On Tuesday, a tweet from Icelandic MP Birgitta Jónsdóttir, who released the infamous "Collateral Murder" video showing a U.S. helicopter killing civilians in Iraq, popped up on my Twitter feed.
She was announcing that she is planning a support trip to America for U.S. soldier Bradley Manning later this year. This served as a timely reminder of the plight of Private Manning, who in just 10 days time will have been imprisoned for a total 1,000 days. Manning is accused of leaking state secrets to WikiLeaks in the largest intelligence leak in U.S. history.
The Obama administration’s case against Manning is part of what former State Department official Peter Van Buren has called an “unprecedented assault on government whistleblowers and leakers of every sort” since Obama came to office.
Originally charged in June 2010 with leaking classified information, 22 additional charges against Manning were announced in March 2011 including “aiding the enemy,” wrongfully causing intelligence to be published on the Internet, knowing that it was accessible to the enemy; multiple counts of theft of public records, transmitting defense information and computer fraud.
While “aiding the enemy” is a capital offense, military prosecutors are not pushing for the death penalty. If convicted, however, Manning could end up spending the rest of his life in prison with no chance of parole.
During his imprisonment, Manning has been subject to what the United Nations special rapportuer on torture, Juan Mendez, labeled “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” including prolonged periods of solitary confinement and forced nudity.
Former State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley resigned over Manning’s treatment, while a prison psychologist testified at his hearing that the conditions he was held in were worse than those found on death row, or in Guantanamo Bay. And yet Obama has publicly defended Manning’s treatment.
As far as the hearing itself goes, Manning’s defense has faced constant obstacles. Four-fifths of the defense witnesses were denied from appearing by the military judge. Attempts by the defense to have the charges dropped due to unlawful pre-trial mistreatment were unsuccessful when the judge granted a mere 112-day sentence reduction if he is convicted. And the judge has further ruled that Manning will not be allowed to make a whistleblower defense in his upcoming court martial – scheduled for June 3.
This last ruling is particularly worrying given that it makes it far harder for Manning to successfully argue that he sought to trigger “worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms” rather than aid the enemy – whoever that may be – by leaking the files. He is now largely barred from presenting evidence about his motives until he either enters a plea or is found guilty. Which largely defeats the point.
Whistleblowers play a vital role in a functioning democracy, striving to hold governments accountable for their actions. Just think of famous cases such as Daniel Ellsberg or Clive Ponting. And yet the Obama administration has already charged six people under the Espionage Act for allegedly leaking, or planning to leak, classified information. This is more than all past presidents combined. Furthermore, Van Buren notes that increasingly the Administration is also resorting to extra-legal means to punish and intimidate whistleblowers.
As Chase Madar wrote for TomDispatch early last year, the files allegedly leaked by Manning “and many others offered a composite portrait of military and political debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan whose grinding theme has been civilian casualties.” This is hardly the kind of picture the Obama administration wants people to remember. But rather than take a look in the mirror and address its own failings or focus on punishing those responsible, the administration is instead determined to punish the whistleblowers.
The aim of this war on whistleblowers is thus not about upholding the law, but about trying to shift people’s attention from the actions and policies of the U.S. government that the whistleblowers are trying to highlight, to the actions of the whistleblowers themselves.