Bradley Manning verdict a lesson for our Defence chiefs

The Bradley Manning verdict sends a clear message to the chiefs at the top of our Defence Service (and Parliamentary Services). They should listen and hang their heads in shame. Investigative journalism is not treacherous.

The right to report on controversial matters that go to the heart of government is something that should be protected at all costs. It is never the job of the public service or our army to stop journalists embarrassing governments.

Bradley Manning has been found guilty of breaking military law, but not of aiding the enemy by leaking information to journalists. He’ll still face a lifetime in jail, but a democratic principle has been upheld.

The prosecution tried to argue that by leaking information to media (or Wikileaks), Bradley Manning was helping Osama Bin Laden, the enemy of America, because Bin Laden would see the leaked material too.

A guilty verdict would have validated the misguided fools who wrote the NZ Defence manual, claiming that journalists are subversive. It would have dealt a toxic blow to investigative journalism and those who leak to journalists.

If you follow the prosecution’s logic, any article that criticised the war in Iraq could be seen as ‘aiding the enemy’ because the enemy would read it. Seymour Hersh’s article in The New Yorker for example, which drew attention to the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib would almost certainly have been seen as ‘aiding the enemy’. Stores of torture helped to recruit new blood to al-Qaida's cause. 

There was an even more alarming case in Virginia in 2006. Not only was a Pentagon official indicted for leaking classified information, but the two executives at the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee were also indicted for receiving it. In the end the case against the executives was dismissed. And free speech and the right to scrutinise governments and have information leaked to you, were upheld.

But it shows you that vigilance is necessary for each generation. 

I’ve got no time for the conspiracy theorists who compare present day New Zealand with Nazi Germany. If you can shout in a megaphone that New Zealand is a police state, it almost certainly isn’t.

But neither is it ok to do the John Key shoulder shrug and claim anyone who is concerned about the growing number of  surveillance stories is just an alarmist. This is lazy thinking and dangerously complacent. The casual way in which democratic principles can be chipped away is always the most shocking revelation of history. 

Right now that list of stories should be setting off alarm bells. 

  • Defence Force manual puts journalists like Andrea Vance and Jon Stephenson  - and Osama Bin Laden in the same category, and warns about the threat of ‘subversive’ investigative journalists who undermine ‘the morale, loyalty and reliability of citizens.’ ‘Reliability? What the hell does that mean?
  • A contractor or a staff member in Parliamentary Services thinks it’s ok to hand over phone records of a journalist to help a politically motivated enquiry (not a constitutional one) into the leaking of a government report.
  • That same journalist has her parliamentary swipe card monitored so the same enquiry can track down who leaked the GCSB report to her.
  • The Ketteridge report into the GCSB reveals that 88 New Zealanders were illegally spied on.
  • PM John Key orders police into newsrooms in 2012 to find and seize the ‘teacup tapes’. Cops in newsrooms at the government's behest is something that hadn’t happened since Muldoon.

This is not the time to rush and extend the powers of the GCSB.  There’s something rotten in the State of Denmark - or at least parts of it. First we have to shine some light on that.