The intellectual cowardice of Bradley Manning's critics

Those wanting the Army Private imprisoned are afraid to condemn the virtually identical acts of Daniel Ellsberg

Published December 24, 2011 12:26PM (EST)

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

After imprisoning Private First Class Bradley Manning for eighteen months, the U.S. Army last week finally began the preliminary stage of his court-martial proceeding, and that initial process ended on Thursday. Manning faces over 30 charges; the most serious -- "aiding the enemy" -- carries a death sentence (though prosecutors are requesting "only" life in prison for the 24-year-old soldier). The technical purpose of this week's hearing was to determine if there is sufficient evidence to warrant a full court-martial proceeding; the finding (that there is such evidence) is a virtual inevitability. Manning's counsel, Lt. Col. David Coombs, spent the week challenging the Army's evidence, suggesting that his client may have suffered "diminished capacity" by virtue of his gender struggles and emotional instability, and finally, forcefully arguing that the leaks were an act of political conscience and that the Army has severely "overcharged" Manning in an attempt to coerce incriminating statements against WikiLeaks (Kevin Gosztola and The Guardian were at the hearing and have recaps of what happened over the last week; my general view of Manning was set forth in an Op-Ed in The Guardian last week, and my specific view of the gender defense is here).

For the moment, I want to make one narrow point about Bradley Manning. I've made it before but it was really underscored for me by a debate I had on an Al Jazeera program Thursday night regarding Manning with Daniel Ellsberg and the neocon activist Cliff May, who vigorously defended the Obama administration's treatment of Manning (the video of our segment is embedded below; it was preceded by a short interview of P.J. Crowley):

Ever since Manning was accused of being the source for the WikiLeaks disclosures, those condemning these leaks have sought to distinguish them from Ellsberg's leak of the Pentagon Papers. With virtual unanimity, Manning's harshest critics have contended that while Ellsberg's leak was justifiable and noble, Manning's alleged leaks were not; that's because, they claim, Ellsberg's leak was narrowly focused and devoted to exposing specific government lies, while Manning's was indiscriminate and a far more serious breach of secrecy. When President Obama declared Manning guilty, he made the same claim: "No it wasn’t the same thing. Ellsberg’s material wasn’t classified in the same way."

One problem for those wishing to make this claim is that Ellsberg himself has been one of Manning's most vocal defenders, repeatedly insisting that the two leaks are largely indistinguishable. But the bigger problem for this claim is how blatantly irrational it is. As Ellsberg clearly details in this Al Jazeera debate, he -- Ellsberg -- dumped 7,000 pages of Top Secret documents: the highest known level of classification; by contrast, not a single page of what Manning is alleged to have leaked was Top Secret, but rather all bore a much lower-level secrecy designation. In that sense, Obama was right: "Ellsberg’s material wasn’t classified in the same way" -- the secrets Ellsberg leaked were classified as being far more sensitive.

To the extent one wants to distinguish the two leaks, Ellsberg's was the far more serious breach of secrecy. The U.S. Government's own pre-leak assessment of the sensitivities of these documents proves that. How can someone -- in the name of government secrecy and national security -- praise the release of thousands of pages of Top Secret documents while vehemently condemning the release of documents bearing a much lower secrecy classification?

Nor is there any way to distinguish the substance of the two leaks. While the Pentagon Papers exposed the lies from American leaders regarding the Vietnam War, the WikiLeaks disclosures have done exactly the same with regard to the Iraq War, the war in Afghanistan, and a whole litany of other critical events. Here is what Ellen Knickmeyer, the Baghdad Bureau Chief for The Washington Post during the Iraq War, documented about the Iraq War logs Manning is accused of releasing:

Thanks to WikiLeaks, though, I now know the extent to which top American leaders lied, knowingly, to the American public, to American troops, and to the world, as the Iraq mission exploded.

Is that not exactly what makes so many people view the Pentagon Papers leak as noble and just? Even some of Manning's fellow soldiers in Iraq have hailed the WikiLeaks leaker as a hero. Beyond that, the diplomatic cables and war logs released by WikiLeaks revealed falsehoods and improprieties from the U.S. government (and other governments around the world) in a wide range of areas: its involvement in the covert war in Yemen; lies told by the U.S. Government regarding horrific, civilian-slaughtering incidents in Iraq; and, in general, numerous acts of abuses, deceit and illegality regarding much of what was done under the War on Terror rubric: exactly as the Pentagon Papers did.

Nor, if the U.S. Government's evidence is to be believed, can there be any doubt about the similarity in motives between the two leakers. Just as Ellsberg repeatedly explained that he could not in good conscience stand by and have the world remain ignorant of the government lies he discovered about the Vietnam War (a war he once supported and helped plan), so, too, did Manning repeatedly state that these leaks were vital for informing the world about the depths of brutality, corruption and deceit driving these wars (including one war to which he was deployed as a soldier) -- all with the goal of triggering what he called "worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms." In the purported chats he had, Manning described how the intense worldwide reaction to the video of an Apache helicopter shooting unarmed civilians and a Reuters journalist in Baghdad "gave me immense hope"; that's because: "i want people to see the truth… regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public." That is as pure an expression as possible of exactly what motivated Ellsberg as well.

Just as Ellsberg came to realize the evil of the war of which he was a part and felt compelled to act to expose it even at the risk of his own liberty, so, too, did Manning (in the chat logs Manning purportedly said: "im not so much scared of getting caught and facing consequences at this point… as i am of being misunderstood"). The Army Private also explained in the chat logs that he began to realize how heinous the Iraq War was when he discovered that "insurgents" being rounded up and imprisoned by the U.S. Army were doing nothing more than issuing "scholarly critiques" of the Malaki government's corruption -- only to find that his Army superiors ignored his discovery when he brought it to their attention. Both Ellsberg and (allegedly) Manning then did the same thing: turned over the information they discovered to a third party to select the parts that should be published to the world (The New York Times for Ellsberg and WikiLeaks for Manning).

What's really going on here in this Manning v. Ellsberg comparison is pure intellectual cowardice. At this point -- four decades after it happened -- most people are unwilling to stand up and publicly condemn the Pentagon Papers leak. In progressive circles, it has long been entrenched dogma that Ellsberg's leak was just and noble and that the Nixon administration's efforts to prosecute Ellsberg were ignoble. Ellsberg has hero status, and deservedly so: he risked his life, literally, to expose to the world just how systematic and deliberate was the U.S. Government's deceit about the Vietnam War and how heinous was the war itself.

As a result, very few people are willing to condemn what he did (even the neocon May, in this Al Jazeera debate, was afraid to say that what Ellsberg did was wrong). So in order to condemn Manning -- and, as importantly, if not more so, to defend the Obama administration -- it's necessary for Manning's critics to contrive distinctions between the Pentagon Papers leak and the WikiLeaks disclosure: of course I approve of what Ellsberg did -- all Decent People do -- but what Manning is accused of doing is radically different and just awful: he must be punished.

The clear reality, though, is that those who condemn Manning now and want to see him imprisoned for decades are the direct heirs of those who, in the early 1970s, wanted to see Dan Ellsberg imprisoned for life. Those who now condemn both Ellsberg and Manning -- like those who support the executive power abuses and secrecy of both the Bush and Obama administrations -- are authoritarians to be sure, but at least they're sincere and consistent in their views; it's those who support one but condemn the other who are incoherent at best.

As Ellsberg himself makes clear, everything that is being said now to condemn Manning -- everything -- was widely said about Ellsberg at the time of his leak. Back then, Ellsberg was repeatedly accused of being a traitor, of violating his oath, of endangering America's national security, of aiding its enemies, of taking the law into his own hands; he was smeared and had his sanity continuously called into question. Had it not been for the Nixon administration's overzealous attempts to destroy him by breaking into the office of his psychiatrist -- the primary act that caused the charges against Ellsberg to be dismissed on the grounds of government misconduct -- there is a real possibility that Ellsberg would still be in a federal prison today. He's viewed as a hero now only because the passage of time has proven the nobility of his act: it's much easier to defend those who challenge and subvert political power retrospectively than it is to do so at the time.

As the Walkely Foundation recognized last month when awarding WikiLeaks and Julian Assange Australia's equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize: "the secret cables [] create[d] more scoops in a year than most journalists could imagine in a lifetime." Those who want to see Manning punished and imprisoned for decades are driven by exactly the same mentality as those who wanted to see Ellsberg in prison back then: a belief that the U.S. Government has the right to use secrecy to hide its acts of deceit and illegality, and that those who expose such acts to the world are the real criminals. Just as the Obama administration's obsessive persecution of whistleblowers has its roots in the secrecy-worshipping mentality of the Nixon administration -- in her New Yorker article on the war on whistleblowers, Jane Mayer quotes Gabriel Schoenfeld as saying: "Obama has presided over the most draconian crackdown on leaks in our history—even more so than Nixon" -- those demanding Manning's punishment are, in every sense, the Nixonians of today. Manning's critics are made from the same authoritarian cloth as those demanding Dan Ellsberg's scalp in 1971. They should at least be honest enough to admit that, and stop contriving blatantly false distinctions between the two cases.

* * * * *

One unanswered question surrounding the charges against Manning has long been this: who, exactly, is "the enemy" Manning is accused of aiding? On Thursday, military prosecutors supplied the answer: Al Qaeda. Apparently, by disclosing to the world the U.S. Government's bad acts undertaken in secrecy, one is legally "aiding Al Qaeda." Gosztola, in his recap of the proceedings, details how dangerous that theory is to basic journalism, as did Law Professor Kevin Jon Heller back in March.

* * * * *

The New Yorker's George Packer emailed an objection to an item I wrote on Thursday, and I posted Packer's objection as an update along with my own response; there is now additional information about the objection voiced by Packer, and this morning I posted it as a final update to that column.

* * * * *

The Al Jazeera segment is here:


UPDATE: There is one other glaring irony that should be noted here. If Manning is indeed the WikiLeaks leaker, then he did not only reveal critical truths to the world, but also achieved enormous good: exactly the results the purported chat logs reflect that Manning sought. Even the harshly anti-WikiLeaks former NYT Executive Editor, Bill Keller, credits the release of the diplomatic cables with helping to spark the Arab Spring by exposing the true depths of the region's dictators, including in Tunisia. By highlighting atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Iraq, the diplomatic cables prevented the Malaki government from granting the legal immunity Obama officials were demanding in exchange for keeping troops in Iraq beyond the 2011 deadline and thus helped end the Iraq War. Ironically, it's often the very same people who most vocally celebrate the Arab Spring and the end of the Iraq War who simultaneously support the imprisonment of an individual who helped bring those events about (the WikiLeaks leaker), while cheering for a government (the Obama administration) that propped up many of those Arab dictators and tried desperately to extend the Iraq war.

If he is the WikiLeaks leaker, history will judge Manning as kindly as it has Ellsberg -- and will view his persecutors just as unkindly as Nixon officials are viewed today for what they tried to do in the face of the Pentagon Papers leak.


UPDATE II: In deciding which problem is larger -- excessive secrecy or excessive disclosure -- consider this year-end list from Electronic Frontier Foundation entitled: "2011: The Year Secrecy Jumped the Shark," which details just some of the most extreme secrecy abuses of The Most Transparent Administration Ever™. Jay Rosen once said: "The watchdog press died; we have [WikiLeaks] instead"; one could just as accurately say: meaningful transparency died; we have Bradley Manning instead.


UPDATE III: Here is a good report from Al Jazeera's Listening Post from this week on U.S. media coverage of the Manning story, featuring interviews with Amy Goodman, FAIR's Peter Hart, former CIA agent Roy McGovern and myself:


By Glenn Greenwald

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