In Defense of Bradley Manning

October 2nd, 2012 by Andy in The Politics of Intelligence

From one of the best publications coming from a conservative perspective, and better than many from any political persuasion, this article by Chris Bray in The American Conservative, in which he reviews a new book on Manning by civil rights lawyer Chase Madar, makes one of the best cases I’ve read in quite awhile, in the defense of Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private accused of releasing files to WikiLeaks. It is an argument where the fundamental American principles as defined and understood through the languages of the left and the right come together.

It is ironic that Pat Buchanan’s magazine is forwarding such a sound defense of Manning, while there has not been a single Democratic office holder in Washington who has expressed anything remotely as intellectually cogent or ethically valid as this on Manning’s behalf. This, in spite of the flagrantly egregious and unconstitutional treatment inflicted upon him, and in total disregard to any of the morally valid arguments put forth in the defense of the actions for which he has been charged with.

Madar is most successful at two points. First, he places Manning’s attempt to explain himself against the explicatory efforts of an exhaustingly banal news media. In chat sessions with a stranger on the Internet who (shockingly enough) turned out to be an FBI snitch, Manning is said to have written that he wanted to share “the non-PR versions of world events and crises” with his fellow citizens. Information, he wrote, “should be a public good,” allowing people to assess state action with something more than the information the state chooses to provide. Like Madar, Manning appears to have blended the premises of the left and the right, promising to reveal “how the first world exploits the third” in very nearly the same breath with which he compared his own alleged leaks to the release of the Climategate emails. However it varies in theme and perspective, though, Manning’s discussion focuses on state power and public engagement: what is government doing, and what do we know about it?

“The intel analyst’s intent is conscious, coherent, historically informed and above all it is political ,” Madar concludes. Manning is alleged to have leaked to an organization that “quotes Madison and the Federalist Papers ” in its mission statement. The people behind Wikileaks, Madar writes, “are, essentially, eighteenth-century liberals who are good with computers.” Pulling at the masks that cover neoconservative and neoliberal foreign policy, Manning seems to have been engaged in a small-r republican project, looking for ways to give informed citizens the knowledge to restrain state power.

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Madar cogently examines the culture of unchecked government secrecy. There’s something vaguely Soviet about the American security state these days, a familiar sense that the surreptitious and the pathetic are one in the same. In 1991, Madar writes, the federal government classified six million documents; in 2010, it classified 77 million. The rapid growth of secrecy matches the rapid growth in bad ideas and administrative incompetence, as overclassification protects “the delicate ego of the foreign policy elite, whose performance in the past decade has been so lethally sub-par.”

The phrase at the end of that sentence is my favorite moment in the book. Nor is it only in foreign policy that our political elites are implicated in this lethal mediocrity. The worse they get, the more they hide…

A government that increasingly targets leakers and whistleblowers from its lower and middle ranks is the same government that leaks constantly from the top. But the difference is in the use of those leaks, as senior officials shape political perception by the process of control. Leaks are okay, as long as they serve the interests of power; “when official Washington decides to leak, the law fades away.” Again, the taste is faintly Soviet, and Madar correctly describes the effect of metastasizing classification in a government that also freely hands out secret information when it serves state purposes. “If a rule is selectively only enforced it ceases to be a rule and becomes something else—an arbitrary instrument of authority, a weapon of the powerful—but not a rule.”

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“If we hope to know what our government is so busily doing all over the world, massive leaks from insider whistleblowers are, like it or not, the only recourse,” Madar concludes. We need Bradley Manning.

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