Interview: Chase Madar, “The Passion of Bradley Manning”

Chase Madar is a civil rights attorney and author of the new book on the accused WikiLeaks whistle-blower, called “The Passion of Bradley Manning.” The book looks at Bradley’s motives, his treatment by the U.S. government, and the political issues his case brings up. Chase answered a few questions for the Support Network about Bradley, his new book, and the crackdown on whistle-blowers in America.

You’re a civil rights lawyer, a writer on politics and civil liberties, and a contributing editor for the American Conservative. What drew you to Bradley Manning?

Few events scream to be written about like l’affaire Bradley Manning.  First there’s Private Manning himself, he’s like someone out of a novel or a heroic folk ballad.  He’s a small-town kid who’s become an international cause.  He’s gay, he’s brainy, he’s critical of his country, but he’s intensely patriotic and a deep believer in responsibility for one’s country.  He refuses to help round up Iraqi citizens and hand them over to the authorities who are, even after the U.S. occupation, still torturing prisoners right and left.   He brings us incredible knowledge of our wars and of how our foreign policy works, and he gets severely punished.  Manning is the last great Enlightenment martyr.  The chatlogs with Adrian Lamo by themselves read like a tragic novella.  I said he’s a novelistic character, but the drama is almost operatic.

A half dozen crucial issues collide in l’affaire Manning: how we assess national security threats; how we create 77million state secrets every year in this country; who we blame, and don’t blame, for civilian casualties; what the laws of war are really worth; how we punish Americans, how we punish foreigners, with solitary confinement.  The injustice in this case really stinks in the nostrils.  It’s been said a million times but I’ll say it again: if only Pfc Manning had tortured prisoners, or authorized torture, or illegally spied on Americans with warrantless wiretapping, or lied us into a catastrophic war…if the young private had done any of these things, he’d be a free man.  If he had massacred civilians in Haditha, Iraq, or in Kandahar, Afghanistan, he’d be out of jail sooner.  But bringing new knowledge to the American people, and to the world, this is unforgivable.  Suddenly we hear that “rules are rules” and need to be enforced, this after the orgy of impunity among elite officials and ordinary soldiers over the past decade.

Manning’s story, so important in itself, also says so much about our country… especially how we react to new knowledge.  We talk endlessly about education reform in this country, we love education, and credentials too, yet at the same time we have this deep distrust of knowledge and learning.  This is something the young Bradley Manning had to face daily growing up as a precocious child in America, which is a great sin, and it’s no better I suspect in New York or Los Angeles than in small-town Oklahoma.  And you also see this sulky suspicion of knowledge in the reception of the leaks. Manning has brought us this rich trove of new knowledge about our wars, it’s shed so much light on a disastrous foreign policy that has brought us and the world nothing but grief–corpses, destruction, and money down the drain.  We should be grateful, but by and large we don’t know how to accept this gift.  We distrust it, we resent it.   Our intellectuals and media are by and large sullen and weirdly pouty about this gift, and they come up with all kinds of reasons to be ungrateful.

Look at Bill Keller, former editor of the New York Times; his paper made hay out of the WikiLeaks disclosures, running hundreds of stories based on them yet he does nothing but sneer at and pour contempt on WikiLeaks, Assange and Manning.  He admits that, sure, the leaks have made for journalism but… BUT WHAT?  Keller’s a journalist for fuck’s sake and his job, his mission, is to provide news to people–but Keller just can’t bring himself to be grateful for all this news that WikiLeaks has brought him, wrapped in a bow, he’s hardwired to sneer at it, even as his newspaper prints it, he can’t help himself.  Maybe he feels guilty about the terrible job the Times did under his watch in failing to do any real reporting about the phony weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the Iraq war, and this is his weird way of externalizing the guilty, by being an asshole to WikiLeaks.  Maybe he feels sneering at Julian Assange is a good way to suck up to Washington and maintain his cred as a “serious man”. (Here he’d be right.) Anyway, this sullen hostility to knowledge, maybe it’s human, but it’s definitely American.  We’ve overcome much of our Puritan fear of sex, now the dirtiest part of our bodies is the brain, the mind.  We need to get over this, or we will inflict more disasters on the world, and on ourselves.

Oh, and another reason I wrote about Bradley Manning is my great editor Tom Engelhardt of TomDispatch.com, whose 3x/weekly emails everyone should subscribe to.  Tom put me on the scent of this story in the fall of 2010. “Chase, you’re a lawyer, write me something about Bradley Manning, a good strong defense!”

(And about the American Conservative, I can explain! [Chuckles nervously.] My colleagues at TAC are “paleoconservatives” in contrast to “neoconservatives” who led us into Iraq and are trying to do the same with Iran.  On a cluster of important issues–foreign policy, civil liberties, the war on drugs and other criminal justice issues, the militarization of daily life in the U.S.–my paleocon pals are well to the left of the Democratic Party.  That’s where we agree.  I’m a broad-minded guy and I’m happy to work with other people towards common goals, even if we don’t agree on everything: that’s coalition politics and I wish there were more of it.  Ron Paul, by the way, is the only Presidential candidate on either side to defend WikiLeaks & Bradley Manning, which is terrific.  So despite disagreements on things like abortion, gay rights and healthcare, I’m very happy to work with the paleocons and the libertarians on matters of foreign policy and civil liberties, where they are just rock-solid.)

Your book is called The Passion of Bradley Manning. A play in Wales just finished, called ‘The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning.’ Both aim to get at Bradley’s motives, assuming he’s the whistleblower – why is it important that the public realize Bradley’s intentions? And why now?

Manning’s motives were clear and simple: to give the world, particularly the United States, the knowledge we need to make better informed decision in our foreign policy.  After the disaster of Iraq and so much failure elsewhere, it’s hard to see what’s so awful, or complicated or mysterious, about this motive.  This shouldn’t be hard to understand.

And yet it’s amazing how hard the media have worked to ignore, to strenuously ignore, Manning’s motives for the (alleged, always alleged) leaks.  In the chatlogs, Manning’s motives are as clear as a bell: “I want people to see the truth… regardless of who they are… because without information you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”  Manning also writes (allegedly, the logs haven’t been authenticated yet) that he hopes the leaks will lead to “hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms.”

But instead of this clear and simple political motive, our media has left no stone unturned in trying to find another reason for the alleged leaks.  So the mainstream media has come up with all kinds of spurious motives: Personal reasons–Manning’s childhood and family life were not ideal.  Sexual reasons–Manning is gay, and was considering gender transition. Psychological reasons–Manning’s crazy.

We’re an intensely depoliticized society, we Americans, and that’s not a good thing.  Instead of looking for solutions in politics it’s usually all about individualistic self-improvement through pharmaceuticals, through self-help books, through instant-gratification kinds of religion, which I’m tempted to call pseudo-religion.  We have a hard time understanding the very concept of politics, and political convictions, and Manning is the target of a lot of misunderstanding, some of it willful, because his motives were plainly political.

The best thing written about Manning’s motives is by a U.S. infantryman, a remarkable guy named Ethan McCord, who is filmed in action in the Collateral Murder video, he’s the soldier on the ground who went into the van that got shot up by the Apache helicopter and retrieved two wounded children and got them to the hospital.  McCord’s out of the army now and he’s a big Manning supporter.  When New York magazine wrote a slick smear job about Manning last summer, alleging that the alleged whistleblower is a headcase who did what he allegedly did for psychosexual reasons, McCord wrote this magnificent letter taking the magazine to task for obliterating Manning’s plainly stated political motives.  Why can’t American media and intellectuals comprehend this?

Bradley Manning is the highest profile case, but he’s just one of many alleged whistleblowers the Obama administration is cracking down on. Why do you think the Obama admin in particular is so zealous about anti-leaking?

Our national security state is out of control.  It’s overfunded, under-supervised and it can do whatever it wants with little fear of legal consequence.  Trying to manage and control this beast is like trying to walk an enormous rottweiler that’s hopped up on steroids.  For a president to control this beast, he or she’d have to have either ruthless political skills or experience in the national security apparatus, or preferably both, than he or she might have a chance at handling our national security state, at wrestling it down and controlling it.  But anyone else–say, Barack Obama–is going to get jerked around for the ride while pretending that he’s in control.  Obama can’t control it, and he’s unwilling to spend the political capital it would take to rein it in and get it under control.  The Democratic Party, by the way, has never been all that into taming the national security state; during the McCarthy years they were against the vulgar, hysterical anti-Communist witch-hunts but they were all in favor of more professional purges, conducted say by the FBI, of Communists and fellow travelers from any position of power.

I don’t mean to absolve the President of all responsibility here, I just want to point out that this is more than a matter of an individual president deciding to flick a switch on or off.  It’s a matter of deeply entrenched bureaucratic power, and it’s not going away anytime soon, no matter who’s president.  The national security state gets what it wants, even if the lawsuits against leakers crumple upon impact with a real trial or a real judge, like the indictment of whistleblower Tom Drake all but fell apart when finally exposed to daylight and oxygen and a real judge.

And the sad thing is, most of the public doesn’t care about this issue.  Civil libertarians don’t have a party that supports their goals.  So the Democrats can get away with it without having to pay much of a price.  The only presidential candidate saying anything about these abuses is Ron Paul, who is not really electable, and also very unpalatable to many of people who care about these issues, who are left-of-center.

One issue that’s not discussed quite as much, under the rubble of Manning’s case and WikiLeaks’ releases – is overclassification. Why didn’t the U.S. learn a lesson about secrecy after WikiLeaks?  And how can we return public attention to this massive secrecy?

Government secrecy is out of control right now.  According to the NY Times, Washington classifies 77 million documents a year.  (The classified material that Manning is alleged to have released is not even 1% of that annual total.) Everyone recognizes that this is a problem, but the national security bureaucracies–Defense, NSA, and god knows CIA–are very reluctant to cede any power by granting greater transparency.

Extreme secrecy like this is a huge national security risk.  Not whistleblowers, not WikiLeaks, but extreme secrecy and overclassification are what’s harming us and putting our security in jeopardy.  When we don’t have information, we collectively make foolish and destructive decisions.  Like invading Iraq (or before than, invading South Vietnam).  What are the wages of overclassification? Over 100,000 Iraqi civilians killed, and 4,500 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq.  $3 trillion dollars.  By contrast, not a single casualty has been credibly tied to the WikiLeaks disclosures.  We’ve killed more Americans (and god knows many more foreigners) in our idiotic response to 9-11 than the terrorists killed on 9-11.  This is where government secrecy, distortion and lies gets us.

And yet there is little uproar about this extreme secrecy and its disastrous results.  Part of it is that the government has found it worth its while to promote fear 24/7.  A decade after 9/11 and air travel gets more unpleasant every year with more and more intrusive “security theater,” not that any of it actually improve safety.  The no-fly list has expanded.  The national security budget has expanded to $75billion/year.  The neocons still set the parameters of foreign policy debate in Washington. Fear and secrecy still rule, and have only become more entrenched more routinized and “normal” under Obama–a real disappointment.

The secrecy endures.  Part of this, again, is the hostility to knowledge and learning that runs so deep in our society.  Lt. Calley, commander of the My Lai massacre, was always more popular in this country than Daniel Ellsberg.  Slaughtering foreigners is just more forgivable to many Americans than uncovering some unflattering truths about ourselves.  (Likewise, Sgt Bob Bales, the guy who massacred 17 Afghan civilians, will surely get out of prison before Pfc. Bradley Manning does.)  People in general and we American in particular have a strong will to ignorance.  This Enlightenment idea, that all you need is to add knowledge and stir and you’ll have good politics, a good society, is faulty.  I don’t say that with a smile.

Sometimes in the past, at the end of the Vietnam war for instance, a critical mass (but still a minority)  of Americans has insisted on knowing the truth about our wars and doing something about it.  Not this time.  Countervailing forces–the media, intellectuals, lawyers, the entire “liberal class”–have by and large gone along with the government on the question of WikiLeaks and secrecy.  They want to be seen as good team players, not as troublemakers.  Why has the liberal class failed so badly?  Towards the end of the Vietnam War, you had genuine critical journalism and a lot of serious antiwar ferment among academics and the professions, but not now.  I think it’s because the liberal class (such as it remains) is totally insulated from the pain of war.  During the Vietnam War, the draft was easy to get out of for middle-class kids, but it at least brought the theoretical possibility into every household that junior would have to head off to fight in Southeast Asia.  The pain of the war was not spread evenly, but it was spread much more evenly than it is today.  The middle class and its intellectuals felt like they had some skin in the game, and this, over time, made many people deeply skeptical of government propaganda about the war.

Ever since Nixon did away with the draft, our intellectuals are by and large disconnected from the burdens of war.  With the past decade of war, there’s been no draft, no tax hikes–on the contrary, we’ve had tax cuts–and no shared sacrifice.  Middle-class and god knows upper-class young people are under no risk of getting called up and deployed, and then stop-lossed, in Afghanistan.  Our middle class hasn’t had to pony up and pay for the war.  Without any skin in the game, our middle class has very little appetite for the truth about war.  And that is why so many in the media and in the professions are so blasé about the extreme secrecy and overclassification that has led to so much disaster.  The disaster is all on other people, not on middle-class journalists, academics, NGO workers or government officials.

One of your book’s many important chapters is on the rule of law. Clearly high-ranking officials, including Obama and officials that Manning’s alleged to have exposed, have broken the law, and yet it’s Manning who’s on trial. But it’s precisely Manning’s breaking the law in favor of greater justice that cause many to see him as a hero. What does Bradley’s case tell us about the place the rule of law has in American democracy? How can we use the rule of law to keep the war criminals and law-breakers on larger scales accountable?

The Rule of Law problem–is it universally a good thing? shouldn’t law be consistently applied?  but what if the laws are evil, is the rule of law a good thing then–has been a teething biscuit for intellectually-minded lawyers for literally millennia, since Cicero and before.  I’ll confess I didn’t square this circle in my 5,000-word chapter on the subject.

I don’t have much faith in the law here.  The only way to hold war criminals accountable is through building political power, not through intricate lawsuits.  The reason why Manning’s in jail and so many people who did worse are getting fat off their royalty payments from their memoirs is not so much a legal failing as a political failing.  Those of us who wanted real accountability, we don’t have the political power to force politicians to do what we want.  Obama has ignored us and he hasn’t paid any political price.  He stands a great chance of getting reelected.

We who care about civil liberties, we who would like a foreign policy based on prudence, enlightened self-interest and even a little benevolence instead of nationalist aggression, we who care about knowing what our government is doing, we need to do better in convincing others, knowing we will never convince everyone.  Professional activists and legal technocrats in the human rights industry are not going to do this for it, that’s not what they’re cut out for.  We need an antiwar movement that spans the left-right divide, that gets beyond white and Asian-American college grads, that speaks to people’s interests as well as morals, not in a self-righteous Lisa Simpson voice, but in the voice that doesn’t hector and lecture and high-minded legalism.  The rule of law is an insoluble problem, we’ll never fully have it and that’s fine.  But we need more justice, and that’s a political question first.

[This interview first appeared here, for the Bradley Manning Support Network.]

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Interview: Chase Madar, “The Passion of Bradley Manning”

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