Bradley Manning is the 23-year-old Army private who has been in military lockup since he was arrested last May for allegedly downloading a huge volume of secret U.S. military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks, which became headline news worldwide.
Manning is being held in a Marine brig in Quantico, Va., in what the American Civil Liberties Union calls "prolonged isolated confinement and forced idleness." Every day he reportedly spends 23 hours in a 6-by-12-foot cell, and is allowed to exercise - shackled for one hour in another windowless room. He is often stripped and forced to stand naked outside his cell to be inspected, has his sleep interrupted frequently, is periodically deprived of his reading glasses, and generally is subjected to treatment meant to "degrade, humiliate and traumatize ..."
Why this former intelligence clerk without terrorist connections or secrets to hide should be treated with a cruelty that no dog pound would tolerate remains a mystery. But that nastiness may be lucky, in a bizarre way, because what the ACLU primly calls "the gratuitously harsh" nature of his captivity has finally put Pvt. Manning in the news.
It's this punitive handling that has drawn the ACLU's interest, criticism from a handful of columnists and editorialists, and some sporadic coverage pegged to his lawyer's complaints.
It also drew scorn from senior U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, who was sacked this month after telling a conference in Boston that Manning's treatment was "ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid."
And it even got him mentioned at a White House news conference, when President Obama was asked if he agreed with Crowley. He doesn't. The president said the Pentagon had assured him the conditions of Manning's imprisonment "are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards." (That's some thorough review.)
Now, what's interesting here isn't that the mistreatment of a prisoner in a big case might be newsworthy. Brutality always makes good copy. To me, what's notable is that it has taken allegations of near-torture to get the media to pay attention to this guy at all.
Don't journalists have some obligation to their sources? Bradley Manning is, after all, a source, maybe the most extraordinary source of disclosures with truly global significance in living memory.
And protecting sources is supposed to be a major concern among journalists. It's the reason the reporter gives for refusing to name the whistleblower who handed over the explosive documents.
Defending sources against reprisal, the logic goes, makes it possible for important information to reach the public - in spite of the wishes and vanities of officialdom, whether governmental or corporate.
Bradley Manning, if guilty as charged, violated oaths and broke laws in downloading the low-grade military and diplomatic secrets he provided to WikiLeaks. But then the world's leading news organizations evaluated that material and decided to make much of it public because of its "immense value," as New York Times editor Bill Keller put it.
So? If these news media believe they were right to publish the material Manning gave them, how can they stand aside as he faces life in prison for giving it to them? If they did right and the world benefited, did he do wrong? On what grounds can they say - as Keller and Guardian of London editor Alan Rusbridger have - that they would help defend WikiLeaks boss Julian Assange if the U.S. charges him, while they won't lift a finger to protest Manning's incarceration?
Maybe the government has something undeniably bad against Manning, something beyond the fact that the thousands of embassy cables left some diplomats squirming and prompted awkward apologies. There has been dark muttering about compromised national security, and talk of treason from Capitol Hill backbenchers auditioning for Fox News. But if there's evidence of real harm I haven't seen it.
What I do understand is that the WikiLeaks material - especially the frank comments of U.S. envoys about the foreign thugs and despots with whom they do business - has been devoured by reading publics throughout the world, people stuck with lapdog media who are starved for reliable, insightful observations about their own corrupt leaders.
These disclosures have been cited by the protesters in Tunisia, the ones who touched off the breathtaking insurgency that's sweeping North Africa and the Middle East. To those young activists, WikiLeaks is a godsend, U.S. diplomats are trusted truth-tellers, and - even if they don't know his name - Bradley Manning is a hero.
The news media like to pose as champions of unpopular causes. But there's no evidence of that in their abandonment of Pvt. Manning.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University. He wrote this column for The Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132; website: www.edwardwasserman.com.