I have a confession to make: I have been on the fence about Bradley Manning as the drama of his detention and the Wikileaks documents have unfolded. While I believe deeply that those who leak classified materials are acting out of conscience and for the good of the people, I also believe criminal acts – even ones of conscience – must be met with punishment as required in any society that wishes to live by the rule of law. Arrest and detention are part of any illegal act of civil disobedience, and are to be expected as the natural consequence of such an act.
Chain yourself to a fence, and expect to be arrested for trespassing. Pour blood on the nose cone of a nuclear missile, and expect to be arrested for destruction of property. The threat of arrest, detention and possible conviction is part of the package that is civil disobedience, and those who take part in it must accept the consequences as part of their act of conscience. Indeed, it is the acceptance of punishment that lies at the heart of that conscience: they are breaking a law to highlight a wrong, are willing to be punished to underscore that wrong, and in doing so, demonstrate how far they are personally willing to go in order to end that wrong and inspire others in the process.
That's where I've been with Bradley Manning – his was an act of conscience that broke the law, and the consequences of that act must be accepted – until now.
How wrong I was.
This situation goes far beyond such a simplistic cut-and-dried viewpoint. It cuts to the core of what we are as a nation, what we wish to be, and what must be done to honor the values we pay so much lip service to, even as we fail time and again to practice what we preach. What Manning has been charged with goes far beyond an act of conscience; they were, in fact, an attempt to save the very soul of these United States.
It is widely considered facile and weak to make Nazi comparisons in any argument, but unfortunately for every citizen of this country, the comparison here is all too apt. During the Nuremberg trials in the aftermath of World War II, accused war criminals were often heard to claim, “I was only following orders,” as a means of justifying their savage and barbaric activities. The excuse was rejected out of hand, further enshrining the idea that soldiers and officers are more than mere automatons who are expected only to do as they are told. Criminal acts, even in a military situation, are not to be condoned, coddled or tolerated. Men were hanged by the judges at Nuremberg to emphasize the point.
And here is Bradley Manning, who like every enlisted American soldier, swore an oath to support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against enemies both foreign and domestic, and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same. That same oath requires the oath-taker to follow the orders of the president and superior officers, but if those hanged men at Nuremberg prove anything, it is that unlawful orders are by definition void, and should not be followed if the oath sworn to the Constitution is to mean anything at all.
Make no mistake: the documents Bradley Manning has been accused of leaking are prima facie evidence of illegal orders being given and executed all along the chain of command. This has been made even more abundantly clear with the recent revelation of some 700 pages of documents detailing the ongoing travesty that is America's detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. According to various reports:
The files depict a system often focused less on containing dangerous terrorists or enemy fighters, than on extracting intelligence. Among inmates who proved harmless were an 89-year-old Afghan villager, suffering from senile dementia, and a 14-year-old boy who had been an innocent kidnap victim.
A number of British nationals and residents were held for years even though US authorities knew they were not Taliban or al-Qaida members. One Briton, Jamal al-Harith, was rendered to Guantánamo simply because he had been held in a Taliban prison and was thought to have knowledge of their interrogation techniques. The US military tried to hang on to another Briton, Binyam Mohamed, even after charges had been dropped and evidence emerged he had been tortured.
The files also detail how many innocents or marginal figures swept up by the Guantánamo dragnet because US forces thought they might be of some intelligence value.
One man was transferred to the facility “because he was a mullah, who led prayers at Manu mosque in Kandahar province, Afghanistan … which placed him in a position to have special knowledge of the Taliban”. US authorities eventually released him after more than a year's captivity, deciding he had no intelligence value.
Another prisoner was shipped to the base “because of his general knowledge of activities in the areas of Khowst and Kabul based as a result of his frequent travels through the region as a taxi driver“.
The files also reveal that an al-Jazeera journalist was held at Guantánamo for six years, partly in order to be interrogated about the Arabic news network.
Also illuminated in these leaked documents is the shameful use of torture, described through the cruel euphemism of “enhanced interrogation,” that was rampant at Guantanamo Bay. Thanks to such disgraceful practices, the prisoners currently detained there now find themselves in a ridiculous legal limbo; they may be innocent or guilty, but because they were tortured, they cannot be brought to trial because evidence obtained against them was gathered illegally. The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before, refuses to let the legal process do its work, nor are they willing to release these prisoners, so there they sit.
In a filthy irony, Bradley Manning was exposed to a number of grotesquely similar “stress tactics” used against Guantanamo prisoners while detained at Quantico. He was deprived of sleep, humiliated and berated by his captors, isolated, exposed to cold, and made to stand naked for extended periods of time. Such acts are straight out of the War on Terror handbook, and like the prisoners at Guantanamo, were used against a man who has yet to be convicted of anything. The mistreatment tactics against prisoners that Manning allegedly exposed have been used against him, one more crime in a symphony of crimes.
Bradley Manning sits today in Leavenworth prison awaiting a hearing to determine whether or not he will face a court martial. The case against him seems as disorganized and specious as the cases against many of the prisoners at Guantanamo, but let us accept for the moment that he did, in fact, release those classified documents. If so, he should be thanked for his actions. As Glenn Greenwald so eloquently argued, “WikiLeaks is responsible for more newsworthy scoops over the last year than all media outlets combined: it's not even a close call. And if Bradley Manning is the leaker, he has done more than any other human being in our lifetime to bring about transparency and shine a light on what military and government power is doing.”
Moreover, if there is actually justice to be found in this morally crippled nation, Bradley Manning should be cleared of all charges and released. His was not some casual act of disobedience, nor was it an attack against his country. Bradley Manning was fulfilling the oath he swore to protect and defend the Constitution. He exposed serial criminal acts perpetrated by his superiors, which is a moral necessity for anyone who has taken such an oath.
We know the truth of the acts made by both the Bush and Obama administrations in Guantanamo, and they are illegal on their face. We are a better nation today because we know this, and we have Bradley Manning to thank for it. By exposing war crimes, he has been labeled a criminal even before any hearings have been held. He has been mistreated in a way you would not treat a dog. He showed us the war crimes committed in our name, and has been crushed for it.
Justice demands his release. Furthermore, justice demands a wide inquiry into the criminal acts of both the Bush and Obama administrations as pertaining to the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. Justice demands prosecution for those acts against the real criminals responsible for them. They have driven our nation into the gutter, and to punish Bradley Manning for attempting to haul us back from that abyss is to admit, in broad daylight and with no shame, that justice has no meaning anymore.