By now, you’ve likely read about President Obama’s comments concerning Pfc. Bradley Manning. Ever the insightful reporter, Glenn Greenwald recently published an article at Salon that examines the impact of the President’s statement and the deep hypocrisies it reveals. Greenwald deals several strong blows to Obama, especially when he compares and contrasts Manning’s situation with that of Daniel Ellsberg’s. The Pentagon Papers case of 1971, which I’ve mentioned in a previous article about the non-threat Wikileaks poses to national security, demonstrates how and why leaking government documents, and breaking the law, is sometimes necessary, even heroic. But, Obama, along with an army of other politicians, acts like he’s never heard of it.
The impropriety of Obama’s public pre-trial declaration of Manning’s guilt (“He broke the law”) is both gross and manifest. How can Manning possibly expect to receive a fair hearing from military officers when their Commander-in-Chief has already decreed his guilt?
Moreover, as a self-proclaimed Constitutional Law professor, he ought to have an instinctive aversion when speaking as a public official to assuming someone’s guilt who has been convicted of nothing. It’s little wonder that he’s so comfortable with Manning’s punitive detention since he already perceives Manning as a convicted criminal.
But even more fascinating is Obama’s invocation of America’s status as a “nation of laws” to justify why Manning must be punished. That would be a very moving homage to the sanctity of the rule of law — if not for the fact that the person invoking it is the same one who has repeatedly engaged in the most extraordinary efforts to shield Bush officials from judicial scrutiny, investigation, and prosecution of every kind for theirwar crimes and surveillance felonies. Indeed, the Orwellian platitude used by Obama to justify that immunity — Look Forward, Not Backward— is one of the greatest expressions of presidential lawlessness since Richard Nixon told David Frost that “it’s not illegal if the President does it.”
It’s that last bit that I find so compelling. Torture is inexcusable, but to justify its implementation in the interests of maintaining lawful order while simultaneously protecting criminals of the grossest sort makes it worse. As Greenwald acknowledges, Manning’s detention is probably illegal, even by military standards, so there’s a double hypocrisy in Obama’s logic:
One final irony to Obama’s embrace of this lofty justifying term: Manning’s punitive detention conditions are themselves illegal, as the Uniform Code of Military Justice expressly bars the use of pre-trial detention as a means of imposing punishment. Given how inhumane Manning’s detention conditions have been — and the fact that much of it was ordered in contradiction to the assessments of the brig’s psychiatric staff — there is little question that this is exactly what has happened. The President lecturing us yesterday about how Manning must be punished because we’re a “nation of laws” is the same one presiding over and justifying Manning’s unlawful detention conditions.
Of course, nobody will punish Obama for Manning’s mistreatment, just as no one has punished Bush and his administration for lying.
As for the connection to Ellsberg, it’s shocking to learn that the secrets Manning leaked are actually less sensitive than those revealed in 1971, at least technically speaking. Greenwald explains,
The 42 volumes of the Pentagon Papers leaked by Ellsberg to The New York Times were designated “TOP SECRET“: the highest secrecy designation under the law. By stark contrast, not a single page of the materials allegedly leaked by Manning to Wikileaks was marked “top secret”; to the contrary, it was all marked “secret” or “classified”: among the lowest level secrecy classifications. Using the Government’s own standards, then, the leak by Ellsberg was vastly more dangerous than the alleged leak by Manning.
But it has long been vital for Obama officials and the President’s loyalists to distinguish Ellsberg from Manning. Why? Because it is more or less an article of faith among progressives that what Ellsberg did was noble and heroic. How, then, can Nixon’s persecution of Ellsberg continue to be loathed while Obama’s persecution of Manning be cheered?
The entire article is worth reading, but it’s also disturbing. Not only does Obama appear confused about what powers he possesses as the President of the United States, he blatantly demonstrates his incompetence when dealing with matters as sensitive as Manning’s trial, who is almost certainly guaranteed an unfair trial. When I wrote to my senators and representatives in Massachusetts about Manning’s conditions, I received only one response. Surprisingly, it was from Republican Scott Brown. In it, I think we can glean what every politician thinks about Pfc. Bradley Manning, and what they fear.
Here is the letter in full:
Thank you for contacting me regarding the treatment and prosecution of PFC Bradley Manning. I value your input on this and all issues, and appreciate hearing from you.
As you know, the Wikileaks website has released to the public over 500,000 classified documents. These releases include Department of State cables and documents related to the United States involvement in the Iraq War. This breach of security marks one of the largest releases of classified information in the history of our country. PFC Bradley Manning was arrested on May 26, 2010, for the alleged release of these documents, and was held at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. He was charged on July 5, 2010, under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for violation of Article 92 and Article 134.
PFC Manning was transferred on July 29, 2010, to Marine Base Quantico located in Virginia. As a maximum custody detainee, he was held under a prevention of injury assignment, on the basis that PFC Manning was considered a danger to himself. PFC Manning should be provided a fair trial, in accordance with military court-martial procedures. Just as everyone in U.S. custody, PFC Manning should not be subjected to inhumane treatment or torture. I have been assured that PFC Manning’s detention has been conducted in accordance with the law, and that standard measures at maximum security facilities, such as solitary confinement, have been implemented for PFC Manning’s own protection.
I strongly disagree with Wikileaks’ decision to release these documents and the alleged actions of PFC Bradley Manning. The release of classified government information is a crime in the United States, and people found guilty of deliberately leaking classified information should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. The release of this information not only harmed the United States’ diplomatic efforts, but jeopardized the safety of our men and women in uniform as well as the many American and Iraqi civilians working to aid and support the Iraqi government. Additionally, the leak could potentially aid terrorist enemies in their efforts to harm U.S. citizens at home and abroad.
Please know that I am committed to ensuring that classified information remains secret and does not fall into the hands of our enemies. As such, I have instructed my staff to look into ways to improve our protection of classified material, while still enabling information sharing among our nation’s defense and intelligence agencies.
Additionally, it is important to have laws that will help to deter the unauthorized disclosure of classified information. To that end, I recently joined Senator John Ensign (R-NV) in re-introducing S. 315, the Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination Act (SHIELD Act). The SHIELD Act would amend the Espionage Act to prohibit the disclosure of classified human intelligence activities of the United States or any foreign government for the benefit of a transnational threat. S. 315 has been referred to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, where it is currently awaiting consideration.
Again, thank you for sharing your views with me. Should you have any additional questions or comments, please feel free to contact me or visit my website at http://www.scottbrown.senate.gov.
Scott P. Brown
United States Senator
Besides the numerous factual errors, Scott Brown makes it clear that he’s happy to have Manning swept under the rug. I understand that this is likely a pre-formatted letter sent to everyone that might contact Senator Brown, but its nonchalance and disregard for the truth—who has been harmed by any of these leaks except for politicians?—is disturbing.
It would seem that being above the law is a perk of being rich and powerful, just so long as you have the right friends. Manning and Wikileaks represent a threat to that kind of political structure. That’s precisely why Manning’s detainment has been so severe, and why so many politicians have been quick to label him guilty. It’s also an elegant explanation for why Julian Assange has become public enemy number one. Perhaps that statement sounds conspiratorial, but how else am I supposed to interpret this story?
The moral here is that breaking the law is bad, but making it a matter of public record is worse.