Heaping Insult on Injury: Bill Keller’s Character Assassination of Bradley Manning

On Monday, New York Times columnist and editor Bill Keller made a number of troubling, distracting points in his column about Pfc Bradley Manning’s Pre-trial statement, which included some serious morally laden—and ungrounded–condemnations. Keller’s position is fairly condemnable itself, given that he works for a newspaper that has been on record as cooperating with maintaining government secrecy on multiple occasions.

1)     Keller points out that Manning said he left a voice message for the Times but never heard back. From this, Keller insinuates that Manning was somehow incompetent and wasn’t able to get his message to the editors—something that thousands of Times readers do everyday.

It’s puzzling to me that a skilled techie capable of managing one of the most monumental leaks ever couldn’t figure out how to get an e-mail or phone message to an editor or a reporter at The Times.

First, it’s not clear what being a ‘skilled techie’ has to do with leaving a voicemail. The two, needless to say, are unconnected. Keller’s response doesn’t squash doubts in my mind that the Bradley may have successfully left a message, only to have it ignored or deleted for any number of reasons: Perhaps because a) the NYT staff found it seemed too outlandish to be true; b) there was incompetence on the part of the staff whose job it was to check the messages; or they decided it was a hoax or unimportant; c) the NYT may have decided to deny receipt of the message in order to stay out of the fray. We know that the Times has had a history of cooperating with the US in protecting state secrets. We saw one glaring example of this under Keller’s own watch, in a story admitting that the Times sat on a story for over a year about how the US was illegally wiretapping American citizens.

The White House asked The New York Times not to publish this article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny. After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting. Some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted.

It is still unclear how much of that story would have endangered national security, and how much of it was a cover-up for a crime conducted under the Bush Administration.

2)     That fact again raises doubts about Keller’s confidence that if the Times had received information, they would have sifted it carefully and published information that they felt was important for the public to know. We see the repeated collaboration on the part of the NYT with the US government—which often at odds with an American public’s interest. The latest example of this was seen in the speculative, often speculative or unfounded story published in last Sunday’s NYT about the deaths of Anwar Al-Awlaki, his son Abdulrahman, and his colleague Samir Khan, which several journalists suggest are at odds with known details. Much of that story was confirmed primarily—and only–by government sources, and challenged at many points by detailed investigative independent journalist Marcy Wheeler.

3)     Keller assassinates Manning’s character by using Manning’s self-description as

“emotionally fractured” — a gay man in an institution not hospitable to gays, fragile, lonely, a little pleased with his own cleverness, a little vague about his motives,”

as a vehicle by which to raise doubts about the importance or integrity of Manning’s intentions in wanting to share the classified documents with world—given that, as Keller says, Manning’s own explanation was inchoate.* I don’t see why Keller has to comment on Manning’s emotional state which, for someone who most likely knows he’s about to get into a massive amount of trouble, isn’t surprising. One doesn’t need to be an articulate ethics professor in order to know the difference between what is indisputably ethically troubling and what is not. Further, as Nathan Fuller pointed out to Keller in response to his initial column, in fact, Manning had extremely detailed and eloquent objections to the corruption and military practices that he saw.

Regardless, as Keller states, at his sentencing statement—after many years in solitary confinement, during which Manning has much time—if not many hospitable circumstances– to reflect, he makes clear that he is troubled by the dehumanization of the casualties in one military attack captured on video, where the US soldiers who perpetuated the attack cheered at the large number of casualities that they managed to engender.  That statement is consistent with his earlier actions and perspective, to say the least.

4)    Finally, in order to show that the NYT has no obligation to with support–either a whistleblower or– treasonous ‘enemy’ of the state, Keller refers to Max Frankel, who was The Times’s Washington bureau chief during the Daniel Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers. According to Frankel:

“[Ellsberg] was committing an act of civil disobedience and presumably knew that required accepting the punishment. We were privately pleased that the prosecution overreached and failed, but we did not consider ourselves his partner in any way.

But isn’t that precisely the ethical and deceptively neutral stance that journalists such as Nathan Fuller, Kevin Gosztola, Glenn Greenwald, and others are challenging?  If you’re a journalist—and that means anything to you—it means reporting to the public—even, especially, at risk of pissing off the state. And that means standing with your sources and ensuring that they are not targeted or persecuted for sharing important information with the Fourth Estate. That requires public support for information-sharing.

This should be the rule for journalists, especially when there may be concerns about criminal activities on the part of the state. Protect your sources, support them, and report on harassment, corruption and wrongdoing.  Such a stance would be ‘truly’ neutral, because it would ensure allegiances to its public readership, and promote trust by showing its adversarial, watchdog–not lapdog–stance toward the state.

5)     Keller suggests that Manning ‘pilfered’ documents. That suggests that Manning was stealing property that is owned by the government. In fact, this is precisely the issue that is at stake regarding Manning’s actions. As such, Keller is begging the question (i.e., assuming the very thing that is being questioned).

Did Manning steal? Or did he release documents that the state wanted to be kept secret for “national security” reasons–which are unconvincing to many, many people, including former whistleblowers, journalists, and a segment of the American population.  In many people’s understanding of a liberal democratic state—a government is accountable to its people. If this is the case, then a government’s actions must be made known to it people.

If we accept the latter explanation which, barring an actual state of emergency, is the only Constitutional one, another interpretation of Manning’s actions is NOT that he was stealing, but rather attempting to share evidence of state corruption and wrongdoing with Americans—those people to whom the US government is accountable. That would make him by most accounts except for those who are concerned about having wrongdoing exposed—a whistleblower.

6)    Finally, as whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg stated yesterday, there is a misconception about the kind of material that Bradley Manning leaked. In his letter, Ellsberg clarifies Manning WAS selective in the information he leaked. From Ellsberg’s statement on the Manning recorded statement, released today:


Critics have alleged that a major difference between my case and Manning’s is that I was discriminating in what I leaked, while Manning wasn’t. He just dumped some material that doesn’t need to be out, they say. This is simply false.

First, it’s important to point out most of the material he put out was unclassified. The rest was classified ‘secret,’ which is relatively low level. All of the Pentagon Papers was classified top secret.

But in a fact no one seems to observe from his statement, Manning was working within a “SCIF,” which stands for Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. To get into a SCIF, a soldier needs a clearance higher than top secret. This means he had access to the highest classified material, such as communications and signals intelligence. This means he could’ve put out information top secret and higher, and purposely chose not to do so.”

Especially in light of Ellsberg’s point, Keller’s statement seems disingenuous at best, and self (and employer-) serving as well. But the set of terms that Keller deploys to refer to Manning–a ‘geek,’ ‘fragile gay man’ (how is his sexuality relevant?), “nervous, troubled, angry young Army private,” and in effect, a thief, suggests a character assassination more than a clarifying explanation of the NYT role in this affair.  Neither courageous nor morally upstanding on the part of Keller. And not surprising.


*Since I first wrote this piece, independent journalists such as Nathan Fuller, Kevin Gosztola, and Greg Mitchell have published challenges to Kellers’ assessment of Manning’s motivations. I have revised to include some of their points; my assessement overlaps at points with theirs.


2 thoughts on “Heaping Insult on Injury: Bill Keller’s Character Assassination of Bradley Manning

  1. To be honest, that article doesn’t seem particularly inflammatory to me.

    It’s mostly just pointless; and a bit tone-deaf; and the skilled techie line is just weird (as you point out), but if it’s a character assassination piece it’s not a particularly good one. All it really says to me on that front is that things are complex and the good guys are never as good and bad guys are never as bad as they seem. Ok, sure.

    • I would imagine that that’s how Keller intended his piece, which is why there are several folks–including pretty detailed investigative journalists–who are taking issue with the missing context of his piece. NYT stands to look pretty bad in all of this–if it aspires to being the ‘fourth estate.’–it has been of significant help to the state in covering up illegal and questionable activities, as I mention above. That’s why I challenge Keller’s need to bring up Manning’s supposed ‘fragility,’ his sexuality, alleged instability–how is any of this relevant in deciding whether the information that Manning released was a threat to national security? The basis for determining this lies in the nature of the documents released–which is what Ellsberg comments on–not on Manning’s persona or psyche.

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