Most of the media has reduced the discussion of Wikileaks' Julian Assange to a level that conflates gossip with James Bond shenanigans. It's too bad because there is a lot here that could benefit from useful discussion. It is clear that some Assange supporters are uncomfortable with the idea that the poster boy for international government transparency may not be as honest, forthcoming, or noble as they would like. The reality is that there are plenty of people who do brave, helpful acts who have dubious, or at least complicated, moral characters.
In the rush to accuse or excuse Assange, most of the media has avoided what is potentially the more interesting story of 22-year-old Bradley Manning, a soldier with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team based in Iraq. Manning has been in maximum security and solitary confinement in a Marine Corps brig at Quantico, Virginia since last July for allegedly leaking 250,000 documents to Wikileaks. These documents included the Apache gunsight footage taken at the July 12, 2007 airstrike on Baghdad, the Collateral Murder video, and some F-18 gunsight footage of the Granai airstrike on Afghanistan.
Manning allegedly leaked the documents in November 2009 and has been charged with transferring classified military data to a personal computer and communicating national defense information to unauthorized sources. He originally faced a potential maximum sentence of 52 years in prison, but on March 2 another 22 charges were filed, including one for "aiding the enemy," a charge that could carry the death penalty.
True, the news media has on occasion mentioned Manning—often skewering the timeline of the case and sometimes mentioning that he is openly gay—but his story and its complications have not been considered front-page news. A small portion of the reports have been about Manning's mental and emotional deterioration in solitary confinement and the charge that his treatment in the brig is "cruel and unusual."
The case has gained enough attention, though, that Amnesty International has become involved. Along with Amnesty International, Michael Moore and Daniel Ellsberg have lent their names to the Bradley Manning Support Network, which was formed last June. Representative Dennis J. Kucinich has written to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates detailing Manning's history of mental problems. (In December 2009, military mental health specialists had recommended that Manning not be sent to Iraq.) Kucinich urged Gates to investigate the conditions under which Manning was being held and supply him with mental health treatment.
When the Manning story first broke last June, Gawker ran a column that was pure exploitation, conjuring up fears that Manning's sexuality was the reason for his "betrayal." Asserting that Manning might be transsexual (a rumor so odd that no one else has mentioned it), the report claimed that Manning was turned in to the FBI by a man with whom he had had a flirtation ("Was Wikileaker Bradley Manning Betrayed By His Queer Identity?").
Since that time, stories about Manning have ignored or downplayed his stated sexuality. The LGBT national press has written very little about him, choosing, presumably, not to play off the angle that someone who allegedly hurt national interests could be a gay martyr. The Advocate, a national LGBT publication, did a brief non-committal article on December 25 that gained lots of readers' comments in support of Manning, many referring to him as a political prisoner.
What is interesting is the attempt to dissociate Manning from his stated sexuality in order to avoid linking homosexuality with illegal activity. After all, what could sexual orientation have to do with activity that would hurt national security? Certainly, this brings to mind the 1950's fears of homosexuals being national security risks. Those fears were the basis of discrimination and harassment of homosexuals and ultimately of Executive Order 10450, a presidential ban on homosexuals working in the federal government.
While no one—well, almost no one—would make the claim that homosexuals are less patriotic than other Americans, still a case can be made that women and men on the outside of any system or repressed by it are going to be wary/suspicious of that system. Some of the most inflammatory documents that Manning is alleged to have leaked were of criminal acts perpetrated by the U.S. military. Did Manning's position as a homosexual in the armed forces lead him to make a moral decision about the actions of his government? It is impossible to know, but one thing is clear: the connections between sexuality and national security, between outsider status and national loyalty, are too complicated to be easily discussed by anyone in the media.
Michael Bronski is a senior lecturer in Women's and Gender Studies at Dartmouth College. His books include Queer Ideas and Action series (editor) and An LGBT History of the United States (forthcoming in May).