Obama's Persecution of Bradley Manning

Many struggle to reconcile their genuine commitments to human rights with their admiration for the president. But here no reconciliation is possible.
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Thanks to Bradley Manning, the world learned important information about the U.S. government's misconduct abroad. He pled guilty February 28 to leaking 700,000 documents to WikiLeaks, the international source that has exposed the malfeasance of institutions the world over. He leaked these documents to reveal the government's obsession "with killing and capturing people" and "to make the world a better place." The documents shined light on mistreated detainees at Guantánamo and such atrocities as the now notorious 2007 civilian killings in Iraq that were publicized in the "Collateral Murder" video three years ago. Some have argued that some of the tens of thousands of diplomatic cables helped incite the Arab Spring.

Manning is expected to serve up to 20 years in prison. This, after he already languished for over a thousand days in detention. The Obama administration held him in a particularly sadistic form of solitary confinement for nine months, which over 250 lawyers protested in an open letter to the government.

Such solitary confinement was, of course, a form of torture, as most of the civilized world recognizes, despite Obama's campaign promises to abolish the gruesome practice. Manning's treatment also calls into question another one of Obama's political vows: He had pledged in 2008 to rigorously protect whistle-blowers, whose "acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled."

Instead, Obama has undertaken a war on whistle-blowers that makes George W. Bush look like a civil libertarian. The politician who promised and continues to boast unprecedented transparency arguably presides over its least transparent administration in history, which classified 92 million documents in 2011, and which, according to the Bloomberg News, has "prosecuted more government officials for alleged leaks under the World War I-era Espionage Act than all [of Obama's] predecessors combined, including law-and-order Republicans John Mitchell, Edwin Meese and John Ashcroft." Manning is among those so far targeted by this draconian legislation. This crackdown on whistle-blowers almost surely has a profound chill effect, discouraging people from coming forward with information about government wrongdoing.

The legal process Manning has faced has been even more a sham than usual. In addition to questions of illegal search and seizure, the Military Rules of Evidence under the United States Uniform Code of Military Justice provide for far more effective due process protections than Manning enjoyed at his own Article 32 hearing, particularly as it concerned the discovery process, the government's withholding of exculpatory evidence, and Manning's access to witnesses who could have undermined the government's case that his actions actually compromised American security. Late last year, Manning's attorney finally worked out an arrangement for a guilty plea. Despite this plea, the prosecution plans to call its full witness list -- more evidence suggesting that the whole affair is a show trial.

Manning is more than a little reminiscent of Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst whose leaked documents, the Pentagon Papers, appeared in the New York Times, discredited the Vietnam War, and increased the pressure on politicians to end the conflict. Officials in the Nixon administration went after Ellsberg as the enemy, breaking into his psychiatrist's office, a move that culminated in the Watergate scandal and Nixon's resignation. The Supreme Court upheld the Times's right to print the material, and eventually Ellsberg's persecution ended when the Espionage Act charges against him were dismissed. According to G. Gordon Liddy, Nixon officials had plans to "neutralize" him, but whether that meant injure or kill, we might never know.

Manning, in sharp contrast, has not been freed, but was railroaded into confessing and now faces years or decades in prison. Obama in a sense has succeeded in neutralizing his own Ellsberg. Nixon has gone down in the history books as a villain over the Watergate scandal, and many look upon Ellsberg as a true American hero. Yet as of now, it's hard to see if such perceptions will prevail as it concerns Obama and Manning.

The word "hero" is thrown a lot quite a bit, but Manning surely fits the bill. He put his life and liberty at risk to expose what he viewed as very wrong. He exposed the mistreatment of prisoners and murderous strikes conducted by the Bush administration in Iraq and the Obama administration in Afghanistan. He has already paid a price most of us will never know, and the rest of his life he might very well be destroyed. He sacrificed everything for his country, for innocent victims of the U.S. government, and for the cause of truth.

His best hope might be that some day a president pardons him. Such indemnifications have occurred in the past. President Andrew Johnson pardoned thousands of Confederate soldiers, most of them poor souls forced into a war they didn't want. President Warren Harding pardoned socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs, whom President Woodrow Wilson had imprisoned merely for speaking publicly against military conscription, as well as hundreds of other political prisoners. President Franklin Roosevelt pardoned thousands, most conspicuously those imprisoned for prohibition violations. President Jimmy Carter granted amnesty to those who had dodged the Vietnam draft.

If a president were to come to power having promised more protections for civil liberties, a new dedication to the rule of law for detainees in the war on terror, and humane treatment for whistle-blowers, perhaps such a person could be expected to release Bradley Manning. Unfortunately, such a person who made such promises is president now, and he's the one who put Manning behind bars. Moreover, Obama has been much stingier with his pardons than past presidents including George W. Bush, just as he has released far fewer people from Guantánamo than his predecessor. A lot of things can happen, but Manning will most likely suffer for at least the remainder of Obama's second term.

Many struggle to reconcile their genuine commitments to human rights with their admiration for the president. But here no reconciliation is possible. Manning is the good guy in this whole ordeal, and his persecution at the hands of the Obama administration should be condemned as loudly as anything that happened on Bush's watch.

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