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:

“MANNING WAS DISCRIMINATING


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.

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Down the Rabbit Hole: The Obama Administration’s Version of Transparency

As soon as Judge Denise Lind’s ruling in the pre-trial punishment motion for Bradley Manning came out, the ironies began to pile up: It took nearly 2 hours to read her decision. She ruled that although Manning was mistreated at Quantico, she rejected the idea of “any unlawful command influence from superior officers that led the commanding officer of Quantico to keep Manning in restrictive conditions for no justifiable reason.”  For those reasons she refused to dismiss the charges against Manning, although she did give him 112 days’ credit for time already served. And even though it was apparently a long, detailed, decision, the ruling itself could not be released to the public. As journalists Kevin Gosztola and Nathan Fuller pointed out: this lack of transparency is in a case about a whistleblower making information available to the public.

This absence of transparency comes on the heels of a ruling by Judge Colleen McMahon denying FOIA requests for the reasoning behind Obama Administration’s targeted killings. In her ruling, she refers to the fact that relevant information on which she bases her ruling is classified.

And on the heels of the plea taken by ex-CIA official John Kiriakou, whose crime was—not to name—but merely to confirm a suspicion that a journalist already had about a CIA interrogator in the torture of Abu Zubaydah. Compare Kiriakou’s crime with that of Obama nominee John Brennan who (beyond his endorsement of torture and remarkable statement about there never having been any civilian casualties in drone attacks) is accused of being responsible for multiple high-security leaks. For Kiriakou, 3 years in jail. For Brennan—neither arrest, detention, or solitary confinement, but rather Deputy Chief of NSA, which moved him closer to POTUS’ long-held wish for him to become head of CIA.

The most remarkable irony (if that is the right word. Where is Alanis Morissette when I need to consult?) lies in a comparison of the above events to the 2 Presidential Memos that President Obama issued in the first 4 months of his Administration.

On the first day he took office, Jan. 21, 2009, POTUS bragged about the intention of his administrations to create transparency. The first “Transparency” memo (.pdf) was hailed by ProPublica as well as Electronic Frontiers Foundation.

My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.

To that end, Obama asserted that

government offices should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public.

In his FOIA Memo, also issued the same day, the President loftily refers to Judge Louis Brandeis’ quote about sunlight and disinfectant. It continues on the same righteously lofty vein that was supposed to distinguish his Administration’s policies from the elusive, highfalutin, “we know better than you” tone of the previous Bush Administration:

Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.

All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.

Mr. “Hope & Change” continues on in the same vein, urging offices not to wait for requests in order to disclose information, but to be proactive in disseminating information.

The last time I checked, the Department of Justice was a government office. So were the CIA, NSA, and DoD. Yet, the trend over the last four years is the continual expansion of secrecy, an ever-increasing breadth of classified information—so much so that as the Senate debated Sen Wyden’s oversight amendments to FISA on New Year’s Day, Senator Feinstein boasted about how she knew that there was important information that couldn’t be shared—because it was classified, but she promised to retrieve it from the room it was in, and to “wave it around” so that everyone would know that it existed and said…something that she knew was important but classified. What we also know, as a leaked memo shows, is that she was doing exactly the White House’s bidding.  See how cool the whole accountability thing works?  Leaking classified information allows us to know what our pols’ intentions really are.

This is part of the series of hypocrisies ironies piling up: as the US government insists on making more and more information confidential, private, and unavailable for oversight, it insists that its own citizens have no right to privacy—none—in their cyber or phone communications, cars, among other activities.  Moreover, by breaching or challenging the punitive rules coming out of the White House and Congress, the only outcome that citizens or non-citizens face is severe punishment ranging from arrest to indefinite detention to solitary confinement. The latter, regardless of Judge Lind’s ruling in Manning’s case yesterday, can only be defined as torture.  The rules are arbitrary—what else can we call them when we have no ability to call our representatives, DoJ lawyers, CIA officials, or President and his staff to account for their actions?

Former Guantanamo Chief Prosecutor Colonel Morris Davis suggested in his interview on Russian TV yesterday that the most severe crime that Bradley Manning committed was to embarrass the Administration and the Department of Justice (see at 1:55), rather than aiding the enemy or harming anyone.

At one point, Obama was thought to have the integrity that the Bush Administration did not, when his FOIA memo clarified that

In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.

The seeming transparency of that memo is augmented by this one on “Classified Information and Controlled Unclassified Information,” issued just four months later in May 2009.  It insists on the centralization of procedures for the public dissemination of information, also stating that

Effective measures to address the problem of over classification, including the possible restoration of the presumption against classification, which would preclude classification of information where there is significant doubt about the need for such classification, and the implementation of increased accountability for classification decisions;

Such a directive should have the beneficial effect of pushing previously presumptively classified information into the “disinfecting” sunlight.  Instead, the defining trend during the first Obama term was the very opposite.

That May 27 memo seems to be directly abnegated by the quiet passage of the Whistleblower Protection Enforcement Act. In effect, the WPEA explicitly re-envisions John Kiriakou’s actions as criminal even as it purports to reinforce protections for whistleblowers. As I wrote when it was quietly signed on the day after Thanksgiving last year, WPEA will criminalizes attempts to speak to agencies or journalists without permission from one’s supervisors.  This provision cuts off the ability to disseminate information informally and casually, and implicitly threatens severe punishments for those who have any sort of relationship with journalists.

Contrary to Samuel Rubenfeld’s bizarre article in the Wall Street Journal, the WPEA insists that email communications will not be protected under this act. Rubenfeld offers as proof of Obama’s whistleblower courage adoring quotations from Angela Canterbury, director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight, who claims that

He’s done more to affirmatively protect whistleblowers than any other president

and

Obama wants to encourage internal reporting of wrongdoing.”

“Obama believes that “if there are more protections for internal whistleblowers, there will be fewer leaks of national security information,” Canterbury said. “We share that belief, but that does not de-legitimize the need for external whistleblowers.”

“Sometimes information needs to be disclosed outside the government for there to be accountability,

It’s hard to know whether these are prevarications or the trite misty-eyed aspirations of liberal Obama voters. But whatever they are, the statements are blatantly inaccurate. Notwithstanding Canterbury’s official title, which apparently negates the need to crosscheck her claims with actual content, the bills and memos that purport to protect whistleblowers have increasingly done the opposite.

The “Alice in Wonderland” reference that Judge Colleen McMahon made in her ruling on drone strikes last week is an apt literary allusion to the craziness, the upside-downness, the inversion of meaning of all statements emerging from the White House and…its fore(wo)men?

Today, when a memo is prefaced with a statement about the need for transparency, one can be fairly certain that the purpose of the memo will be the opposite. When the POTUS’ allies insist that they are pushing for the renewal of FISA for the “safety” of the American people, what comes to mind are the Muslim men (who are known to be) in detention in the U.S. and the fear that non-whites have of being arrested, detained, or deported. It is clear that FISA is being used against the “safety” of Americans, and its absence of oversight is used to guard against detecting the misuse and abuse of secret surveillance privileges by government offices.

When Obama insists on nominating Brennan—a man who endorsed torture, denied civilian casualties, and was himself responsible for leaks—to be the next director of the CIA—literally biding his time for 4 years until the furor of Brennan’s notoriously unethical credentials inevitably died down (Feet! To the Fire!), I can only believe that Obama and his Administration are only interested in continuing—as Glenn Greenwald calls it—the never-ending War on Terror.

Perhaps it is hardly shocking that the POTUS–and our Senators and Congresspersons—continually refer to that ubiquitous, irrefutable, state of national security in order to invoke a continual state of emergency. But the unflinching, chest-strutting, arrogance with which they do so—while creating ever-growing secret kill lists and disposition matrixes, is in large part engendered by the voters who continue to rehire them on the grounds that torture, drones, renditions—are tastier, more flavorful, and absolutely more palatable when done by a liberal.

After all, would you rather have Romney?