I feel a kinship with Bradley Manning. In all likelihood a few weeks from now a military judge will sentence him to serve several decades in prison for violating the Espionage Act of 1917. My parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were convicted of violating the same act and executed just over 60 years ago when I was six years old. But that’s only the beginning of my sense of connection with him. The prosecutors, and now the judge, have labeled Manning’s actions espionage, theft and several other unsavory terms. Stripped of the pejorative legal expressions, however, what Manning really did, in the simplest words, was to reveal the truth of our government’s actions to the American people and the world.
In 1975, my brother and I began our effort to reopen our parents’ case by filing a massive, precedent-setting Freedom of Information Act suit against 17 government agencies. Reporters asked us if we were concerned that the material we sought would merely prove our parents’ guilt. We answered that we believed that the public had the right to know what was in the secret files even if it did not support our belief that our parents had been framed.
Although the revelations of the ensuing 38 years have, on occasion, challenged my beliefs, today I remain convinced that my brother and I set the right course. From the 300,000 previously secret files we forced into the public eye in the 1980s, to the release in 2008 of grand jury witness statements kept under wraps for almost 50 years, the American people have gained a much clearer picture of what actually happened in my parents’ case. Now we know that my parents’ trial judge collaborated with the prosecution, that witnesses perjured themselves and that evidence was fabricated; but we also know that my father, co-defendant Morton Sobell, and others, did provide valuable military information to the Soviet Union during the 1940s. However, what they transmitted wasn’t the secret of the Atomic bomb as the government claimed to justify the death sentence, and the government executed my mother even though officials knew she did not engage in any espionage. The nuanced understanding we gained from learning what went on behind the scenes has provided us with very valuable lessons both about security failures and the increased need for constitutional protections in times of crisis.
The idea that citizens should know what the government is doing in their name remains one of the cornerstones of my beliefs. This is the only way people can make knowledgeable judgments which are essential to a functioning democracy. Bradley Manning wrote shortly before his arrest: “I want people to see the truth … regardless of who they are … because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”
Some think Manning is a traitor. After all, he released material that embarrassed our government and might put us at a disadvantage when dealing with other nations. I think the idea that we should elevate the interests of our country above those of all others, at a time when many nations in our world bristle with weapons of mass destruction, threatens the security of every person on the planet. My parents placed their faith in the USSR, a nation they felt represented the interests of the working class, which they believed included the vast majority of the world’s people. I think they were misguided. I’ve come to believe that while some countries are a lot better than others, none have evolved to the point where they deserve uncritical support. While I do not reflexively reject the application of all state power, my primary identification is with humanity as a whole.
Bradley Manning also wrote: “I can’t separate myself from others” and he continued, “I feel connected to everybody … like they were distant family.” So Bradley Manning who feels an affinity with all people, believes we all should know the truth, and was so appalled by our war crimes in Iraq that he felt compelled to act, will go to jail. Meanwhile those who grease the wheels of the most destructive killing machines the world has ever known, think it is too dangerous for us to know the truth, and label millions of others the enemy, continue as our rulers.
In the wake of last week’s verdict I wish all the world’s armies were made up of people like Bradley Manning. Our planet would be a much better place if that were the case. And I hope Bradley takes comfort from the many people around the globe who see him as their hero.