U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other top brass have repeatedly said any deal to keep U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the withdrawal deadline would require a guarantee of legal protection for American soldiers.
But the Iraqis refused to agree to that, opening up the prospect of Americans being tried in Iraqi courts and subjected to Iraqi punishment.
The negotiations were strained following WikiLeaks' release of a diplomatic cable that alleged Iraqi civilians, including children, were killed in a 2006 raid by American troops rather than in an airstrike as the U.S. military initially reported.
That description from CNN of the cable's contents is, unsurprisingly, diluted to the point of obfuscation. That cable was released by WikiLeaks in May, 2011, and, as McClatchy put it at the time, "provides evidence that U.S. troops executed at least 10 Iraqi civilians, including a woman in her 70s and a 5-month-old infant, then called in an airstrike to destroy the evidence, during a controversial 2006 incident in the central Iraqi town of Ishaqi." The U.S. then lied and claimed the civilians were killed by the airstrike. Although this incident had been previously documented by the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, the high-profile release of the cable by WikiLeaks generated substantial attention (and disgust) in Iraq, which made it politically unpalatable for the Iraqi government to grant the legal immunity the Obama adminstration was seeking. Indeed, it was widely reported at the time the cable was released that it made it much more difficult for Iraq to allow U.S. troops to remain beyond the deadline under any conditions.
In other words, whoever leaked that cable cast light on a heinous American war crime and, by doing so, likely played some significant role in thwarting an agreement between the Obama and Maliki governments to keep U.S. troops in Iraq and thus helped end this stage of the Iraq war (h/t Trevor Timm). Moreover, whoever leaked these cables -- as even virulent WikiLeaks critic Bill Keller repeatedly acknowledged -- likely played some significant in helping spark the Arab Spring protests by documenting just how deeply corrupt those U.S.-supported kleptocrats were. And in general, whoever leaked those cables has done more to publicize the corrupt, illegal and deceitful acts of the world's most powerful factions -- and to educate the world about how they behave -- than all "watchdog" media outlets combined (indeed, the amount of news reports on a wide array of topics featuring WikiLeaks cables as the primary source is staggering). In sum, whoever leaked those cables is responsible for one of the most consequential, beneficial and noble acts of this generation.
And yet (or more accurately: therefore) the person accused of accomplishing all of this, Bradley Manning, has been imprisoned for more than a year without trial, and, if convicted, is almost certain to remain in prison for many more years (with the possibility, albeit unlikely, of death, and as the Obama administration continues to block an unmonitored visit by the U.N. official investigating what had been the inhumane conditions of his detention). If one believes the authenticity of the chat logs produced by Wired, Manning's goal in leaking those cables -- "hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms . . . i want people to see the truth… regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public" -- have been fulfilled beyond what must have been his wildest dreams. Assuming the truth of those chat logs, he was motivated precisely by seeing cables of the sort that detailed this civilian slaughter and subsequent cover-up in Iraq, and the extreme levels of theft and oppression by Arab dictators, and the desire to have the world know about it. Meanwhile, those responsible for the Iraq War, and who suppressed freedom and democracy in the Middle East by propping up those tyrants, and who committed a slew of other illegal and deeply corrupt acts, continue to prosper and wield substantial power.
History is filled with examples of those who most bravely challenged and subverted corrupted power and who sought reforms being rewarded with prison or worse, at the hands of those whose bad actions they exposed. If Bradley Manning did leak these cables, his imprisonment is a prime example of that inverted justice.