There is a craven disconnect between the eagerness of leading editors to exploit the important news revealed by WikiLeaks and their efforts to distance themselves from both the courageous website and Bradley Manning, the alleged source of documents posted there. Alleged is required when referring to the Army private so as not to repeat the egregious error of a constitutional-law-professor-turned-president who has already presumed Manning guilty of crimes for which he is not even formally charged.

“He broke the law,” President Barack Obama said of Manning by way of countering his own supporters at a San Francisco fundraiser who dared question the conditions of Manning’s imprisonment. Conditions that Human Rights Watch challenged as “extremely restrictive and possibly punitive and degrading.” Manning was transferred last week to a Kansas prison from Quantico, Va., where for months he had been subjected to shackling, forced nudity, isolation and other harsh treatment — all of which was justified by the government as necessary to prevent him from committing suicide. Clearly the feds were trying to break the man.

Why indeed is Manning the one behind bars and not the government officials who kept hidden unpleasant truths about this nation’s policies that the public has a right to know? And why do leaders of our constitutionally protected free press now seek to distance themselves from news sources that have performed a great public service? A service documented by the fact, as tallied by The Atlantic magazine, that more than half of the issues of The New York Times this year have carried stories that relied on WikiLeaks’ disclosures.

That is the case with the latest batch of releases. A New York Times editorial on Tuesday titled “The Guantanamo Papers” states that the newly leaked documents are “a chilling reminder of the legal and moral disaster that President George W. Bush created” at the U.S. prison in Cuba but does not credit Manning or WikiLeaks as the source. Instead the editorial refers to a Sunday New York Times front-page news story headed “Classified Files Offer New Insights Into Detainees.” While conceding that WikiLeaks originally obtained the documents, the paper insists they were “provided to The Times by another source.” But shouldn’t we then conclude that WikiLeaks and its alleged source deserve immense credit for revelations about the Guantanamo operation that, as the Times news story put it, resulted in “laying bare the patchwork and contradictory evidence that in many cases would never have stood up in criminal court or a military tribunal”?

To date there has been no evidence that the leaks seriously compromised U.S. national security, and the information involved was of the lowest level of classification. Here, too, Obama was wrong when he insisted that there is something indelibly clear and sacrosanct about the classification of government secrets, when in fact the rules are ill-defined and routinely violated by government officials interested in using secret data to buttress their policy arguments. It was nonsense for the president to state “I have to abide by certain rules of classified information” when he doesn’t. Rules of classification derive from presidential executive orders, and the president has the authority to declassify on the fly, as is convenient to his purpose. Obama misspoke when he said: “If I was to release stuff, information that I’m not authorized to release, I’m breaking the law. … We’re a nation of laws. We don’t individually make our own decisions about how the laws operate. … He [Manning] broke the law.”

But that is often what whistle-blowers do in breaking the procedural rules of their organization, private or government-affiliated, to expose a more serious infraction on the part of the organization. That is what Daniel Ellsberg did in releasing the Pentagon Papers documents detailing an official but secret history exposing the justification of the Vietnam War as a blatant lie. The Pentagon Papers carried a far higher security classification than the material Manning allegedly released.

The WikiLeaks material has been far more useful than even the Pentagon Papers in revealing government impropriety involving regimes throughout the world, and the result has been a more aroused public and greater accountability, be it from officials in Egypt or the United States. If this constitutes a crime, it has to date not been shown to be anything but a victimless one, and the net effect of the publication of this material has been to let the public in on information it has every right to know. It is obvious that Manning is being punished because government officials don’t like to be shown to be so deeply in the wrong.

That was the view of former State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley, who resigned after daring to speak the truth about the mistreatment of Manning, labeling his detention “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.” It is all that, and it is high time that the media that confirmed the value of the WikiLeaks information defended the rights of the whistle-blowers who by challenging the code of official secrecy let the public in on the real story.

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