"If you're in the military, and - I have to abide by certain classified information. If I was to release stuff, information that I'm not authorized to release, I'm breaking the law. We're a nation of laws. We don't individually make our own decisions about how the laws operate...he broke the law" - Former civil rights attorney Barack Obama on Bradley Manning
Back in 2008 the phenomenal success of Barack Obama's presidential campaign, fueled by the 'Change we can believe in' slogan and 'Yes we can' chant, had millions of people, including seasoned commentators and other public figures, swooning in adulation. After eight years of the unpopular George W Bush, the US and the world finally had, it seemed, a man who stood for the real democratic principles of justice, transparency and accountability.
The last four years have shown us how spectacularly the world was hoodwinked; indeed, the Obama administration has presided over savage curtailing of civil liberties and human rights, and extended even the worst abuses of the Bush administration.
There are many candidates for the most Kafkaesque policy or action of this administration, notably Obama's kill list, his drone bombing program in general, and his signing into law of the NDAA provision which allows indefinite detention of anyone suspected of terror activities, but perhaps the most insidious threat to democracy lies in his aggressive and unprecedented pursuit of whistleblowers.
Whistleblowers are essential to a true democracy, but they are a rare breed as they are fully aware of the potential repercussions of their actions, often against extremely powerful entities who have the resources to destroy their lives in retaliation. Ordinary mortals learn to keep their head down and look the other way in the vast majority of cases of corruption or abuse in their occupation field as they are legitimately concerned that losing their jobs might be the least of their problems if they speak out.
It is therefore even more crucial that the courageous souls who stick their necks out for the benefit of society as a whole be not only protected, but also encouraged, praised and rewarded. It is a measure of the strength of a democracy if it provides a measure of protection for those who blow the whistle on serious abuses of power or criminal acts perpetrated by those elected to serve us or within the corporate world.
Imagine for a moment that you are a principled and conscientious young member of the US military, and that on being posted, you discover within classified government files acts so flagrantly wrong, so evil, that you feel compelled to take the matter to your superiors. Imagine then that on informing your commanding officer of one of these abuses, he tells you to keep your mouth shut. You realize then that you have been naive and that part of your job, an unwritten rule, is to turn the other way and avoid raising a stink.
You believed that the word 'classified' means kept secret in order to protect national security or the identity of intelligence agents and their contacts. You realize to your horror that in a huge number of cases, the word means kept secret to avoid embarrassment or unwanted scrutiny, usually because some form of illegal behavior is involved, in some cases of the most serious variety: namely, murder.
What does a person of conscience do? You have gone through the chain of command but have been rebuffed. What other course of action lies open to you? At this point, you understand you have a choice: keep your head down or speak out through another medium, knowing full well that in doing so you will be inviting a holy shitstorm on yourself.
If this scenario were a movie, where would your sympathies lie? You, the viewer, are also aware that the word 'classified' in this case is a sham, a wall to protect dishonorable men and women who have committed terrible crimes and hurt innocent people. If the man on the screen, our young soldier, rejected the option of doing nothing, any principled viewer would likely feel a surge of approval for his actions, and would hope for his success against the corrupt and far more powerful establishment.
These were the choices allegedly faced by Private First Class Bradley Manning. He made the honorable choice after a titanic battle in his own mind. His own words, via logs of his chats with the man who turned him in, Adrian Lamo, speak most eloquently of his state of mind:
Bradley Manning: hypothetical question: if you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time… say, 8-9 months… and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC… what would you do?
Bradley Manning: or Guantanamo, Bagram, Bucca, Taji, VBC for that matter…
Bradley Manning: things that would have an impact on 6.7 billion people
Bradley Manning: say… a database of half a million events during the iraq war… from 2004 to 2009… with reports, date time groups, lat-lon locations, casualty figures… ? or 260,000 state department cables from embassies and consulates all over the world, explaining how the first world exploits the third, in detail, from an internal perspective?
Adrian Lamo: What sort of content?
Bradley Manning: uhm… crazy, almost criminal political backdealings… the non-PR-versions of world events and crises… uhm… all kinds of stuff like everything from the buildup to the Iraq War during Powell, to what the actual content of “aid packages” is: for instance, PR that the US is sending aid to pakistan includes funding for water/food/clothing… that much is true, it includes that, but the other 85% of it is for F-16 fighters and munitions to aid in the Afghanistan effort, so the US can call in Pakistanis to do aerial bombing instead of americans potentially killing civilians and creating a PR crisis
Bradley Manning: theres so much… it affects everybody on earth… everywhere there’s a US post… there’s a diplomatic scandal that will be revealed… Iceland, the Vatican, Spain, Brazil, Madascar, if its a country, and its recognized by the US as a country, its got dirt on it
Adrian Lamo: what kind of scandal?
Bradley Manning: hundreds of them
Adrian Lamo: like what? I’m genuinely curious about details.
Bradley Manning: uhmm… the Holy See and its position on the Vatican sex scandals
Adrian Lamo: play it by ear
Bradley Manning: the broiling one in Germany
Bradley Manning: im sorry, there’s so many… its impossible for any one human to read all quarter-million… and not feel overwhelmed… and possibly desensitized
Bradley Manning: Apache Weapons Team video of 12 JUL 07 airstrike on Reuters Journos… some sketchy but fairly normal street-folk… and civilians
Bradley Manning: at first glance… it was just a bunch of guys getting shot up by a helicopter… no big deal… about two dozen more where that came from right… but something struck me as odd with the van thing… and also the fact it was being stored in a JAG officer’s directory… so i looked into it… eventually tracked down the date, and then the exact GPS co-ord… and i was like… ok, so thats what happened… cool… then i went to the regular internet… and it was still on my mind… so i typed into goog… the date, and the location… and then i see this http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/13/world/middleeast/13iraq.html
Adrian Lamo: what do you consider the highlights?
Bradley Manning: The Gharani airstrike videos and full report, Iraq war event log, the “Gitmo Papers”, and State Department cable database
These are the words of an unusually intelligent, well-informed, thoughtful and principled man wrestling with his conscience. These logs also make it clear that he has no interest in self-promotion or notoriety and that his concerns are for others: 'It affects everybody on earth'.
In Obama's 2008 presidential campaign literature (pdf), he had this to say regarding his policy on whistleblowers:
Protect Whistleblowers: Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled as they have been during the Bush administration. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance. Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government. Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process.
Bradley Manning has been detained now for 881 days in conditions described by Juan Mendez, the UN's top torture official, as 'cruel and inhumane'. Amnesty International also accused the US of inhumane treatment.
Change we can believe in.
If Bradley Manning is indeed the source of the diplomatic cables eventually published by Wikileaks, we have him to thank for bringing to our attention the mendacious and criminal actions of our governments and those affiliated (corporations/mercenaries etc.) with or controlled (the military) by them.
For this, he should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It is a measure of how establishment-serving the famous institutions of the world have become that Bradley Manning's captor instead was given this prestigious award.
In a sane or just world, Bradley Manning would be immediately released and the perpetrators of the criminal actions exposed by the diplomatic cables charged and tried. We do not live in such a world. Instead we allow ourselves to be ruled by a lawless elite elected in demonstrably flawed elections, people who have no qualms about keeping a true hero of democracy and transparency (assuming he was the leaker) in torturous conditions for years.
A massive public outcry and sustained pressure on public officials can have an effect. When you put your feet up in your house tonight and pour yourself a beer, spare a thought for a man who may have put his own liberty and well-being at risk for 'everybody on earth'. Follow his admirable support group on Twitter and Facebook, call your local representative, and make a real fuss. You have far less to lose than a certain brave young soldier had.
'The 99.99998271% - Why the Time is Right for Direct Democracy' by Simon Wood is available for free download. In this 70-page book, the current state of human rights and democracy is discussed, and a simple method of implementing direct democracy is suggested.
Simon Wood on twitter (@simonwood11) and Facebook or at his blog. The Direct Democracy Alliance, a voluntary group dedicated to creating national/global direct democracy, is now also on twitter: (@DDA4586)
Author's note: For nine months I have been writing detailed articles on human rights and direct democracy, and have written a book on the topic which is freely available. However, despite some small successes, I am yet to make a scratch in any meaningful way that will bring about real change. For this to happen, I need to create an NPO or similar organization devoted to creating and promoting direct democracy. I therefore appeal to any reader who has significant resources, or who has connections to someone who has, to contact me with regard to making a philanthropic donation to bring about a transparent organization with paid, professional staff which can actually make a difference.