Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Manning verdict's lesson in a digital age

By Douglas Rushkoff, Special to CNN
July 31, 2013 -- Updated 1711 GMT (0111 HKT)
Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is escorted from court on Thursday in Fort Meade, Maryland.
Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is escorted from court on Thursday in Fort Meade, Maryland.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Douglas Rushkoff: Manning found guilty of espionage. Why is whistle-blowing punishable?
  • He says U.S. government hasn't faced it can't control info in digital age of easy access
  • He says Manning exposed objectionable official actions of U.S.--not secrets, but approaches
  • Rushkoff: The transparency of a digital age means U.S. has no choice but to do right thing

Editor's note: Douglas Rushkoff writes a regular column for CNN.com. He is a media theorist and the author of the new book "Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now."

(CNN) -- Pfc. Bradley Manning, who provided classified government documents to WikiLeaks detailing, among other things, America's undisclosed policies on torture, was found guilty of espionage on Tuesday. The verdict comes on the 235th anniversary of the passage of America's first whistle-blower protection law, approved by the Continental Congress after two Navy officers were arrested and harassed for having reported the torture of British prisoners.

How have we gotten to the place where the revelation of torture is no longer laudable whistle-blowing, but now counts as espionage?

The answer is that government has not yet come to terms with the persistence and transparency of the digital age. Information moves so fast and to so many places that controlling it is no longer an option. Every datapoint, whether a perverted tweet by an aspiring mayor or a classified video of Reuters news staffers being gunned down by an Apache helicopter, will somehow find the light of day. It's enough to make any administration tremble, but it's particularly traumatic for one with things to hide.

Douglas Rushkoff
Douglas Rushkoff

That's why they tried to throw the book, and then some, at Manning.

Prosecutors cast simple Internet commands known to any halfway literate Internet user (or anyone who used the Internet back in the early '90s) as clandestine codes used only by hackers to steal data. That Osama bin Laden could download these files off the WikiLeaks website (along with millions of other people) became justification for classifying the whistle-blowing as espionage, an act of war. And Manning is just one of a record seven Americans charged with violating the Espionage Act in a single administration.

But prosecuting those whose keyboards or USB sticks may have been technically responsible for the revelations is futile. The more networked we become and the more data we collect, the more likely something will eventually find its way out. After all, a security culture based on surveillance and big data cuts both ways.

Moreover, harsh reaction to digital whistle-blowers only increases the greater population's suspicions that more information is being hidden.

Manning not guilty of aiding enemy
Manning smiles after hearing verdict
Mixed verdict in Bradley Manning case
Jonathan Pollard is a divisive figure in U.S.-Israeli relations. The former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst was caught spying for Israel in 1985 and was sentenced in 1987 to life imprisonment. The United States and Israel are discussing his possible release as part of efforts to save fragile Middle East peace negotiations, according to sources familiar with the talks. Click through the gallery to see other high-profile leak scandals the United States has seen over the years. Jonathan Pollard is a divisive figure in U.S.-Israeli relations. The former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst was caught spying for Israel in 1985 and was sentenced in 1987 to life imprisonment. The United States and Israel are discussing his possible release as part of efforts to save fragile Middle East peace negotiations, according to sources familiar with the talks. Click through the gallery to see other high-profile leak scandals the United States has seen over the years.
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks

In this one leaking incident, Manning exposed allegations of torture, undisclosed civilian death tolls in Afghanistan and Iraq, official orders not to investigate torture by nations holding our prisoners, accusations of the torture of Spanish prisoners at Guantanamo, the "collateral murder" video of Reuters journalists and Iraqi civilians as U.S. soldiers cheered, U.S. State Department support of corporations opposing Haitian minimum wage, training of Egyptian torturers by the FBI in Quantico, Virginia, U.S. authorized stealing of U.N. Secretary General's DNA -- the list goes on.

These are not launch codes for nuclear strikes, operational secrets or even plans for future military missions. Rather, they are documentation of past activity and officially sanctioned military and state policy. These are not our secrets, but our ongoing actions and approaches.

A thinking government--a virtuous one, if we can still use such a word--would treat this as a necessary intervention. Things have gone too far. But ours is a government in "present shock": an always-on, always-connected population puts the administration in a state of perpetual emergency interruption. It's not the phone call at 2 a.m. for which a president has to be prepared, but the tweet at 3, the Facebook update at 4, the YouTube video at 5, and on and on.

In such a crisis-to-crisis landscape, there's no time to implement or even articulate a "grand narrative." A real-time, digital world offers no sense of mission or opportunity to tell a story. There's no Cold War to win. No moon shot to work toward. There are just emergent threats, one after the other after the other. Things just exist in the present, one tweet - or, actually, many tweets - at a time.

This makes it exceedingly difficult to frame our policies and strategies with language and purpose. It's no longer a matter of walking the talk. Without the talk, there's only the walk. We have no way of judging the ethics and intentions of our government except by what it actually does.

Combine this with the transparency that comes with digital technology and our leaders simply have no choice but to do the right thing. It takes more energy to prevent exposure than simply to behave consistently with the values we want to project.

Just as corporations are learning that they can no longer maintain low prices through overseas slave labor without getting caught, a democratic government can no longer maintain security through torture and coercion without being exposed. Betraying our respect for human dignity only makes us less resolved as a people, and less trusted as a nation.

We are just beginning to learn what makes a free people secure in a digital age. It really is different. The Cold War was an era of paper records, locked vaults and state secrets, for which a cloak-and-dagger mindset may have been appropriate. In a digital environment, our security comes not from our ability to keep our secrets but rather our ability to live our truth.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Douglas Rushkoff.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT