Obama knew he was destabilizing Syria, and he did it anyway

In the Intercept, Dan Froomkin writes that ‘Obama Knew Arming Rebels [in Syria] Was Useless, But Did it Anyway.’ His argument is based on a “New York Times story about how President Obama asked the CIA a while back whether arming rebel forces – pretty much the agency’s signature strategy — had ever worked in the past.” It’s important to note that “worked” here, though never spelled out, essentially means “toppled the side that wasn’t U.S.-compliant in favor of one that’d bow to us in return for arming opposition forces.”

Froomkin largely chalks up Obama’s decision to “political pressure,” linking to this Fox News post, ‘Republicans urge Obama to enforce Syria ‘red line,’ oppose deploying troops.’ Even when the Democratic president arms the rebels, it’s the Republicans’ fault. By perpetuating the liberal trope that Democrats are peaceful in principle but spineless in the face of gridlock, Froomkin lets them off the hook and plays into their own political finger-pointing. Democrats couldn’t have justified it better themselves.

Instead of investigating or ruminating on why Obama might send weapons to an opposition he didn’t think would win a conflict, if he knew that, “In general, external support for rebels almost always make wars longer, bloodier and harder to resolve,” Froomkin takes Obama’s words at face value. It’s possible that the U.S. wants regime change in Syria but doesn’t want a victory for these rebels. Moon of Alabama suggests an alternative theory altogether, one which seems plausible given the CIA study and the evidence thus far: “Or the plan was never to win. If the aim was and is the ‘destruction of the infrastructure, economy and social fabric of Syria’ then arming all kinds of insurgents was and is a sane and successful policy.”

Froomkin then could have looked at what that destabilization would afford for the U.S. Under the pretext of bombing ISIS, American forces have commenced airstrikes in Syria with no resistance.

But by suggesting that the leader of the biggest empire on earth just bumbles into hugely profitable and hegemony-serving war almost accidentally, Froomkin joins fellow Intercept writers in adopting the ‘Inept Empire’ theory.

As Kevin Dooley writes,

the notion that the ruling elite are so stupid they don’t even know their interests, much less how to go about securing them, is ahistorical, power-serving nonsense. If we just look at recent history in the region, we can see that American power has intervened in and destroyed a number of countries (Iraq, Libya, Somalia to name a few), seen the results, and carried on doing it as though all had gone according to plan.

Imperial aggression predictably disrupts all existing order, increases sectarianism, and often fractures the potential of independent development.  If power knows these are predictable consequences of military intervention, and keeps on intervening, we can reasonably assume they are desired outcomes.

Now, of course, empire can’t predict every consequence of its meddling, but I think we can be pretty sure they think military intervention is likely to lead to favorable conditions for penetrating markets and generating profit, or they wouldn’t be doing it. American policy is only “incomprehensible” and “counterproductive” if you assume their interests in Iraq and Syria are what they say they are.

[The rest is well worth reading, too.]

Finally, Froomkin somehow contrasts George W. Bush in better light. “George W. Bush’s decision,” he writes, “to go to war in Iraq sent vastly more people to their deaths than anything Obama did…But Bush at least thought the war in Iraq would do some good.” Some good? What good? In parentheses, Froomkin swallows imperialism whole with the claim that Bush wanted “a sudden flowering of pro-Western democracy in the Middle East.” But at least he didn’t “let loose the dogs of war simply because his political operatives told him it would poll well.”

For liberals, the United States is always simply going to war for the wrong reasons.

Obama knew he was destabilizing Syria, and he did it anyway

The war on drugs is doing just fine

Ryan Devereaux writes ‘Surprise: U.S. Drug War in Afghanistan Not Going Well.’ He details a new report from the U.S. Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, claiming that “despite spending over $7 billion to combat opium poppy cultivation and to develop the Afghan government’s counternarcotics capacity, opium poppy cultivation levels in Afghanistan hit an all-time high in 2013.” These so-called “failures” have been “consistently documented for years.”

One reason that poppy levels have been growing for so long is that U.S. Marines have actively protected their cultivation. According to Geraldo Rivera’s framing, Marines “tolerate cultivation” of opium in Afghanistan as recently as 2010 for “security reasons,” because if it was destroyed, the population would turn against the U.S.

The domestic war on drugs has long “failed” to curb drug use and supply, an unrealistic goal, because that wasn’t its true intention; rather, the war on drugs has been a war to incarcerate black and poor people and to grow the police state. As Drug Policy Alliance writes, “ Funding schemes and asset forfeiture laws have given law enforcement agencies strong financial incentives to continue the drug war.” America imprisons more people per capita than any nation in history, and as Mike Riggs notes, “Corrections Corp. of America (CCA), the country’s largest private prison company, has donated almost $4.5 million to political campaigns and dropped another $18 million on lobbying in the last two decades,” profiting off of the drug war.

Similarly, we can see how the U.S. war on drugs in Afghanistan isn’t “failing” unless you believe official claims about their objectives — and Devereaux just wrote about the same government that was “also involved in trafficking cocaine to the U.S. in order to fund their counter-revolutionary campaign” in the 80s.

Devereaux makes note of this:

While U.S. efforts have failed to effectively diminish drug trafficking in Afghanistan, they have succeeded in making a handful of private security companies increasingly rich, a point that is not addressed in the inspector general’s report. In 2009, official responsibility for training Afghan police forces was shifted from the State Department to an obscure branch of the Pentagon known as Counter Narco-Terrorism Program Office (CNTPO), which took over the roughly $1 billion contract. In waging the privatized war on drugs, CNTPO has partnered with such corporate security giants as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, ARINC, DynCorp and U.S. Training Center, a subsidiary of the firm formerly known as Blackwater.

To say the drug war is “failing” is to imply good intentions that the evidence doesn’t support. Because while the U.S. may be repeatedly “failing” to meet its publicly stated objectives, the military industrial complex blooms like poppies.

Note: I discussed concerns with this framing with Devereaux on Twitter, and he was sympathetic to them:

The war on drugs is doing just fine

Mourning Phase

Beck has learned to say goodbye, he’s endured i-so-la-tion, someone or he himself remains unforgiven. He may have dropped the “u” for the title, but in his Morning Phase, Beck is grieving. He’s also slowly resigning himself to the consistency of change, and his new album is gorgeous and sad and comforting all at once.

Morning, sunrise, and “waking light” all herald CHANGE in big — if fuzzy — letters. Something is new. She is gone. The bed is bigger and colder and your arms feel weirdly long when you don’t need them to wrap someone else closer.

Plaintive strumming hammer heartbreak home, and the effect is a hazy, half-asleep attempt to piece last night together, which slowly becomes an effort to piece together a relationship in full. Notably, “goodbye” is not among “the words we use to say goodbye.” We rarely realize how “I’m busy”s, “I’m too tired”s, and “you never used to think so”s slowly, imperceptibly accrete into “goodbye.” We don’t realize until it’s too late to actually say goodbye, at which point it becomes crushingly obvious.

Beck’s new-day symbols also evoke cycles, and in their repetition they recall sunrise’s deception: the orange globe appears to be emerging new, growing from the horizon’s womb, but it merely signifies global spinning. It’s both miraculous and totally expected, more predictable than death and taxes.

Maybe Beck’s cycles are closer to deja vu: the feeling of recursion so strong that you can hear your own words before you say them, and yet you cannot place the initial speech. Repetition endows meaning and gravity until a tipping point, after which it cultivates insanity, absurdity, and, eventually, inescapable horror. Deja vu, for a few seconds, suggests that time is imagined, or suggests a multiverse in which we’ve accidentally been allowed to try the same moment twice. And yet given this chance, we repeat ourselves. We are doomed to discover that these opportunities exist exactly when we realize that they have passed.

The album’s press release explicitly points out the already-clear connection to Beck’s 2002 album Sea Change, but we don’t need to be told that he’s been here before. “I’m so tired of being alone,” he croons, and we can hear him remembering just how many times he’s woken up solitary, again.

Wave’’s opening strings imply a slow-moving ocean of their title. He’s floating in the few seconds between sleep and consciousness, when emotions burn brighter but you don’t know yet what’s real. He’s floating between Kübler-Ross’ fourth and fifth stages of grief, churning last night’s depression into this morning’s acceptance. Beck takes 47 minutes to open his eyes all the way. They’re open now, though: Morning Phase is rife with a clarity of instrumentation, lyrical phrasing, and vocal intonation that, say, Odelay’s free association rap-rock wouldn’t recognize.

This clarity is so consistent, and the album’s themes so cohesive that it starts to feel like one, long music-essay rather than a collection of disparate songs. While ‘Morning’ and ‘Blue Moon’ stand out on first listen for Beck’s elegant phrasing and intonations, they slowly bleed into one another. The penultimate ‘Country Down,’ with its Gillian Welchian refrain, may be the only track that could really stand apart from the album on its own.

Even the arrestingly beautiful closer begins to feel recursive, and once you’ve listened to the album a few times, you could be forgiven for thinking that final track ‘Waking Light’ is really its opener— like waking up from a nap at twilight and thinking you slept through the night.

With more listens still the album’s tranquility starts to lull. The feeling of eyes-half-open sunrise begins to feel like heavy-eyelid sleepiness. You might wonder if Beck is digging deep into a rut he feels stuck in as a defense mechanism to avoid the harder challenge of trying something really new. Someone might slap him awake soon, but, for now, Beck is learning to love the transitory float.

Mourning Phase

Pathologizing Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier’s street photography is worthy of a Museum of Modern Art installation — whether she’d have wanted it displayed there is another question. Maier was a nanny for decades, all the while creating fantastic photographs, shooting from her waist-level Roliflex as she escorted children around Chicago. Collector John Maloof stumbled upon a trove of her stunningly reflective, beautifully composed negatives of city characters at an auction after her death, and subsequently applauded himself for Finding Vivian Maier in a documentary that hit U.S. theaters in March.

It was a treat to see Maier’s black and white perspective on the big screen — her candid shots are evocative, varied, and fresh, reminiscent of Leon Levinstein or Robert Frank, and still breathing more than fifty years later. She had a keen eye for poignant moments and lively characters, but she also took penetrating self-portraits and more abstract street shots.

But it quickly became clear that Maloof was more interested in painting Maier as an oddball than in understanding her ostensible contradictions, and worse, in pathologizing her double life to cast aspersions on her motives. “Why would a nanny be taking all these pictures?” he asks, as if the two are somehow mutually exclusive. He might have asked about Wallace Stevens, ‘Why would an insurance agent be writing all these poems?’ Maloof implies a romanticized ideal of the artist without any real-world evidence that giving up her day job would’ve made Maier a better photographer. As it was, Maier supervised children for so many years and still managed to take hundreds of thousands of top-notch stills.

Wouldn’t it have been more valuable to try empathizing with Maier’s desire to avoid any
limelight? Maybe avoiding that very limelight afforded her the unseen vantage point that made her photographs, many of them candid shots of people in action, unique.

Other prominent photographers bring much-needed expertise to a film that otherwise suffers from Maloof’s armchair psychoanalysis. But it would’ve been fascinating to hear from lesser-known street photographers on Maier’s decision, rather than from a giddy collector with good intentions but insufficient insight. I also would’ve liked to know whether Maier herself was interested in and following fellow street photographers, who she learned from and vice versa.

Maloof deserves credit and gratitude for recognizing what a trove he’d happened upon, and for bringing it to elite artists to contextualize and publicize. But he might be doing more harm than good by speculating so much. I suspect we’d learn more by simply studying Maier’s work on its own.

Pathologizing Vivian Maier

Empathy for empire

Molly Crabapple, a political artist whose artwork I frequently admire and appreciate and some of which decorates my walls, recently admonished what she terms the “Western left” for failing to properly and tangibly support the Syrian revolutionaries fighting their government. She coats this condemnation in deep concern for the Syrian people, but the barely latent thesis shines through: Crabapple is arguing for military intervention.

If it wasn’t clear, Crabapple elucidates when responding to questions about her piece from Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola.

Very often on the left there’s this way where we simplify things, where we’re like, ‘America has fucked up in the Middle East, America murdered hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq.’ And then we look at something like Syria where a nonviolent opposition was met with extreme violence and then after trying to arm themselves they were asking for military aid and we’re like “America’s fucked up in the Middle East, America’s murdered hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq. Let’s not even look at these people. Let’s pretend they don’t even exist.” And I think that there’s a legitimate debate about military aid and intervention.

Author and Western leftist David Mizner responded deftly to the original piece with ’For 3rd Anniversary of War in Syria, Molly Crabapple Turns Into a Liberal Hawk.’ He explains how Crabapple is refuting claims her subjects aren’t making to highlight her own empathy — those she condemns are not cheering the status quo, they are simply trying to prevent further horror.

“For the last decade, the left has struggled against the murderous idiocies of the War on Terror. Guantanamo. Iraq. Weddings drone-bombed in the name of ‘freedom’. When Syrian activists and the Free Syrian Army began asking for weapons and no-fly zones in what actually was a fight for freedom, the Western left mostly looked away,” Crabapple laments.

Some additional context is needed. While the Western left was allegedly looking away, Western governments were getting involved in the Syrian conflict, if quietly.

From August 2013:

So far the UK has sent around £8m of “non-lethal” aid, according to official papers seen by The Independent, comprising five 4×4 vehicles with ballistic protection; 20 sets of body armour; four trucks (three 25 tonne, one 20 tonne); six 4×4 SUVs; five non-armoured pick-ups; one recovery vehicle; four fork-lifts; three advanced “resilience kits” for region hubs, designed to rescue people in emergencies; 130 solar powered batteries; around 400 radios; water purification and rubbish collection kits; laptops; VSATs (small satellite systems for data communications) and printers. In addition, funds have been allocated for civic society projects such as inter-community dialogue and gathering evidence of human rights abuses. The last ‘gift’ to the opposition, announced by William Hague last week, is that £555,000 worth of counter-chemical warfare equipment is on standby.

Also from August 2013:

Rebel groups in Syria’s north say they have received their largest shipment of weapons yet…

From September 2013:

 The CIA has begun delivering weapons to rebels in Syria…

From January 2014:

Light arms supplied by the United States are flowing to ‘moderate’ Syrian rebel factions in the south of the country and U.S. funding for months of further deliveries has been approved by Congress, according U.S. and European security officials.

Syrian rebels have been using Western weapons for months, at the very least.

As for a no-fly zone, Mizner quotes members of the Western left, Vijay Prashad and Gary Younge, who have not “looked away” but who have instead opposed further war.

But perhaps it is Crabapple who has “looked away” from the full effects of Western imperialism. She writes, “The left did not see Syria. We saw Afghanistan and Iraq. The US is broke and disillusioned from two wars based on lies. It understandably doesn’t want to enter a third.”

A third? If only. If we’re distinguishing American wars by national borders, the number is sadly higher. As Crabapple herself notes, we’ve been regularly drone striking several countries in the Middle East, including Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, for years.

The last MENA country to spark this intervention debate on a national scale, and the last country on which the West imposed a no-fly zone, was Libya. Here’s an update on how that country is doing:

The partitioning of Libya is no longer the concern of pessimists alone but a tangible reality. Islamists are imposing their rule by force and the government and parliament are paralyzed. Some talk blatantly about their intention to strip the non-Arab inhabitants of the south of the country of their citizenship. Add to this mess direct Western intervention in Libya’s internal affairs and one can only conclude the partitioning of the country is on the horizon.

To oppose Western intervention in Syria is not a symptom of ‘war fatigue’ — it is to simply be aware of what Western intervention leads to.

I propose listening to members of the Western left who tend to focus specifically on Syria. Here’s Patrick Higgins:

…I have little patience with anybody speaking to me nowadays in the name of the “will of the Syrian people.” How can anybody dare make such a claim? Read a little. Be at least a little honest. How could Syrian opinion about what constitutes the gravest threat and the best way forward not depend at this point on which part of the country he or she resides in? It’s a civil fucking war, with every bit of pain and confusion that entails. My antiwar activity is predicated first and foremost on the idea of self-determination for all peoples. Syrians deserve to have that. Devastatingly, the entire world is working to keep them from achieving it….[The United States] doesn’t wish for the stability of any regime that is not in its financial thrall. And it wishes to weaken Hezbollah and Iran, as everybody knows. Some continue to push the narrative that the United States is baffled over events in Syria without a sound, clear policy. This is nonsense. It has been two and a half years. Do people honestly want to make the claim that it hasn’t come up with anything over all that time? America and the Zionists have been sitting back and enjoying the show, while getting involved directly as little possible.

(Higgins also has a valuable explanation of imperialism in this piece.)

Here’s the writer who goes by ‘Nader’:

I firmly believe that intervention by reactionary forces on the side of the opposition (Saudi Arabia, Qatar) has done great harm to Syria and the Syrian uprising in general, but nevertheless, to state that the onus is entirely on them to end this war is to imply that the regime is somewhat innocent, which I believe is ludicrous.

We should also note that proponents of intervention in Libya and Syria (as with Iraq and Afghanistan) happen to line up with the interests of Western governments, who profit from these wars and expand their hegemony. But in conflicts where the U.S. is guiltier, or where the U.S. has interests at stake, interventionists like Crabapple are rather quiet. Amy Austin Holmes reminds us of ‘The Military Intervention that the World Forgot,’ in Bahrain, where U.S. ally Saudi Arabia demolished protesters — which the U.S. didn’t intervene to stop, for what should be obvious reasons.

I deeply empathize with those killed by and who fight against brutally repressive governments around the world. I am crushed by their deaths, I mourn for their martyrs, I identify with their struggles. It is for that very reason that I think the United States and the rest of the west should not intervene in Syria. There are other ways to help: we can accept refugees in our country, we can stop financing dictators throughout the Middle East, we can stop fighting proxy wars, we can end our long and covert war on Syria-tied Iran, and we can stop selling billions of dollars worth of weapons around the world. But we can’t bomb Syria and say it’s in the name of empathy.

Empathy for empire

On the import of Debra Van Poolen’s artistic witness

Those of us who covered Chelsea Manning’s court martial at Ft. Meade relied on the drawings of artists in attendance to illustrate our coverage of witnesses testifying, dramatic proceedings, and vital courtroom moments. Debra van Poolen, one such artist, wrote about her experience here. I’ve thanked Debra in a piece explaining the value of her and others’ images, first published here at WARP Place. Relatedly, see artist Clark Stoeckley’s book-length graphic account of the trial here.


We are, increasingly, a visual people, overloaded with imagery at every turn. Thus the army’s (and administration’s) strategy to turn what should have been a trial available to the public for witness, conversation, and debate into a covert one made sense. No cameras, no cell phones, no computers in the courtroom. Metal detectors scanned our every inch for a hidden lens or wire. Uniformed muscles with weapons lined the walls, escorting us out to stretch our limbs and rest our eyes, watching, retrieving us. In the media room, a relaxed appearance betrayed an even more sinister crackdown on any attempt to publicize the show trial of U.S. Army Private Chelsea Manning.

By and large, the mainstream media ignored the trial. We few reporters followed proceedings on a delayed video feed, that—just next door to the NSA, capable of spying on Americans’ every communication—was conveniently, annoyingly liable to cut out at any minute, for several at a time. So adverse was the Army to the public witnessing the immense, inexorable courage of a 5’2” soldier who stood head and shoulders above her fear-stricken fellow servicemen that when a few seconds of video did seep onto the world wide web, Ft. Meade soldiers with handguns were assigned to patrol the media room, their hot breath on our necks as we tried to transcribe extensive motions in real time.

We reporters relayed the legal updates and major happenings, but words cannot adequately convey the rigidity of the proceedings, Manning’s isolation and power as she testified, or the military’s tangible unease about whom she might inspire next. When deprived of images, we hunger for them. We needed visual confirmation that this unprecedented trial, these obscene charges, that looming prison hell, were real and not just another police-state nightmare.

Debra Van Poolen’s courtroom drawings shed some light on the dark site, bringing us closer to the tension and texture of that damning room. We can prop up her portrayal of Manning at the microphone as we read the statement itself, wherein Manning explained to the judge who would soon condemn her to decades in a cage just why she was so disturbed by that video in Iraq, and why she felt such profound empathy for the unarmed civilians seemingly murdered for sport while trying to protect their own.

Debra Van Poolen put her life on hold to visually convey this trial to us, spending each day sketching out new witnesses, legal teams, family members, and the Truth brigade that quietly supported Manning from the gallery—a little echo of and tribute to Pfc. Manning for putting her freedom at risk to convey to us the Army’s darkest secrets. Thank you, Debra, for helping us bear witness. We are in your debt.

On the import of Debra Van Poolen’s artistic witness

Alex Gibney’s response to my ‘We Steal Secrets’ review

On May 24, 2013, I reviewed Alex Gibney’s WikiLeaks/Bradley Manning film ‘We Steal Secrets,’ focusing on its portrayal of Pfc. Bradley Manning. Read that review here. Alex Gibney wrote me a letter in response, reprinted in full below:

Alex Gibney (photo by David Shankbone -- click for Flickr source)
Alex Gibney (photo by David Shankbone — click for Flickr source)

Dear Nathan:

I read your recent review of “We Steal Secrets: the Story of WikiLeaks.”

I have great respect for the work that you have done and continue to do on behalf of Bradley Manning.  With that in mind, let me express my disagreement with a number of your assertions about my film.  I do not expect you to share my views, but I would hope that you hear them.

You criticize the filmmaking team for failing to wait for Bradley Manning’s spoken statement to the court.  The film was completely finished, including final digital and film elements, in February. However, in light of some revelations in the Manning statement, we were able to make some small changes in the audio track – at great expense and technical difficulty – without changing picture.  We had been working on the film for more than two years and made a decision to bring it to a conclusion.  We did so, not because the story was finished (we fully expect you and others to continue to follow and tell the story) but because we felt that – with Assange and Manning both in very different kinds of custody – we could conclude a chapter.

Our film focuses on events in 2010 and 2011.  In that context, Bradley Manning’s on-line chats are more relevant than his very moving speech to the court.  I also felt that showing the on-line chats as printed text was important to the character of this story. Those chats reveal Manning’s views in the moment rather than as a carefully considered speech looking back on events with the benefit of hindsight.  Yet, I would also note – as Glenn Greenwald has done – that Manning’s speech is remarkably consistent with the Lamo chats, both for his personal concerns and for his political convictions.

To that point, Nathan, I must take issue with your characterization of the film.  You imply that, with one exception, the film does not include any mention of Manning’s political convictions. That just isn’t true.  There is a great deal about Manning’s motivations as a whistleblower in the film, not only from his chats but also from materials he appended to the original leak of the war logs.

Here are two short examples.  1) “This is possibly one of the most significant documents of our time, removing the fog of war and revealing the true nature of 21st century asymmetric warfare.”  2) “I want people to see the truth…regardless of who they are.  Because without that information you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”

You link to the “annotated transcript” released by WikiLeaks.  But you do not note that this so-called “transcript” contains a multitude of errors.  In addition to including words that aren’t in the film, the “transcript” actually omits every single one of Manning’s words as they appeared on-screen.  One is left to conclude that this “transcript” has either been maliciously edited to make it look like we omitted Manning, or so sloppily done that it just left his words out. That, in itself, is a kind of cruel poetry: WikiLeaks has written Bradley Manning out of the story.

I also disagree with the way that your review omitted the full context of Manning’s speech to the court.  In a forthright way, he does discuss his alienation from those around him. He uses the following phrases: “I lacked close personal ties…” ;“concerns of social labeling”; his roomate’s “discomfort with my sexual orientation”; “immense pressures and anxiety built up throughout the deployment.”  And this key sentence: “It seems that as I tried harder to fit in at work, the more I seemed to alienate my peers and lose the respect, trust, and support I needed.” Does that sound like someone who was carefree?  You imply that Manning was not “alienated” prior to his leaks, only after.  Manning’s own speech to the court belies that view.

I disagree with your contention (raised initially by one of Assange’s legal team) that the film tries to “pathologize Manning’s leaks.” The film does not embrace the army’s view that Manning leaked because of some character flaw; it clearly shows his political motivations.  But neither does the film ignore Manning’s emotional distress.  Why should we ignore issues that Manning himself went to such great lengths to express?

The film does not make any general statement about “the way that whistleblowers behave.”  But it does suggest – via Manning’s own words – that he was alienated from those around him.  Why should that be controversial?  If Manning was perfectly in tune with the culture around him, he never would have leaked the materials.  After all, he broke a military oath when he did what he did. Indeed, he has pleaded guilty to breaking that oath and is willing to be held to account for violating military law.

I accept that, for Manning, questioning his own gender was a serious matter.  I accept that his difficulty with being gay in the military during a time of “don’t ask don’t tell” was of great personal concern.  I don’t see any value in censoring that part of Manning’s life just because for some (but not for me) those deep personal concerns may interfere with a more air-brushed narrative about his role as a political actor.

In your review, you suggest that Manning’s supervisor, Jihrleah Showman, should not have been included in the film because she is a witness for the prosecution in Manning’s military trial.  Sorry, but I’m not going to apologize for including people who were intimately involved in the story.   Further, for a film that attempts to do more than preach to the choir, how would the film be received by those who cannot decide what to think of Manning if I did not include any critical voices?  I think that Bradley Manning would agree that the truth – no matter how inconvenient – is the most important thing.  That truth cannot be glimpsed if we avert our eyes from those with whom we might disagree.

I don’t have any issue with the fact that Manning is gay.  I don’t have any issue with the fact that he wanted to become a woman.  Why should anyone?  However, at a time when Manning is being scapegoated by the military, I do think it’s important to note that the military bears some responsibility for the leak, both for the sloppy way classified material is managed and for the failure, by the chain of command, to take note of Manning’s emotional outbursts.   My political science professor advised me to “embrace the contradictions of everyday life.”  So, in the case of Manning, one can applaud the value of the leaks and still find fault with the military for ignoring the system and individuals that permitted them.  Now that Manning is about to go on trial for “aiding the enemy” should we not hold the military to account for some of what he did?  Or would you prefer that Manning be seen in isolation – and therefore greater legal jeopardy – from the system of which he was a part?

Your review also leaves out an important mystery at the heart of the story: why – if the WikiLeaks electronic dropbox was such a perfect mechanism for anonymous leaking – did Bradley Manning reach out to Adrian Lamo?   It seems clear that Manning needed someone to talk to.  And he needed to talk, not only about the leaks but about his personal pain and, yes, alienation, as a gay man wanting to be a woman in a time of “don’t ask don’t tell.”

This is a vital issue as we confront how leaks may happen in the future.  One flaw of the WikiLeaks model (important in other ways) may be that it does not allow for needed personal communication between a source and a journalist/publisher. I know from personal experience that whistleblowers sometimes need someone to talk to. (Why should that be controversial or a sign of weakness instead of a show of humanity?)  We now know from Manning that he felt let down by the on-line character of “Nathaniel Frank” (the person at WikiLeaks that Manning believed to be Julian Assange) because the conversations between them “were more valued by myself [Manning] than Nathaniel.”  When “Nathaniel” was no longer available to talk to (possibly because WikiLeaks now had the State Department cables in its possession) Manning turned to Lamo, who then turned him in.

The larger point that the film is making is that Manning is a hero precisely because he is not an abstract symbol. He is a unique, flawed and ultimately inspiring individual who can be celebrated for who he is, not altered and re-imagined in order to score easy political points or to soothe the discomfort that some seem to feel toward Manning’s emotional turmoil.

Going forward, it will be important that whistleblowers do not have to believe that they must be extraordinary or perfect heroes.  They can be what the social psychologist Phil Zimbardo calls “everyday heroes.”  They can and should be anybody.

Let us reckon with Bradley Manning as an individual and all that he did.

And let us all support him – every bit of him – as he faces a furious government determined to convict him of a capital offense for trying to make the world a better place.

Alex Gibney

Attached, please find a relevant excerpt from Bradley Manning’s statement to the court:

As the communications transferred from IRC to the Jabber client, I gave ‘office’ and later ‘pressassociation’ the name of Nathaniel Frank in my address book, after the author of a book I read in 2009.

After a period of time, I developed what I felt was a friendly relationship with Nathaniel. Our mutual interest in information technology and politics made our conversations enjoyable. We engaged in conversation often. Sometimes as long as an hour or more. I often looked forward to my conversations with Nathaniel after work.

The anonymity that was provided by TOR and the Jabber client and the WLO’s policy allowed me to feel I could just be myself, free of the concerns of social labeling and perceptions that are often placed upon me in real life. In real life, I lacked a closed friendship with the people I worked with in my section, the S2 section.

In my section, the S2 section and supported battalions and the 2nd Brigade Combat Team as a whole. For instance, I lacked close ties with my roommate to his discomfort regarding my perceived sexual orientation. Over the next few months, I stayed in frequent contact with Nathaniel. We conversed on nearly a daily basis and I felt that we were developing a friendship.

Conversations covered many topics and I enjoyed the ability to talk about pretty much anything, and not just the publications that the WLO was working on. In retrospect I realize that that these dynamics were artificial and were valued more by myself than Nathaniel. For me these conversations represented an opportunity to escape from the immense pressures and anxiety that I experienced and built up through out the deployment. It seems that as I tried harder to fit in at work, the more I seemed to alienate my peers and lose the respect, trust, and support I needed.

Alex Gibney’s response to my ‘We Steal Secrets’ review

What ‘We Steal Secrets’ leaves out

This review was first posted here on May 24, 2013

Alex Gibney's 'We Steal Secrets' film poster
Alex Gibney’s ‘We Steal Secrets’ film poster

Alex Gibney’s “We Steal Secrets” chronicles WikiLeaks’ front-page, world-shocking 2010 leaks from inception to publication to aftermath, framing WikiLeaks’ work as a meteoric rise giving way to a self-incurred implosion.

While I find fault with this view, and even its premise that WikiLeaks has failed and died (the site continues to publish Stratfor emails and Kissinger files, it just won an important Icelandic victory to resume accepting donations through Visa interlocutors, and the Freedom of the Press foundation continues to funnel anonymous contributions its way), I’d rather let others dissect its portrayal of Assange and WikiLeaks and instead focus on how it characterizes Bradley Manning. (Read WikiLeaks’ annotated copy of the film’s script here.)

Earlier this year, we took issue with some of director Alex Gibney’s comments associating whistleblowing with alienation, pathologizing Manning’s leaks and undermining his political values. Producer Sam Black emailed to assure us that, in fact, Bradley Manning is “a hero in the film. He is the moral and emotional center of a complex story about what should and should not be secret.”

Though the movie does laudably transition away from its opening focus on Julian Assange by reminding viewers that Manning is the courageous whistleblower who deserves at least as much public attention, Manning’s story only makes it into about a quarter of the two-hour film, which quotes journalists, former WikiLeaks members, high-ranking government officials, and fellow soldiers.

The time that is spent on Manning leaves much to be desired, and what it leaves out is as much to blame as what it includes. Ultimately, the resulting portrait of Bradley Manning is one of pity more than empathy, one that makes us feel bad for Manning rather than take a serious interest in his beliefs and his plight.

Near the end of the film, journalist James Ball says, “Whistleblowing is an isolating act,” because it forces one to make public things that your peers and friends want to keep secret. But the film’s portrayal reverses that succession, seeming to imply that whistleblowing follows from alienation, not the other way around.

The filmmakers could have avoided this pat and familiar narrative with mere patience: a few short months after production was finished, PFC Bradley Manning provided the most salient, film-ready testimony a director could want – his 10,000-word statement explaining his Army work and decision to release documents to WikiLeaks.

In that statement, Manning passionately articulates his reasoning:

I felt that we were risking so much for people that seemed unwilling to cooperate with us, leading to frustration and anger on both sides. I began to become depressed with the situation that we found ourselves increasingly mired in year after year. The [war logs] documented this in great detail and provide a context of what we were seeing on the ground.

He shines light on his mindset at the time and his political convictions:

I felt this sense of relief by [WikiLeaks] having [the information]. I felt I had accomplished something that allowed me to have a clear conscience based upon what I had seen and what I had read about and knew were happening in both Iraq and Afghanistan everyday.

He vividly conveys his revulsion:

The most alarming aspect of the video to me…was the seemly delightful bloodlust the Aerial Weapons Team seemed to have. They dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life, and referred to them as quote-unquote “dead bastards,” and congratulated each other on their ability to kill in large numbers….For me, this seemed similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass.

Gibney couldn’t have necessarily known that such a statement was coming. But he would’ve been given this windfall of valuable audio had he not worked to release the film so early. The film is slated to premiere today. Bradley Manning’s trial will begin on June 3, in just over a week. If this were a civilian case, would the release of a major film about its defendant just days before his trial began appear unreasonable? Is Gibney trying too hard to get the story out there just in time for Manning to make the news again?

With the leaked audio published by the Freedom of the Press foundation, Gibney could have used those words above to take a holistic view of Manning while giving real credence to his political motivations. Instead, he relied on fellow soldiers’ memories and the infamous chat logs with Adrian Lamo.

Gibney did make some good use of those chat logs, highlighting a major turning point for Manning in the Army that many forget or minimize: his refusal to be complicit in the detention of innocuous Iraqi dissidents that he knew would be tortured and possibly killed. But beyond this incident, Gibney left us wanting for Manning’s observations and motivations. Why not include his comments on the first world exploiting the third, on almost criminal backroom deals?

The film simply focuses too much on Manning’s personality, and since it relies heavily on Adrian Lamo’s reflections and Manning’s fellow soldiers’ recollections, the remaining portrait is that of a gender-confused weirdo prone to outbursts. It affords extensive time to Jihrleah Showman, a government witness in Bradley’s Article 32 hearing in December 2011, to recount Manning’s emotional flare-ups, and at one point during her interview, Gibney leaves an unflattering photo of Manning up for 10 seconds. Is this really getting to the heart of what Manning’s case and struggle are about?

Gibney isn’t necessarily malicious: he doesn’t really blame Manning for his behavior, implying rather that he probably shouldn’t have been deployed to Iraq in the first place. The view is not one of scorn, but one of pity. In so doing, Gibney subtly removes Manning’s agency, characterizing him more as honorable victim than brave whistleblower.

In one portion, Gibney wonders why Manning’s chain of command wasn’t reprimanded further for allowing him to release these classified documents so easily. Why not take them to equal task for telling him to shut up when he brought Iraqi corruption to their attention? Why not take the government to further task for failing to prosecute the criminals that Manning exposed? Gibney only hints at these questions where a deeper exploration is desperately needed.

The problem isn’t that ‘We Steal Secrets’ fails to cheerlead for Bradley Manning’s every move. It’s that it conflates nuance with the government’s emphasis on personal issues over political convictions.

Sitting behind Bradley in the courtroom for a year and a half, it’s obvious that he’s not interested in our pity, but certainly needs our support.

[Update: Alex Gibney responds to my review here.]

What ‘We Steal Secrets’ leaves out

The United States cannot win its war on Chelsea Manning

By Russell Fuller

The United States cannot win its war on Bradley Manning. Though it sent a somewhat fragile young man off to war in Iraq, it produced instead a committed humanitarian; though it has caged him without trial for three years, one of them in torturous solitary confinement, it produced instead a fine, free spirit; though it brings its full weight to bear on a man who stands but five-foot two and tips the scales at one hundred and five pounds, it simply steeled his spine; though it restricts public access to pre-trial hearings and, in contradistinction to the First Amendment, threatens the meager group of gathered journalists and witnesses by stating today that access is not a right but a privilege, it produces instead a hunger for truth.

This last suppression of our First Amendment rights was the government’s response to the leak of Manning’s clean, clear voice as he read his statement of actions and intentions, his hopes that the documents he released would stir debate about our government’s actions on behalf of we the people. The Commander in Chief for whom I voted does not want citizens to hear this solitary voice for truth and real justice because regardless of the punishment the court eventually imposes on Manning (and anything other than release for time served would be an outrage), the United States fears Bradley Manning.

The Real leak, the Big secret that’s been exposed and cannot be redacted, is that Goliath fears this David. And because that’s been revealed at Fort Meade to the witnesses gathered there and the rest of us who are paying attention, the United States has already lost this war too.

The United States cannot win its war on Chelsea Manning

Bradley Manning’s torture hearing

Manning on the stand. Courtroom sketch by Clark Stoeckley.
Manning on the stand. Courtroom sketch by Clark Stoeckley.

Update: I’ve posted a lengthier summary of this hearing and Manning’s testimony here.

For the last three weeks in Ft. Meade, MD, Bradley Manning has had a pretrial motion hearing to seek accountability for the abusive treatment he endured at the Quantico Marine brig in Virginia, from July 29, 2010, to April 20, 2011. Manning was on Prevention of Injury watch (POI) or Suicide Watch his entire time in the brig, isolated in a 6×8 ft cell for 23 hours a day. For the first six months, he got only 20 minutes of sunshine a day. For the last month and a half, he had to surrender his underwear at night. For his entire time there, he was monitored around the clock, he had to ask for toilet paper and soap, and he had to wear metal shackles any time he left his cell. There weren’t detainees next to his cell, and when he left his cell the brig went in lockdown, so he was effectively barred from speaking to other inmates. And the military used his poor communication to justify his treatment.

About a dozen Quantico officials testified for several hours each to explain that Manning’s conditions were in his own interest: most said they thought he was going to kill himself because he made two nooses in prison in Kuwait — when he was left in a cage and no explained what was happening to him, he broke down. Yet Manning hasn’t hurt himself once at Ft. Leavenworth. Others said that because of the national security implications of Manning’s charges, and the fact that other detainees were “very patriotic,” that Manning was in danger of being attacked — they couldn’t explain, however, why he wasn’t put in protective custody (which has many fewer restrictions), or why he hasn’t been attacked while in medium security for a year and a half in Ft. Leavenworth.

This is painfully counterproductive. As professor Craig Haney — who defense lawyer David Coombs cited in court — told Congress:

Prisoners in long-term solitary confinement suffer psychological breakdowns from the lack of human contact that can lead to psychosis, mutilations, and suicide…

The military wouldn’t concede that Manning was held in solitary confinement. But in the portion Coombs quoted, Haney explains how prison officials use different terms to conceal these conditions:

I should acknowledge that the term “solitary confinement” is a term of art in corrections. Solitary or isolated confinement goes by a variety of names in U.S. prisons—Security Housing, Administrative Segregation, Close Management, High Security, Closed Cell Restriction, and so on. But the units all have in common the fact that the prisoners who are housed inside them are confined on average 23 hours a day in typically windowless or nearly windowless cells that commonly range in dimension from 60 to 80 square feet. The ones on the smaller side of this range are roughly the size of a king-sized bed, one that contains a bunk, a toilet and sink, and all of the prisoner’s worldly possessions. Thus, prisoners in solitary confinement sleep, eat, and defecate in their cells, in spaces that are no more than a few feet apart from one another…

Manning didn’t even get these “worldly possessions.” No matter what the military wants to call it, Manning was in solitary confinement.

The defense is moving to dismiss all charges based on this abusive treatment, based on the Article 13 prohibition against pretrial punishment. As an alternative, if the judge won’t through out the case, the defense requests at least 10-for-1 sentencing credit for the time Manning was in these conditions. Judge Lind is reviewing testimony and will probably rule in a few weeks. We return to court January 8-11, 2013.

There’s much more to unpack in each report, and I’d like to expound on how the chain of command ensured Manning never got out of solitary, but here for now are my summaries from the courtroom:

Day 1.
Day 2.
Day 3.
Day 4.
Day 5.
Day 6.
Day 7 & 8.
Day 9.
Day 10.
Day 11.

Bradley Manning’s torture hearing

Leniency for generals, jail time for whistleblowers

Or, the National Insecurity State

[Many thanks to Antiwar, Counterpunch, and Dissident Voice for running this piece first.]

General Petraeus and President Obama

It’s no secret that the powerful in America are frequently immune to prosecution for committing far worse crimes than those by the powerless. Bush administration torturers are on book tours while torture whistleblowers are on trial. Wall Street executives are counting their bonuses while foreclosed homeowners are packing their bags. Life’s not fair.

That’s one reason why it was so startling to see Gen. David Petraeus resign upon learning the FBI had discovered his extramarital affair with biographer Paula Broadwell. Surely, the director of the accountability-free, drone-happy CIA could sleep around as he pleased and not fear a fellow government agency would rat him out, right?

Ah, the unexpected pleasures of the ever-growing security state. It turns out the FBI found out that Petraeus shared more than a bed with Broadwell — likely his emails, rife with classified information, too, though he claims that Broadwell got the information from officials in Afghanistan. And this administration hates nothing more than the unintended release of classified information: despite anonymously leaking favorable-but-Top Secret information to The New York Times on a weekly basis, the Obama administration has tried to use the Espionage Act to convict whistleblowers more often than all previous administrations combined.

But not so fast. Gen. Petraeus is still their man, with a reputation to uphold. So when President Obama was asked about the potential security breach, he said, “I have no evidence at this point, from what I’ve seen, that classified information was disclosed that in any way would have had a negative impact on our national security.”

The statement is crafted to appear interested in the good of national security, to appear to put America’s safety first. But the subtext says much more: There may have been a classified disclosure that didn’t impact national security at all, or that did so positively, but that isn’t a problem.

These comments directly contradict government arguments in a much bigger ongoing investigation: that of WikiLeaks and Pfc. Bradley Manning. Cutting off Manning’s ability to argue that he was a whistleblower, who knew that the information WikiLeaks released wouldn’t bring harm to national security but instead would properly inform the American citizenry, the government prosecution has fully precluded discussion of whether or not WikiLeaks’ releases brought harm to national security from the trial. Even conceding that WikiLeaks’ release of hundreds of thousands of documents may not have harmed national security, the government says the effect is irrelevant to Manning’s guilt or innocence.

But Gen. Petraeus — or any of the other high-ranking officials who leak Top Secret information, a classification level higher than anything Pfc. Manning is accused of releasing — will not be held to this standard.

This is the chilling effect on whistleblowing: share classified information with a biographer selling books by glorifying your war-making, and your president assures the press that you’ve caused no harm; share crimes, uncounted civilian casualties, and corporate backroom dealing with your fellow taxpaying citizens, and you face a potential life sentence in prison, not to mention nine months of confinement abuse, an extensively delayed trial, and your president’s declaring you guilty before trial.

Time and again, Bradley Manning is stepped on so the military can discipline dissent and discourage those he might inspire. Meanwhile, the prurient press is more curious about Petraeus’s sex life than the growing security state and the whistleblowers trying in vain to stop it before it consumes us all. We cannot afford to abide this double standard any longer.

Leniency for generals, jail time for whistleblowers

“Why can’t you be reasonable?” asks judge in the case to end secrecy in Bradley Manning’s trial

[This post was first published at BradleyManning.org -- view it there.]

The CCR argued its case at the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces today for transparency in Bradley Manning’s court-martial trial. Judges questioned why the government forced the issue to come to court at all, instead of simply making the documents public.

By Nathan Fuller. October 10, 2012.

During oral arguments in the Center for Constitutional Rights’ lawsuit against the government seeking public access to basic court documents in Bradley Manning’s court-martial trial, judges for the Court of Appeals of the Armed Forces demanded the government explain why it wouldn’t simply provide these documents in the first place.

When Army lawyer Capt. Chad Fisher said that the court wasn’t constitutionally required to provide public access to documents like prosecution briefs, transcripts, and rulings, Judge Margaret Ryan interrupted him to ask what she called a “common sense” question.

“Why can’t you just give it to them? Instead of making this a constitutional case, why can’t you just be reasonable?”

Fisher was unable to directly answer the question. Instead, he gave an array of responses that circumvented the basic issue: he repeated his belief that the court wasn’t obliged to make these records public, he said the fact that the public could attend the hearings meant they were “open,” he complained that the defense wasn’t asking the proper authority, and he reiterated the government’s position that the availability of FOIA provided sufficient public and press access.

The five judges repeatedly questioned and challenged each of Fisher’s points, particularly the idea that FOIA requests, to which the government frequently takes weeks, months, or even years to respond, provided sufficient and contemporaneous access, especially considering the fact that FOIA requests in this case have already been denied. They also pushed back on Fisher’s claim that “Nothing has been withheld” from the public and the press, based on the idea that attending the hearings amounts to fully accessing the proceedings.

“How is oral argument sufficient if you can’t read the briefs?” one judge asked.

“It’s not as if they’re speaking a foreign language,” Fisher responded.

But as journalists from the 30 major media outlets who submitted a supportive brief in this case explained, the media (and therefore the public) needs these documents to adequately cover the case:

“Journalists rely heavily on court documents to gain and provide to readers the background of and context surrounding a legal controversy — awareness and understanding of which is often necessary to accurately report on the dispute. Prior access to the materials also allows reporters, the overwhelming majority of whom have no legal background or education, to process the oftentimes complex legal theories at their own pace, or to interview a legal expert who could explain the issues, so they are better equipped to understand what is transpiring in a proceeding they attend.”

Shayana Kadidal, the CCR lawyer arguing in court today, similarly contended earlier this year that providing openness-in-name-only effectively “choked off” coverage of Manning’s hearings.

But the judges, not seemingly satisfied with Fisher’s responses, kept returning to the more elemental point that the government could avoid this litigation and a potential ruling that would affect courts-martial to come by simply turning over the documents requested. The court already has a process in place to redact documents, the judges noted, and parties settle extrajudicial matters with a compromise out of court all the time, so it seems perfectly feasible for the government to comply with the CCR’s reasonable request for access to the documents.

In the midst of this questioning, Fisher did concede what the CCR has long observed: that Guantanamo tribunals – hardly beacons of transparency – were less secretive than Bradley Manning’s court-martial, because the public could access filed briefs and transcripts to those proceedings.

The CCR’s Kadidal fielded a similar though not quite as lengthy barrage of questioning from the appeals court judges. The first issue they raised was whether this court even has jurisdiction to make a ruling on this case, as their jurisdiction has been narrowly limited and it isn’t clear that they have standing to make a ruling that affects the press and public alike. Kadidal responded that the government hadn’t raised this issue in their replies, and so he would need an additional 10 days to file a supplement that addresses the court’s jurisdiction.

Judge Ryan also wanted to know whether there was precedent for this court to compel the production of documents that didn’t yet exist. She was referring to the CCR’s request for transcripts of RCM 802 conferences, the private telephonic meetings Judge Denise Lind holds between Ft. Meade hearings with both the defense and the prosecution. She also wanted Kadidal to account for how exactly the documents would hypothetically be produced: who would transcribe the hearings, or who would pay a stenographer?

Kadidal responded that an audio file would be acceptable, but on the issue more generally, he said he believes the court should make a First Amendment ruling granting the press the right to these documents and let lower courts adjudicate the logistics. Judges replied that it was unclear that the First Amendment affords contemporaneous access to these documents: in other words, it might be wholly constitutional for the court to provide these documents after the fact.

Kadidal will submit his jurisdictional supplement in 10 days, and the government will submit a reply less than a week later. It’s unclear when or if this court will issue a ruling, or when exactly the parties might return to court. We’ll update our coverage of this case as it unfolds.

“Why can’t you be reasonable?” asks judge in the case to end secrecy in Bradley Manning’s trial

Rule of law abandoned for Bradley Manning

(This post first appeared at the New Matilda and then at Antiwar.)

Bradley Manning’s critics need to be more careful if they want to accuse him of breaking the law. The real outrage is the way prosecutors and the military more broadly have handled his case: the Marines and Army have violated their own code of justice in several ways, for several months, precluding a fair trial and making a mockery of the rule of law.

The complaints of critics reveal the fundamental hypocrisy in Manning’s case — the rule of law is not applied evenly. While war criminals, torturers, and known murderers walk freely, the military is aggressively punishing the messenger who exposed heinous crimes and rampant abuse. Prosecutors go beyond disciplining a soldier for stepping out of line, attempting to associate whistle-blowing with terrorism by charging Manning with “aiding the enemy.”

The most prominent injustice is what drew many to Manning’s plight in 2011: his abusive, brutal, and illegal treatment at the Quantico Marine Brig. Against nine months of recommendations of brig psychiatrists, Bradley saw sunshine only 20 minutes each day, was kept in solitary confinement, was put on prevention of injury watch, and was forced to stand nude nightly. The military says these conditions were in Manning’s best interest, that he was a suicide risk and without this treatment he would’ve harmed himself.

Newly surfaced emails reveal the truth: that three-star Lt. Gen. George Flynn, removed from Quantico and likely taking orders from the Pentagon, ordered Manning’s abusive treatment and ignored psychiatrists to keep Manning in solitary confinement. Such treatment is clearly punitive and therefore a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, is motioning to dismiss charges based on this punitive treatment on 27 November. We’ll see if Judge Lind will hold the Marines accountable.

By the time that motion is argued, Manning will have spent 919 days in prison without a court martial. A speedy trial would’ve started nearly two years ago. Instead, delay after delay pushes litigation back further. Critics note that David Coombs had to ask for several delays, pushing the trial back himself. But in several cases, delays arose because the prosecution explicitly withheld basic documents that were material to the defence. For example, on 26 July, at 7:50 PM, just hours before the defence filed the motion to dismiss based on pretrial punishment, the prosecution handed over 84 emails relating to that punishment and revealed that there were 1290 more, which it later turned over in court. The prosecution sat on those emails for at least six full months before giving them to the defence at the eleventh hour, forcing Coombs to delay litigation of the motion to dismiss.

Similarly, the prosecution stalled in handing over thousands of discovery documents regarding the State Department’s reaction to WikiLeaks’ releases, and only did so when Lind finally forced their hands.

But how can Lind fairly adjudicate a trial that has already been ruled on by her superior officers? In April 2011, President Obama, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces whom all inferior officers answer to, decreed that Bradley Manning “broke the law“. Echoing his commanding officer in March 2012, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that Manning “did violate the law“.

Dempsey and the President should take note: it is unlawful command influence and a direct violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice for either of them to have declared Bradley Manning guilty before trial. Both officials may say their comments were off-hand, but the message has been clearly sent to the judge, Col. Denise Lind — to rule in favor of Bradley Manning is to contradict your commanding officers.

So throughout these lengthy pretrial proceedings, PFC Manning’s due process rights have been deprived or infringed upon in many ways. But even before the process began, we knew that the rule of law was not being applied evenly. Instead, it’s aggressive persecution for the conscientious soldier and leniency or full immunity for officials in power.

Look at the treatment given to the war criminals that Manning exposed.

None of those revealed in the Collateral Murder video to have killed innocent Iraqi civilians and their rescuers have been prosecuted. None of the soldiers who handcuffed and summarily executed an Iraqi family, including women and toddlers, are on trial. Those who have been caught committing mass atrocities have been given light punishment, if any. Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, ringleader of the “Kill Team” in Afghanistan that murdered unarmed civilians and took their body parts as souvenirs is in prison, but is eligible for parole in less than 10 years. Marine Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, who ordered the 2005 Haditha massacre that killed 24 innocent Iraqis (including children), got no jail time at all. None of the Marines who carried out the killings were even prosecuted.

Several more WikiLeaks revelations uncovered criminal acts. Hillary Clinton ordered US officials to spy on members of the UN. US officials covered up child abuse by Afghan contractors. The former president of Yemen took credit for attacks in his own country carried out by the United States. None of them face trial.

So much for the rule of law that Bradley Manning’s critics tout so widely. Those who commit war crimes get leniency or a welcome-home golf tournament; those who expose war crimes face life in prison without parole, and solitary confinement before trial to boot.

Rule of law abandoned for Bradley Manning

Bradley Manning summer recap

I’ve neglected this blog due to my increased and still increasing role with the Bradley Manning Support Network, and you can still find all of my recent writing at BradleyManning.org. But I want to collect my Bradley Manning coverage from this summer all in one place. Below are hearing reports, a few articles, and radio interviews. I’ll continue to add pieces to this recap in the coming days.

Ft. Meade rally for PFC Bradley Manning. (Photo by Owen Wiltshire.)

Reports from Ft. Meade

June 6-8 hearing recap

Hearing report August 28

Hearing report August 29

Hearing report August 30

Articles

Incompetence or deception? Two years of evasions by the prosecution: “There is more secrecy surrounding the U.S. military’s ongoing prosecution of PFC Bradley Manning than the much-criticized Guantanamo Bay trials.. The hearings aren’t closed-door sessions, but more insidiously, they include no public records, no transcripts, and no public motions from the government. They provide so little media access that the Center for Constitutional Rights and several media organizations are suing the military for more transparency. The lawsuit follows protests from acoalition of media figures who say that they have been blocked from accessing even basic information about the trial.”

Debates, discussions, and reforms“WikiLeaks immediately upended journalism as we knew it, filling newspapers with more revelations than editors knew what to do with, more scoops in a year than most journalists get in a lifetime, and more source documents than American journalists had ever had access to before. WikiLeaks blew holes in the wall of U.S. secrecy, and the world is better for it. As Julian Assange turns 41 in political limbo in Europe, and as Bradley Manning nears 800 days in jail without a court martial, we remember how much good WikiLeaks’ releases have done.”

Aiding the public is not “aiding the enemy”: “The prosecution contends that Manning can be charged with “aiding the enemy” if he merely knew that a third party, and in this case America’s enemies, could access information he released online. But Coombs argues, as the ACLU has argued, that this is wildly overbroad, leaving any information a soldier posted online vulnerable to this type of prosecution.”

Bradley Manning, military resistance, and the left: “While this bodes well for the resistance movement and may help breathe new life into antiwar coalitions, it lacks the urgency required to save Bradley Manning now. Ensign observed, “It’s easy to sit in forums and call for [Bradley’s] freedom, but the reality is there’s lots of work left to be done.” Indeed, we who wish to free Bradley from his unwarranted chains have under five months before his court martial trial, in which prosecutors aim to send him to prison for life without parole. Bradley’s case raises scores of issues in the abstract, but we must remember that Bradley Manning the person faces very real punishment for believing his fellow Americans deserved to know what their government does in secret.”

Radio Interviews, other

Reporting on Ft. Meade with Radio Dispatch

Bradley Manning summer recap

Bradley Manning supporters among plaintiffs of NDAA indefinite detention injunction

WikiLeaks volunteer and Bradley Manning Support Network advisory board member, Birgitta Jonsdottir, who produced “Collateral Murder” helicopter video, fears retaliation

[First posted for the Bradley Manning Support Network on May 17, 2012.]

U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest delivered an important victory for civil liberties with an injunction late Wednesday prohibiting enforcement of Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act. Noted supporters of PFC Bradley Manning were among those given standing to proceed, on the grounds that the vague language in Section 1021′s provision allowing for indefinite military detention curtails their free speech and due process rights.

Birgitta Jonsdottir — a member of the Icelandic Parliament who helped produce the “Collateral Murder” video allegedly released by PFC Manning — expressed concern in her affidavit that her work in support of WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning could endanger her future Constitutionally protected endeavors.

“[Jonsdottir] stated that Manning allegedly leaked the footage that formed the basis for the video “Collateral Murder.”  She has received a subpoena for her Twitter and other social media accounts for materials relating to Julian Assange and Bradley Manning. Jonsdottir stated that due to that subpoena, and now in addition due to the passage of § 1021, she is fearful of travelling to the U.S.”

In a prior hearing, government lawyers representing the defendants (the most prominent being President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Pannetta) had refused to offer the judge a single example of “what it means to substantially support associated forces” of terrorism. In Wednesday’s ruling, Judge Forrest affirmed that Jonsdottir had a legitimate reason to be concerned over the government’s refusal to explicitly exclude her work from the provision’s scope:

“Failure to be able to make such a representation… requires the court to assume that, in fact, the government takes the position that a wide swath of expressive and associational conduct is in fact encompassed by 1021.”

Government agents have already actively targeted supporters of Bradley Manning, such as Support Network co-founder David House.  House recently secured standing in a separate lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security due to a politically motivated search and seizure of his laptop and other electronic equipment.

Given the U.S. government’s Twitter subpoena and harsh treatment of other supporters of PFC Manning, Jonsdottir has already been forced to curtail her freedom of speech. She has had to decline invitations to speak in the United States out of concern that she could be held indefinitely if the government chose to interpret the provision against her.

However, Jonsdottir is inspired by Judge Forrest’s injunction.  Speaking to a representative of the Bradley Manning Support Network this morning, she added:

“Those who criticize their government should never be made to fear the prospect of life in prison.  And yet, a judge has just agreed that I have a legitimate reason to be concerned for doing nothing more than helping Bradley Manning to expose the unjust killing of civilians and journalists.”

Jonsdottir is referring to the Collateral Murder video Bradley allegedly released to WikiLeaks, which shows U.S. Apache soldiers gunning down Reuters journalists and Iraqi civilians coming to aid the wounded. Spc. Ethan McCord, who can be seen in the video carrying a wounded child to safety, has stated that this video “belongs in the public record.” For allegedly exposing this video and classified cables documenting other war crimes and governmental abuse, Bradley faces trial and a potential life sentence for “aiding the enemy,” instead of being rewarded for aiding the public.

Government prosecutors have been utilizing a similarly broad, flawed, and dangerous interpretation of the “aiding the enemy” charge in Bradley’s case.  They have conceded that Bradley’s intentions were “pure” and they refuse to discuss any evidence of actual harm to national security caused by WikiLeaks — because there isn’t any.  Vice President Biden long ago confirmed that fact. As the ACLU has noted, government prosecutors have gone way too far in their interpretation of the law. If they succeed in their retaliation against Bradley, they will have established an alarming precedent: that any soldier risks life in prison any time they speak to the press, because even a harmless, unintentional revelation of restricted information could be interpreted as aiding terrorism.

But this NDAA injunction is a step toward progress. It is heartening that Judge Forrest agrees that open-ended threats must not be used to suppress our First Amendment right to speak out — especially those who are supporting whistle-blowers like Bradley Manning.

Bradley Manning is scheduled to resume a series of pre-trial hearings at Fort Meade from June 6 – 8.

Bradley Manning supporters among plaintiffs of NDAA indefinite detention injunction

War with Iran has already begun

Bipartisan Support for Sanctions Spells Bloodshed to Come

Houston protesters for peace (click for source)

On Friday, 93% of the U.S. House of Representatives affirmed a resolution escalating America’s already aggressive position on Iran, from “crippling” sanctions to a zero-tolerance policy on nuclear weapons. The Congressional Research Service summarized the bill:

Affirms that it is a vital national interest of the United States to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability and warns that time is limited to prevent that from happening. Urges increasing economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran to secure an agreement that includes: (1) suspension of all uranium enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, (2) complete cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regarding Iran’s nuclear activities, and (3) a permanent agreement that verifiably assures that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful. Supports: (1) the universal rights and democratic aspirations of the Iranian people, and (2) U.S. policy to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. Rejects any U.S. policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons-capable Iran. Urges the President to reaffirm the unacceptability of an Iran with nuclear-weapons capability and oppose any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat. (emphasis mine)

The resolution passed the House 401-11, with a few representatives absent and a few abstaining. This means it had massive bipartisan support – for those of you who only consider Republicans to be warmongers: 166 of 190 Democrats voted in support, including some of its ostensibly most progressive members, such as Barney Frank and Rush Holt.

The language used bodes terribly for the United States’ already disastrous and destructive foreign policy. The House affirms not merely that Iran will not be allowed to manufacture nuclear weapons, but that it will not be permitted the capability of said manufacturing. Never mind that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta observed that Iran is not actually pursuing these weapons; given the extreme and persistent threats from the nuclear-armed Israel and United States, coupled with the U.S. forces surrounding Iran, we would have no right to prevent them if they were.

Further, examining the House’s reasoning for denouncing Iran as a repressive regime highlights severe hypocrisy:

Whereas, on December 26, 2011, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution denouncing the serious human rights abuses occurring in Iran, including torture, cruel and degrading treatment in detention, the targeting of human rights defenders, violence against women, and ‘the systematic and serious restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly’, as well as severe restrictions on the rights to ‘freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.’

Switch in that paragraph “the United States” for “Iran” and you might think we should be sanctioning ourselves. Regarding the first several accusations, consider this: the United States tortures foreign adversaries by proxy, abuses accused whistle-blowers in prison before trial, detains more prisoners than any country on Earth, and continues to pass state laws assaulting women’s rights. Perhaps the most hypocritical, though, is the accusation of the repression of peaceful assembly. Just two days after the House passed this resolution, Chicago riot police beat protesters with nightsticks, hit others with CPD vehicles, and used sound canons to disrupt peaceful demonstrators against the NATO summit. So the idea that the U.S. deems Iran a barbaric nation that represses political speech is extremely two-faced at best.

The worst part about the bill, though, is not what policies it specifically introduces or accusations it announces but rather what it signifies more broadly: the U.S. is taking the next step in the war on Iran that has already begun.

For one thing, Israel has already teamed up with a U.S.-backed terror group within Iran to assassinate nuclear scientists, serving both the temporary, practical purpose of inhibiting Iran’s nuclear progress and the long-term, psychological purpose of instilling fear within Iran and its fledgling nuclear program.

More insidiously, the U.S. has imposed severe sanctions on Iran that most describe as “crippling” and that all should describe as acts of war. Just today, the Senate voted unanimously to escalate those very sanctions. While President Obama may say that sanctions are intended to isolate Iran’s leaders in their nuclear position, it is citizens who bear the burden of these economic moves. Look to Iraq for the devastating effects, where a senior U.N. official estimated that U.N.-imposed sanctions in the 1990s killed a staggering 500,000 children under the age of 5. They don’t call ‘em “crippling” for nothing.

We should also look to Iraq to understand how this bipartisan process of escalation works, from sanctions to bombing to occupation. Arguing against sanctions on Iran in April 2010, Rep. Ron Paul recalled how sanctions on Iraq led inevitably to war:

Some of my well-intentioned colleagues may be tempted to vote for sanctions on Iran because they view this as a way to avoid war on Iran. I will ask them whether the sanctions on Iraq satisfied those pushing for war at that time. Or whether the application of ever-stronger sanctions in fact helped war advocates make their case for war on Iraq: as each round of new sanctions failed to “work” – to change the regime – war became the only remaining regime-change option.

This legislation, whether the House or Senate version, will lead us to war on Iran. The sanctions in this bill, and the blockade of Iran necessary to fully enforce them, are in themselves acts of war according to international law. A vote for sanctions on Iran is a vote for war against Iran. I urge my colleagues in the strongest terms to turn back from this unnecessary and counterproductive march to war.

The Iraq war did not begin with the 2003 invasion – it began with the 1990s embargo. Sanctions on Iraq not only killed hundreds of thousands, but they structured the narrative on Iraq to winnow out peaceful options on the path to war. And the same is true of Iran. Now debates on Iran focus on whether Ahmadinejad will relent in his pursuit of weapons, whether sanctions are “working” sufficiently, or where the U.S. and Israel should draw “red lines” for attack.

President Obama called last month’s “negotiations” with Iran that country’s “last chance,” effectively threatening to escalate sanctions or initiate an attack if Iran didn’t cease and desist its nuclear enrichment program entirely. How are those “negotiations”? How is that “diplomacy”? Threatening Iran to completely submit to the U.S.’s will to get nothing in return is not a discussion – it’s bullying.

What would Iran have to gain in that situation? Iran is seeking to defend itself from nuclear-armed bullies surrounding it constantly. Passively complying would only speed up the U.S. plan to replace the Iranian regime with one even more compliant.

But the United States will not relent on Iran – just as it did not relent on Iraq. Examine again the House resolution’s first principle:

…it is a vital national interest of the United States to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability and warns that time is limited to prevent that from happening.

Compare that with President Bill Clinton’s 1998 remarks on Iraq:

One way or the other, we are determined to deny Iraq the capacity to develop weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them. That is our bottom line.

This is how American bipartisanship – or more accurately, duopoly – works. Both parties want war with Iran, the way both parties wanted war with Iraq. It is in both of their interests – appeasing Israel and its chief lobby, AIPAC, and posturing for their respective bases. Republicans take the hard line on our “enemies,” using blatantly aggressive language, refusing to “apologize for America” and reducing our victims to less than human. Democrats take the more “pragmatic” approach, adopting “national security” rhetoric based in protecting Americans that disguises the exact same policies. The Senate vote to go to war with Iraq, after all, didn’t barely squeak through on Republican support: it passed 96-4. (Now, 9/11 catalyzed the whole process in Iraq and made dissent even less popular, but the biggest antiwar protest in recorded history couldn’t sway more than four measly votes in the Senate.)

This endless posturing is how President Obama can be accused of being “soft on terror” and simultaneously escalate sanctions on Iran and massive drone campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

This is why, in the interest of war, sanctions by one party is a huge gift to the other. If Mitt Romney is elected this year, he’ll likely announce that Obama’s sanctions were insufficient and encourage an Israeli attack on Iran behind closed doors. If Obama is re-elected, he’ll continue on the path he’s currently on: allowing Israel to assassinate Iranian scientists, officially recognizing the terror group seeking regime change in Iran, and escalating sanctions that cripple the Iranian people and isolate its leaders.

Citing Glenn Greenwald and Greg Sargent on liberal support for Obama’s escalated drone strikes, here’s Stephen Walt on ‘Why Hawks Should Vote for Obama’:

Obama can do hawkish things as a Democrat that a Republican could not (or at least not without facing lots of trouble on the home front). It’s the flipside of the old “Nixon Goes to China” meme: Obama can do hawkish things without facing (much) criticism from the left, because he still retains their sympathy and because liberals and non-interventionists don’t have a credible alternative (sorry, Ron Paul supporters). If someone like John McCain, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, or George W. Bush had spent the past few years escalating drone attacks, sending Special Forces into other countries to kill people without the local government’s permission, prosecuting alleged leakers with great enthusiasm, and ratcheting up sanctions against Iran, without providing much information about exactly why and how we were doing all this, I suspect a lot of Democrats would have raised a stink about some of it. But not when it is the nice Mr. Obama that is doing these things.

So if you vote for Barack Obama because you think that Mitt Romney would put troops on the ground, you’ll only be doing it to make yourself feel better. You’ll be playing right into the partisan posturing that seeks to fabricate a meaningful difference between the two major parties, both with long histories of support for wars of aggression. You’ll be fundamentally misunderstanding how American duopoly works: both parties decry each other for tactically approaching the same policies differently in the interest of electing their own representatives to power. Both parties want war – they just want to play it to their respective bases properly.

If you think Al Gore wouldn’t have invaded Iraq, that Ralph Nader ruined the antiwar movement and George Bush is all to blame, point me to where Gore opposed Clinton’s sanctions on Iraq when he was Vice President. In the meantime, read how Gore argued for regime change in Iraq a few short months before Bush invaded: “Iraq’s search for weapons of mass destruction has proven impossible to deter and we should assume that it will continue for as long as Saddam is in power.”

If you think Bush’s war was a terrible mistake that warranted John Kerry’s election in 2004, read Kerry on Iraq two months before the invasion:

Without question, we need to disarm Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal, murderous dictator, leading an oppressive regime … He presents a particularly grievous threat because he is so consistently prone to miscalculation … And now he is miscalculating America’s response to his continued deceit and his consistent grasp for weapons of mass destruction … So the threat of Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction is real…

Find more quotes from Democrats leading up to and supportive of Bush’s 2003 invasion here.

Liberals criticize President Obama for escalating drone strikes, failing to close Guantanamo, aggressively persecuting Bradley Manning, illegally invading Libya, offering cuts to Social Security, and immunizing the war crimes and torture of the Bush administration – but many same liberals say that despite all of these transgressions, the ostensible likelihood of Mitt Romney attacking Iran makes them feel they have to re-elect the president.

If this were true, wouldn’t these liberals be criticizing Obama’s sanctions on Iran? Wouldn’t they have abandoned Clinton, Gore, and Kerry after their comments on Iraq? More to the point, if these liberals despise war so much, why aren’t Obama’s surge in Afghanistan or expanded wars in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen deal-breakers for re-election?

If you actually don’t want war with Iran, you have to help end duopoly. You can’t support either of the two establishment parties who feed the military-industrial complex and fear-monger voters into submission. We must make it known that the people want peace – meaning no sanctions, no assassinations, no threats of war.

We must make war making and fear mongering unacceptable. Come Election Day, we can vote third party, or boycott the election, or protest to shut down military recruitment centers or drone bases. But we can’t fund or vote for the war parties – our victims can’t afford it. No votes for empire, no money for war. No exceptions.

[This article also appeared in CounterPunch, Antiwar, and Dissident Voice.]

War with Iran has already begun

Bad apples, rotten orchard

Latest adventures in America’s police state

Loved ones mourn the loss of Kenneth Chamberlain

As George Zimmerman was finally charged in the murder of the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin last month, I couldn’t bring myself to call it “justice.” Not because Zimmerman doesn’t deserve to be tried, but because that case’s singular popularity reminded me how rare it was for a victim of American racism to get such extensive national spotlight.

It brought to mind, for instance, the little-known killing of 68-year-old Kenneth Chamberlain, a black man murdered in his pajamas by White Plains police when he mistakenly set off his medical aid alarm. After an internal investigation, the white officers who killed him with a Taser, beanbag gun, and finally live rounds were – surprise, surprise – not indicted.

But I’m happy to find positives in the Trayvon case as well, few and far between as they are. For one thing, Zimmerman’s killing and the police inaction seem to have spawned an uptick in publicity for both American racist injustice and the violence of its paramilitary gatekeepers.

In New York, race-based stop-and-frisks continue apace, with dangerous results. Just the other day, NYPD cops seem to have completely fabricated illegal-drug evidence for which they stopped 19-year-old Jateik Reed. When Reed resisted, as he had no reason to think he was breaking the law, they beat him bloody, with one cop coming in to kick Reed when he was fully subdued, just for good measure.

But American injustice is not just racist – it persecutes the poor, too. Watch, if you can, the horrific and vicious murder of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man in California. Listen closely for this noble rhetoric from Fullerton’s finest, after giving Thomas conflicting instructions:

“Now you see my fists?” Fullerton police officer Manny Ramos asked Thomas while slipping on a pair of latex gloves.

“Yeah, what about them?” Thomas responded.

“They are getting ready to fuck you up,” said Ramos, a burly cop who appears to outweigh Thomas by 100 pounds.

Listen even more closely for Thomas’ unanswered pleas for help, his desperate last breaths.

How do we stop police? It feels especially difficult when those privileged enough to avoid the bloody edges of America’s injustice system consistently hail cops as the bravest among us, or thank them for providing constant security. And police certainly aren’t going to curtail themselves, or even the worst among each other:

“They teach us to lie about stopping people. They teach us to lie about tickets, and ruin lives,” said Officer Polanco, who after about a decade on the force is suspended with pay. “I’ve never been a disciplinary problem. The only problem came when I decided to open my mouth.”

For now, it seems, our best weapons of resistance are cameras, documenting and publicizing police aggression. Without cameras, we may never have known the true horrors of Thomas’s and Chamberlain’s killings. Beyond everyday citizens filming protests on their smartphones, look to Cop Block, Reason Magazine, or this fledgling doctoral research on cops on cameras. But even catching Thomas’s and Chamberlain’s uniformed killers on camera didn’t bring them to justice.

Furthermore, holding individual cops accountable for particularly egregious offenses can give a thin veneer of justice to a systemic problem. As there are no mere “bad apples” in the military, American police uphold a racist and classist system through and through. The whole orchard’s rotten.

(The drug war is routinely among the best examples of the heinous system cops uphold. On May 1, DEA agents raided the house of 24-year-old student Daniel Chong, suspecting he had marijuana. Chong was detained and then abandoned in his cell for five days, forced to drink his own urine to survive. No charges were brought against him, and needless to say, none will be brought against those who neglected him.)

We should understand that this is their job. Police are paid to aggressively defend the status quo, no matter how clearly it needs protest and change. Some among Occupy Wall Street’s more charitable (or privileged?) protesters call on police to join them – for they too are among the 99%, with pensions, jobs, and futures on the line. But these calls fall on deaf ears, as cops continue to kettle, entrap, infiltrate, beat, pepper spray, and tear gas peaceful demonstrators. Maybe we can think about police as part of the “99%” when they resign in public protest of the system they perpetuate.

Bad apples, rotten orchard

Interview: Chase Madar, “The Passion of Bradley Manning”

Chase Madar is a civil rights attorney and author of the new book on the accused WikiLeaks whistle-blower, called “The Passion of Bradley Manning.” The book looks at Bradley’s motives, his treatment by the U.S. government, and the political issues his case brings up. Chase answered a few questions for the Support Network about Bradley, his new book, and the crackdown on whistle-blowers in America.

You’re a civil rights lawyer, a writer on politics and civil liberties, and a contributing editor for the American Conservative. What drew you to Bradley Manning?

Few events scream to be written about like l’affaire Bradley Manning.  First there’s Private Manning himself, he’s like someone out of a novel or a heroic folk ballad.  He’s a small-town kid who’s become an international cause.  He’s gay, he’s brainy, he’s critical of his country, but he’s intensely patriotic and a deep believer in responsibility for one’s country.  He refuses to help round up Iraqi citizens and hand them over to the authorities who are, even after the U.S. occupation, still torturing prisoners right and left.   He brings us incredible knowledge of our wars and of how our foreign policy works, and he gets severely punished.  Manning is the last great Enlightenment martyr.  The chatlogs with Adrian Lamo by themselves read like a tragic novella.  I said he’s a novelistic character, but the drama is almost operatic.

A half dozen crucial issues collide in l’affaire Manning: how we assess national security threats; how we create 77million state secrets every year in this country; who we blame, and don’t blame, for civilian casualties; what the laws of war are really worth; how we punish Americans, how we punish foreigners, with solitary confinement.  The injustice in this case really stinks in the nostrils.  It’s been said a million times but I’ll say it again: if only Pfc Manning had tortured prisoners, or authorized torture, or illegally spied on Americans with warrantless wiretapping, or lied us into a catastrophic war…if the young private had done any of these things, he’d be a free man.  If he had massacred civilians in Haditha, Iraq, or in Kandahar, Afghanistan, he’d be out of jail sooner.  But bringing new knowledge to the American people, and to the world, this is unforgivable.  Suddenly we hear that “rules are rules” and need to be enforced, this after the orgy of impunity among elite officials and ordinary soldiers over the past decade. Continue reading “Interview: Chase Madar, “The Passion of Bradley Manning””

Interview: Chase Madar, “The Passion of Bradley Manning”

UNAC Peace Conference: March 23-25 (now with audio)

Update: audio of the conference

Audio of my talk is here, starting shortly after the 17-minute mark. When video of the talk or the rest of the conference is online, I’ll post that as well.

Original Post:

This weekend, beginning tomorrow night, the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC) is hosting a peace conference in Stamford, CT (just 45 minutes from Grand Central Station, NYC), to bring together major groups working to end war, imperialism, poverty, and social injustice.

I’ll be speaking briefly on a Sunday morning panel called “Victims of Political Repression Speak Out.” Representing the Bradley Manning Support Network, I’ll discuss the material PFC Manning is alleged to have leaked, why he shouldn’t be on trial in the first place, and how the military is railroading his court proceedings to make a chilling example of him.

The conference will be livestreamed here: http://cprmetro.blogspot.com/

Below is a schedule of speakers, panels, and workshops. Come if you can, or check out the livestream!

Continue reading “UNAC Peace Conference: March 23-25 (now with audio)”

UNAC Peace Conference: March 23-25 (now with audio)

Coverage of Bradley Manning’s motion hearing

This Thursday and Friday, March 15 & 16, I attended Bradley Manning’s motion hearing at Ft. Meade, MD. We held vigils outside the gate before the hearings began both days, and several supporters came inside the courtroom to show solidarity with the 24-year-old whistle-blower.

I took as detailed notes as I could each day in court, and I published those notes here.

The first day is especially long, so I’ll give a quick synopsis of the major deliberations here:

On Thursday, the defense and prosecution debated the defense’s motions to bring evidence, namely FOIA requests and damage assessments, and witnesses, namely soldiers and Army personnel who’d testify about why they classified documents Manning’s accused of leaking.

The damage assessments are particularly important because we believe they reveal the government concluded that very little to no harm had resulted from WikiLeaks’ releases, which would be damning to the prosecution’s argument that Manning put lives at risk.

Thursday’s most dramatic moment: Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, argued that the prosecution had so mischaracterized military law in order to block damage assessments from the court – contending that even if they were to turn over the three million pages of reports now, it’d set the trial back six more months and Manning another hundred days in prison – that he filed a motion to dismiss all charges.

Coombs called the prosecution’s mischaracterization “gamesmanship,” and this became more clear when the prosecution announced it could not speak on the relevance of the documents Coombs was trying to see because they are classified.

On Friday, private conferences delaying the proceedings were long, and the proceedings themselves were awfully short. The judge denied Coombs’ motion to compel the witnesses, said she’ll deliver a ruling on the evidence, and set the next hearing for April 24-26. Bradley’s 660th day in prison passed without getting a court martial date.

Here are my interviews with WBAI radio on Thursday (beginning at 1:10): http://t.co/leFdlyl3

and Friday (beginning at 2:50): http://t.co/BNuyzPGY

I also encourage you to see Alexa O’Brien’s transcript and Kevin Gosztola’s coverage, as both are incredibly thorough and diligent, and media coverage of Bradley’s case owes a great deal to both.

Coverage of Bradley Manning’s motion hearing

Punishing the messenger while murderers go free

[This was first published here for the Bradley Manning Support Network.]

Last month, a video showing four uniformed U.S. Marines urinating on the bloodied corpses of dead Afghans went viral, returning – if briefly – to our national discussion the depravity of war and the inhumanity of those sent off to fight it.

The video also reignited debates about whether soldiers of these repugnant spectacles are merely “a few bad apples” running rogue or instead a disturbing manifestation of a more insidious, fundamental, and pervasive immorality at the heart of war. In doing so it recalled more obscene instances in the past, such as the Abu Ghraib torture scandal or some of Guantánamo’s darker secrets.

It also might have reminded you of the so-called “Kill Team,” the U.S. Army platoon in Afghanistan whose commander directed his soldiers to murder unarmed Afghani civilians, killed another himself, then removed and collected body parts as souvenirs.

Cpl. Jeremy Morlock with Staff Sgt. David Bram

The ‘Kill Team’ story got major media attention, spurred war-mentality discussions, and put the soldiers involved and their Staff Sergeant in charge on trial. But what came of their indictment?

Several soldiers were prosecuted in the incident, with varying severity. These include Pfc. Andrew Colmes, who pled guilty to the murder of innocent Afghan civilians and was sentenced to seven years in prison. Staff Sergeant David Bram was convicted of solicitation to commit murder, conspiracy to commit assault, and attempting to obstruct the investigation into the Kill Team’s rampage. He was sentenced to five years in prison, but he’ll be eligible for parole after the first three.

Then there’s Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, dubbed the ringleader of the Kill Team. Gibbs was convicted of murdering a civilian, Marach Agha, and planting a weapon next to him to make it seem like he’d killed a militant. He was also convicted of murder for inciting one soldier to throw a grenade at a 15-year-old Afghan civilian, Gul Mudin, and another to shoot the boy afterward. Gibbs was said to play with Mudin’s corpse “as if it was a puppet,” collect teeth and finger bones, and keep part of the victim’s skull. Gibbs’ punishment was most severe, sentenced to life in prison, yet he will be eligible for parole in less than ten years. According to the Guardian, Gibbs’ “jurors acceded to the convicted soldier’s plea to have the hope of being reunited with his son.”

Compare this treatment with the prospective and intended treatment of Pfc. Bradley Manning. Whereas Gibbs, who murdered, conspired to murder, and treated war like deer-hunting bloodsport, was quietly tried and awarded the chance of extremely early parole, Manning could face life in prison without parole or even the death penalty, if his jurors so choose. What about Manning’s hope to reunite with his family after prison, or come to terms with his gender-identity crisis? Manning didn’t kill a soul – will his jurors accede to his plea for freedom?

Gibbs was not kept in solitary confinement for ten months against his will. He wasn’t forced to strip naked in prison at night as Manning was in Quantico. Gibbs’ Article 32 hearing was not delayed 18 months and then held so as to minimize media access. His Commander-in-Chief did not declare Gibbs guilty before he even stepped inside a courtroom, as President Obama declared of Manning eight full months before his hearing. Well-known former governors did not demand that Gibbs be executed.

Or consider another ongoing military investigation. Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich is being tried for his alleged involvement in the 2005 Haditha killings, in which Marines murdered 24 Iraqi civilians. In what witnesses describe as a massacre, Wuterich ordered his squad to “shoot first, ask questions later.” His Marines then shot two dozen unarmed Iraqis, including women and children. If convicted of all charges, Wuterich would face life in prison. Yet at his Article 32 pre-trial hearing, the Investigating Officer, a fellow Marine officer, recommended the major charges be dropped in favor of a lesser one, negligent homicide, that’d only carry a maximum 3-year sentence. But that wasn’t enough: Sgt. Wuterich was just awarded a plea deal in which he pled guilty to “dereliction of duty,” which carries minimal punishment, and then the military judge in his case recommended that he spend no time in jail at all.

Furthermore, it was recently revealed that Sergeant Sanick Dela Cruz testified that Wuterich, his commander, killed five Iraqis and then ordered Dela Cruz to lie about it. Dela Cruz only testified against Wuterich in exchange for immunity – the government dismissed murder charges against him when he agreed to testify in Wuterich’s trial. So Dela Cruz, who also admitted to urinating on one of Wuterich’s corpses, will get off with no jail time, for bringing to light these war crimes and military abuses. The irony is not lost on anyone familiar with Manning’s case: Manning was never accused of murder, desecrating dead bodies, or covering up crimes, but he’s looking at a caged life with no hope for parole or freedom, while actual murderers and those who lied for them get lessened charges or full immunity.

So why is Manning treated this way? In 2010, Admiral Mike Mullen said that WikiLeaks’ source for the Afghan War Logs “might already have on [his] hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family,” a year and half before Manning’s pre-trial hearing. Google searches for Mullen’s comments on Staff Sgt. Gibbs’ murder, photos playing with dead bodies, and body-part trophies yield no results.

Video of the Apache helicopter incident in New Baghdad

As Charles Davis writes for Al Jazeera, “While killing unarmed civilians for sport may not be officially sanctioned policy, it doesn’t threaten the functioning of the war machine as much as a soldier standing up and refusing to be complicit in mass murder.” In other words, Wuterich’s and Gibb’s murders don’t interfere with America’s wars in the Middle East in any meaningful way. They’re embarrassing when made public and incur scorn from the international community, but they don’t have any real effect on U.S. foreign policy. By contrast, Bradley Manning’s alleged actions, in highlighting grave abuses, airing diplomatic secrets, and calling attention to otherwise unnoticed crimes, are considered an impediment to American policy. According to CNN, negotiations between the Iraqi government and the Obama Administration broke down over a dispute about immunity for U.S. soldiers there, specifically due to a cable released by WikiLeaks. Due to this breakdown, the U.S. had to fulfill its promise to withdraw troops from Iraq, leading many to credit Bradley Manning with helping end the nearly 8-year occupation.

Comparing Wuterich or Gibbs with Pfc. Manning sheds much-needed light on some ugly truths of the U.S. justice system. Referencing the Kill Team specifically, Davis suggests that if Manning “had murdered civilians and desecrated their corpses – if he had the moral capacity to commit war crimes, not the audacity to expose them – he’d be better off today.”

But the government would argue that Pfc. Manning’s case is of special interest, and therefore deserves magnified punishment, because he indirectly “aided the enemy.” This is the charge that carries the potential death penalty, that Manning’s lawyer requested be dropped in the Article 32 hearing, and that leads prominent pundits to declare Manning a “traitor.” This will be the charge that sets a precedent in the war on whistle-blowing.

It will also surely be distorted by Manning’s prosecutors, because if the military disciplined soldiers based on honest assessments of what truly “aids the enemy” – and what does not – it would require harsher punishment for soldiers following orders and leniency for an intelligence private releasing improperly classified documents he believes the public should see.

It would also require investigating prominent U.S. politicians. In late 2010, American officials including former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former secretary of homeland security Tom Ridge, former White House homeland security adviser Frances Townsend and former attorney general Michael Mukasey attended a forum held by supporters of the Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK), a group the United States has designated a terrorist organization since 1997. As Glenn Greenwald writes,

Even though the actions of these Bush officials violate every alleged piety about bashing one’s own country on foreign soil and may very well constitute a felony under U.S. law, they will be shielded from criticisms because they want to use the Terrorist group to overthrow a government that refuses to bow to American dictates.

If the U.S. was genuine in disciplining those who “aid the enemy,” they’d be investigating and indicting U.S. officials openly supporting a group the U.S. deems a terrorist organization.

They’d also be paying closer attention to what those they’ve captured have to say. On the rare occasions when suspected militants are caught and tried, they say what radicalized them toward terror is the American killing of Middle Eastern civilians. As Chase Madar writes,

terrorists themselves have freely confessed that what motivated their acts of wanton violence has been the damage done by foreign military occupation back home or simply in the Muslim world. Asked by a federal judge why he tried to blow up Times Square with a car bomb in May 2010, Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad answered that he was motivated by the civilian carnage the U.S. had caused in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Examine again what Sgt. Gibbs and his soldiers did in Afghanistan: killing innocent Afghani civilians (including a 15-year-old boy), removing their fingers, playing with their corpses. This is what provides rhetorical ammunition for Al Qaeda and its offshoots, who can point to events like this as catalysts for their rage. This is indirectly “aiding the enemy” as a blatant and obscene symbol of American invasion.

This is also the type of behavior that Pfc. Manning is accused of revealing. One State Department cable that WikiLeaks published documents a harrowing atrocity in Iraq, “wherein one man, four women, two children, and three infants were summarily executed.” The killings were illegal, a US airstrike attempted to destroy the evidence, and yet no soldiers have been held accountable. Releasing this cable did not “aid the enemy”; it’s the killing itself that spawns outrage and radical militancy.

Sgt. Gibbs, Sgt Wuterich, and the soldiers who followed their orders have confessed to the blood on their hands, and they will be granted plea deals and near-immunity. Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared that claims of damage done as a result of WikiLeaks’ releases were “significantly overwrought,” and yet Pfc. Manning could be sent to prison for life.

But Manning’s case is not truly about disciplining a soldier for “aiding the enemy” at all. If it were, Sergeants Gibbs and Wuterich would be those on high-profile trial, worrying they may never be free again. Instead, Manning’s trial is about punishing the messenger to dissuade those who find his courage inspiring. It sends a clear message that no matter the abuse, shedding desperately needed light on unpunished crimes will not be tolerated.

Bradley Manning being escorted to the courthouse for the Pretrial Hearing
Punishing the messenger while murderers go free

Detention and Deception Revisited

Exactly four months ago, the United States marked the 10-year anniversary of the September 11th attacks – a day mixed with somber reflection, raging jingoism, and politicized commentary. Today we mark the 10-year anniversary of the opening of the Guantánamo Bay detention facility – a day of national shame. This is a prison rife with torture, trumped up charges, and hidden abuse. Guantánamo symbolizes the worst of America’s practices in the War on Terror: secretly caging alleged enemies miles away from the rule of law, a terrorizing warning to those who would question our foreign policy. 

The ACLU has produced this excellent infographic (at right, click to enlarge) with some vital facts about the still-open prison. I also want to direct you to this New York Times Op-Ed, by Lakhdar Boumediene, “My Guantánamo Nightmare,” and Marcy Wheeler’s “This Gitmo Anniversary Needs to Be About Bagram, Too.”

Exactly eight months ago, I wrote a report on WikiLeaks’ ‘Guantánamo Files,’ what they revealed about the prison, and what the prison revealed about the United States. The whole paper, “Detention & Deception: The Guantánamo Files & American Human Rights Hypocrisy,” is here, but it’s rather long, so I’m re-printing some excerpts below:

On Obama’s Broken Promise

“The first step to reclaiming America’s standing in the world has to be closing” the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, President Obama declared in a 2008 campaign pamphlet, before promising to do just that. International leaders and an official United Nations report have called on the United States to close the prison, citing human rights abuses. Scores of GTMO detainees have been tortured, few made it to military tribunals, and almost none were awarded a civilian trial, let alone compensation after their eventual release.

Since its foundation in 2002, the Cuban-based detention camp has been an emblem of the War on Terror’s worst erosions of civil liberties, an icon of America’s moral degradation, and a crucial talking point for critics of American foreign policy around the world. So the international community generally lauded Obama’s election, and his promise to close the site, excited for a new era of justice and moral awakening. Three years later, however, the notorious prison is still open, still caging nearly 200 people who may never see a trial, and still a symbol of America’s disastrous disregard for human rights under the endless, sprawling War on Terror.

On Prisoners and Justification

The U.S. military has caged Arabs of all ages. The youngest is Naqib Ullah, a 14-year-old boy with Tuberculosis, who was kidnapped, raped, and held in a camp by 11 Afghani men. Then the U.S. raided the camp and detained Naqib for eight months, interrogating him about his captors but never about any potential risk he might pose. The oldest is 89-year-old Mohammad Sadiq, who was suffering dementia, major depression, and osteoarthritis while captive for nearly a year.

Guantánamo has held several others with mental disabilities, such as Abdul Houari, who has psychosis, slowed mobile functionality, and a blind right eye, and yet was deemed with the explicit coercion of the Criminal Investigative Task Force to pose a “medium risk” threat. Or Mishal Alhabiri a suicidal, mentally impaired detainee of “low intelligence value” who posed a “low risk,” but who was never given a trial despite his detention.

The reasoning provided for detaining many prisoners is illogical, contradictory, or merely that of a realist military tending to national interests instead of basic rights. For example, Sheikh Salman Al Khalifa, a member of the Bahraini royal family, was detained specifically to provide information on a select few “personalities” and alleged “Taliban safehouses,” but was then deemed himself a potential “threat to the US, its interests and allies.”

For others, the U.S. didn’t bother with a pretense of a real, potential threat, and instead decided that extremely tangential information justified indefinite imprisonment without trial. Sami al-Hajj, an al-Jazeera cameraman, was locked up for six years, solely so the U.S. could interrogate him about the news network. According to human-rights lawyer Clive Smith, the U.S. was “only interested in turning him into an informant against al-Jazeera.” Al-Hajj went on a hunger strike in protest of his treatment, claiming he was being denied vital medication, and demanding better conditions prison-wide. Hundreds more have fasted in protest similarly.

Equally baffling is the fact that the U.S. considered the basic, cheap, and globally available Casio F91W wristwatch to be a ‘sign of al-Qaeda,’ and frequently listed it as a “suspicious item,” purportedly because an al-Qaeda training camp purportedly distributed that model to several students. At least 50 GTMO detainees wear the watch, though no direct link between that model and a terror threat has been made.

Kafka would marvel at what some of the documents reveal: merely having information on other detainees, i.e. cooperating and informing on who could be threatening, was officially considered a suspicious sign that warranted further detention. There is no way out in a system with rules like that.

On Alleged Efforts to Close GTMO

Obama Administration officials complain that the GTMO debate “became suffused with fear — fear that transferring detainees to American soil would create a genuine security threat, fear that closing Guantánamo would be electoral suicide.” Some congressional Democrats, they said, even pleaded with the Administration to back off of the issue. Congress, in turn, put the blame back in Obama’s hands – an aide said “vulnerable senators weren’t going out on a limb…when the White House, with the most to lose, wasn’t even twisting arms.”

Others asked to speak on the matter claimed even more fundamental obstacles, as a Republican staffer said those seeking to close GTMO “could never figure out…who was in charge” of the effort, while another White House counsel Gregory Craig said “no one was coordinating.” More officials observed repeated backtracking from both Congress and the Administration.

These, to be sure, do not sound like people genuinely interested in closing the facility. How could the lawmakers of the world’s greatest superpower appear so feeble and uninterested to solve such a glaring human rights debacle? The idea of “electoral suicide” likely points in the right direction. More and more often, presidents and congressmen choose to fight not for what they feel is righteous and in their citizens’ interest, but instead for what will get them reelected. Human rights tend to lose these battles frequently in America, as the lack of a real stand to close Guantánamo demonstrates all too clearly.

On the U.S.’s Record on Human Rights

Despite the well-documented abuses of the Guantánamo Bay prison, not to mention hundreds more human rights problems, the U.S. frequently holds itself out as both an arbiter of human-rights morality and an exemplary model for lawful practices, as part of a larger theme of American Exceptionalism. The State Department annually publishes a thorough report on human rights abuses on every single country – except the U.S. This year, the Obama Administration made a special point to criticize China on that country’s various human rights deficiencies. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner declared the U.S. has “seen a serious backsliding on human rights” in China, specifically disparaging China’s detention practices, saying, “We have been and are very concerned over recent months by reports that dozens of people, including public interest lawyers, writers, artists like Ai Weiwei, and others, have been arrested, detained, or in some cases, disappeared, with no regard to legal measures.” While some would argue there is a difference between imprisoning ones own citizens and detaining prisoners of war abroad, there is an obvious irony in Posner’s remarks.

On Torture and Hypocrisy

Throughout the Guantánamo Files, though, the word torture is never used. We know that some detainees were waterboarded and that too many others were subjected to physical and psychological torture, yet officials who wrote the files repeatedly referred to “interrogation” and “questioning.” Publicly, as well, U.S. diplomats are careful to discuss “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or other deceptive phrases, when referring to their own country’s tactics, no matter how often they accuse another nation of torture.

This type of hypocrisy emphasizes the U.S. as a ‘realist’ country, or one that bases nearly all decisions on its own national interests, and one whose interests routinely trump any human rights concerns. Unfortunately, American policies at the Guantánamo Bay prison camp emblematize this dynamic all too well. There is insufficient evidence to prosecute most of the remaining prisoners, and it’s too difficult to transport them safely and wisely elsewhere, so the site remains open. After years of intense international and domestic criticism, officials have cleaned up GTMO practices, no longer torturing detainees and abiding by somewhat higher standards. But this only came after heavy pressure, and when it became the United States’ interest to improve their international standing on human rights. Yet nearly 200 still sit caged without charge or trial, potentially for the rest of their lives, and criticism has largely died down, at least before WikiLeaks released the Guantánamo Files. Without significant pressure, it’s simply not in America’s national interest to close the prison down. For the United States, human rights only seem to matter when respecting them suits other interests, and when doing so fits the Exceptional narrative that we have written.

Detention and Deception Revisited

The Scale of American Overclassification

[This piece was first posted here, for the Bradley Manning Support Network.]

In his closing statement two weeks ago, PFC Bradley Manning’s defense attorney David Coombs said of the information released, that it is all out in the public, and yet it hasn’t caused any harm. “If anything, it’s helped,” he said. Coombs called the government’s warning about the impact of the releases a “Chicken Little response” — a response the media has picked up on. He said officials were saying the “sky is falling, the sky is falling” over and over. But, he said, “The sky has not fallen, is not falling, and will not fall.”

He alludes to an inconvenient truth that is not well hidden, but also not well understood by many reporters seeking to summarize the WikiLeaks’ story. The sky is not falling because most of the documents WikiLeaks released should not have been classified in the first place. The U.S.’s classification system is poorly regulated, to say the least, as hundreds of thousands of documents are unnecessarily classified every year.

President Obama’s Executive Order 13526 clearly states:

In no case shall information be classified… in order to: conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error; prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency… or prevent or delay the release of information that does not require protection in the interest of the national security.

 

U.S. government classification over time (graph by the Information Security Oversight Office). Click for larger image.

Unfortunately, the government is not following its own laws. Using these standards to assess actual classification practices, an internal government review by the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) found that, in 2009, 35% of the classified documents examined did not meet the classification criteria.

The problem with poor oversight of government classification has been growing for decades – at least since Nixon’s administration prosecuted Daniel Ellsberg for leaking the Pentagon Papers – but since 2001 it has exploded. To understand how this happens, it helps to know some specifics about our classification authority structure and process.

Currently, more than 4.2 million people have classification clearance, while 1 million hold Top Secret clearance. But even though there are literally millions of low-level government employees and contractors with the authority to classify documents, most of these classification decisions will never be reviewed by a second party.

Furthermore, so many documents are classified in part due to what the Brennan Center for Justice calls the “skewed incentive structure” of the system, wherein officials face no repercussions for classifying documents that don’t meet the criteria, but there are severe consequences for failing to keep sensitive information secret. Whenever remotely unsure, officials err on the side of caution.

One of the ancillary effects of WikiLeaks releasing thousands of diplomatic cables is that it calls more public attention to just how increasingly massive and harmful America’s culture of overclassification really is.

Bradley Manning’s defense requested dozens of witnesses who the military investigation officer chose not to compel to testify at the hearing. Some of the most important witnesses were being called upon to testify directly to this problem of overclassification.

For example, Coombs asked that retired Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates testify

that the Afghanistan and Iraq SIGACT releases did not reveal any sensitive intelligence sources or methods. He will also testify that the Department of Defense could not point to anyone in Afghanistan or Iraq harmed due to the documents released by Wikileaks. He will testify that the Afghanistan and Iraq SIGACTs are simply ground-level field reports that document dated activities which do not disclose sensitive information or our sources and methods. [He] will also testify that the initial public descriptions of the harm to foreign policy due to the publication of diplomatic cables were ‘fairly significantly overwrought.’

Government officials are well aware of the problems with staff being able to improperly classify documents without repercussions. Some seek to address it, and some use it to their advantage. Criticisms of the U.S. government’s classification system have come from high-ranking government authorities on a recurring basis for decades. A number of congressionally commissioned reviews have requested that the problem be addressed, and even former Bush Administration CIA Director Porter Goss admitted, “We overclassify very badly.”

President Obama directed a 2009 memo to address overclassification, but the problem has increased under his presidency. According to the ACLU‘s ‘Secrecy Report’ issued this year (PDF), the U.S. classified 76,795,945 documents in 2010, the most in history and eight times as many as were classified in 2001. It’s also 300 times more than were released in Cablegate, which was the largest leak of documents in U.S. history at 251,287. Classifying that many documents is incredibly expensive. According to the Information Security Oversight Office, the government spent more than $10 billion on classification in 2010 alone (PDF).

Overclassification on this gigantic scale has real ramifications for policy. As the Brennan Center argues, overclassification “jeopardizes national security,” “prevents federal agencies from sharing information internally, “contributed to intelligence gaps in the months before the September 11, 2001, attacks,” and “corrodes democratic government” by hiding valuable information from national discussions.

WikiLeaks reveals exactly how this extensive secrecy shapes foreign policy. Glenn Greenwald highlighted reports suggesting that WikiLeaks’ release of a diplomatic cable chronicling U.S. soldiers’ summarily executing several Iraqi civilians, including small children, strained relations between the United States and Iraq and encouraging Iraqi leaders to reject the Obama administration’s deal to keep U.S. troops after the 2011 deadline. As Greenwald says, “whoever leaked that cable cast light on a heinous American war crime and… thus helped end this stage of the Iraq war.”

Several governmental and independent figures have recommended remedies for this system, including requiring officials to justify classification, auditing classifiers’ records, and cash prizes for spotlighting documents that are unnecessarily classified. But as Jennifer Lynch and Trevor Timm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation argue, none of these would be necessary if the Obama administration followed through on his 2009 transparency proposals. The issue is gradually gaining traction in Congress, though. In a December, 2010, hearing on WikiLeaks, Rep. John Conyers pushed back against calls to prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, citing overreach “by the Executive Branch when it comes to classifying documents.”

 

From President Obama’s Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, 1/21/09

If the Obama Administration wants to show it’s serious about addressing overclassification and to regain some credibility regarding its ability to protect whistle-blowers, it needs to acknowledge David Coombs’ closing argument explaining why PFC Manning is being unfairly and arbitrarily overcharged.

In his closing words, Coombs implored the military to “give the government a reality check,” and to live up to its own professed standards of openness and accountability.

Let’s tell them, he said, quoting former Supreme Court Justice Lois Brandeis’ famous call for transparency, that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

The Scale of American Overclassification

Progress and the NDAA

Last week, Gordon Hirabayashi, a Japanese-American who was imprisoned for refusing the federal government’s internment camps during World War II, died at 93. He’s a little-known hero, and here’s what he was up against:

In February 1942, two months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the name of protecting the nation against espionage and sabotage, authorized the designation of areas from which anyone could be excluded. One month later, a curfew was imposed along the West Coast on people of Japanese ancestry, and in May 1942, the West Coast military command ordered their removal to inland camps in harsh and isolated terrain.

Forty years later, and less than 30 years ago, Hirabayashi was finally “vindicated” as his conviction was overturned, but he used his freedom to speak on his Constitutionally protected rights:

Mr. Hirabayashi and his fellow Japanese-Americans Fred Korematsu and Minoru Yasui, who all brought lawsuits before the Supreme Court, emerged as symbols of protest against unchecked governmental powers in a time of war.

“I want vindication not only for myself,” Mr. Hirabayashi told The New York Times in 1985 as he was fighting to have his conviction vacated. “I also want the cloud removed from over the heads of 120,000 others. My citizenship didn’t protect me one bit. Our Constitution was reduced to a scrap of paper.”

Compare what Hirabayashi was fighting in 1942 with what is now legally codified under the most recent National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which President Obama threatened to veto until it included language allowing U.S. citizens to potentially be indefinitely detained.

Here are the relevant sections of the NDAA on indefinite detention:

SEC. 1021. AFFIRMATION OF AUTHORITY OF THE ARMED FORCES OF THE UNITED STATES TO DETAIN COVERED PERSONS PURSUANT TO THE AU- THORIZATION FOR USE OF MILITARY FORCE.

IN GENERAL.—Congress affirms that the authority of the President to use all necessary and appropriate force pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force includes the authority for the Armed Forces of the United States to detain covered persons pending disposition under the law of war.

Those “covered persons”:

(1) A person who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored those responsible for those attacks.

(2) A person who was a part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported such hostilities in aid of such enemy forces.

Length of detention:

Detention under the law of war without trial until the end of the hostilities authorized by the Authorization for Use of Military Force.

Presidential waiver:

WAIVER FOR NATIONAL SECURITY.—The President may waive the requirement of paragraph (1) if the President submits to Congress a certification in writing that such a waiver is in the national security interests of the United States.

Paragraph (1) on United States citizens:

(1) UNITED STATES CITIZENS.—The requirement to detain a person in military custody under this section does not extend to citizens of the United States.

As you can read, the bill’s language makes little effort to conceal the newly granted power for the president to simply tell congress that it’s in the interest of national security to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens deemed to have “directly supported” American enemies. (Bradley Manning, by the way, is accused of indirectlyaiding the enemy,” so this bill is just a word short of ending his trial altogether.)

I don’t intend to suggest that the potential for indefinite detention of American citizens is inherently worse than that of citizens anywhere else – it’s not. International law is supposed to enforce due process for people anywhere and everywhere.

I also don’t want to overstate how new these powers are: instead, the NDAA merely codifies and legalizes what the Obama administration has already claimed the power to do.

Finally, I’m not suggesting that these NDAA provisions are equivalent to the horribly racist and dehumanizing Japanese-American internment camps. They are merely the legal language used to allow for similarly heinous abuses of the Bill of Rights.

But I think it’s worth noting that in 1942, President Roosevelt claimed “protecting the nation against espionage and sabotage” was sufficient justification for creating internment camps specifically for Japanese-Americans. And 70 years later, how far have we come? We now have a president with substantial progressive support ensuring that American citizens can be indefinitely detained at his whim, all in the name of “national security.”

The erosion of our civil liberties in America is rarely going to be as sharply obvious as it was in 1942, when racism was much more overt, a World War was raging, and the Internet wasn’t around to spread dissenting opinions so easily. Nowadays, the government uses official public language promising us of transparency, respect for the rule of law, and enforced civil liberties to make covert work against those very ideals that much harder to see.

Progress and the NDAA

On Voter Priorities

A Response to Taryn Hart.

As his infamous newsletters resurface, as he gains national support, and as the Iowa caucus is held today, Ron Paul is all over the damn Internet, especially in progressive circles. Matt Stoller, Mike Tracey, Robert Scheer, and Glenn Greenwald – among many others – have all written compelling pieces on the liberal debates surrounding the noted libertarian.

Taryn Hart, who blogs at Plutocracy Files (whose Occupy Wall Street interview work I recommend), joins the discussion to critique Greenwald’s article, and since she requested my thoughts, I’ll provide them here. The piece is called “Glenn Greenwald on Ron Paul: Why Worldview Matters.”

A preliminary reminder: Hart is not among the primary targets of Greenwald’s piece. The article, entitled “Progressives and the Ron Paul fallacies,” first and foremost takes aim at progressives who support Obama over Paul and continue to tout their anti-war credentials. As Hart makes explicitly clear in her first footnote, she does not “support Obama nor justify his actions as President.” Hart has claimed she is considering not voting, and I hope she revisits that discussion soon.

But she is a progressive, and the question of support for Paul, or at least his candidacy, remains. Hart’s criticism of Greenwald’s argument goes like this: 

Specifically, Greenwald’s argument assumes that all that matters is a candidate’s positions on isolated issues – as if it’s just a matter of creating a ranked pro and con list for each candidate and crunching the numbers.

Greenwald suggests choosing between the candidates is just a matter of prioritizing a limited list of isolated issues. However, it’s not just a candidate’s positions on individual issues that are important**; what’s also important (in most instances more important) is the candidate’s worldview. A President’s worldview will determine the outcome of thousands of decisions the President will make, almost all of which will not be campaign issues and many of which are unforeseeable.

First, I take issue with the “isolated issues” claim – one I think trivializes progressives’ stance. Paul opposes our current wars (hot, cold, covert, on drugs, and on whistleblowers), opposes imperialism, has called American corporatism a route to “soft fascism,” supports Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks, has praised Occupy Wall Street, and opposes the Patriot Act and the growing surveillance and police state. These are many issues that progressives (especially under Bush) have supported in the past, and they are hardly isolated – reducing the military-industrial complex would reduce our national deficit, removing our troops from the Middle East and ending support for Israeli apartheid would have drastic effects in global relations, to comment on just two.

Furthermore, though, I have a problem with the argument that voters don’t prioritize a list of individual issues. I agree that ideally we’d have candidates who supported our worldview and subsequently would take all the positions we’d want them to take, but the fact remains that we don’t. I get the feeling that Hart would support someone like Ralph Nader or Dennis Kucinich, if they were running. But since we’re discussing who actually is running, and therefore who could actually be the next president, I’d argue that voters do prioritize their lists of issues. Since there will never be a candidate who supports all of our positions, and since Hart is not arguing (here) against voting altogether, I think it’d behoove Hart to reconsider Greenwald’s brutally honest hypothetical, which she quotes and denounces:

It’s perfectly rational and reasonable for progressives to decide that the evils of their candidate are outweighed by the evils of the GOP candidate, whether Ron Paul or anyone else. An honest line of reasoning in this regard would go as follows:

Yes, I’m willing to continue to have Muslim children slaughtered by covert drones and cluster bombs, and America’s minorities imprisoned by the hundreds of thousands for no good reason, and the CIA able to run rampant with no checks or transparency, and privacy eroded further by the unchecked Surveillance State, and American citizens targeted by the President for assassination with no due process, and whistleblowers threatened with life imprisonment for “espionage,” and the Fed able to dole out trillions to bankers in secret, and a substantially higher risk of war with Iran (fought by the U.S. or by Israel with U.S. support) in exchange for less severe cuts to Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs, the preservation of the Education and Energy Departments, more stringent environmental regulations, broader health care coverage, defense of reproductive rights for women, stronger enforcement of civil rights for America’s minorities, a President with no associations with racist views in a newsletter, and a more progressive Supreme Court.

The point is, someone is going to be president come 2013. If you’re a progressive who plans on voting, you cannot ignore this set of choices. This is a limited version of “lesser-evilism,” or voting for someone who holds positions you dislike in favor of someone whose positions you dislike even more. But for me at least, and I am a progressive who values Paul’s candidacy without endorsing it, it’s a very specific one that puts my anti-war, pro-civil-liberties stances first. It’s saying that if you’re going to choose a lesser evil, stop arguing that Obama is the lesser evil on these many important issues.

There are many examples of liberals putting specific values first. Balloon Juice writer DougJ proclaims:

For a liberal like me, who is primarily interested in the well-being of the American middle-class and in providing opportunity for everyone in the United States, regardless of race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion etc., I just don’t see why I should be “challenged” by Ron Paul. I understand that if you’re a liberal who is primarily interested in civil liberties and a less bellicose foreign policy, then you might be conflicted about Paul. But to me, he’s just another racist asshole who wants to fuck the American middle-class.

DougJ is explicitly arguing that the “well-being of the American middle-class” is more important than the lives of the Muslims we’re killing abroad, which he callously disguises as a “bellicose” foreign policy. This reads to me as arbitrary nationalism, dressed up as righteous middle-class protection.

David Atkins, in a particularly pedantic lecture, distorts this prioritizing here:

It’s true that some liberals are so legitimately incensed by President Obama’s transgressions on civil liberties that they are inclined to support Paul in the same way that a person obsessed with illegal immigration might support a hardline anti-immigration Democrat over a Republican like George W. Bush or John McCain. But both of those cases are standard single-issue monomanias. Neither case speaks to any sort of real ideological hypocrisy.

Atkins ignores the other aforementioned progressive stances to minimize the importance of civil liberties in favor of his preferred issues, like regulating corporations and a woman’s right to abortion.

Worldview does matter, but it can be easily overstated. Atkins argues with Paul’s worldview, even when it aligns with his positions:

Ron Paul is against the drug war, yes, but for the same reasons he is against preventing factories from dumping mercury in our rivers: he opposes any sort of intervention at all by the government to assist those in need, or to stop those who would do harm to others, except in the most simplistic cases of the use of force.

Ron Paul is against foreign interventions, yes, but for the same reason he opposes providing healthcare to sick people: he believes that the U.S. government should not be in the business of interfering against almost anyone, on behalf of anyone else.

J.A. Myerson approaches Paul’s foreign policy similarly (emphasize in original):

Yes, Ron Paul’s aversion to foreign policy leads him to adopt a host of positions that are very attractive, but they don’t come from a humane or sophisticated ideology.

To paraphrase both: I agree with Paul’s conclusions, but I disagree with how he got there. Both are putting the ideology above the policy, as is their preference. But if they’re going to be honest about their priorities, we must examine the consequences of those decisions. Is it really OK to allow the continued slaughter of innocent civilians just because it’s in the name of a president who claims to be a liberal? I can hardly stomach typing it out.

Everyone who votes prioritizes in some ways. If you’re arguing against prioritization, you’re arguing against American electoral politics (and I’m with you! Let’s talk about that!). But if you’re going to vote, no candidate will take your every position, and so you value some things above others. That Paul has caused such a progressive uproar speaks volumes about where priorities really lie.

On Voter Priorities

“More Questions than Answers” at the Bradley Manning Hearing

Here are the notes I took on the final day of Bradley Manning’s pre-trial hearing. The last day was brief – the defense and prosecution each gave their closing statements, and we were out of the courtroom in an hour – but revealing. Each side suggested the type of arguments they planned to make if and when the case goes to court-martial, with the prosecution meticulously reviewing each item of the alleged leak, and the defense outlining the military’s incompetence in handling Manning, and requesting a far reduced set of charges that would reflect a more honest understanding of what has been released. David Coombs, Manning’s chief legal counsel, opened his statement appropriately, addressing the Investigating Officer directly: “You are in a unique position to give the United States a reality check.”

Daniel Ellsberg answers questions // photo by Nathan Fuller

After the hearing adjourned, I accompanied Dan Ellsberg and Jeff Paterson to a brief press conference. While I was taking pictures, a pair of civilian lawyers who’d attended the hearing approached me with a barrage of questions about the proceedings – “Where are the warrants for these searches of files at Manning’s aunt’s house? … Where is the motion to suppress that evidence? … Are they even going to have to verify these alleged chat logs?” With limited information and no access to Coombs directly, I pointed the lawyers to Paterson, a Bradley Manning Support Network director and spokesperson, but he had few answers too.

One lawyer turned and bitterly mumbled “kangaroo court.” The other looked exasperated. “More questions than answers,” she said.

My only answer to those questions now is that I expect them to get more attention in the full trial. Maybe they should have been addressed at the hearing, but Coombs clearly has a strategy for working with what he’s got – which, in light of his closing argument, may involve a plea deal.

But the lawyers’ inquiries encouraged me to challenge plenty more dubious aspects of the hearing.

First, the prosecution’s argument that Manning “knew our enemies use the Internet,” knew they could access WikiLeaks, and leaked online sounds incredibly broad. This claim allows for anyone to be considered an enemy of the United States, and so leaking anything online is “indirectly” aiding our adversaries no matter where it is. As EFF writer Trevor Timm notes time and time again, though, while Manning sits in prison or in trial for these releases, ‘anonymous’ U.S. officials routinely leak classified information to the front page of the Washington Post or the New York Times, as is politically convenient. As Timm and Glenn Greenwald frequently remind us, Bob Woodward has made a living off of publishing secret information via anonymous sources all the time. All of that information is, anonymously sourced, on the Internet. So the claim that leaking classified material online has anything to do with our enemies will always be made in bad faith. Then again, with President Obama’s expansion of executive powers in declaring wherever Anwar Al-Awlaki is to be part of a battlefield, or with the National Defense Authorization Act allowing for the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens, the claim that anyone could be an enemy falls right in line with American foreign policy.

The prosecution did reference these enemies and adversaries with a bit more specificity: Capt. Ashden Fein said Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and our “classified enemies” have access to the leaked information. At least the first two have been declared adversaries of the United States – but “classified enemies”? We’re not even allowed to know who our military is fighting?

Concluding his closing statements, Fein played an Al Qaeda propaganda video, in which a spokesperson discussed the State Department cables and said those fighting in the name of God have resources available to them on the Internet. We are supposed to be scared, and we are supposed to be angry with Manning for giving the Terrorists what they need. But with a necessary reality check, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was willing to give us, calling the WikiLeaks releases only “embarrassing” and the harms “modest,” it’s easy to see this claim is vastly overblown.

I hope these questions, those the lawyers introduced, and many more will be raised and explored at the (expected) court-martial. If the hearing is any indication, though, it won’t be easy: the military is keen to suppress journalist access, make a scene of uniformed supporters, and deny nearly all of the defense’s requested witnesses. But that’s what WikiLeaks has always been about – seeking truth and answering questions in the face of ever-powerful adversity.

“More Questions than Answers” at the Bradley Manning Hearing

On Media Access to Bradley Manning’s Hearing

Last week, I applied for press credentials to cover Bradley Manning’s pre-trial hearing in Fort Meade, Maryland. I’m an intern for the Bradley Manning Support Network, but because I intended to write about it for this site and potentially elsewhere, I applied as an “independent journalist” not affiliated with any particular organization, a news team of one.

On Wednesday, December 14, at 3:35 PM, Fort Meade’s Media Desk sent me this email, entitled “Credential Email – U.S. vs. Pfc. Bradley E. Manning (UNCLASSIFIED).” In the first section, the second sentence reads, “You are now officially credentialed to cover this hearing.”

Then, 13 minutes later, the same Fort Meade Media Desk sent me this email, rescinding the aforementioned credentials with no explanation except that they were sent out “in error.”

It’s very possible that the email was sent out by mistake. When I sent another email asking for comment on the revoking of the initial response, they sent this reply:

Perhaps the key phrase there is “provided valid press affiliation”: I applied independently, and so maybe the military doesn’t grant media access to unaffiliated journalists. It’s also worth remarking on the “limited seating” claim. It’s true that the first day of the hearing, journalists and the public packed the courtroom and there were certainly reporters left out. But in the latter half of the hearing, attendance was sparse. I was granted access to the courtroom then without much trouble, yet sill was not allowed in the “media operations center,” where reporters had a list of the witnesses and could compare quickly scribbled notes to corroborate.

As EFF writer Rainey Reitman writes in The Nation, the military spokesperson at Ft. Meade was not willing to shed much light on the matter:

Media access denied or rescinded

When Nathan Fuller applied for a press pass to attend the hearing and take notes from the media center, his request was granted—and then rescinded. Among other things, Fuller is an intern with the Bradley Manning Support Network, a coalition of individuals and organizations working to cover the financial costs of Manning’s defense and educate the public about the issues involved. On Monday, I asked the Public Affairs Official at the hearing what criteria was used to assess whether someone qualified as a journalist for the purposes of receiving a press pass, and he said he did not know. I asked how many other individuals had been denied press passes to the hearing, and he again replied that he didn’t know. I asked how many other individuals had received press passes only to have them rescinded and got the same non-response. He didn’t know if there was a phone number to someone who would have the answers to these questions. I asked my questions again on Tuesday, and the Public Affairs Officer still knew nothing—except that he wouldn’t have an answer for my questions that day.

(I delayed publishing the first email because Reitman told me after her conversation with the PAO that she expected he’d look into it and possibly award me new credentials for the remaining days.)

So the claim that the credentials were awarded in error remains plausible. But in the context of a wider crackdown on media covering the case, and without further explanation, it remains suspicious.

The credential retraction fits into a longer narrative of the United States military, Manning’s prosecutors, abusing their power to minimize media coverage of the hearing. I strongly encourage reading the rest of Reitman’s piece, entitled, “Government Blocks Access to Manning Hearing,” for more on these efforts. She writes further on the military closing portions of the hearing containing classified information:

On the third day of the trial, the investigating officer decided to accommodate the prosecution’s request for a closed hearing for a portion of the next day. The investigating officer found that the information had been properly classified and that the need to maintain that classification outweighed the value of a public and open trial. But the public, who has had access to the WikiLeaks releases for well over a year, was not given an opportunity to object. The only one who did object was the defense team of Bradley Manning, to no avail.

The Bradley Manning Support Network issued a response, condemning the closed hearings, in which they note: “even members of the public who hold relevant security clearances are expected to be removed from viewing the proceedings.”

I’ll add just one other element that she didn’t include in the article: When Manning was initially detained in Kuwait, the military told his lawyer, David Coombs, to prepare for an immediate hearing. Coombs objected – he hadn’t even met his client yet – and requested a delay to gather his defense. So the military used that request to delay the trial as long as they wanted. They pushed the hearing back a staggering 18 months, providing ample time to solitarily confine Manning to wear him down, allow media coverage of the WikiLeaks saga to die down, and finally to schedule the hearing just before the holidays (and on a weekend), so that as few journalists and Manning supporters as possible would be able to attend. (Manning’s lawyer motioned to dismiss for lack of a speedy trial.)  It should be abundantly clear to those formerly suspicious that the military has been working overtime to keep this hearing as secret as is legally allowed – and then some.

On Media Access to Bradley Manning’s Hearing