By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, March 15, 2011;
Tighe Barry stood in a cool breeze at the corner of 22nd and C streets in Foggy Bottom wearing nothing but a jockstrap and goosebumps.
A small sign hanging around his neck announced: "I am Bradley Manning."
"Bradley Manning is being held stripped naked in prison today," Barry shouted, as police guarding the nearby State Department grinned. "This is all wrong, and that's why I'm not wearing clothes today!"
Moments later, Barry turned around and gave onlookers the full Manning.
All men should have the right to wear athletic supporters in public - even those, like Barry, with age-related sagging. But I don't see why he and so many others have their knickers in a twist over Manning.
Manning, the 23-year-old soldier accused of divulging government secrets to WikiLeaks, has recently been ordered by military jailers at Quantico to remove his boxer shorts before going to sleep out of fear that he might use the undergarment to end his life.
This is ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid - doesn't the Pentagon know that boxers are far less lethal than briefs? - and State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley correctly said the brig's handling of Manning "is ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid." For this truth telling, Crowley was forced to resign - and the underwear flap has become a wedge issue.
On the left, Manning is being hailed as a hero and a whistleblower for stealing and then making public thousands of classified government documents. The Pentagon, meanwhile, sees Pfc. Manning as a traitor, and so is holding him in maximum-security confinement. The naked truth is that Manning was neither a hero nor a traitor but a misguided kid flying by the seat of his underpants.
A brief explanation is in order.
Crowley, a 26-year Air Force veteran who retired with the rank of colonel, had it exactly right last week when he spoke to a Harvard group. After his claim that the treatment of Manning was stupid, he added: "Nonetheless, Bradley Manning is in the right place" at Quantico, because "there is sometimes a need for secrets."
Liberal supporters of WikiLeaks and Manning have a rather elastic interpretation of Crowley's remarks, embracing the suggestion that Manning had been mistreated but ignoring the contention that he belongs in the brig. On Monday morning, street-theater performers were in full costume outside the State Department, wearing prison jumpsuits (or jockstraps) and carrying a banner proclaiming: "Crowley is right."
"Bradley Manning," said Medea Benjamin of the ubiquitous left-wing protest group Code Pink, "is, for us, an American hero."
"He is an American hero," concurred Mike Marceau of Veterans for Peace.
"Could you explain why we're naked here, please?" Barry whispered to his colleagues.
They were naked because they were trying to lionize Manning as a champion of open and transparent government. The trouble, of course, is that if Manning did what he is accused of doing, he has almost certainly done more harm than good to the cause of government openness.
"I don't think these qualify as whistleblowing," said Steven Aftergood, a longtime transparency advocate who runs the Federation of American Scientists' Government Secrecy Project. Yes, there were important disclosures from WikiLeaks, such as the documentation of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. But the indiscriminate leaks also may have put at risk many lives, including those of hundreds of Afghans who cooperated with the U.S. military.
"The approach of grabbing hundreds of thousands of documents and shoveling them into the public domain," said Aftergood, "was needlessly provocative." He added: "It was not exposing misconduct. It was sticking a thumb in the government's eye."
The Pentagon, for its part, seems to be acknowledging, implicitly, that it mishandled Manning. Prosecutors have indicated that they will not seek the death penalty, and Manning's jailers recently arranged for him to wear a non-lethal sleeping garment in lieu of his boxers - perhaps one of those paper gowns given out at hospitals.
Now it's time for Manning's fans to accept that he's not necessarily the champion of freedom they have made him out to be. It's one thing to demand his right to partake of the Fruit of the Loom. It's another thing to make him into a martyr.
Barry, the nearly naked man on C Street, said he sees the contours of a fig-leaf compromise: Manning could be reunited with his boxers but, for his own safety, denied contact with the more elastic tighty-whities.
"That makes sense to me," said the man in the jockstrap. "I'm a boxers man."