How the Military Destroys the Lives of Soldiers Who Try to Tell the Truth
Last week, Representative Mike Rogers called for the execution of military whistleblower, Private Bradley Manning. His crime? Sharing the “Collateral Murder” video and the classified Afghanistan “war logs” with Wikileaks, which exposed the truth behind the failing war in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s cooperation with the Taliban, and potential war crimes. The 22-year-old Army intelligence analyst said he felt it was "important that it gets out...I feel, for some bizarre reason...it might actually change something.” He is currently in jail at Quantico, on suicide watch, and is facing up to 52 years in prison for exposing information the American public has the right to know.
“The government is engaging in selective prosecution to ensure that employees keep their mouths shut,” says Stephen Khon, a lawyer specializing in whistleblowing cases. “All of a sudden the whistleblower becomes public enemy number one. There is no proportionality.”
Manning leaked the information anonymously with the assurance that his name would never be released, but all the same he has been accused of seeking his “15 minutes of fame.” Manning specifically said, “I just want the material out there...I don't want to be a part of it.” His name only became known after hacker-turned-reporter Adrian Lamo ratted him out. Before going to Wikileaks, Manning tried, unsuccessfully, to report the information to his officer. He explained that he “immediately took that information and ran to the officer to explain what was going on…he didn’t want to hear any of it…he told me to shut up and explain how we could assist the FPs in finding more detainees….” Yet now he is being denounced for not handling the matter internally.
Regardless of whether he is found guilty and sentenced to prison, Manning’s life will be irreparably destroyed. “If you are deemed a whistleblower in the Army, there is a very good chance of it ruining not only your career but your life,” says David Debatto, a U.S. Army counterintelligence special agent who saw several such instances while serving in Iraq in 2003. Manning was already "pending discharge" when he made the complaints, but now, even if he isn’t charged, he will most likely be dishonorably discharged. This will mean a loss of all benefits and difficulty getting a decent civilian job, a bank loan or a lease.
Manning is not the first such military whistleblower to face serious repercussions and retaliation; not just from the military, but from the government, fellow soldiers, friends back home and even the general public and the media. The military is infamous for trying to silence soldiers who speak out against the war. Each whistleblower who is publicly denounced and punished acts as a prohibitive warning silencing any other soldiers contemplating coming forward.
Blowing the whistle while overseas is particularly risky. You are completely under the control of the military. As of mid-2008, almost 3,000 soldiers have filed complaints with the Inspector General’s office for retaliation against them when they tried to expose information. That number does not include the multitudes who were too intimidated —or simply too despondent — to make reports. At their own discretion, commanders can enact "non-judicial punishments," such as imposing a diet of bread and water, enforcing longer work hours, and requiring intensive physical activity like hauling sandbags or running for hours in full gear. Soldiers can refuse such punishment, but the other option is trial by court martial for the alleged offense.
There have been reports of soldiers being physically threatened and put in dangerous situations without their weapons. There is fear of being “suicided” or “accidentally” killed by friendly fire. Some soldiers have ended up in psychiatric hospitals. In June 2003, Sergeant Frank Ford, working as a counterintelligence agent in the California National Guard 223rd Military Intelligence battalion, reported five instances of torture and detainee abuse that he witnessed. They included asphyxiation, mock executions, lit cigarettes being forced into a detainee’s ears, and arms being pulled out of sockets.
Upon hearing the complaint, his commanding officer, Captain Victor Artiga, said he was delusional and ordered a psychiatric examination. When the psychiatrist assessed Ford as mentally healthy, Artiga stormed down there and told her it was a military intelligence issue and that the form had to be changed immediately. Thirty-six hours later, Ford was on a gurney getting shipped out on a flight to a military mental ward in Germany. The psychiatrist, who ended up accompanying him, apologized and explained that she thought it was safer for him to get off the base.
All of the evaluations at the various military psychiatric wards Ford was sent to during the next several months deemed him mentally stable. Eight months after blowing the whistle, he was honorably discharged. Although this is not a common occurrence by any means, there are numerous accounts of soldiers being sent for psychological assessments for combat stress after they blew the whistle. Some have spent months in mental wards and years trying to clear their records.
In the vast majority of these cases, the soldiers first reported abuse to their commanders, and were ignored. Take the infamous Abu Ghraib detainee abuse scandal, which was leaked through graphic photographs showing the prisoners staked in naked pyramids, leashed like dogs, and most iconic, the hooded man standing on a box with his arms outstretched attached to electrodes and leashed like a dog. Numerous soldiers had filed complaints with their officers long before the whistleblower, Joe Darby, handed in the photos, which were eventually leaked to the press. Stephen Hubbard reported the abuse to his squad leader, Robert Elliot, but was told that without the photographic evidence in hand, there was not enough proof. It took Darby going outside the chain of command, via the military’s Criminal Investigative Division (CID), to get any response.
Even so, when the military launched their official investigation, soldiers who cooperated by coming forward with information about the abuse were retaliated against. Sergeant Samuel Provance had known about the ongoing abuse, but had been too scared to report it before the photos were released to the press, and figured the reports would go nowhere. Once the CID asked soldiers for more information, he thought it was safe to come forward. But his frankness earned him a demotion, threats of jail time, and endless humiliation and harassment. He lost his security clearance because, as they said, his “reliability and trustworthiness” had been “brought into question.” During briefings, officers made an example of him, telling soldiers he was a liar and a traitor.
One soldier, Andrew Duffy, who worked at Abu Ghraib long after the abuse had supposedly ended, made numerous complaints about abuse and even wrongful deaths to his officers and the Inspector General’s office, yet he was met with silence. “If you complained about someone in that type of environment, they would kick your ass, and there’s no way to be protected over there,” Duffy explains. “You would be screwed. And nothing would even come of it.”
Things certainly don’t stop once soldiers leave the military. Lieutenant Commander Matthew Diaz, a Navy JAG officer, was imprisoned for leaking the names of the Guantanamo detainees. Despite the Supreme Court ruling that granted detainees habeas corpus rights, the military was still denying lawyers’ requests for the names that were needed to actually file cases. So, in 2005, on the last night of his tour, Diaz anonymously mailed a list of the names in a Valentine’s Day card to a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights. The lawyer gave the list to the judge’s clerk who was working on her case, who in turn handed them over to the Justice Department, thus initiating an FBI investigation. Diaz was court-martialed, convicted on four felony counts, and sentenced to six months in a Navy brig. He lost his law license, and with a felony conviction on his record, faced a litany of problems, including being blocked from housing, loans, employment, and, in some states, even voting. When he was accepted to teach at a New York City public school, the board of education denied him the job at the last minute when he failed the background check.
The Abu Ghraib whistleblower, Joe Darby, had to go into a quasi-witness protection program once he returned home. A security assessment of his hometown, Cumberland, Maryland, where most of his Army Reserve unit was from, deemed it too dangerous for him to return. "The overall threat of harassment or criminal activity to Darby is imminent," read the report. His house was too close to the road; he could easily be shot. It wasn’t the military, but people back home who were out to get him.
Linda Comer, one of the locals the CID interviewed for its security assessment, told me. “We do justice in our own way. No one would rent to him or sell him a house. If they did, someone would go destroy it. I’m not sure if it will ever be safe for him to come back.” To some of his old neighbors, what Joe Darby did worse than the abuse. Just as with Manning, his personal character was dragged through the mud. He has been publicly called a rat, a traitor, un-American and unpatriotic.
Like Manning, Darby was criticized for not following proper protocol in reporting the abuse. While Darby is blamed for publicly releasing the information, most people don’t realize that it was Bill Lawson, the uncle of one of the accused soldiers, who actually leaked the photos to the press.
With so many examples about retaliation against military whistleblowers, Private Bradley Manning no doubt knew what he was up against. Even if he didn’t think it would go as far as court martial—or even the death penalty—he knew what would happen to him. All the same he was willing to take that risk. For that, he is a hero.