Murray Polner: Review of Chase Madar’s “The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story of the Suspect Behind the Largest Security Breach in U.S. History” (New York: OR Books, 2012)


Murray Polner is a regular HNN reviewer who wrote No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran and co-edited, with Thomas Wood Jr., We Who Dared To Say No To War.

Bradley Manning enlisted in the army in 2007. In the army he began exhibiting a good many personal problems. Jihrleah Showman, one of Manning’s team leaders, cautioned his commanders that his mental state was too fragile to handle classified materials -- he once even hit her. At his pre-trial hearing, there was much testimony about his alleged “psychotic issues” and ignored warnings that he should not permitted access to secret data. Even so, on the verge of being discharged because of his erratic behavior in the army, he was trained as an intelligence analyst and assigned to Iraq’s Forward Operating Base Hammer. Soon after he was promoted to the rank of specialist and received a top secret security clearance and given access to classified Defense and State Department data. He is now being court-martialed for allegedly having transmitted some of that data to an “enemy,” and accused of giving hundreds of thousands of confidential military and government documents to Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks.

Chase Madar, a lawyer whose writings have been published in the London Review of Books, the American Conservative, TomDispatch, and LeMonde Diplomatique, is out with the first book about Manning’s case. It's a blistering and confrontational work replete with charges that officials who approved of torture and lied about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have never been held responsible.

Madar is certainly not neutral. His book begins with “Bradley Manning deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom.” If he gave WikiLeaks “the Iraq war logs, the Afghan war logs, and the State Department cables -- then he surely deserves some important national honor instead of the military prison cell where he presently awaits court-martial.” The question is whether Bradley Manning, the 24-year-old Catholic son of a broken marriage between an Oklahoma father and Welsh mother, is an intentional traitor or an unintentional hero with many emotional problems.

Manning is accused of violating the Espionage Act to aid an enemy, a controversial law enacted by Woodrow Wilson’s administration in 1917 that convicted authors of anti-draft literature passed among draftees and which the Supreme Court eventually ruled did not fall under protected free speech but instead represented a “clear and present danger.”

In Manning’s case, Army Col. Denise Lind, the presiding judge, has stated that the prosecution will have to establish that Manning leaked classified material with the “clear understanding” that he meant to pass it on to an enemy.

Manning’s defenders have argued that he is being punished for whistle blowing for revealing facts the U.S. would prefer were kept secret. Not so fast, the prosecution countered, for as a soldier he violated orders and endangered American lives and disclosed confidential material. According to Madar’s chronological account, in 2009-2010 Manning read about Iraqi police detaining and torturing other Iraqis and promptly informed his superiors, who supposedly told him to forget about it.

Late in 2009 he also found the video of “Collateral Murder,” which was released by WikiLeaks (it’s too early to know if he and Julian Assange were in actual contact) and which depicted a U.S. Army helicopter firing on Iraqi civilians, killing 14, including two children and two Reuters journalists. Some of the other diplomatic files revealed “high-level corruption in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen” and which, wrote the New York Times, “Arab activists” claimed “helped fuel” the Arab Spring.

Not long after, Manning was charged with violating the Espionage Act. A prosecutor, supported by an informant -- a hacker, Manning's one-time online friend -- charged he had “aided in the publication of those files, knowing that our enemies would use these files.”

But is Manning actually a military whistleblower on par with Ron Ridenhour, a Vietnam War helicopter door gunner in the 11th Infantry Brigade who exposed the murder of an estimated 200-500 Vietnamese peasants at My Lai by U.S. troops, a crime for which only a junior officer, 2nd Lt. William Calley, was punished, receiving three-and-a-half years of home detention?

Whistleblowers, real or imagined, have rarely had an easy time of it. Daniel Ellsberg is a case in point. Former RAND scholar Melvin Gurtov wrote in John Prados and Margaret Pratt Porter's Inside the Pentagon Papers: “The crux of these documents was what they revealed about the duplicity of U.S. leaders, who consistently lied…” The government went after Ellsberg, but officials who lied about the war -- a war which led to millions of deaths -- were never punished. The same lack of accountability is true about the invasion of Iraq.

Why all the Espionage Act prosecutions? Perhaps the WikiLeaks revelations lead to a great deal of embarrassment, and perhaps too, as Steven Aftergood has suggested, “Congress has pressured the Administration to vigorously pursue leaks and wants leak prosecuted and they want a lot of them.”

All the same, leaking is a very popular sport in Washington. George W. Bush dealt rather cautiously with leakers, but no president in our history has ever tried to prosecute as many as Barack Obama and his Justice Department, which has brought more charges than every other presidential administration combined. The Espionage Act has been invoked six times since Obama took office. Mark Corallo, who worked under Attorney General John Ashcroft in the Bush I administration, told Adam Liptak of the New York Times last February of his amazement at the number of leak prosecutions. “We would have gotten hammered for it.”

A case involving a supposed leaker charged under the Espionage Act brought by the Bush I administration and prosecuted by the Obama administration was against Thomas Drake, a National Security Agency official, who was found guilty of violating the Espionage Act. He told the Baltimore Sun about a government software program purchased from a private firm which he believed was costly and ineffective. Drake was eventually permitted to accept a plea bargain and received probation. Case closed, though the presiding judge harshly criticized the prosecution for placing Drake through "four years of hell," financially ruining him, and then dismissing the most important charges just before the trial opened, as "unconscionable."      

Criminal cases have been launched against John Kirakou, a former CIA official accused of having exposed a CIA employee for his harsh treatment of a captured Al Qaeda member, and Jeffrey Sterling, another former CIA analyst charged with leaking information to New York Times reporter James Risen for his book State of War.

Whistleblower or not, Manning came to public attention after he was transferred to the Quantico Marine Corps stockade, where for nine months he was held in solitary confinement, his clothing and eyeglasses taken from him, and where he was compelled to stand at attention until 5:00 am, supposedly to prevent him from killing himself. Amnesty International has a different word for it: torture. The UN’s special rapporteur on torture agreed, saying “Bradley Manning was subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in the excessive and prolonged isolation.” The protests and publicity worked and Manning was transferred to Fort Leavenworth prison, where he has apparently received better treatment.

Meanwhile, President Obama condemned Manning at a San Francisco fundraiser in April 2011 because he “broke the law” by releasing secret documents. Earlier, in March 2011, answering a question from ABC’s Jake Tapper at a White House press conference, the president replied that the Pentagon had assured him that Manning’s treatment in prison was “appropriate and is meeting our basic standards” and that he accepted their explanation. Madar, of course, differs. “Our law-professor-in-chief may lecture otherwise but when official Washington decides to leak, the law fades away.”

Madar notes that even the National Review criticized "Manning's pretrial detention in solitary confinement" on December 1, 2010. The next month, the former commandin officer of HQ Company condemned Manning’s treatment. Then, in a widely publicized event, P.J. Crowley, the State Department’s spokesperson, denounced Manning’s treatment and then “resigned” in protest. More than 250 law school professors, including Harvard law professor and one-time Obama mentor Lawrence Tribe, condemned Manning's treatment as “illegal and immoral.” Meanwhile, an AP report in September 2011 concluded that none of the named sources in the material Manning supposedly sent to WikiLeaks have been harmed.

Madar is clearly outraged. “If Bradley Manning had launched a war that slaughtered hundreds of thousands; if he had tortured prisoners; if he had shot dead Iraqi civilians; if he had tortured prisoners; if he were a lawyer, justifying all of the above; or some general or cabinet-level official whispering state secrets to Bob Woodward over a martini -- he’d emerge unscathed.”

Manning’s fate has yet to be decided and Col. Lind’s criteria for guilt will have to be proven, but Chase Madar’s fiery brief, one-sided as it is, deserves to be read and taken seriously in the complicated and potentially dangerous struggle between security and liberty. In an evolving world of ever-sophisticated technology and immediate worldwide exposure on the Internet, it’s ever harder to maintain secrecy, and even harder to prosecute. For, as Judge Damon Keith once wrote in Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, “democracies die behind closed doors.”

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