There’s probably no comparison. Pfc. Chelsea Manning last week got 35 years in prison for leaking government secrets to the public. Military spy John Towery, who infiltrated a public protest movement, remains free.
Manning’s violation was enormous—he gave 700,000 government files to WikiLeaks, though some were secret only because the military didn’t want the country to know what was being done in its name, such as killing the wrong people.
Comparatively, Towery’s transgressions were minor. A civilian employee of the Army using a false name and persona, he joined a western Washington antiwar group protesting U.S. actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The important distinction is that the government decided its employee Manning broke the law, while its employee Towery did not. In sending one to prison and allowing the other to go uncharged, they could argue that Manning was not under orders to spy on his country, while Towery was under orders to spy on his.
The Army hasn’t necessarily admitted that Towery was spying for them. But that seemed all but confirmed last Wednesday with the release of new documents from a civil lawsuit the protesters have brought against Towery, the Army, and local police agencies. The documents include e-mails and assorted reports showing that Towery was on the Joint Base Lewis-McChord payroll while he was spying on protesters in Olympia and Tacoma from 2007 until his cover was blown in 2009. The Army had all along denied he was their paid agent provocateur, inserted to mislead and deter protesters from forming protest lines around the movement of military equipment from the ports of Tacoma and Olympia.
The Army had no comment on the newly released documents obtained during pretrial discovery, including one showing that a JBLM official had approved overtime pay for Towery. But Larry Hildes, a National Lawyers Guild attorney from Bellingham who brought the lawsuit, says, “The evidence is now incontrovertible that the military worked in concert with the police to suppress nonviolent antiwar protests over a period of years.”
No criminal charges have been brought in the Towery case—except for those against protesters (among the charges they face: the future crime of “attempted” disorderly conduct, arrested for planning to block military vehicles—something they’d told their masquerading fellow protester Towery they were going to do, which he quickly relayed to police and military officers).
It likely helps Towery’s case that he, unlike Manning, is pro-war, as are the Pentagon and the government, the people who bring criminal charges. Otherwise, officials might be tempted to drum this up into a much bigger case. As Seattle Weekly reported in 2010, Towery was part of a government cabal that trumped up charges against antiwar demonstrators, leading to their false arrests.
In one case involving Seattle’s Fusion Center, the super-secret state intelligence hub housed on Third Avenue below the FBI’s Seattle Field Office, officials issued information that was used by the state patrol to pull over a protester, Phil Chinn of Olympia, and charge him with DUI. The concerted, multi-agency ruse was designed by military and police agents simply to harass Chinn and prevent him and others in his car from attending a protest at the Port of Grays Harbor. The patrol, the city of Aberdeen, and Grays Harbor County ended up paying $418,000 to Chinn for damages and attorney fees.
“When you consider how many agencies are involved in watching and infiltrating—federal, state, county, local—you have more spies than organizers,” attorney Hildes told us.
In the Towery case, Hildes has assumed what seemingly should be the government’s job, inves