Manning and Cartwright: Pardoning a leak, forgiving a lie

Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who now wishes to be known as Chelsea Manning, is escorted to a security vehicle outside a courthouse in Fort Meade, Md., on Aug. 20, 2013. Manning will lose military health care benefits under the terms of the sentence that President Obama commuted, according to the Army.



Note: This article has been corrected.

President Barack Obama commuted the sentence of Pfc. Chelsea Manning on Jan. 17, deciding to release Manning from prison after serving about seven years of a 35-year sentence. 

Manning was convicted of theft and seven counts of violating the Espionage Act for taking some 750,000 pages of secret documents and making them available to WikiLeaks. But after multiple suicide attempts and seven years in custody, Obama said Manning had served a “tough” and unprecedented prision sentence.

At the same time, Obama pardoned Marine Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Cartwright had been convicted in a separate case, pleading guilty to initially lying to investigators when he denied talking to reporters at The New York Times and Newsweek about the Stuxnet virus, a joint Israeli and American project that infected Iranian nuclear centrifuges and caused them to self-destruct.

Manning’s commuted sentence sucked up most of the attention. It was the subject of the first question asked at Obama’s final press conference Jan. 18 and drew condemnations from veterans groups, former intelligence officials and congressional leaders, among others. That Obama had also pardoned the man who was once the second-highest-ranking officer in the military, who was sometimes called “Obama’s favorite general,” and who was facing an unprecedented possible two-year prison sentence went virtually unnoticed.

(Case in point: Stars and Stripes posted at least three versions of this story, one of which left out any mention of Cartwright.)

Cartwright’s and Manning’s cases have a few parallels, but they are hugely different. Manning, a troubled, disaffected soldier who should not have had a security clearance in the first place, was a thief who downloaded a trove of classified information of unprecedented size and scope, then turned it over to WikiLeaks. Manning’s attorneys have sought to portray their client as a whistle-blower, but the cache of data was so vast Manning could not possibly have understood what was taken or the full implications of its release. If there was any strategy at play, it was vague: Put it all out there and let the world figure it out. That’s irresponsible.

All leakers have a purpose. Some want to kill a policy. Others want change. Still others just want to feel important. A few are whistle-blowers, personally outraged by a perceived injustice and willing to risk their careers or even lives to expose it. Such courage exposes wrongs and changes history (the Pentagon Papers, for example, or Watergate’s infamous Deep Throat). Manning doesn’t qualify. There may have been a few specifics Manning didn’t like, but the scope of the take was so great that its real damage was the sheer volume. Quantity has a quality all its own, and with this much data to pick through, foreign intelligence agencies, including those hostile to the United States, will be harvesting insights well into the future.

Cartwright fits a different profile. Top officials regularly engage with media on background to provide context and understanding to ensure accuracy. The better reporters know you, the more likely they are to understand nuances and check back on details. In Cartwright’s case, he was using those relationships to provide context for the New York Times and Newsweek reporters, who had already done most of their legwork. These conversations were his chance to influence what they reported, and doing so was in his and the Pentagon’s best interest. He was doing the nation’s work. In this instance, to have refused would have been irresponsible.

Cartwright erred in reflexively lying about that connection when FBI investigators came knocking years later. He didn’t realize they were asking a question for which they already knew the answer or that they would follow by producing evidence after he denied the initial contact. Cartwright came clean soon after, but by then the damage was done. Lying to investigators was wrong. But not jail-worthy. Obama was right to pardon him.

Talking to reporters about sensitive stories they’re going to publish anyway is an essential duty of senior officials. Often, the difference between an embarrassing article and one that is truly damaging or dangerous comes down to a few well-placed details. Over the course of my career, I’ve engaged in many such conversations, and while I did not agree to every request to hold back information or a photo, I did agree at times to omit dates, specific numbers or locations to ensure stories wouldn’t put lives at risk.

The Obama administration came to Washington promising openness and transparency, but opened up more leak investigations than any presidency in memory, including investigations of former CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus (for sharing classified information with his lover-biographer) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server and negligent handling of classified material. And let’s not forget about Edward Snowden, who, regardless of whether you see him as a hero or villain, fits the classic definition of an ideological whistle-blower. His leaks exposed National Security Agency surveillance programs and information collection, but they were limited to two responsible news organizations and had a specific intent. Their exposure set off a worthwhile national debate about government monitoring and individual privacy.

As we begin a new administration, one that sometimes has been unfriendly to First Amendment principles, it’s important to recognize how essential it is to maintain civil relations between the media and government leaders. Dialogue breeds understanding. A standoff fuels the opposite.

Leak investigations like the one involving Cartwright are ultimately dangerous to the administrations that pursue them. Leaders should not be afraid to employ their own good judgment and experience to shape and inform the news. Sure, discontented employees like Manning and Snowden will always find ways to leak information. The question is this: When those leaks happen, will leaders have the trust and rapport with the media to mitigate the damage that follows?

What do you think? Write me at naegele.tobias@stripes.com or post a comment with this column online.

Correction: This story was updated to make clear Manning was not pardoned, but rather that her sentence was commuted.

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