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Justice for Bradley Manning or the Culture of Revenge?

By Professor Stuart Rees, Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation

On August 2nd in the theatrette of the NSW parliament, the Australian support group Sydney Solidarity for Bradley Manning will take a major step in their campaign for justice for this US marine. But at a time of ugly politics in Australia, why should anyone be concerned about justice for a US citizen ?

Bradley Manning is in custody on suspicion of leaking secret information to the whistleblower website WikiLeaks. That information included the Afghan War Diaries, the Iraq War logs, more than 250,000 diplomatic cables and the 2007 video ‘collateral murder’ which showed the fatal shooting from a US Apache helicopter of eleven people and serious injury to two children in the streets of Baghdad.

Some would see Manning as a traitor. In the opinion of those who would not question the sovereignty of a State, who would not doubt the truth associated with mainstream opinion, he’s guilty. A corollary to these views is that those who challenge such sovereignty should be derided and even punished.

Comments in response to a March 7th 2011 article in the UK Guardian by Duncan Campbell, about Manning’s arrest and imprisonment, include reference to the responsibility of enlisted soldiers whose ‘Primary duty is to obey orders, regardless of the nature of those orders’. Another respondent wrote, ‘Manning took an oath. He was bound by secrecy. He made a choice to break the oath.’ Another requested all readers, ‘Get a grip will you. This man is a professional soldier accused of stealing state secrets and should have understood the consequences of his illegal actions .’

Some respondents also want revenge. ‘Manning is a bad guy who did a bad thing and put his country and other individuals in jeopardy because of his recklessness. If he gets capital punishment, that would be a fair punishment for such a treasonous act.’ ‘If Manning had released similar information during World War Two he would have faced a firing squad.’

The opposite of the ‘punish him’ , ‘teach him a lesson’ arguments include a commitment to those human rights principles which suggest that there’s a higher law than the rules of a State and that the person who is a traitor to some is a patriot to others. To be loyal you have to be critical. The opposite view is that to be loyal, you should always obey.

The argument ‘ be loyal by being a critic’ is expressed passionately. ‘ This guy is a fucking hero. Governments can no longer feed us lies and know they’ll get away with it. If WikiLeaks had been around in 2003, would we be in Iraq ?’ …’I hope this guy runs for office, he has more integrity in his pinky than all of the Congress and the Senate put together.’ New York lawyer Chase Mader argues , ‘At immense personal cost, Bradley Manning has upheld a great American tradition of transparency in statecraft and for that he should be an American hero, not an American felon.’

The chances of Manning not being convicted as an American felon may depend on the criticism that due process has not occurred, that his treatment in jail has abused his human rights.

What may appear to be rules of law about guilt or innocence are inseparable from social attitudes to punishment at one end of a continuum to ideals of humanitarianism at the other. The middle of this continuum is now peppered with discussion whether inhumane treatment of Manning in custody disqualifies a government’s claims that the defendant could receive a fair trial. Former White House spokesperson P J Crowley would probably agree. In March 2011 he resigned after describing the Pentagon’s handling of Bradley Manning as ‘ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid.’

From July 2010 to April 2011, Manning was held in maximum security at the Quantico Marine base. Following public outcry, he was moved to a military remand prison at Fort Leavenworth but it’s the first ten months of his treatment which raise questions about justice. He was held in solitary confinement for 23 hours per day, had little or no exercise, was barred from reading newspapers and had to stand naked for everyday inspections. Such treatment aimed to punish and to weaken him into confessing that he did have direct links with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.

In a recent interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, Bradley Manning’s friend David House has explained the conditions under which he visited Manning. ‘You speak through bullet proof glass and there are three very large Marine guards standing ten feet behind him, just staring me in the eyes the whole time.’ House also describes the deterioration in his friend’s mental and physical health. ‘To actually go through the process of watching a friend deteriorate in solitary confinement and actually witness first hand what the state is capable of doing to someone they want to punish politically has been a very eye-opening process for me.’

The American Government seems to want to watch Manning’s friends because they might be useful informants. House has described the clandestine and clumsy behavior of government representatives.’ I was working at MIT, living in Cambridge and one day I got a knock on my door, and there were four agents, two from Army CID and two from the State Department… At the end of the conversation they offered me a cash reward in order to …keep my ear to the ground about WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning.’

That Manning is a responsible citizen who should be thanked rather prosecuted, rests on the argument that his actions have had several beneficial effects. He has exposed war crimes, such as the casual taking of life in Iraq and Afghanistan. The WikiLeaks disclosures have been a catalyst for the revolutions across the Middle East. He has exposed the government’s obsession with secrecy and the consequent over classification of public documents. Manning, Julian Assange and his colleagues have been doing the job which journalists could have performed if they had been more diligent, if their attitudes had not been so influenced by and tied up with establishment views.

Manning’s defence will surely refer to the duty of any citizen to insist on the transparency in government, to challenge secrets, in particular when they appear to have concealed government illegalities. In 1950 the Nuremburg Tribunal ruled that under international law, even if an individual acted according to a government’s orders, this did not relieve that person of the responsibility of making a moral choice. In 1960, a US Congressional Committee on Government Operations reported ‘Secrecy – the first refuge of incompetents – must be at a bare minimum in a democratic society.’

Those arguments should include the reminder that the Pentagon Papers, leaked by Daniel Ellsberg during 1971, were classed at a much higher security clearance than anything Manning is accused of releasing. Ellsberg was not convicted of a single crime and became a national hero.

Even in Australia, if debate about Bradley’ Manning’s actions confronts those arms of government which aim to punish him, there’s a chance that social pressures will influence the otherwise remote and invisible processes of military law. David House says, ‘ If the American public stand up and demand his release and demand a fair trial for him and his due process, I feel he may actually get a fair trial and he may not spend very long in prison at all.’

In the August 2nd forum, Bradley Manning versus the Culture of Revenge , the group, Sydney Solidarity for Bradley Manning will also be ‘standing up’ for the principle that in an independent Australia, fairness in the administration of justice also needs the commitment and outspokenness of responsible citizens.


Article first appeared in ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate