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Bradley Manning and the Future of Punishment

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Bradley Manning is an Army intelligence analyst accused of leaking thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables to Wikileaks. Depending on your perspective, he's become a symbol for high tech whistleblowing, or dangerous cyber-crime. Either way, you should be paying attention to his pre-trial hearing, which unfolded this week. Manning's case represents a convergence of issues that shed light on the future of lawbreaking and punishment.

Cyber Deep Throat

Manning's case is about a novel, but increasingly normal, way that secrets will be leaked to the media. The datadump Manning's alleged to have handed over to Wikileaks seemed to have been the result of simply running a script to snarf up every piece of classified information he had access to. Contrast this with the way previous generations of whistleblowers worked. In the Watergate case, infamous informant "Deep Throat" culled choice hints about wrongdoing in the Nixon Administration, which he leaked in face-to-face meetings with journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.


Leaks in the era of big data will probably look a lot more like what we see on Wikileaks. People who want to expose bad behavior in their companies or governments will grab what they can and post it. Just as online journalism of the future will be less edited than paper journalism of the twentieth century, online leaks will be unedited too.

Logging the Rat

Military officials figured out that Manning was the source of their leak thanks to one man, Adrian Lamo, a former underground hacker turned government informant. When Manning approached Lamo on chat, Lamo logged all their conversations - despite assuring Manning that they were "not for print" - and handed them over to both the government and journalists at Wired magazine.


These chat logs, published on Wired, have become the centerpiece of a crime that seems to have taken place entirely online. The cables were leaked online, and Manning was "caught" online by a man he thought was his friend. The short film "Bradley Manning Had Secrets" features a dramatic reading from these chat logs between Manning and Lamo, combined with wistful 8-bit animation. What comes across strongly is that Manning is deeply confused - both morally and personally - and seems to be crying out for help.

Now that Lamo has admitted that he was planning to hand Manning over to the authorities right after they had their first chat, these exchanges can be understood as a perfect digital record of how undercover informants draw secrets out of their marks. Pretending to be Manning's friend, Lamo listens sympathetically as Manning tells him about how confused he is about his gender identity. Though chat logs have been used as evidence in countless trials, this is the first time (to my knowledge) that the public has gotten a peek into the process of what the guys on Boardwalk Empire would call "ratting out."

Online chat has graduated from being a medium for teen psychodrama to a major source for government intel. Now that we've read the logs, we know that the two things look alarmingly similar.


What is Torture?

Another short video - this one a piece of fiction called "Prevention of Injury" - is inspired by events alleged to have taken place during Manning's two year detention before this week's hearing. In a letter released by his lawyer, Manning said that he'd been stripped naked and sleep deprived during his prison stay. What this movie does is reenact some of Manning's accusations in that letter, and in the process it reveals how people can be tortured even if they aren't being physically injured or even touched.


Though this revelation isn't particularly futuristic, it comes at a time when many Americans have only recently become aware of how the military treats its prisoners. Commentators noted that the torture at Abu Ghraib could have been inspired by a CIA manual on interrogation; and "enhanced interrogation techniques" developed under the Bush Administration have been a source of intense debate here.

The media discussion over Manning's treatment in prison is a harbinger of things to come in the arena of public opinion. More and more, people expect transparency when it comes to prisoner treatment. And they're getting more comfortable with a definition of "torture" that goes beyond "beaten nearly to death" to include the psychological torment associated with being denied clothing, sleep, and contact with loved ones for months at a time.


As Manning's fate unfolds, the whole world is watching. Just as we've already been watching everything he leaked to us, and everything he said to the informant who got him sent to prison. And that's why this hearing represents the future of crime and punishment. At every step of the way, it took place in the electronic public arena created by the internet. But as the cloudiness around what really happened to Manning in prison makes clear, the more we see, the more we realize we can't see at all.

Image by mopic via Shutterstuck