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MIT’s involvement in the Manning case is no small issue

I had considered writing a piece about Bradley Manning and Wikileaks prior to The Tech’s publication. I chose not to, on the grounds that the details are too murky and the issue too contentious, especially at MIT, for me to confidently air my views. I changed my mind in response to the latest (and only) piece of journalism in The Tech on the subject, which I considered both shoddy and incomplete journalism. While it makes a few good points, it is far too quick to claim innocence on the part of MIT students, and fails to understand the severity of this entire issue. While anonymous, it is far from impartial. The investigation itself smacks less of able detection than of a few conversations at the Tech office. Frankly, it deserves to be relegated to the opinion section.

I’ll preface this by noting that Pfc. Bradley Manning has not, so far, been convicted of anything. I don’t intend to muse over the evidence that might vindicate or damn him, as I certainly lack the resources for that. I am a bit more interested in what this leak means for the future of free speech — both here and abroad — than I am in the short-term legal drudgery. Certainly, if Manning is innocent, then both this article and the last are a tad irrelevant. Let’s suppose, as an academic exercise, that Manning is indeed the perpetrator (as this is the conclusion drawn by the loudest among both his supporters and detractors).

I have to question the MIT community’s support for Bradley Manning alluded to in the latest article. I do not deny that what he may have done may have been a very important contribution to democracy. I am furthermore convinced that, had I met him in person, we would get along quite well. I do not question that he deserves a fair trial with the best legal team possible, and I find the suggestion by Rep. Mike Rogers that Bradley Manning could be executed for his alleged actions both ridiculous and dangerous. That said, I consider what Adrien Lamo did by turning Manning in to be as important for democracy’s success as the leak itself. Leaks of this magnitude demand scrutiny and accountability. Adrien Lamo ensured that, albeit (potentially) at the expense of Bradley Manning’s future.

I think, then, that the MIT community should be very cautious about heralding Manning as a hero, and equally cautious about trusting in Wikileaks to curtail corporate and federal fraudulence. What Manning and Assange have done may have improved transparency in war — a byproduct I commend wholeheartedly — but there are many lessons to be learned about the way in which that came about. The portrait of Manning drawn from snippets of instant messaging conversations with Adrien Lamo is one of an emotionally unstable young man, fueled equally by a desire to let the world see what he saw as by one to enhance his ego and cure his loneliness. “im a wreck,” he claimed at one point.

There are several unanswered questions, for me at least, and I would be very interested in hearing the last anonymous reporter touch on them. Adrien Lamo raised the issue of Wikileaks’ bias itself, noting that Assange publishes a fraction of the leaks he receives. Is such an opaque, monarchic business model a fitting setting for a machine meant to protect the unhindered distribution of knowledge? It is also peculiar that Assange has so adamantly claimed that the documents are damning for the First World’s foreign policy, whereas — almost without exception — the media responsible for analyzing the documents has found the information regarding Pakistan’s involvement with the Taliban itself much more shocking. The most damning piece — the “Collateral Murder” gun-cam video — edited lovingly by Assange — is a visual representation of information to has, in fact, been in the public domain for a few years now. I grant that it is far more gory when one pairs the death of Reuters reporters with chillingly callous helicopter banter, but I’m not sure what impact that might have on foreign policy. And it is rather peculiar that Assange chose to release the names of Afghan informers on the ground; the Taliban says it is scanning the documents and that it will bring the informers retribution.

While I have much concern for Manning, the reality is that Manning (if found guilty) will probably go to jail, get out after some time for good behavior (if Lockerbie can do it, so can Manning), and have well-paid book deals for the rest of his life. The Afghan informers whose trust has been violated — far more seriously than Manning’s by Lamo — will have no support group, no legal team, and certainly no book deal. While my love of freedom of speech makes part of me want to support Manning, my love of rationality tells me that he is not the real victim here. Principles aside, good people will probably die because of this leak.

Regarding the involvement of MIT students: It should be noted that Adrien Lamo alleged, in a CNN report, that at least one of the two MIT students involved in this investigation threatened him. I don’t have the power to evaluate the validity of this. It may well be that MIT students were completely free of guilt, and that any assistance of Manning was completely incidental. But we should not think, offhand, that these allegations are small. Again, we cannot let principles — free speech, the right to tell people how to encrypt data — interfere with rationality. I too believe in Hacker Ethics. But I believe more strongly in the value of human life.

I encourage members of the MIT community to not take this lightly, and I encourage the author of the last article and members of the community who know more than I to comment freely on this piece. I would certainly welcome the education.

— Samuel Markson ’12

Samuel Markson is also an associate arts editor for The Tech.