In June, Bradley Manning, 25, the army private who caused the greatest security breach in US history by giving hundreds of thousands of classified war and diplomatic documents to Wikileaks, will go on trial at Fort Meade, MD.
What did Manning produce?
Bradley Manning leaked three important bodies of documents from his army intelligence service, all of which went to Wikileaks. They are: the Iraq war logs, which comprise 391,000 field reports, most famously the video of the Apache helicopter, opening fire on small crowd of Iraqi civilians in July 2007, killing over a dozen of them, a video seen millions of times around the world, but including documentation of the Haditha massacre in which 24 Iraqi civilians, most of them women, children and the elderly, were killed by American soldiers.
Then there are 90,000 Afghan war logs, which include a document expressing suspicion that the Pakistanis are arming and funding the Afghan insurgency. “Certainly worth knowing,” Madar says.
And Manning released 260,000 diplomatic cables. These include revelations that the U.S. lobbied to keep down the minimum wage in Haiti so as to keep manufacturing costs low for American employers; also the documentation of Tunisian corruption, which played a role in the revolution there.
What was the value of these revelations?
The revelations about Haiti have been thrilling information for the Haitian Diaspora community in its political work. And several Tunisian intellectuals have told Madar that the Tunisian document helped the revolution. “We can’t say it was the cause of the uprising, but it certainly played a role.”
As for Americans, Manning’s revelations forced the US to withdraw its forces from Iraq more quickly than otherwise. The war logs had a big impact on US opinion and on the Iraqi government, which refused to give immunity from prosecution to American soldiers as a result– which sped our exit.
“We now have a much clearer sense of how two wars were going and how US diplomacy works in general…. We know a lot more about how our foreign policy works.” Lately, for instance, Hillary Mann Leverett and Flynt Leverett’s book on US policy toward Iran relied on Wikileaks to show that the U.S. had undertaken no good faith effort toward diplomacy with Iran, despite promises.
Bradley Manning was an incongruous figure in the US army. How did he get there and where did he come from?
Manning enlisted in 2007. The evidence is that he felt a real sense of responsibility for his country. “He was pretty critical of the invasion as a young man, and of the Afghan war, but he also felt a sense of responsibility.” He also wanted to go to college, and did not have support from his family, even as tuition costs were rising steadily.
“Bradley Manning is someone who from a very young age according to classmates showed a fierce independence of mind and will.” He shocked classmates when he refused to say the “under God” phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance because he said he was atheist. “He stood out in smalltown Oklahoma.”
He studied science and computers form a young age, and designed his own website at age 10. It is not surprising that he found his way into army intelligence. He was not classic army material: he had a strong independent streak, and being 5-2, one of his colleagues in basic training had told him, If someone messes with you, you have to take his head off. He wasn’t that kind of person. Also he was gay.
Manning dreamed that Operation Iraqi Freedom was really about Iraqi freedom. He soon found this was not the case. When stationed at Forward Operating Base Hammer, he learned of the arrest of non violent Iraqi demonstrators, giving out an anodyne leaflet outside a government building that said, “Where does the money go?”
Manning ran to his commanding officer to voice his concern about what would happen to these demonstrators—because it was widely known that Iraqi prisoners were subject to torture. His commanding officer told him to shut up about it. At that time, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had issued Fragmentary Order 242: not to do anything in the face of torture, but turn a blind eye to it.
“Bradley Manning later says, Something snaps. He sees things differently, he’s neck deep in the worst foreign policy disaster since Vietnam.”
How hard was it to sneak out these documents?
Manning pulled off the largest security breach in US history, so you might think he used suction cups on the wall and mounted a big operation. But there was no security to speak of at the base. People were walking in and out with disc drives, no one was checking on anything. Even apart from that, secrets are not so secret in the U.S.: 1.4 million people are eligible for top secret security clearance. It was the hack of the century, “but in the artistic sense it was not, it was easy.”
What does the case tell us about the politics of secrecy?
The rightwing says off with his head, but the predominant response from the liberalish center hasn’t been much better– a kind of panic about too much information out there. In Hillary Clinton’s words, this was “diplomatic armageddon.”
“I think this misinterprets the scale and meaning of the leaks. They are the biggest, but it is also true, that they are altogether less than 1 percent of what Washington classifies in a given year. Despite all the talk about the slippery slope to complete transparency, we are nowhere near that.”
Manning managed to shine a narrow light, “not a blinding klieg light,” on government secrets.
“The slippery slope is not toward too much transparency, but toward a really dystopian level of secrecy.” The idea that government should be as open as possible was not a crazy idea of radical hackers. It is a very old idea in the mainstream liberal political tradition. James Madison wrote that “a popular government without popular information is but a prelude to a tragedy or a farce or perhaps both.”
And Madison would not have anticipated that documents from his administration are still classified 200 years later.
“We have phenomenally out of control over-classification. And declassification is taking place in a geological tempo.” And meantime there is a phenomenon called reclassification.
What about all the leaks we read in the paper?
They are “elite leaks,” Madar said. “In fact the government is incredibly leaky but in a very selective way. Officials leak with total impunity all the time.” You can’t go a week in the New York Times or Washington Post without reading about a top secret document shown to a reporter—whether it be about a drone strike or the National Intelligence Estimate of Iran’s nuclear program or cyberwarfrare, or an NIE on Afghanistan and the possibility of a stable government there.
“This hypocrisy lets us know some very important things.” There is one set of rules for the generals and the senators and another for the rest of us.
What are the risks of secrecy?
The mainstream media reflected panic about the big threat to national security from whistleblowers. But look hard at the real costs and real risks of extreme secrecy, which is what we have going on.
“I think the costs have been incredibly high, especially over the last 10 years.” The Iraq war was brought in through secrecy, distortions and lies that government bought into. The cost of that war is now measured in hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars that future generations will be paying for.
“It’s just common sense, if you’re going to make a very important decision, like invading a sovereign nation, you want information. Whether it’s South Vietnam or Iraq, you need to know what you’re getting into. “
Information can’t do everything, but there are clear instances of people making better decisions with better information. For instance, Bob Graham, the former Florida Senator who chaired the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, looked at privileged information about Iraq and changed his mind and voted against the decision to invade Iraq, after reading that information.
Where is Manning, what are the charges against him, and what will happen to him?
He has been in jail for three years, first at the Marine Corps brig at Quantico, then following an international outcry, he was place in medium security at Fort Leavenworth, then at Fort Meade, Maryland. His court martial trial is to begin June 3 at Fort Meade.
There are 22 charges, ranging from minor, the improper use of government computers, to the capital offense of aiding the enemy, and esponiage, violating the espionage act of 1917. He pled guilty to the ten lesser offenses; the government will try to make the serious charges stick. The most ridiculous charge is aiding the enemy. Madar gives it a one in three chance of resulting in a conviction. The Obama administration has said that it is not going to seek the death penalty.
What do the serious charges mean?
Aiding the enemy is a very vague charge, but the way it’s decided could have a real effect on the media in general. The government was asked in pretrial, what if Manning had leaked it to the New York Times, not Wikileaks. Well he would still be accused of aiding the enemy, the prosecution said. If that view holds, there could be a chilling effect on the mainstream media. Because we depend to a very large extent on both elite sources and non-elite sources, from the drone program to Watergate.
Is there any possibility that Manning will walk?
“I would like to be optimistic and say there’s a real chance that Bradley Manning will walk out of there, acquitted,” Madar said. That would be providing false hope. “I think there’s a real chance he will be convicted and get 50 years. And any chance of Manning getting clemency given the great service he has done will be a longterm struggle.”
Didn’t Bradley Manning sign the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and sign away whatever rights he had vis-a-vis leaking secrets?
“There is no question that he broke the law. That’s not something that his lawyers are contesting either.” But very few people think that all laws should be enforced and obeyed always. Harriet Tubman is one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. She broke the law. A gay couple going on a hot date 50 years ago broke the law.
“Any system depends not just on enforcement but on flexibility.” That’s why commutations and pardons exist.
No one’s denying that this was an act of civil disobedience and that military forces depend on discipline and uniform enforcement for morale and order. But then let’s be fair and look first at other violations of the code in Iraq and Afghanistan by soldiers who shot and maimed civilians, with zero repercussions, or opened fire in a 360-degree field in response to an IED. “These are not being prosecuted, so the UCMJ is being flouted.”
Violations that caused actual people to die should be enforced before we get to Bradley Manning– “where the damage is purely speculative.”
What is the role for Manning’s supporters?
“In the long run getting clemency for Bradley Manning is less a legal matter than a political matter. It will be a political push involving political organization to get clemency for him, and I’m frankly pretty pessimistic about that too.”
But consider that many of the atrocities documented in the leaks, such as the government action against the Haiti minimum wage, are legal under our laws. We should wish they were criminal, but they are legal. That is a good reason to join the ACLU and become an active member so as to create “a mobilized constituency.”
We thought Obama was going to be a leader on these issues. Why has he disappointed us?
“No president has been fully in charge of the national security apparatus in the US since Eisenhower. Foreign policy is to a large extent dictated by the Department of Defense and other national security organs.”
To seize hold of that policy, fully, a president would have to have three things: national security credentials, so he wouldn’t be called a wimp; great political cunning; and a popular mandate to do so. Obama is 0 for 3.
What has the New York Times done for Manning?
“The New York Times’s attitude toward Bradley Manning has been obnoxiously contradictory.” On the one hand it has run dozens and dozens of stories based on his leaks, many on the front page. “He’s been a terrific source.” And all the information he provided the Times has been legitimate.
“But instead of protecting the source, they’ve gone out of their way to portray him as some kind of weirdo.” The Times has “pathologized” Manning, and sexualized his action.
This is true of former executive editor Bill Keller who did such a terrible job in the runup to the Iraq war, when he declared himself a liberal hawk and the paper ran third rate reporting by Judy Miller that turned out to be wrong. Keller has “gone out of his way in his columns, to say, Oh this Bradley Manning guy, he’s kind of weird.”
What role does Manning’s gender identity have in the case and why do you call him a man when he has used the name Breanna?
He has used the name Breanna Manning on a twitter account, and experimented with crossdressing. He was evidently on the point of gender transition before he was arrested. But these facts are not sufficient to decide to call him Breanna, without clear and expressed permission from the individual in question. And Manning has not communicated on this point.
What does it mean? Some people who are not particularly sympathetic to Manning have tried to make this his motive, calling the leaks an antisocial act. But sexual identity is an important part of anyone’s personal story, even cisgendered straight guys, and we don’t explore that around their deeds.
What’s the difference between Manning and Daniel Ellsberg?
Forty years ago Ellsberg leaked thousands of top secret documents to the media and to Congress, “The Pentagon Papers,” a potted history by the Pentagon about how the Vietnam War was fought and waged. He was accused of espionage by the Nixon administration, but he came out a free man. Every single document Ellsberg leaked was top secret. This is not true of a single document Manning leaked. In fact, over half the diplomatic cables were not classified in any way, and neither was the most sensational item, the helicopter video.
But the main difference was political. Ellsberg’s leaks got the popular support of an important sector of the U.S. establishment, from the legal profession to academics to the media. That kind of support has not shown up for Manning.
The main difference was there “was a real sense of urgency among American elites about ending the Vietnam war. That sense of urgency had to do with the draft. Even though it was relatively easy for the elite to get their kids out of the draft, it was still a theoretical possibility that a top lawyer or journalist or congressman’s son would be sent to Vietnam. That is not the case anymore. Our elites just have no skin in the game… When elites don’t have skin in the game, they don’t care about whistle blowers. There is no sense of urgency.”
Update: Post originally stated that some of the dox Manning leaked were top secret. Commenters David Samel and Chase Madar pointed out the error.
About Philip Weiss
Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net