At Fort Meade in Maryland, a pretrial hearing is underway in the government's case against Private Bradley Manning, the soldier who allegedly turned over hundreds of thousands of secret reports and cables to Wikileaks. This month, an important new book on the 24-year-old has been published. In The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story of the Suspect Behind the Largest Security Breach in U.S. History, Chase Madar says that Manning deserves the Presidential medal of Freedom for opening up our secretive foreign policy to public discussion. I talked to the author this morning.
Tell us what's happening in the case:
Chase Madar: It’s absolutely a given that Manning is going to be convicted and sentenced to at least 50 years. It’s inexorable. That said, I don’t think the case itself is one of the major injustices that’s colliding here. There’s some unfairness in the way the prosecution is taking liberties, but the real and major injustices are laws that encourage extreme secrecy and punish transparency and everything that goes long with that, like the Iraq war.
One good development-- in yesterday’s pretrial hearing, the judge did require the prosecution to provide all the internal damage reports-- what damage was done or really not done by these leaks. I think what you're going to see is that even by the government’s own estimates, these disclosures did not harm national security or national interests, broadly defined.
In your book you show that our national interest is actually in having these things openly discussed, and Bradley Manning struck a blow for our right to discuss the policy over there.
Yes. People are so eager to talk about the national security costs of transparency, but we’ve seen the heavy costs and risks of government secrecy. Government secrecy, distortions and lies are a big factor that got us into Iraq and that 50 years ago got us into Vietnam. Both of these wars did immense damage to foreign peoples-- though we hardly dare to count those bodies-- and killed thousands of Americans. The Iraq war cost $3 trillion at least, and these are the wages of government secrecy.
And instead of opening up and ending this pathological habit of government secrecy, we have the Obama administration punishing whistleblowers, punishing the messenger. Which is exactly the wrong response.
Didn't we win battles on transparency after Vietnam?
It’s true that in the early 70s there was a backlash against Watergate and the Vietnam war, annd you had a real thaw, and the national security state was reined in by the Senate restrictions on the CIA and FBI. There was some discipline imposed on the government. Many of us hoped for a similar reaction to the Bush and Cheney national security state, but it is not happening. Instead you have Obama normalizing and solidifying Bush-Cheney national security policies.
Could that climate change?
It’s possible that by focusing attention and organizing around Bradley Manning’s case, we could still get the kind of rollback of government secrecy and spying we should have had long ago, but it’s certainly not a sure thing. We really have our work cut out for us.
The title of your book is The Passion of Bradley Manning. I of course think of Jesus.
Well, a strong meaning here is his sense of self sacrifice.
You have the told the story of a truly inspiring American, a kid from Oklahoma who has a moral understanding of what he's involved in and decides not to be part of it. Tell us about him.
If you read the chatlogs between Manning and the government informant Adrian Lamo, they read like a heartbreaking novella. And they tell most of Manning’s life story right there. It’s important to note that Bradley Manning was a true believer in democracy, truth and really patriotic duty. And he allegedly did what he allegedly did not out of vandalism or cynicism, but just out of the very-- it’s an almost boring American sentiment-- that people should know what their government is doing. It's a sentiment that has been expressed by so many politicians, and it’s so uncontroversial.
And most whistleblowers, like Manning, are true believers in the system. Thomas Drake in the NSA, who was recently persecuted by the Obama administration, and Peter van Buren of the State Department who just got fired by the State Dep't for being too critical of the Iraq war and how it was conducted-- these people are true believers. Bradley Manning truly thought that Iraqi freedom would be about Iraqi freedom.
But he was never ideological, never religious for that war.
No. He was very young when it all started. He was never a neocon or neolib. But he is someone who believes in patriotic service, that you should help your country… And he also wanted a university education. He also wanted the GI bill.
Your book shows how he changed on a dime when he discovered that he was helping the Iraqi government detain civilians for distributing "anti-Iraqi literature," when they were passing around an investigative report called, "Where Does the Money Go?" about financial corruption in Iraq. And they were subjected to torture. He didn't need to think it over; that did it for him.
Yes. And when he raised this issue up the chain of command, he was told, shut up, get back to work rounding up authorities for the Iraqi authority.
Reading your book, I feel real pity for Manning because of loneliness. Is the government going to kill him?
No. Aiding the enemy is a capital crime, and he’s accused of that. But the Obama administration has made it clear they will not seek the death penalty.
Could Bradley Manning become a Daniel Ellsberg figure in our lives in years to come?
I hope so. The only reason why Ellsberg was not convicted of a crime-- and Ellsberg has never been shy about saying that he broke the law-- is that there was a favorable political climate in the early 70s. There was a critical mass in the liberal establishment, in law, in academia, in media that supported him. Manning’s had some support from a few really great lawyers and journalists, but not that much.
There are a few reasons why it’s so different. First, because the Vietnam war and the existence of a draft really spread the pain of the war much more evenly than the pain of our last decade’s wars. I'm not saying it was spread perfectly. But this brought a sense of urgency and crisis to middle class households and middle class intellectuals, and this time, by contrast, our intellectuals have been completely insulated from the burdens and the costs of our foreign policy.
That plus having a Democrat in the White House instead of Richard Nixon really defangs a lot of the liberal and intellectual criticism.
Other factors. Manning is easier to marginalize than Ellsberg. Manning is just a private, Manning is gay. Ellsberg had been a model marine who graduated first in his class at officer training school. He had a great career as a defense consultant. It was very hard to write off Daniel Ellsberg as a weirdo. Whereas our media has been happy to write off Bradley Manning as a headcase or a weirdo. Whistleblowers are always pathologized and so this is nothing new.
At the very end of the book, you tell readers how they can communicate to Bradley Manning, and you say he's said to appreciate letters. (Pfc. Bradley Manning, #89289, JRCF, 830 Sabalu Road, Fort Leavenworth KS 66027-2315). When you write him, what do you say to him?
I hope he’s doing all right. I tell him about the people who I talk to in my research who really love the leaks--whether it’s a Haitian American activist or a Tunisian academic, who see Bradley Manning as a champion of freedom.
He hasn’t written back. He’s not communicating, which kind of makes sense.