US – Politics – Free Bradley Manning – 4 August 2012

I stumbled across this picture of Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, drawing an explicit parallel between what he did when he made public secret information about how the US government was behaving during the Vietnam War and what Bradley Manning did making secret government information on a wide variety of topics available to Julian Assange and his associates at Wikileaks.

There is one respect in which Ellsberg and Manning cannot properly be compared, and another in which they definitely can be compared.

The information Ellsberg shared with us showed how successive American governments claimed to want not to widen the Vietnam War at the same time that they actively planned and took steps to widen the war. By contrast, the information Manning shared with us can usually be reduced either to evidence that friendly fire accidents often happen in war or that diplomats don’t like to publicly embarrass those with whom they interact. Ellsberg’s information pointed to massive complicity within the government to dupe the American people about an important matter of public policy, while Manning’s information largely didn’t tell Americans anything they didn’t already know. In this respect, the contributions of the two cannot properly be compared.

But there is one important respect in which Daniel Ellsberg is quite right to portray himself as having been an earlier version of Bradley Manning.

When Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers information, he did something he knew was illegal for reasons of conscience. The government could have pursued him strictly by legal means and had the support of a wide crossection of Americans concerned that the law be applied. However, Richard Nixon did not want to be seen as trying to silence a conscientious individual, so instead, he did what he could to discredit Ellsberg. His “Plumbers” squad, a group of mercenaries so called because it was their job to “plug leaks”, were dispatched to break into Ellsberg’s psychiatrists office in order to find some salacious dirt to spread around, so that Ellsberg would be publicly discredited. (Note: the “Plumbers”, led by E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, were also the same bunch involved with the Watergate break-in…read this for a quick history lesson … .)

This was a massive overreaction on the part of the irrational and paranoid Nixon administration – and one which contributed, ultimately, to the downfall of Nixon politically.

After Bradley Manning leaked his Wikileaks, despite the fact that the information was boring to the nth degree and not really a threat to national security to have made public, Manning was not only arrested, as one might expect someone leaking classified documents might be, but also placed in solitary confinement, stripped naked, and subjected to demeaning treatment by his guards. On top of that, no small amount of effort has been spared to portray Manning to the public as unstable and unduly emotionally affected by his situation as a gay man in the military.

US State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley went so far, on 10 March 2011, to describe Manning’s treatment as “ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid”. He resigned as an employee of the State Department two days after making these comments, suggesting that it was brought to his attention by others in the State Department that the comments went beyond what was considered acceptable bounds. That Crowley was unwelcome at the State Department for merely commenting about what one can manifestly see is the case suggests the State Department has gone off the rails about Manning.

A massive government overreaction made a hero out of Daniel Ellsberg. A similarly massive government overreaction is making one out of Bradley Manning. Though I continue to be bored by the so-called revelations of Wikileaks, I salute the courage Manning has shown in standing up to the pointless and contemptible harassment he has received in prison.

It says something about the US government that it seems incapable of making this merely a case about whether classified materials were illegally released to the public. The extra harassment and character assassination are part of this for a reason. The government wants to make sure its critics get the message that this is what happens to those who dissent.

Real Americans know the freedom to dissent is one of the reasons the country was founded. It is time for the government to explain to the people why it’s considering a lifetime of prison for someone who released information so stultifyingly unimportant that I doze off reading the stuff. That some punishment for Manning, given what he did, was called for, I do not doubt.

But I think what he’s already been through is enough. It is time to end Manning’s “ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid” incarceration.

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