By Ira Chernus: Why Do We Have an Espionage Act?

Military justice is to justice as military music is to music. In a civilian court, anyone accused of a crime has the right to trial by a jury of their peers. In the military, a soldier accused of a very serious crime can be tried without any jury at all. In a civilian court, the judge explains the decision as soon as it's handed down. In the military, the judge just announces the decision and passes sentence. In Bradley Manning's case, Judge Denise Lind did say "she would issue findings later that would findings later that would explain her ruling on each of the charges." We don't know how long "later" may be. All we know now is that Judge Lind does not think Manning was aiding the enemy. Which raises an interesting question: If you haven't done any harm to the United States. So why is it a crime? Why does it count as "spying" at all? I always thought "spying" meant one side stealing secrets from the other side. Manning said he did it on behalf of a nation, his own. He did it on behalf of all of us. I haven't heard of any reason to doubt him. Yet he's getting applause only at the left end of the political spectrum. Across the rest of the spectrum the responses range from uncertainty to outright condemnation. So the public verdict on Manning, like the judge's verdict, is decidedly mixed: "Hero to some, traitor to others, " an AP story called him. You might think he'd get plenty of applause from the mass news media. After all, he provided them with headline material for weeks. But the mass media are hardly showing much appreciation. Some like that AP headline are studiously neutral. Others, including high-profile liberal outlets, avoid the substance of the issue by making Manning's personality the issue. "Bradley Manning had long been plagued by mental health issues," NPR headlined.  The New York Times called him a "loner"and "misfit," "a teenager bullied for his conflicted sexuality." That's one easy way to convict him in the court of public opinion. Which raises another interesting question: Why is there so little public approval for a man who took immense risks simply to let us all know what our government is doing, with our money, in our name? To dig into both of the questions I've raised, let's look at the origins of the Espionage Act under which Manning was convicted. It began with Woodrow Wilson. In his authoritative biography of Wilson, John Milton Cooper reminds us that U.S. entry into World War I aroused a lot of public opposition and protest. "The need to whip up popular fervor behind the war made dissent look dangerous." The Espionage Act aimed mainly to quell that dissent. Perhaps Wilson, who initiated a massive PR campaign to swing public opinion to support the war, recognized that it also works the other way around: Making dissent look dangerous is one powerful way to whip up a popular fervor. Anything that makes the public feel endangered helps generate support for the government's efforts to "defend us against all enemies, foreign and domestic."

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