The Internet is abuzz with news and discussion over whether Pte Bradley Manning could be tried for treason. Pte Manning is the soldier responsible for leaking thousands of documents to Wikileaks, if he's found guilty of treason he could conceivable be executed.
Firstly, I'm against Capital Punishment for any crime. No Justice System is yet accurate enough to be trusted with the life of the accused (I doubt 100% certainty will ever be achieved!).
That being said, do I have any sympathy for Pte Manning and others like him? No, and here's why;
Pte Manning is by no means the first, and probably won't be the last to leak classified documents. In the UK, Katherine Gun leaked news that GCHQ planned to secretly monitor the conversations of UN Diplomats, and she was (quite rightly) charged under the Official Secrets Act.
I can accept that Ms Gun believed that GCHQ's plans were immoral (it's not so clear cut in the case of Pte Manning), but I cannot support her decision to disclose sensitive information. Quite frankly, it was a stupid decision to make.
When she began her employment with GCHQ, Ms Gun will have signed a document signifying her understanding of the Official Secrets Act (contrary to popular belief, the OSA applies to us all as an Act of Parliament - you don't have to sign anything to be bound by it). She will have known, from the outset, that she may become privy to information that she must no disclose.
If Ms Gun did not agree with the morality of her assignment, she should have approached her line manager. She may, of course, have been told to complete the task anyway, but even this would not justify public disclosure.
Although we may be curious as to what happens in secret, no one of us has the right to arbitrarily decide what should and should not be disclosed. It's true that Government's can (and probably have) abuse the OSA to hide corruption, but the overarching principle is to protect both national security and diplomatic relations. In the case of Ms Gun, her disclosure could have prompted a serious international incident.
Yes, you could claim that GCHQ are to blame for attempting to bug conversations, but they are there to gather intelligence. Even if we accept that their plans were 100% wrong, there are official channels for such grievances, channels that Ms Gun did not use because she "did not that would have had any practical effect". Instead, she leaked the plans to a national newspaper - The Observer.
Ms Gun has made it clear that her actions were an attempt to prevent the Iraq War. Frankly, this was not her decision to make (whatever the rights and wrongs of the war). It's highly unlikely that Ms Gun was in a position to accurately predict the eventual consequences of her disclosure, which is why the Official Secrets Act tries to ensure that only those with the full facts are authorised to disclose sensitive information.
As I've said, I'm firmly opposed to Capital Punishment, but Pte Manning does need to be punished for his stupidity and irresponsibility. Given the vast number of documents he leaked, I think it's highly unlikely that he had chance to personally review each one. If this is the case, he leaked classified material without actually knowing what was contained therein.
So far, the releases all seem pretty trivial, but there's a serious potential for real harm to be done.
In fairness to Pte Manning, some of the blame must lay at the feet of Wikileaks. Cryptome has been publishing documents for years, but at least has the decency to ensure that life and death information (such as the names of informants) are redacted. Wikileaks, with Assange at the helm, instead threatened to publish documents unredacted if the Pentagon did not help redact the stolen documents. No matter the harm it could do to persons overseas, PR is all that seems to matter to Assange's Wikileaks. Although this relates to a different set of documents, it's quite possible that a more responsible site may have redacted some of the content.
None of this absolves Pte Manning of blame; by his own admission, this was no accidental leak. He deliberately released classified information because of his personal beliefs, in order to try and effect change. Quite aside from the sensitivity of the documents, he misused a tax-payer funded system in order to further a political cause. Would you be happy if every public servant was able to do that?
Some things are just not meant to be released, and it's not down to individual choice whether or not something becomes public knowledge. However good their intentions, whistleblowers such as Pte Manning may be causing more harm than they realise.
Would Pte Manning be receiving the same level of public support had his disclosure led to an attack on American soil? Would Pte Manning be receiving the same level of public support had the security of Camp Bastion been compromised as a result? My point is, it's not about what Pte Manning leaked, but about the principle of the matter.
How is it that we consider it OK for a soldier to leak hundreds of thousands of documents onto the internet (probably knowing very little about the content), yet wrong for someone to pass that information onto enemy forces? The former seems to enlist public support whilst the latter is castigated as espionage. The justification for the actions is irrelevant, the end result is the same - classified information passed to those without authority.
Neither Ms Gun or Pte Manning are likely to have been able to predict the possible outcomes of their loose tongues, they simply fulfilled a self-indulgent desire to try and further their own causes. This is not a luxury that Public Servants enjoy and, for a multitude of reasons, nor is it a luxury that they should be allowed.
It's one thing to demand transparency in politics (and certain areas are desperately needing), but no one individual has the right to force that transparency. Irresponsible disclosure can lead to the loss of lives, breaks in diplomatic relations and potentially war. Very few countries now allow even their President/Prime Minister to make a unilateral decision to go to war, why do these whistleblowers think that such a right has been conferred to them? They may have intended to prevent loss of life (as Ms Gun claims), but their actions could equally well have caused it.
I know that this point of view is very unpopular, but it is a strongly held conviction. I don't want to see Pte Manning executed, but he must be punished. The only difference between a modern whistleblower and a spy are their motivation. Ultimately, in the era of the Internet, any material released will land in the hands of the enemy (whoever that may be at any given time.)
We need more transparency in politics, but only the population has the right to make that decision. It is not for individuals to arbitrarily publish secret documents, it's not hard;
If you're not happy to keep certain facts secret (even if you strongly disagree with them), don't work in a job where you may become privy to such information.
If you do decide to work in such a position, then abide by the law of the land and keep those facts secret. It's neither your job, or mine, to decide which classified information should or should not be published. Material is usually Protectively Marked for a reason, and it's only a matter of time before a whistleblower causes real harm through their inability to keep their mouth firmly shut.