July 31, 2013
(CNN) — Pfc. Bradley Manning, who provided classified government documents to Wikileaks detailing, among other things, America’s undisclosed policies on torture, was found guilty of espionage on Tuesday. The verdict comes on the 235th anniversary of the passage of America’s first whistle-blower protection law, approved by the Continental Congress after two Navy officers were arrested and harassed for having reported the torture of British prisoners.
How have we gotten to the place where the revelation of torture is no longer laudable whistle-blowing, but now counts as espionage?
The answer is that government has not yet come to terms with the persistence and transparency of the digital age. Information moves so fast and to so many places that controlling it is no longer an option. Every datapoint, whether a perverted tweet by an aspiring mayor or a classified video of Reuters news staffers being gunned down by an Apache helicopter, will somehow find the light of day. It’s enough to make any administration tremble, but it’s particularly traumatic for one with things to hide.
That’s why they tried to throw the book, and then some, at Manning.
Prosecutors cast simple Internet commands known to any halfway literate Internet user (or anyone who used the Internet back in the early ’90s) as clandestine codes used only by hackers to steal data. That Osama bin Laden could download these files off the Wikileaks website (along with millions of other people) became justification for classifying the whistle-blowing as espionage, an act of war. And Manning is just one of a record seven Americans charged with violating the Espionage Act in a single administration.
But prosecuting those whose keyboards or USB sticks may have been technically responsible for the revelations is futile. The more networked we become and the more data we collect, the more likely something will eventually find its way out. After all, a security culture based on surveillance and big data cuts both ways.
Moreover, harsh reaction to digital whistle-blowers only increases the greater population’s suspicions that more information is being hidden.
In this one leaking incident, Manning exposed allegations of torture, undisclosed civilian death tolls in Afghanistan and Iraq, official orders not to investigate torture by nations holding our prisoners, accusations of the torture of Spanish prisoners at Guantanamo, the “collateral murder” video of Reuters journalists and Iraqi civilians as U.S. soldiers cheered, U.S. State Department support of corporations opposing Haitian minimum wage, training of Egyptian torturers by the FBI in Quantico, Virginia, U.S. authorized stealing of U.N. Secretary General’s DNA — the list goes on.
These are not launch codes for nuclear strikes, operational secrets or even plans for future military missions. Rather, they are documentation of past activity and officially sanctioned military and state policy. These are not our secrets, but our ongoing actions and approaches.CNN Editor’s note: Douglas Rushkoff writes a regular column for CNN.com. He is a media theorist and the author of the new book “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now.”