Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old US army intelligence analyst, was charged yesterday with leaking a video of a US army helicopter attack in Baghdad in July 2007 in which two employees of the Reuters news agency were killed. Currently held in a US military detention centre in Kuwait, he is accused of divulging confidential information, a US army release said.
Posted on the Wikileaks website on 5 April 2010, the video shows the helicopter crew killing 12 civilians including Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and his driver Said Chmagh, 40. When posting the video on its site, Wikileaks said it had come from unspecified “military sources.”
Reuters filed a formal request in 2007 for access to documents that would explain the death of its employees. It did so under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which obliges federal government agencies to release documents to all persons requesting them unless specifically exempted by the law. Reuters did not however obtain any documents.
The charging of Manning, who holds the rank of private, comes just a few days after defence secretary Robert Manning circulated a memo to senior officers and civilians within the defence department saying they had “grown lax” in their relations with the media. Manning’s plight revives the debate about the Pentagon’s perceived lack of transparency and highlights the problem for the authorities of complying with the FOIA.
“If this young soldier had not leaked the video, we would have had no evidence of what was clearly a serious abuse on the part of the US military,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Respect for military regulations should not be at the Freedom of Information Act’s expense. The US defence department should not hide behind rules in order to openly practice acts of censorship and thereby deny the public’s fundamental right of access to information.”
The Freedom of Information Act was adopted in 1966 in response to a public desire during the Vietnam War for access to US government documents, without any exception. Many restrictions were applied during the Reagan presidency, especially as a result of misuse of Exemption No. 1, concerning national security.
“We hope the Obama administration will not violate the law in a similar manner and will display more honesty and transparency when it comes to respecting the right of access to information, a fundamental right of every individual in a society that claims to be democratic,” Reporters Without Borders added.