A few weeks from now, a military judge will probably sentence Bradley Manning to serve several decades in prison for violating the Espionage Act of 1917. I feel a kinship with him. My parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were convicted of violating the same act in 1951. They were executed two years later, when I was 6.
That’s only the beginning of my sense of connection with Manning. The prosecutors, and now the judge, have labeled his actions espionage, theft or other unsavory terms. Stripped of the pejorative legal expressions, however, what Manning really did was 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 whether we were concerned that the material we sought would merely prove our parents’ guilt. We answered that we believed 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 convictions, today I remain convinced that my brother and I set the right course. From more than 300,000 previously secret files we forced into the public eye over the decades, including the release in 2008 of grand jury witness statements that had been kept under wraps almost 50 years, the American people have gained a much clearer picture of what actually happened in my parents’ case.
We now 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. What they transmitted, however, 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 the truth about 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 whole experience convinced me that citizens must know what the government is doing in their name. This is the only way people can make the kind of knowledgeable judgments essential to a functioning democracy. 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. He released classified material that embarrassed the U.S. government and could 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 so many nations have weapons of mass destruction, threatens the security of every person on the planet.
Although I do not reflexively reject the application of all state power, my primary identification is with humanity as a whole. Manning believed that everyone in this messy human family we’ve created deserved to know the truth, and he was so appalled by what he considered U.S. war crimes in Iraq that he felt compelled to act. He will go to prison for that.
Meanwhile, those responsible for the things Manning revealed will go unpunished. And our leaders will continue to do everything in their power to hide the truth.
I wish all the world’s armies were made up of people like Bradley Manning.
Robert Meeropol is executive director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children (www.rfc.org) and the younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.