For the current demonization of Edward Snowden and whistleblowers to be put into some perspective it would help to be old enough to remember the My Lia massacre—including the initial military cover-up, the related trial, the harrowing evidence, the verdicts and the subsequent pardon of 2nd Lieutenant William Calley by then-president Richard Nixon. Calley was the only person convicted of any My Lia crimes despite several other servicemen admitting their role in murdering at least 347 and likely as many as 504 unarmed civilians including elderly men, women, children and infants.
When does duty to conscience override the oath of secrecy one may have been compelled to take in order to work within the federal government?
That is the central question in the current discussion about Edward Snowden’s NSA whistleblowing, and by extension in the trial of Pvt. Bradley Manning, who faces 90 years imprisonment for exposing among other things potential U.S. war crimes by releasing the video that was dubbed Collateral Murder by journalist Julian Assange and his organization Wikileaks. Add to those three whistleblowers the names of John Kiriakou (who is serving a 30 month sentence for passing classified information to the media, a legal euphemism for his real transgression—exposing the torture program that was instituted during the George W. Bush presidency) and Thomas Drake who blew the whistle on NSA spying on American citizens post 911 and the pattern of attacking the messenger rather than pursue the grave wrongdoing they report is alarming and clear—those exposing government criminality will be crushed.
Individual memory can be a very helpful tool because accurate accounts of the Vietnam nightmare—much like accurate portrayals of the so-called ‘war on terror’—have been expunged from our cultural memory. It is difficult to find reporters who will draw comparisons between the butchering of innocents in the Middle East by today’s American military with its Pinkville antecedents that were designed to win the Vietnamese population’s hearts and minds—by annihilating them.
Ithiel Pool’s odious hearts and minds phrasing survives to this day with new propagandistic flourishes like “shock and awe” and “surges” that obscure the use of depleted uranium weapons that have caused staggering spikes in birth defects and cancers in Iraq. President Obama has now admitted to having executed— without due process —four American citizens within the borders and without the consent of sovereign nations and over their protestations—by means of drone strikes. The number of people killed by drones alone exceeds the number of innocents killed on September 11.
The first thing to remember about My Lai is that it went unreported for a full year and when it was reported the military’s immediate response—as with the incident Pvt. Bradley Manning exposed by releasing the video dubbed “Collateral Murder” by Wikileaks—was to cover it up. While the Army at first touted My Lai as a pitched battle that raged all day and became and American victory, in the Collateral Murder incident, the tape lay in a Judge Advocate’s directory it having been determined that there was nothing notable to investigate. It would help to remember that in 1969, a full year after the My Lia massacre, the word “treason” — used to smear whistleblowers today—was invoked against certain U.S. GIs related to the slaughtering of unarmed civilians, though it was not directed at those whom we might suspect deserved the appellation. That smear was brandished by several U.S. Congressmen against the three servicemen who tried to stop the massacre and help the wounded civilians. Those three servicemen received death threats and had dead animals left on their doorsteps.
“Terrorists”—another word brandished today to justify government secrecy—was also used in the cover-up of My Lia. After the carnage ended survivors of the massacre were relocated to a camp in My Lia 2 that was later destroyed in early 1973. It was officially reported that “Viet Cong terrorists” had destroyed the village, but Quaker service worker whistleblowers testified before Congress that in fact the destruction of the village was done by our allies, the South Vietnamese Army.
It is helpful to remember that in 2002 then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation before the United Nations Security Council that tilted the tables toward the invasion of Iraq was based largely on bogus intelligence and cartoon drawings of what he purported to be Saddam Hussein’s WMD program (when real intelligence comes up short having cartoonists imagine what the real thing may look like is aways a good Plan B). We may recall that Mr. Powell, as a 31 year old Army Major in 1968 was tasked to investigate charges made by a GI in a letter
sent to the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam of pervasive brutality routinely meted out against Vietnamese civilians. Powell dutifully reported, “In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American Division soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”
Fortunately there were plenty of GIs willing to take the considerable risk of whistleblowing who testified or told their accounts to journalists. There were also photographs that corroborated the gruesome details of what happened in the two hamlets collectively referred to as My Lia. That there were commanding officers reviewing the assault from helicopters above the hamlets made it a little more difficult for the Army to deny that the policy of “population pacification” of the village had been ordered from high up the chain of command.
Ever resourceful at slipping their own accountability the senior brass at first tried to put the responsibility for the massacre on others
who were part of the same operation but were killed in action after My Lia. One can hardly argue that this was a particularly nice touch coming from men who mouth platitudes about esprit d’corp, honor and bravery. Apparently there is no sacrifice quite as satisfying as taking a shit on the sacred honor of a fallen brother in arms.
We would do well to remember that several letters were written by U.S. servicemen—including directly to General William Westmoreland, the commanding general, reporting the atrocities that were being routinely visited upon the Vietnamese by soldiers under Gen. Westmoreland’s command. The letters describe:
… civilian killings on the scale of …”My Lay [sic] each month for over a year” during 1968–1969. Two other letters to this effect from enlisted soldiers to military leaders in 1971, all signed “Concerned Sergeant”, were uncovered within declassified National Archive documents. The letters describe routine civilian killings as a policy of population pacification. Army policy also stressed very high body counts and without regard to who was killed. Alluding to indiscriminate killings described as unavoidable, Commander of the Ninth Division, then Maj. Gen. Julian Ewell in September 1969 submitted a confidential report to Westmoreland and other generals describing the countryside in some areas of Vietnam as resembling the battlefields of Verdun.
Notably, these letters remained buried until they were uncovered after they were declassified in the National Archives.
Let’s not forget another whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg, who in 1970-71 initiated a process that ended with the publication of the Pentagon Papers revealing that the U.S. government had not only lied to the American public about the justifications of the Vietnam war but had already by that early date concluded that the war could not be won and would cost significantly more American lives than the government was admitting. Ellsberg was charged under the Espionage Act—like Edward Snowden, Pvt. Bradley Manning, John Kiriakou, Thomas Drake and others today. The civil-rights-attorney-turned-President Obama has been relentless in retaliating against subordinate whistleblowers using the Espionage Act but has yet to find the courage or conviction to pursue any of the superior officers—military or civilian—who authorized, implemented or contributed to shockingly criminal activity ranging from torture, to murder, to wars of aggression and now, we learn thanks to Edward Snowden, vast warrantless sweeps of personal information. When it comes to Senior executive level felonious behavior President Barrack Obama asserts, “Those things happened in the past. We need to move forward.”
Didn’t all the whistleblowing happen in the past also?
There used to be a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Formerly, one could not be convicted of a crime that had not yet occurred. Now, by virtue of the Military Defense Authorization Act the president has the authority to incarcerate anyone he suspects is capable of committing a crime.
It is not clear by what authority the chief executive can cherry pick which acts get prosecuted and which do not. Of a recent court case Federal Judge Rosemary Collyer said, “the executive is not an effective check on the executive. In the instance of whistleblowers, however, it appears that there is motivated self and conflict of interest in the extreme when the President and his assigns stamp NATIONAL SECURITY on all manner of undertakings and thereby inoculate themselves from scrutiny and accountability. Coupled with ongoing attempts to criminalize the very instrument of scrutiny—the free press-—by naming professional journalists as co-conspirators in its harassment of and retaliation against whistleblowers the Obama regime is in a class by itself. This is an assault on the very essence of the 1st Amendment as a palliative to prevent tyrants from hiding behind cloaks of official secrecy.
Recall also that when Ellsberg was tried under the Espionage Act his trial was in a Federal courtroom that was open to the public and press and the press was deeply engaged with the story. Significantly, his case was never judged on its merits but was thrown out and all charges dismissed when it was learned that President Nixon’s “plumbers,” the White House’s internal code word for operatives dispatched to fix leaks, had violated Ellsberg’s Constitutionally protected right to privacy by breaking into his psychiatrist’s office—a violation so shocking to the court that the presiding judge ruled, “The totality of the circumstances of this case which I have only briefly sketched offend a sense of justice. The bizarre events have incurably infected the prosecution of this case.”
Today President Obama blithely asserts that spying on hundreds of millions of Americans daily—without warrants—is “a modest encroachment” on civil liberties. Pvt. Bradley Manning is being tried in a military courtroom where hours of testimony are conducted behind closed doors and the legacy media have been slow if they cover the trial at all. This, after Pvt. Manning was subjected to a year of solitary confinement that the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Torture described as “cruel, inhuman and degrading.” The Commander in Chief of all the military personnel present in Pvt. Manning’s courtroom, President Obama, declared publicly of Manning that “he broke the law.”
We can to some modest degree extend the benefit of the doubt to our elected officials when we know that our system is fair, transparent and responsive to the citizenry. But that requires a sacred trust that we have seen broken time and again since the Second World War. President Obama in his zeal to smite foreign enemies is blind to the domestic blight he oversees from the White House.
If we remember nothing else from the Vietnam era we must remember this: at the time of the My Lia massacre the scale of atrocities that were being carried out by the U.S. military in the form of saturation bombings from B-52s targeting civilian populations that My Lia was seen as a pittance in comparison and went unreported by even the Quakers. We can now listen to the tapes of President Nixon and Henry Kissinger discussing striking dikes in then-North Vietnam that they estimated would kill hundreds of thousands of civilians.
American, you see, is an exceptional breed of terror.
Fast forward to today’s American wars of aggression and we notice that the military has learned much from the Vietnam experience. Gone are the body counts. Absent are the graphic photographs of the carnage—to such an extreme degree that it is now illegal to publish photographs the flag-draped coffins of casualties from the war zones. Gone are reporters who are not “embedded” with the troops (as Walter Cronkite noted,
what an unfortunate choice of phrasing). Also absent is the draft—and crucially—also absent is a large cross section of the American public with any skin in the game.
It was this last detail that caused so much dissent across America during the Vietnam tragedy. Millions of everyday Americans were drafted or were subject to the draft and so had an abiding interest in what horrors may have been awaiting them. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out,
it was Nixon’s fear that he did not have the troops to continue fighting in Vietnam and to control domestic unrest that was instrumental in bringing the war to a close.
We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby
Today the atrocities of Iraq and Afghanistan are kept out of sight out of mind with the aid of a pliant press and the aggressive and repressive crackdown on whistleblowers by the Obama administration, not only by means of the Espionage Act, but by internal decree as reported recently in McClatchy Newspapers. It would help to remember that while most legacy media disseminated the pre-war propaganda McClatchy was remarkable for getting the story right.
According to McClatchy, well in advance of Edward Snowden’s Phonegate revelations the Obama administration was already squeezing whistleblowers through an initiative called the Insider Threat Program:
Even before a former U.S. intelligence contractor exposed the secret collection of Americans’ phone records, the Obama administration was pressing a government-wide crackdown on security threats that requires federal employees to keep closer tabs on their co-workers and exhorts managers to punish those who fail to report their suspicions.
It would appear that anyone who has a conscience had best beware as Insider Threat extends beyond the U.S. national security bureaucracies to most federal departments and agencies nationwide, including the Peace Corps, the Social Security Administration and the Education and Agriculture departments. It emphasizes leaks of classified material, but catchall definitions of “insider threat” give agencies latitude to pursue and penalize a range of other conduct.
Millions of federal employees are extolled to keep an eye on their co-workers according to McClatchy, looking for ” ‘indicators’ that include stress, divorce and financial problems…Leaks to the media are equated with espionage.”
Leaks have always bedeviled presidents but this is reminiscent of young Arian school children being encouraged to turn in their own parents to the authorities in 1930s Germany. It indicates the extreme pressures being applied by the U.S. government to have a chilling effect on whistleblowers.
An Effete Corps of Impudent Snobs
Remember also that during the Watergate investigation President Nixon asserted his claim of executive privilege in refusing to hand over to the Special Prosecutor the secret recordings he captured on tape of his conversations in the White House. Secrecy and privilege come in many forms and are tagged by many hands-off labels beyond the all-purpose “National Security.” In 1974 we had the good fortune as a people to benefit from the courage and judgment of Judge John Sirica who recognized obstruction of justice when he saw it and ordered Nixon to release the tapes,
thereby providing critically important information to the American people. Exposed to the light of day Nixon’s illegal activities created such an outcry from the public that Congress had to move forward with impeachment.
With the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of government divorced from the best interests of the American people, a fair reading of the Constitution says it is the citizenry’s right and duty in a Democratic Republic to rise up against those who take it upon themselves to create secret laws, secret police, secret courts, secret and ubiquitous spying agencies, secret assassination lists and trial-less, secret executions of American citizens—especially when the government rounds up those subordinates with enough courage to blow the whistle on such crimes.
President George W. Bush et al are walking free today. One infamous leaker, his Vice President Dick Chaney leaked—with impunity—the identity of a CIA operative to the NY Times the day before
he went on Meet the Press to reference the “story.” He has subsequently spoken openly about not having any regrets about his role in America’s torture regime. Still, according to a recent story in McClatchy
the upper echelon cadre took pains to “throw operatives under the bus.” We need to ask ourselves how much the wars initiated under George W. Bush have cost in lives, treasure, civil liberties and actual security—given the rage our torturing, indefinite imprisonment, occupying, displacing, drone striking and poisoning with radioactive weaponry have fomented worldwide. Who represents more danger to America, the political leadership whose tactics are more in line with Joseph Stalin’s or the whistleblowers who expose their crimes?
Drawing from Nixon’s precedent of pardoning a man who admitted to taking a machine gun to unarmed civilians, if only Edward Snowden or Bradley Manning or John Kiriakou or Thomas Drake or any other whistleblower had thought to slaughter several hundred innocent old men, women, children and infants while they were exposing government criminality then perhaps President Obama could find good reason to pardon them and accept them as one of his own.