A few years ago as one of those concerned to get the Lindy Chamberlain case re-opened to avoid a miscarriage of justice, I was sent to the Northern Territory to report on the case. I talked with many people involved with the case – but also with members of the public to see how they viewed the mounting evidence that the Chamberlains had been wrongly accused. There was one taxi driver I particularly remember. “ I don’t care if the Chamberlains are guilty or innocent” he said. “They have no right to bring the justice system into disrepute. She should just stay in prison and take her punishment”.
In the case of Pfc Manning, there appear many who would side with the taxi driver’s attitude. I understand official secrets acts, and further accept that when one is entrusted with such secret and sensitive information, and what is more, sworn not to divulge such information, to release the information is to lay oneself open to a charge of being a traitor. It has always seemed to me however that when the secrets one is protecting include those involving one’s own crimes against humanity then whistle blowing has got to remain an option.
It should at least give us pause for thought that the defence of following orders was not accepted for crimes against humanity in World War Two. In practice it seems as though all too often the more spectacular crimes against humanity by those on our side have not been identified through official channels but rather admitted only after unauthorised exposure. Think for example of the Pentagon papers, the My Lai massacre, Abu Ghraib prison, water- boarding and a host of other tortures, and of course the practice of extraordinary rendition …not one exposed as a result of working through official channels. Certainly they make the US government look bad. But does this mean, that like the German public during world war two, the public should have been denied knowledge of such events and encouraged to assume the Government was behaving properly?
In my opinion, the wrong question is currently being discussed by many who comment on the Wiki-leaks saga. The wrong question which attracts attention is about what punishment should Pfc Manning receive? Should it be the death penalty or simply life imprisonment?
Surely the more urgent question is whether or not the situation which apparently led to his wholesale whistle blowing has been correctly reported. His story you may remember was that he was being asked to take part in a crime against humanity. He claimed he was being asked to identify and hand over civilians to be tortured or worse. When he complained and said it was unreasonable he was ordered by his superiors to obey without question. That some of the Wiki-leaks stories have further embarrassed the Government for the apparent sanctioning of immoral behaviour in various theatres of war is not even at issue. That Pfc Bradley Manning’s trial is apparently to be largely secret is unfortunate because the conspiracy theorists may thereby assume his defence must therefore not be heard lest it trouble the public conscience.
Certainly many of the Wiki-leaks releases do not help present and future diplomacy, making it less likely that key politicians and advisers will be as candid in the future, but again we should remind ourselves that the more serious issue is that of the alternative of hiding embarrassing truth. Democracy depends for its success on an informed electorate – and where the withheld information results in the freedom to pursue immoral actions, there is a question as to whether the price of secrecy is worth it.
At a time when the public must be wondering if anything worthwhile had been accomplished as a result of the costly and confusing 9 year war in Iraq, insisting that the very information which might settle the question must forever be kept hidden and that anyone releasing such information should feel the full force of the law might be good for national security, but it also raises some troubling issues about foreign policy and public psyche.
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