The Passion of Private Manning

What to call Private Manning?  The question is surprisingly fraught.  After all, Manning was about to be discharged from the U.S. Army for "gender identity disorder" when he was arrested and charged with leaking over half a million classified documents to WikiLeaks.  Manning had taken the ministrations of a gender counselor and, according to the chatlogs with the informant who turned him in, he had tried cross-dressing on his last trip home to the States. Therefore, the New Inquiry has decided to refer to the private in the gender neutral as "B." Manning. 

And yet I have chosen to refer to the private throughout my book, even in the title, as "Bradley" Manning.  Why?  Quite simply, because Private Manning has not yet made the clear and irrevocable decision to transition from male to female.  From what we know, he appeared to be heading in that direction.  But he has not yet made the final decision, and that is a decision that only Manning can make.  Even though his circumstances are now radically constricted, this is still only a decision that only he can make.  Given the gravity of the choice, I would rather err on the side of the literal than purport to speak for someone who has given me no such right.  (There is a long and ignoble history of progressive lawyers pretending to know their client's interests better than their client does, and the results have often been ugly.) The choice to gender-transition is Bradley Manning's alone to make. The moment he makes it clearly and unequivocally, I will address Manning exactly as he, or she, requests.  


03:24:10 PM) bradass87: we’re human… and we’re killing ourselves… and no-one seems to see that… and it bothers me

(03:24:26 PM) bradass87: apathy

(03:25:28 PM) bradass87: apathy is far worse than the active participation

(05:54:42 PM) bradass87: apathy is its own 3rd dimension… i have special graph for that… =P

To say the very least, Pfc. B. Manning’s alleged leaks have added to our knowledge of war and statecraft. The disclosures have fueled hundreds if not thousands of stories in the world’s major newspapers; they have stripped the spin and lies off the official versions of the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War; they have shined a light into the pseudo-legal prison camp of Guantánamo. The leaked diplomatic cables have provided a partial view of how the world’s greatest power conducts its affairs, and candid accounts of how many nations run themselves.

But what impact have these leaks had? Have they rolled back the invasion of Iraq or the “intervention” in Afghanistan? Have they led to the “worldwide discussion, debates, reforms” that B. Manning hoped for? Have they changed foreign policy? What role, for that matter, do leaks of death squads and free-fire zones ever play in ending wars and shaping statecraft?

Though the WikiLeaks revelations are the largest such revelations yet, this is far from the first time state secrets have come to light.  Leaks have done much to advance knowledge.  The chapter on taxation in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations relies entirely on a survey of European fiscal practices that the French crown intended for elite administrative use only. Roger Casement’s exposés of King Leopold’s Congo, of the British-owned rubber plantations of the Amazon, made him a Victorian hero–until his gunrunning for Irish independence got him hanged. Rupert Murdoch’s grandfather made his name and began his press empire by leaking the Gallipoli cables.  The exposure of the My Lai massacre came after a see-no-evil military investigation found nothing.  (The whitewash, by the way, was led by a young Army major named Colin Powell.)

And yet so many leaks, even of top-secret skullduggery, even of atrocity, have made only the slightest dent in whatever vast imperial project they were meant to expose.  The My Lai massacre—over 500 Vietnamese villagers, women, children, the elderly methodically slaughtered by American troops—even when it came to light, thanks to former GI Ron Ridenhour and reporter Sy Hersh, failed utterly to halt the war, which lasted another seven years. It didn’t even hold the US soldiers to account, with the commanding officer suffering only a mild wrist-slap and a few weeks in the brig.

It turns out the impact of whistleblowing is often minimal. When Iranian students stormed the US embassy in 1979, they seized reams of secret files related to the CIA’s activities throughout the whole Middle East. After laboriously pasting together many shredded pages and translating the lot into Farsi, they began to release the multivolume edition of Documents from the US Espionage Den. Here at last were top-secret accounts of back room American fiddling with the internal affairs and foreign ministries of the entire Middle East region, not to mention CIA involvement in enormous petroleum deals and projects.

After the mandatory panic and utterances about this grave blow to American national security from which the world would never recover, the world yawned and Washington continued its business in the Middle East, without Iran in its pocket but unchastened. In the past thirty years, the Carter Doctrine—that the Persian Gulf is of vital strategic interest to the United States and must, like the Caribbean, remain under American military control—has only grown more aggressive, while American meddling in the Middle East has intensified. Plainly, the Iranian students’ game-changing revelations barely rattled Washington’s imperial designs in the region.

But what of the Pentagon Papers? Given their talismanic place in the folklore of the peace movement, surely this superleak dealt a deathblow against America’s warmaking in Southeast Asia?  The virtue of exposing the Pentagon Papers can hardly be doubted: the Department of Defense’s in-house history of the Vietnam War conclusively gave the lie to upbeat official statements about that long and thoroughly gratuitous war.  But the story of this mega-leak's real impact on the war—and on the press, and on the law, and on society in general--is anything but straightforward.

When the Pentagon Papers first began their appearance in the New York Times, President Nixon was delighted.  As the papers only covered events under the previous two administrations, here was a chance to make Jack Kennedy look bad--what could be better for Dick Nixon?  It was only after Henry Kissinger persuaded his boss that tolerating the leaks made him look like a weakling that Nixon’s bumbling staff cocked their blunderbuss at the Times.  And it blew up in their face.  The Supreme Court of the United States held, in a somewhat ambiguous ruling whose holding is still debated, that the government could not bar the Times from publishing these top-secret leaks.  Nixon’s Solicitor General who had argued the government’s case later repudiated the whole effort to ban the Papers’ publication.  Point, press

Next the government took woozy aim at Ellsberg, reviving the Espionage Act of 1917 with the then-novel use of punishing a domestic leaker. Nixon’s stooges broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office hoping to find dirt on the man. (Ellsberg, a model Marine who had graduated first in his class at Quantico’s officer training school, deferred grad school at Harvard to stay on active duty, and had come under enemy fire in Vietnam, was not an easy guy to smear.) The burglars famously didn’t find anything, but they eventually got caught. Once the Ellsberg trial had begun, Team Nixon attempted to bribe the judge, offering him the directorship of the Federal Bureau of Investigation––should he be interested. The judge, in his clueless vanity, only realized weeks later that he was being suborned. He hastily declared a mistrial with prejudice, leaving Ellsberg, who had always freely admitted to leaking the top-secret documents, a free man. Let it not be forgotten that the only legal difference between Daniel Ellsberg’s confessed leak and Manning’s alleged deed is that the Pentagon Papers were uniformly designated “top secret,” a higher classification than anything from the WikiLeaks dumps.

A great story, but in the end, the Pentagon Papers did nothing to halt or even slow the Vietnam War. A paperback edition of highlights from the papers sold over a million, but no doubt few actually read it. The mess did, however, hasten Nixon’s self-immolation.

The litany is long of colossal game-changing bombshells that made inaudible thuds on impact.  During France’s vicious post-colonial war in Algeria, Henri Alleg’s famous 1958 exposé of his torture by colonial authorities sold 60,000 copies in a single day. Other such testimonies were plentiful. But as Alexander Cockburn points out, “torture duly became more pervasive, and the war more savage, under the supervision of a nominally socialist French government.”

Much more recently, the anonymous leak of U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry’s cable to the White House argued forcefully and expertly (the now ex-ambassador is a retired Army general) against troop escalation and for the scrapping of the DoD’s counterinsurgency strategy. The document was leaked in November 2009 and published in the New York Times two months later. Despite Eikenberry’s impeccable credentials, and despite swiftly tanking public support for the war, the cable halted neither Obama’s Afghan surge nor the intensified drone strikes. And 2009-11 have been the bloodiest three years yet for American forces in Afghanistan.

We might ask—in our despair—why we ever think, like B. Manning, that new information will spur “worldwide debates, discussions and reforms”?  Of course, secret information can result in a happy ending, and it often does—at the movies.  Some critical bit of intelligence is a common McGuffin in suspense movies and pulp thrillers.  Villains have suppressed some important piece of knowledge and this is causing grave harm; the protagonist after many struggles retrieves the intelligence, brings it to light and the system rights itself in the nick of time, often thanks to the press.  This plot is pure escapist fantasy, and a conservative one at that as it reaffirms faith in the normal political system and its institutions, whose essential high-functioning goodness always wins out over some “abuse” or “rogue element.”

And it’s easy to see why this plot line is so popular with screenwriters, journalists, and intellectuals generally.  Intellectuals have so much invested in the power of information and knowledge, and we nearly almost always overstate the importance of it as an engine-driver of history or motivator of human actions.  The just-add-knowledge-and-stir model of political action was favored by liberals of the Enlightenment and the liberals of today, from the Encyclopedists and James Madison to Bertrand Russell and Pfc. B. Manning.  But isn’t this faith misplaced?

In his confessional chatlogs, Manning delivers his credo: “I want people to see the truth… regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.” But who actually wants to see the truth? Who really wants knowledge? It turns out that ignorance is not just a matter of information supply, but of demand. Ignorance is much more than an absence of knowledge, a pristine vacancy suitable for structures of knowledge to be built through “education.”  In fact, ignorance is more often than not something rock-solid, opaque, and above all, willful.

It can’t be stressed enough that willful ignorance is not the exclusive province of working-class people or of those without formal schooling. From 2000-2008 this sort of blockheadedness found its personification in the President of the United States, a scion of multigenerational privilege.

We might then pessimistically think that the joke is on the whistleblowers, the Enlightenment true believers, all those naïve types who would “speak truth to power.”  Of what use has the truth ever been in politics? When Secretary of State Colin Powell testified at UN General Assembly that he had incontrovertible proof of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, his whole dishonorable speech collapsed around him only hours later, when key assertions were revealed as a shoddy internet cut-and-paste job, giving the whole casus belli a nightmarish Alice in Wonderland quality. Of course the quick and definitive unmasking of official lies did nothing to halt the war juggernaut: the government, the major media, and ultimately millions of Americans had too much invested in war—politically, financially, psychologically—to reverse course.

The consequences of knowledge can be nil; they can also be perverse. The dangerous knowledge brought to light by social reformers often has unexpected consequences. The upshot of Upton Sinclair’s exposé of hazardous working conditions in the meatpacking industry wasn’t worker safety laws, but sanitary measures designed to protect middle-class consumers. The results of Jacob Riis’ muckraking photographs of working-class New Yorkers was punitive legislation to better “motivate” the slum-dwellers, like shuttering the police precinct bunkhouses that had served as informal homeless shelters. Governments and their embedded media outlets have managed to spin some of the WikiLeaks revelations in directions that astonish. Even as every world newspaper seized on the Guantánamo files to show the incompetent harshness of the prison camp—including the quite conservative British Daily Telegraph—the New York Times emphasized just how dangerous the inmates were—even though nearly three out of four has been released.

“What does end wars?” asks Alexander Cockburn. “One side is annihilated, the money runs out, the troops mutiny, the government falls, or fears it will. With the US war in Afghanistan none of these conditions has yet been met.”

            But anguish over truth’s impotence is not fully warranted. Information may not be sufficient, but it is necessary, and when harnessed to political will, it can change the world. After all, Daniel Ellsberg’s earlier, though far less famous, 1968 leak of a top-secret report to the president may well have forestalled a catastrophic widening of the war, at least until Nixon and Kissinger carpet-bombed Cambodia. Therein, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Earle Wheeler requested an additional 206,000 US troops for Vietnam, which would have entailed calling up the reserves and widening the war into Laos, Cambodia; the report also contemplated the use of “small tactical” nuclear weapons not just in North Vietnam but in the south as well. Ellsberg handed the document to Robert F. Kennedy, who rallied Senate opposition to the escalation; someone else had passed the plans to the New York Times. President Johnson did not request the troop increase.

Were American air strikes on Iran in the waning days of Bush-Cheney averted by a timely leak? The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program swiftly made its way public; its findings—that Iran was very far from acquiring nuclear weapons--were a shocking reversal of previous reports. Admiral William Fallon, head of CENTCOM, took the unusual step of immediately declassifying this NIE on Iran in December, 2007; a decision to which the White House, fearing an inevitable leak, assented. This quasi-leak, whose content was given emphatic backing by top military, diplomatic and intelligence officials, also further stated that “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” This was Fallon making good on his candid earlier utterance that “we won’t be doing Iran on my watch”—candor that cost him his job.

In his memoirs, George W. Bush writes that this unexpected assessment “tied my hands on the military side.” It’s impossible to prove that this quasi-leak was decisive in preventing American and/or Israeli air strikes (or worse) on Iran. But it certainly did set back the neoconservative efforts to make war on Tehran, with much disappointment manifested on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal and National Review.

It was Ray McGovern, a retired CIA senior analyst, who brought the above two leaks to my attention. McGovern knows something about secrets, intelligence and public service: he served in Army intelligence in Vietnam, then went on to give daily intelligence briefings to President Reagan and the first Bush.

McGovern has written that he wished he had had the courage to leak some of the Pentagon’s honest internal evaluations of the Vietnam War’s countless failings and evils—back then, he tells me, the Fourth Estate actually picked up stories like that, and it couldhave given the antiwar movement a boost.  (Today McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing ministry of the ecumenical Church of the Savior in inner-city Washington; he’s also a co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.)  On February 15 of this year McGovern attended a speech given by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton where she was greeted by “obsequious adulation.”   Eager to dissociate himself “from the obsequious adulation of a person responsible for so much death, suffering and destruction,” McGovern stood up in the midst of her opening remarks, and turned his back to her, his Veterans for Peace t-shirt combining with his silence to make a powerful statement.  It did not go unnoticed.   Madame Secretary’s security retinue grabbed McGovern, dragged him out of the auditorium, beating him black and blue.  “So this is America! So this is America!” yelled.  Clinton resumed her speech, a lofty defense of internet freedom—abroad, of course, not at home.

Ray is an unpretentious guy from the Bronx; a self-professed “Vatican II Catholic”; a polyglot intellectual proficient in five languages. We talked about B. Manning’s alleged act—which McGovern admires greatly—its likely impact on US foreign policy, and Thomas Aquinas. “In section 158 of the Summa Theologica, Aquinas complains that Latin has no word for the virtue of anger. There’s anger as a vice, iracundia. So Aquinas went back to Chrysostom to revive the concept of righteous anger at injustice and evil.  Because he who isn’t angry has an ‘unreasoned patience’, sows the seeds of vice. I’m trying to be virtuously angry. Being Irish gives you a leg up!

“Bradley Manning had the strength to be angry. Are all of the cables he released covered by whistleblower protection laws? Of course not, but what was he going to do, go over each and every one in his bed late at night? Moral philosophy teaches that there are supervening values that dwarf the other stuff, that it’s transcendently important to stop war and torture. That’s what I think Manning understood, these basic principles.

But in America today we have far too much passive acceptance of injustice.  We need more righteous anger.”

McGovern’s gloomy diagnosis is, alas, born out by hard data. We Americans can  pride ourselves all we want on our anti-authority posturing, but a 2006 poll from the International Social Survey Program of national attitudes towards individualism and authority tells a very different story.

In 2006, the ISSP asked the question “In general, would you say that people should obey the law without exception, or are there exceptional occasions on which people should follow their consciences even if it means breaking the law?” At 45 percent, Americans were the least likely out of nine nationalities to say that people should at least on occasion follow their consciences — far fewer than, for example, the Swedes (70 percent) and the French (78 percent). Similarly, in 2003, Americans turned out to be the most likely to embrace the statement “People should support their country even if the country is in the wrong.”

Perhaps the most distressing part of the whole saga of these leaks is that, given how easy it was to bring these public records to light, and how many soldiers and diplomats had access to them, not a single person had the courage to do the deed–until, allegedly, a certain private from Crescent, Oklahoma. This paucity of public-spirited citizens speaks poorly of American rebelliousness. After all, what country can remain free if its citizens no longer have any “issues with authority”?



            If any lesson can be drawn from the Manning affair, it’s that leaks can make a great difference if there is organized political muscle to put them to good use.  Information on its own is futile; as useless as those other false hopes of the global center-left, international law and its sidekick, the human rights industry, all of which have their uses, but are insufficient to stop wars and end torture. This is not to denigrate the achievement of the person who gave us this magnificent gift of knowledge about world affairs. If the disclosures have not changed US statecraft––yet—the fault lies not in the cables, but in the pathetic lack of political organization among those individuals who don’t “have a position” in Halliburton stock—the 99%, if you will.

Michael Moore has named B. Manning a patron saint of the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon, an icon and martyr for the cause of justice and freedom. The “Free Bradley” signs at Occupy events all over the country are often sneered at as proof of the incipient movement’s indiscipline and lack of realism. They are, in fact, a sign of the group’s robust ideals and healthy distance from the liberal-ish mainstream of American news media.

For now, the disclosures and their great potential hangs unresolved. Will the leaks kindle more uprisings in authoritarian nations? Will the Haitian diaspora be able to use the diplomatic cables to rally opposition to imperial meddling? Will Americans unlearn some of their deference and docility and stand up to the foreign policy elite that has brought carnage and destruction to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, that has supported dictators in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and bankrolled ethnic cleansing in Palestine? Will American stand against a foreign policy that has served their own needs and interests so disastrously? The growing number of young returned veterans at Occupy Wall Street events is a sign that their fellow soldier and patriot’s earnest hopes for debate, discussion and reform may yet be validated.

But even if these leaks lead to nothing, the Promethean act of bringing knowledge to mere civilians without a security clearance is still taboo enough to provoke the severest punishment.

 (02:28:10 AM) bradass87:i want people to see the truth… regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public

Chase Madar
is a civil rights lawyer in New York and the author of The Passion of Bradley Manning. He writes for the London Review of Books, Le Monde diplomatique, The National Interest and TomDispatch.