Manning, Obama and U.S. moral leadership

Leading law professors -- including a key Obama supporter - - condemn him for his treatment of the whistle-blower

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Manning, Obama and U.S. moral leadershipBradley Manning, suspected Wikileaks source, has endured harsh treatment.(Credit: AP)

(updated below)

On December 15, when I first reported the inhumane conditions of Bradley Manning’s detention, I did not assign any blame to — or even mention — Barack Obama. Although, as Commander-in-Chief, Obama was technically responsible for Manning’s treatment, there was no evidence that he even knew about it, let alone planned it. But since then, the Manning controversy exploded into national prominence and Obama has explicitly defended the treatment, leaving no doubt that it directly reflects on who he is as a leader and a person.

For that reason, as The Guardian reports this morning, a letter signed by “more than 250 of America’s most eminent legal scholars” that “includes leading figures from all the top US law schools, as well as prominent names from other academic fields” — featuring “Laurence Tribe, a Harvard professor who is considered to be America’s foremost liberal authority on constitutional law”; who “taught constitutional law to Barack Obama and was a key backer of his 2008 presidential campaign”; and “joined the Obama administration last year as a legal adviser in the justice department, a post he held until three months ago” — not only denounces Manning’s detention but also the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner’s personal responsibility for it:



[Tribe] told the Guardian he signed the letter because Manning appeared to have been treated in a way that “is not only shameful but unconstitutional” as he awaits court martial in Quantico marine base in Virginia. . . . Tribe said the treatment was objectionable “in the way it violates his person and his liberty without due process of law and in the way it administers cruel and unusual punishment of a sort that cannot be constitutionally inflicted even upon someone convicted of terrible offences, not to mention someone merely accused of such offences”.

The harsh restrictions have been denounced by a raft of human rights groups, including Amnesty International, and are being investigated by the United Nations’ rapporteur on torture. . . .

The intervention of Tribe and hundreds of other legal scholars is a huge embarrassment to Obama, who was a professor of constitutional law in Chicago. Obama made respect for the rule of law a cornerstone of his administration, promising when he first entered the White House in 2009 to end the excesses of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism. . . .

The protest letter, published in the New York Review of Books, was written by two distinguished law professors, Bruce Ackerman of Yale and Yochai Benkler of Harvard. They claim Manning’s reported treatment is a violation of the US constitution, specifically the eighth amendment forbidding cruel and unusual punishment and the fifth amendment that prevents punishment without trial.

In a stinging rebuke to Obama, they say “he was once a professor of constitutional law, and entered the national stage as an eloquent moral leader. The question now, however, is whether his conduct as commander in chief meets fundamental standards of decency.”

Professor Benkler, echoing the point that I’ve repeatedly emphasized as I believe it to be the most important one, said “Manning’s conditions were being used ‘as a warning to future whistleblowers’.” Indeed, Manning’s treatment lacks even a pretense of justification; it — just like the Obama administration’s unprecedented war on whistle-blowers — is clearly meant to threaten and intimidate future individuals of conscience who, like Manning, might consider exposing government deceit, corruption and illegality: one of the few remaining avenues for learning what the Government does.

Aside from what conduct like this reveals about Obama, it also severely undermines the ability of the U.S. to exercise any shred of moral leadership in the world. Consider this series of events:

Washington Post, March 13, 2011:

Associated Press, April 4, 2011:

Reuters, yesterday:



The United States is beset by violence, racism and torture and has no authority to condemn other governments’ human rights problems, China said on Sunday, countering U.S. criticism of Beijing’s crackdown. . . . “The United States ignores its own severe human rights problems, ardently promoting its so-called ‘human rights diplomacy’, treating human rights as a political tool to vilify other countries and to advance its own strategic interests,” said a passage from the Chinese report.

China also “accused the U.S. . . . of pushing for Internet freedom around the world as a way to undermine other nations, while noting that Washington’s campaign against secret-spilling website WikiLeaks showed its own sensitivity to the free flow of information,” and further “lambasted the U.S. over issues ranging from homelessness and violent crime to the influence of money on politics and the negative effects of its foreign policy on civilians.” China’s human rights record is atrocious, but can anyone contest the validity of its objections to the U.S. and the Obama administration’s purporting to act as human rights arbiters for the world?

* * * * *

Long-time commenter Chris Martinez (DCLaw1) has begun a new fiction blog that features his great writing, subtle humor, and unique insights. Fans of Chris’ commentary here — which includes me — will very much enjoy the new blog.

 

UPDATE: Late last week, Manning’s counsel, David Coombs, documented that the Quantico brig was failing to follows its own rules, as it denied “official visit” authorization to Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a representative of Amnesty International, and Juan Mendez, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Torture formally investigating Manning’s detention conditions. Now, Mendez, in remarkable language, has spoken out in condemning the U.S., as The Guardian reports:

A senior United Nations representative on torture, Juan Mendez, issued a rare reprimand to the US government on Monday for failing to allow him to meet in private Bradley Manning, the American soldier held in a military prison accused of being the WikiLeaks source. It is the kind of censure that the UN normally reserves for authoritarian regimes around the world.

Mendez, the UN special rapporteur on torture, said: “I am deeply disappointed and frustrated by the prevarication of the US government with regard to my attempts to visit Mr Manning“. . . .

Mendez, who has been investigating complaints about his treatment since before Christmas, said the US department of defence would not allow him to make an “official” visit, only a “private” one. An “official” visit would mean he meets Manning without a guard present. A “private” visit means with a guard and anything the prisoner says could be used in the planned court-martial.

Mendez pointed out that his mandate was to conduct unmonitored visits, and that had been the practice in at least 18 countries over the last six years.

“Since December 2010, I have been engaging the US government on visiting Mr Manning, at the invitation of his counsel, to determine his condition,” Mendez said. “Unfortunately, the US government has not been receptive to a confidential meeting with Mr Manning.”

Caring about what the U.N. thinks about things like torture is so very 2007. In response, the U.S. should condemn China again. And it’s quite telling how one must go to to a British newspaper to read about U.S. abuse of a U.S. service member.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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