Verso, 2013, 181 pages, $19.95 (pb)
Review by Phil Shannon
The issue in the trial of Bradley Manning, the source of tens of thousands of US military and state secrets leaked to Wikileaks, is, in some eyes, simple. ‘He broke the law’, lectured President Obama, conveniently overlooking, as Chase Madar comments in his book on Manning, the routine violation, when it suits the political upper crust, of the principle that ‘rules are rules’.
“Washington leaks intentionally as a communication medium between elite officials and their preferred journalists”, much of it top secret, a classification higher than anything Manning released, says Madar. Laws (against aggressive wars, torture or “mass illegal wiretapping”, for example) are also not laws when broken by the powerful (the White House, the Pentagon, the CIA, the federal domestic security bureaucracy).
The perpetrators of these criminal infractions are not arrested and held in abusive solitary confinement for years, facing show trials, life imprisonment or possible execution, like Manning, but “receive solicitous treatment in the media and Sunday morning network gabfests”.
It was the official secrecy surrounding the political elite’s habitual criminality that prompted Manning, a US Army intelligence analyst, to blow the whistle on what his government “has done – and is doing – all over the world”, documented in war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan and in State Department cables which explain through ‘non-PR-versions of world events and crises’, as Manning put it, ‘how the first world exploits the third … from an internal perspective’.
Manning’s intent was “historically informed and political”, says Madar, aimed at, in Manning’s words, ‘worldwide discussion, debates and reforms’ concerning transparency in government. Manning’s detractors, and even some of his more liberal sympathisers, have, however, done their best to ignore his clearly stated political motive, focusing instead on Manning’s sexual preference, gender identity, a ‘troubled’ psychology and, as a gay, “alienated and brutalised by the Army’s macho culture”, his military dysfunction.
It is tempting, though trite, says Madar, to see Manning’s political dissent as a result of mental health problems. As Madar argues in response, the numerous gay soldiers in the US military, and its plentiful mentally ill soldiers (“the leading cause of death among active-duty US troops over the past four years has been … suicide”) are not psychologically predisposed to “declassify public records”. Stereotyping information rebels as being a bit weird deliberately devalues their moral conscience and political courage.
As Manning himself has noted, the red herrings of his personal psychology matter only in the sense that ‘I’m way way way too easy to marginalise’. His status as a gay, soon-to-be-transgender atheist, says Madar, “unsuits Manning thoroughly to be a poster-child for the cause of transparent government” by allowing the powerful to pathologise rather than politicise him.
Where the real sickness lies, says Madar, is with Washington’s self-interested and paranoid “over-classification of government documents”. The National Security Agency has just got around to declassifying military documents from 1809, the CIA still keeps documents from World War 1 classified whilst the Department of Defence has finally declassified the Pentagon Papers (which document the secret history of the Vietnam War) a hardly-more-sprightly four decades after they became publicly available in book form.
This government mania for document secrecy, plus censorship of former officials, will continue to “distort and stifle public debate on vital issues of war and foreign policy”, says Madar, whilst a “national panic about leaks”, sauced with “chauvinistic nationalism”, is meant to discourage potential leakers from letting in any sunshine on what the American government gets up to in its citizens’ names.
This anti-leak deterrent has been exercised most energetically by President Obama, who came to office as the “whistleblower’s friend” promising a government Age of Aquarius but whose Department of Justice has launched more prosecutions against leakers, including Manning, than all previous presidencies combined.
Completed just before Manning’s trial verdict which carries up to 135 years jail, Madar’s book is a highly useful, thoroughly spirited contribution to the campaign to free Bradley Manning, the next stage in the task of liberating truth from its jail of government secrecy.