Bradley Manning has now spent over 700 days in jail without trial. Chase Madar’s The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story of the Suspect Behind the Largest Security Breach in U.S. History is being published this month by OR Books. It’s an instructive and necessary text that should be read by anyone trying to make sense of our current foreign policy dilemmas, as well as the obsession with secrecy championed by our ruling class.
Madar writes, “If there’s one thing to learn from the last ten years, it’s that government secrecy and lies come at a very high price in blood and money. And though information is powerless on its own, it is still a necessary precondition for any democratic state to function. Thanks to the whistleblowing revelations attributed to Bradley Manning, we have a far clearer picture of what our own country is doing.”
Madar was nice enough to answer some questions about Manning, Wikileaks, and the disturbing silence of liberals through the whole ordeal.
Bradley Manning’s alleged intelligence leak is often compared to Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who released the Pentagon Papers, but it seems to me there are a couple major differences. First of all, the information Ellsberg leaked was even more classified and, secondly, there’s a certain element to the revisionist history of the Vietnam era that remembers Ellsberg as a hero that society embraced in his fight against Nixon. In actuality, the judge dismissed the case on account of the government’s gross misconduct and illegal activity and we have no idea what could have happened if the trial had proceeded. How do you square the way we remember whistleblowers versus the way Manning is being treated right now?
What is the difference between Ellsberg leaks and Manning’s alleged leaks? A very useful question. As you point out, there is no legal distinction between Ellsberg’s leaks and Manning’s, except for the fact that all of the material Ellsberg leaked was classed as Top Secret, the highest degree of secrecy, whereas not a single one of the documents Manning is alleged to have released have that rank. Other than that, there is no legal distinction.
And yet many, particularly older, establishment liberals, have labored very hard to draw a distinction between Ellsberg and Manning. Aging civil libertarian lawyers like Floyd Abrams and Norman Dorsen, who once backed Ellsberg, now rail against Manning. The Brennan Center, a great liberal public-interest litigation center affiliated with NYU, has made it clear they think Manning should be punished. The major media, even as they make hay out of the WikiLeaks disclosures, have made it clear they have no interest in defending the alleged source, and have been happy to smear Manning as a nutcase, not a whistleblower.
The real difference is not between the two acts of whistlebowing but in the political climate. The pain of the Vietnam War was not at all spread evenly in American society, but it was still far more evenly spread than the burden of the past decade’s wars. We no longer have a draft, and our multiple wars have come with tax cuts, passing the $3 trillion tab on to future generations. American intellectuals—in the media, academia, the legal profession, the arts–are, as a rule, middle-class, and when the middle-class felt the pinch of the Vietnam War, they spoke out.
They recognized that our foreign policy was in acute crisis, and they welcomed Ellsberg’s leaks, even though they were clearly illegal, as a way to shut down a war that was intolerable. Today, American intellectuals are wholly insulated from the costs and burdens of Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s not their kids who are getting killed, wounded, stop-lossed. Our intellectuals by and large have no sense of urgency of the crisis, and so they are happy to go along with the government line that the leaks are, despite a total lack of evidence, a threat to our security and to our soldiers’ lives.
We are a nation that is very hard on whistleblowers but wonderfully forgiving of our war criminals. Ellsberg is seen as a hero by many now, but we should remember he was never as popular a figure in America as Lt. William Calley, the infantry officer who commanded and led the slaughter of over 300 Vietnamese civilians, mostly women, children and the elderly, at the village of My Lai on March 16, 1968.
Our national security state continues to gobble money and avoid any accountability, with the complicity of most of Congress, Dems and Repubs. It’s like an enormous Rottweiler, on steroids.
When Lt. Calley was eventually brought before a court-martial in 1971 he became a folk-hero for much for much of the nation, with a chart-topping country hit single in his defense and with state legislatures from New Jersey to Georgia passing resolutions in his support. The up-and-coming Democratic governor of Georgia spoke out especially strong for Calley, and urged Georgians to drive with their headlights on in daylight for a week as a gesture of support and solidarity with the lieutenant. That former governor is alive today, his name is Jimmy Carter, and he does not scruple to defend the whistleblower Pfc. Manning, probably on the grounds that it would be “immoral”.
One of the questions that many people asked after Manning was apprehended was, how would a soldier have access to classified material in the first place? Just from the outside looking in, the seemingly simplistic nature of the leak seemed to contradict the government’s professed concern with keeping the information secret. Why did what Manning, allegedly, did seem like it was so effortless, and is this cause for concern?
What Manning allegedly did truly was easy. There was no information security (infosec in military jargon) at Forward Operating Base Hammer or at, according to other soldiers, other bases in Iraq.
Young Bradley Manning
We spend $10 billion a year to keep information secret, according to William Bosanko, former head of the Information Security Oversight Office, a federal agency. But in spite of—or because of—spending so much on infosec, our system is a shambolic, contradictory mess, leaky and thoroughly incontinent. In the excellent book Top Secret America, by Pulitzer-winning Washington Post journalist Dana Priest and William Arkin, security experts talk about all the top-secret material that is easily accessed online by anyone with the will and the skills.
Many of the middle-aged officials with security clearance don’t understand things like file sharing and so the contents of their laptops are easily rifled through online. Hard drives with top-secret info have turned up at Afghan bazaars. According to former infantryman Evan Knappenberger, a great deal of classified material was shared with the Iraqi Army, even though we know it was full of people with their own sectarian agendas. Anyway, because tens of thousands of people have security clearance anyway, none of these secrets are truly secret.
Many have decried this lax security. What I find truly depressing, however, is that all of this vital information was easily available for years but nobody, until (allegedly) Bradley Manning, saw fit to leak it. Mind you I don’t see leaks as a problem I see them as a partial solution. We need to know what our government is doing, especially in time of war.
Liberals in the press may not be calling for Manning to be executed, like Mike Huckabee, but there does seem to be this discomfort in defending him or supporting Wikileaks. Are you surprised at all by the silence of some of these journalists?
Our liberal media has been pretty pusillanimous on this issue (see answer #1 above). Our media has by and large ignored the civilian casualties of our recent wars. Suddenly however our intellectuals rise up singing in moral concern about the civilian casualties that might hypothetically be attributed to WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning. Maybe I lack imagination, but I think the real civilian deaths we have caused are of greater concern than the entirely hypothetical, speculative casualties our media tries to pin on WikiLeaks. I’ve written more about this at Tom Dispatch, and Charles Davis wrote a great piece about the liberal betrayal of Bradley Manning for Salon last week.
Going back to Ellsberg for a second, I can remember watching The Most Dangerous Man in America, a documentary about him, and being struck by the fact he believed the release of The Pentagon Papers would have a bigger impact on society, that is to say, the public’s reaction would be much more visceral. Manning is alleged to have leaked a video, now titled Collateral Murder, which shows air strikes targeting over a dozen people, including a couple Reuters staffers. It’s been amazing to me how so much of the Manning coverage has concerned whether or not he broke the law and how so little has concerned the people who were killed. Do you think this points to some much wider and disturbing issue with the American public or do you feel the gritty details of this case have been scrubbed out of the story’s coverage?
We Americans generally don’t care about the civilians we kill in our wars. John Tirman of MIT just published a terrific book about how American intellectuals and media work overtime to ignore or paper over these unpleasant facts, The Deaths of Others. There are gushers of sympathy for the perpetrators, like Sgt. Bob Bales who killed 17 Afghan civilians in Kandahar last month, and how he is a tragic figure not unworthy of understanding, but negligible interest in the people he killed and their families. All wars require dehumanizing the enemy, or in this case the civilians we are ostensibly helping, the distinction is blurred in the course of our armed mission civilisatrice. This is not new. It is yet another reason why war should only be fought in self-defense and as a very last resort—not as the first or second, as is currently the fashion.
My last question is broad, loaded, and the definitive answer could fill another entire book, but nonetheless: could you say a few things about this administration’s handling of the Manning case within the context of their crackdown on whistleblowers and continuation of most of Bush’s most draconian national security policies?
Even after ten years of failed war, our political class is still shoveling money into an unaccountable national security apparatus. Our minds have not cleared since 9/11. Many hoped that with the Obama administration there would be a course correction and a reining-in of the national security state.
I don’t think this was naïve, after all in the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam backlash you had new restraints placed on the FBI and the CIA, at home and abroad. A good thing.
But this has not happened. Our national security state continues to gobble money and avoid any accountability, with the complicity of most of Congress, Dems and Repubs. It’s like an enormous Rottweiler, on steroids. Anyone who would tame this beast would need a) excellent political skills at manipulating and taming bureaucracies and b) some measure of experience within the military or national security state and c) the political will to do so. The Obama administration has none of these qualities, and so has barely even tried to undo the Bush-Cheney national security state apparatus. They have no real political price to pay for this failure, as most people who care about civil liberties are simply never going to vote for Mitt Romney (though possibly Ron Paul).
The solidification and entrenchment of Bush-Cheney national security policies is a massive government failure. Instead of a thaw, we have an expanded no-fly list, ever more intrusive “security” at airports, a legalization of drone strikes, an NDAA that allows the government to assassinate not just foreigners but American citizens as well with no meaningful due process, more spying on our electronic communications, criminalization of vaguely defined “material support” for “terrorism,” a renewed Patriot Act (despite Obama’s campaign promise to veto it) and further erosion of Habeas Corpus. And the crackdown on whistleblowers—the Obama administration has brought more than twice as many prosecutions based on the Espionage act of 1917 (which was never meant to be used against domestic leakers) than all previous presidencies combined.