military, such as video footage of clumsy military attacks on what turned out to be civilians using what appears to be disproportionate force, and diplomatic accounts of corruption and despotism among various leaders, particularly in the Middle East.

Bradley Manning’s motives were seemingly to expose the unethical nature of US military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is what led him to hand over the entire corpus of information, rather than selective parts. Manning was apprehended and placed in solitary confinement in mid-2010 in a military prison under Prevention of Injury status. He pleaded guilty to 10 of the 22 charges, but was acquitted of the most serious charge – aiding the enemy.


Ethical intentions

Moral philosophers have long tackled the issue of whether ethics is a matter of intentions behind actions or the consequences of actions. For example, one could argue that abortion, whatever the intention, is always an unethical act, because it involves the intentional taking of life. Courts often consider motives as part of determining the crime. For example, murder involves an intention to kill another person (with war-time acts exempted), while killings that are unpremeditated are classed as manslaughter and involve a lesser sentence.

In his pre-hearing, Manning gave a statement that outlined his reasons for his actions:

I felt that we were risking so much for people that seemed unwilling to cooperate with us, leading to frustration and anger on both sides. I began to become depressed with the situation that we found ourselves increasingly mired in year after year (The Guardian, 2013).

He says further:

In attempting to conduct counter-terrorism or CT and counter-insurgency COIN operations we became obsessed with capturing and killing human targets on lists and not being suspicious of and avoiding cooperation with our Host Nation partners, and ignoring the second and third order effects of accomplishing short-term goals and missions. I believe that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information contained within the CIDNE-I and CIDNE-A tables this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general as [missed word] as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan.

I also believed the detailed analysis of the data over a long period of time by different sectors of society might cause society to reevaluate the need or even the desire to even to engage in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations that ignore the complex dynamics of the people living in the effected environment every day (The Guardian, 2013).

Manning became particularly upset when his superiors failed to act on information about persecution of political activists in Iraq, who were being imprisoned and, Manning suspected, tortured. Instead he was asked to assist local authorities in apprehending the activists.

For Manning, handing over the classified information to Wikileaks involved a sense of relief:

I felt I had accomplished something that allowed me to have a clear conscience based upon what I had seen and read about and knew were happening in both Iraq and Afghanistan every day (The Guardian, 2013).

Manning did not seek financial reward for leaking the information. He never asked for payment from Assange. Nor does he appear to have done it for fame. Based on statements he made to Adrian Lamo, a computer hacker he confided in, he stated that he dreaded publicity from the action. His name became linked to the breach only when he was apprehended by the US authorities.

There may have been other personal reasons. Manning, who is small in stature and described as effeminate, was allegedly bullied and ostracised in the military for his homosexuality. This is prior to the repeal of the US military’s controversial ‘Don’t Ask  Don’t Tell’ policy, which barred serving homosexual servicemen and women from disclosing their sexual orientation (an unethical policy in itself), but was also intended to prohibit superiors from harassing or discriminating persons who concealed their sexual orientation.

While one could argue that Manning may have been motivated by retribution, it is natural that being treated unfairly or made to feel different would lead someone to lose faith in the institution that they work for. This is even more so in the case of war, where military personnel losing faith in their mission is not unusual. The Vietnam War led many soldiers to become disenchanted with their actions (often exacerbated by the way they were ignored or condemned for their actions by the general public upon their return).

It is clear from released internet files that Manning was motivated to leak the information for the purpose of serving the public interest in light of injustices and cover-ups related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He certainly did so at great personal risk. There may have been some ‘psychological egoism’ involved, but most moral acts are attended to with varying degrees of personal satisfaction, centred around retribution or ‘pay back’, but it would still not invalidate the position that Manning’s motives were honourable (see Furrow, p.10ff for why psychological egoism is not a valid argument in ethical debates).


Weighing the consequences

Many moral philosophers argue that it is the consequences of actions, not the intention behind them, which is what defines an act as ethical or not. This approach is called consequentialism, and the best known consequentialist theory is utilitarianism, which views actions that result in the most happiness to the most number of people as the most ethical actions. In the case of Manning, the issue is whether his actions resulted in more good than harm.

The difficulty is attaching measures of good and harm, particularly in relation to such intangible things as the ‘public interest’. Other aspects, such as how many lives were lost, or how many people were tortured, persecuted or abused, or saved from such a fate as a result of his actions, are potentially more quantifiable, although rely on the availability of robust evidence in order to establish. Nevertheless, some broad judgements can be made about the consequences of Manning’s actions.

Let’s begin by examining some of the reasons why someone might argue that Manning’s actions were more harmful than good. The main issue is Manning leaking sensitive information that potentially placed other lives in danger and/or aided the enemy. As it turns out the damage done by Manning leaking the information is, as far as it is known, not as harmful as some commentators felt it could be at the time when the information was first leaked. But what is relevant here is whether Manning was in a position to know this at the time. I think it is a reasonable expectation that the lives of American soldiers and sympathizers would be placed at greater risk, and that Manning would have – or should have – known this.

Manning was of the view, however, that the dangers were outweighed by the benefits that would come from releasing the information. As it turned out, Manning was right. The footage of the helicopter attack on reporters (known as the “Collateral Murder” footage) was the leak that received the most coverage.

The incident is noteworthy, not simply because of the lack of care taken by the gunner in ascertaining whether the people targeted were in fact enemy with weapons, but due to the insensitivity and gung-ho attitude of the pilots. Together with later footage released (not by Manning) of soldiers urinating on Taliban corpses, and other incidents such as photos of US soldiers smiling next to abused victims and corpses at the Abu Ghraib detention centre in Iraq, these arguably have had an important impact on changing people’s views of the US war effort.

While some of the incidents could be put down to aberrations (although not in the case of the use of torture and abuse in Iraqi prisons, which was systematic), and certainly are selective views of military conduct, it reveals at the very least – as Manning had intended it to reveal – the ugly side of US foreign policy. It certainly has helped raise awareness and spurred public debate as he intended. The diplomatic cables that were released are credited by many commentators as the spur for the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions across the Middle East that saw the ousting of several dictatorships. It is fair to conclude that more good than harm came from the leaks.

Of course, it is unlikely that a military tribunal will see things this way, as they are unlikely to place much value on the public good as open source advocates would see it (rather, the military establishment’s view of the public good is generally defined as whatever serves the interest of the military in the service of its country). They might well adopt the position of rule utilitarianism As Furrow explains, “The rule utilitarian says we should not consider each action separately because patterns of actions can have consequences as well” (2005, p.47). In other words, Bradley Manning broke the rules, and whether his particular actions are justified or not, he needs to be dealt a harsh lesson so that others do not follow in his footsteps. Note that this is slightly different (although closely related) to the issue of breaking laws and norms, as it is ethical rules, not societal rules, that we are dealing with here.

Moral philosophers often debate whether a rule should always hold true (like mathematics), or whether it can be flexible enough to allow for exceptions. Typically we allow exceptions. Murder is a serious crime in many societies, except when carried out as judicial punishment (capital punishment), in instances of war, or in some societies when it is socially or religiously sanctioned (e.g. honour killings). The context in which an action is carried out is important.

The contextual argument puts rule utilitarianism in doubt, because often it is only individuals who are in a position to make a judgement on whether contextual factors apply (rules cannot cover all possible contingencies), and so ethical action is primarily an individual responsibility. If actions were considered ethical only if they are collectively sanctioned, then we would have a very limited concept of ethics that is synonymous with the enforcement of laws and norms of society, which would not be sensitive to contextual variations even if those laws and norms are ethical. Consequently, it rests on individuals to decide whether the context justifies the carrying out of a particular action. As such, making a personal judgement is intrinsic to ethical conduct.

In the context of highlighting the gruesome dimension of war, the loss of life and the corruption in international politics, Manning’s actions were a justifiable exception to the rule, because the release of the information was more beneficial than withholding the information. Furrow notes: “Anyone with much experience in life knows that sometimes we have to make exceptions to rules” (2005, p.48).



Manning leaked classified information into the public domain that he felt compelled to do for ethical reasons. He made the contextual judgement that leaking the information into the public domain served a greater good (a utilitarian view) than it being kept classified. While there may well have been other factors involved in his decision to leak information (for example, retribution for bullying and alienation within the military, a desire to belong and contribute to the Wiki community, emotional difficulties, and so on), it was also a matter of serving his conscience. His motives, as far as we can tell, were ethical in their orientation.

In terms of consequences, the potential benefits of his actions outweighed the potential costs. It served the public good, and had the potential to save more lives than it cost. The possibility that United States military personnel and their informants would be placed in greater danger as a result of the action was outweighed by the potential for exposure brought about serious changes in US foreign policy, which could ultimately save innumerable lives in the long term. This was a reasonable conclusion for Manning to make at the time he released the classified documents.

While the rationale for prosecuting military personnel who divulge classified information is functional for the successful operation of the military, it is not always ethical. Manning’s leaking of sensitive information is such an exception. If Manning’s trial was on the basis of ethics, he would be found not guilty. Of course, he is at the mercy of the very institution that he sought to expose for its moral failings, and so his punishment will suit their functional purposes rather than what is ethical. Unfortunately, from the point of view of established authorities, no one is above the law, whatever the ethical value of those actions.