Manning conviction: A sick parody of justice
The conviction of Bradley Manning shows the need to abolish state secrecy, argues Paul Demarty
To almost nobody’s surprise, corporal Bradley Manning - the soldier who was the source of the most sensational Wikileaks disclosures - has been convicted of the vast majority of charges against him. Sentencing is the subject of a whole new bout of judicial wrangling, taking place now, but he faces up to 90 years in prison (reduced by his defence team from 136 years!).
It barely needs to be said that this is, however predictable, a repugnant outcome. Strip away the jingoism, the jargon, the grave charges (“aiding the enemy”, of which he was acquitted) and the ridiculous ones (“wanton publication”!) - we all know what Manning is ‘guilty’ of. He is guilty of having the conscience the US military bureaucracy does not - guilty of being unable to sufficiently repress his own humanity to watch a video of a helicopter crew machine-gunning terrified civilians without wanting to do something.
He is ‘guilty’ of exposing this crime, and of a whole series of other disclosures more or less embarrassing to the US. We knew, of course, before that video of the helicopter crew, that atrocities were happening in Iraq, as they often do in wars. We knew, before the release of the Wikileaks cables, that US foreign policy relied on propping up dictators and sundry undemocratic and corrupt regimes.
Courageous men and women like Manning do us a different service - of bringing these obvious truths into sharp and unavoidable focus, even if only for a moment. The fog of bureaucratic bullshit that enshrouds the grim Realpolitik of US imperialism in decline is briefly cleared away. In such a moment, the state cannot pretend that its bombs do not dismember children and its client states do not torture the innocent; it has instead to make the case that such horrors are necessary.
The foul persecution of Manning and other whistleblowers makes it abundantly clear that Barack Obama and his securocrat cronies cannot win that argument. And so, morally and politically rudderless, they resort to repression, reanimating the highly anti-democratic 1917 Espionage Act in their naked intimidation against conscientious employees and the press. Obama, having promised in vague terms a new era of transparency in government, has shown his true colours. His administration has been more intolerant of whistleblowers than any other in living memory.
Exactly how long Manning’s sentence will end up being is up in the air. We know that the court will graciously dock the three years he has already spent in detention from the final tally. We also know that a further 112 days will be knocked off as ‘compensation’ for cruel and degrading treatment he received in military prison, which the United Nations stated amounted to torture. You do not have to be a revolutionary to bristle at this one - surely it is the baseline standard for any bourgeois liberal that a trial before which the defendant has been tortured cannot be but a mistrial. It is a farce, a sick parody of justice. It ought to become a 21st century Dreyfus affair.
Obama’s ‘new era’
But it won’t. The American left - liberal and revolutionary alike - is not energised and bursting into the spotlight, but hopelessly disoriented. Of all the events of recent years to disorient them, it was the emergence of Obama as a presidential candidate, and then his election, which did the most damage. Obama, after all, is black - the first black president, an event that would have been unthinkable a worryingly short time ago. Moreover, he promised ‘change’, and hinted that this ‘change’ would compare favourably with the poisonous crusader mindset that afflicted George W Bush and his initially neo-conservative inner circle. Where there was war, there would be peace. Where there was Orwellian legislation like the Patriot Act, there would be good old American liberty.
It was perfectly predicable that Obama would be a disappointment. It is perhaps surprising how dreadful his reign has been; how intolerant and repressive he has been at home, and how enthusiastically he has adopted the role of global playground bully. Even after four years of this stuff, the likes of the Workers World Party - they of the ultra-shrill anti-imperialist rhetoric, ‘global class camp’ theory and the rest - offered mealy-mouthed support. After all, his opponent last year, Mitt Romney, relied on dog-whistle crypto-racism to get his base energised, and Obama is black: a sufficient trigger for a left lethally addicted to gesture politics. Even Manning’s most vocal supporters - the likes of the radical-liberal radio show Democracy Now! spring to mind - could not bring themselves to call, explicitly, for people not to vote for black America’s answer to Henry Kissinger.
The most encouraging signs are simply that, in spite of the intentions of the US government, people are not sufficiently intimidated by the experience of Manning. The most recent high-profile whistleblower, Edward Snowden, learned a very important lesson; if you are going to tweak the nose of the US state machine, do so from a safe distance. He also took the risky but, as it turned out, rewarding step of doing so openly from the off. How much harder it was to accuse Snowden of being a coward, a moral weakling, when he stood before the world and owned up to his ‘crime’! (Not that it stopped various vapid, grovelling apologists from attempting to do so.)
There is a bit of information economics at work here - it takes a lot more people, and a lot more human effort, to keep a secret than to blow it wide open. In the age of billion-dollar military subcontractors, with their own lowest-bidder workforces, it is even harder. Unlike Manning, Snowden was not even a state employee. Much of the information he revealed about industrialised snooping was accessible to him in his job at subcontractor Booz Allen Hamilton.
There is another matter specific to our age: both Snowden and Manning were gifted computer specialists, with a level of technical savoir faire of necessity far in advance of their superiors. Those who can cure can kill - if an National Security Agency employee is a talented enough cryptographer to work for a spying agency, then he or she will be more than competent to conceal a leak until it is too late for the powers-that-be to circumvent. This ‘problem’ will no doubt be solved over time; still, as Snowden and Manning show, it only takes one boffin to suffer an acute attack of basic human solidarity to cause enormous headaches for the state.
It is thus ‘mission critical’ for the state that more than straightforward intimidation is brought to bear on its whistleblowers; a renewed ideological offensive among the general population is necessary. There is the crude and obvious ‘dark side’ to this offensive, which consists in the ostracism of the whistleblowers. It did not bother Snowden, at least, who candidly admitted in his first interviews after absconding that he fully expected to be branded a traitor and a coward by the great and the good back home. So, indeed, it came to pass. Manning is plainly more emotionally fragile than Snowden, but has bigger things to worry about than whether Joe Sixpack considers him a narcissist or an enemy agent.
Beyond that, there are attempts to restore faith directly in the institutions which have been so acutely embarrassed by successive revelations. It is in this context that we have to read the very public closure of embassies throughout the Arab world in response to an ill-defined terrorist threat - it represents an attempt to show how very competent the NSA and CIA are at protecting Americans from their enemies. Perhaps ‘al Qa’eda elements’ (‘al Qa’eda’, of course, is a quantity as vague as ‘terrorism’ itself these days) really are targeting US embassies at present. It is nonetheless notable how regularly such scares erupt at just the moment that the general population is ambivalent about the intentions of its government. It is almost enough to make one suspect that the whole thing is a cheap publicity stunt.
Will it work? Eventually. The propagandists for the security state have their work cut out, at least. Polls suggest that the largest part of the American population have some sympathy with Snowden and believe that the NSA is out of control. Members of both houses of congress, on the Democrat left and parts of the radical Republican right, are (for the time being) making themselves awkward for the twin party hierarchies, who are both equally enthusiastic defenders of American imperial power. Defenders of Manning, alas, are fewer and further between; but the fact that his grotesque sham of a trial should take place in the midst of the Snowden/NSA furore could turn out to be unfortunate timing from the US state’s point of view.
The lessons are clear enough: we need more than individual whistleblowers, heroic though they may be. The very right of the state to keep its affairs secret is itself a mechanism of ruling class domination. There are few more acute demonstrations of this proposition than the hypertrophy of surveillance, the atrocities in foreign killing fields and the cynicism of diplomatic wheeler-dealing - all exposed by Snowden and Manning, to their great personal cost. How much easier it is to get away with such things without troublesome public scrutiny! The fight to get Manning out of jail, and keep Snowden at liberty, must also be the fight to render whistleblowers superfluous by abolishing state secrecy (and, by the same token, the secret state).
There is an additional element for the American left to take on board: it does not matter if your president-in-waiting is white, black, male, female or anything else. It does not matter if millions are bewitched by fine words. By equivocating on Obama, the far left disarmed itself when, inevitably, he turned out like all commanders-in-chief to be a cynical butcher. Hopefully the lesson will be learned this time, and there will be no facile lesser-evilism when the presidential circus rolls around again in 2016.
We doubt it.