The Passion of Bradley Manning

Army Pfc. Bradley Manning — the man accused of blowing a whistle so loud it’s still reverberating through the world two years after the fact — will return before a judge for his court-martial proceedings this month.

Manning, 24, faces 22 charges, including “aiding the enemy” and violating the 1917 Espionage Act, for allegedly transferring more than 700,000 classified and sensitive government documents from a ostensibly secure Department of Defense/State Department network to WikiLeaks, including what we know now as the Iraq War logs, the Afghan War logs, and the State Department diplomatic cables. He has been incarcerated since May 2010, and may never see the light a day again if the prosecution has its way.

It might be too easy to invoke Manning as martyr two days after Palm Sunday, when Christians observe the betrayal, humiliation and crucifixion of Jesus Christ two thousand years ago. While it is not our intention to compare Manning to the Christian Son of God, who according to Gospel, rose from the dead, humanity’s sins forgiven, on Easter Sunday, author Chase Madar lays out a deft argument that Manning has indeed sacrificed everything for his country’s sins in his aptly entitled new book, The Passion of Bradley Manning.

“I wanted to write a full-out defense of his alleged deeds — a political and moral defense,” Madar told in a recent interview. And he has. As Madar points out, there are “many people in history who have died and sacrificed for their cause.” The Passion makes an industrious case that Manning did what he did for a cause: to give the people the information they need and deserve about what their government is doing in their name. Transparency — Robin Hood style.

“What I find remarkable and praiseworthy is, he was not — despite having this terrible time getting bullied and messed with constantly — leaking these things to get revenge,” Madar said. “He was a true believer in patriotic duty and military service, I think. If you look at the chat logs, he was very clear about his motives for leaking, that this was what the public should know, so that we as a country could make better decisions.”

“Transparency in statecraft,” is what Madar called it in the book, and it “was not invented by Julian Assange. It is a longstanding American tradition that dates back to the first years of the republic.”

While the government and the mainstream media have endeavored to make Manning an emotionally conflicted young man whose alleged transgressions followed years of peer abuse and tortured sexual identity, Madar stands to make the case that Manning’s journey began with a scrawny bespectacled kid who questioned his teachers, toward disillusionment and a tortuous struggle with the truth, and at last, walking in the footsteps of great whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg (who is a fan and supporter of Manning’s).

In other words, where the establishment sees a freak and a miscreant, Madar offers to us an American hero.

“We need to know what our government’s commitments are. Our foreign policy elites have clearly demonstrated they cannot be left to their own devices …Thanks to the whistleblowing revelations attributed to Bradley Manning, we have a far clearer picture of what our country is doing,” Madar writes, going so far as to say this was a “gift to the republic,” deserving of a Medal of Freedom, and not the 50 years-to-life sentence (which Manning could receive) in a federal brig.

“Releasing the war logs and the diplomatic cables was a practical solution to a severe problem of government obfuscation…government secrecy and distortion have played a major role in this blood-soaked mess” that is the war overseas, Madar argues in the book. “Only with some knowledge can the course be corrected.”

From Manning’s live chat logs with FBI informant Adrian Lamo, now part of his prosecution:

(02:28:10 am) bradass87 (Manning): I want people to see the truth …regardless of who they are … because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public…

(1:11:54 pm) bradass87: and …its important that it gets out …i feel, for some bizarre reason

(1:12:02 pm) bradass87: it might actually change something

Madar, who is a civil rights lawyer by trade, is a contributing editor for The American Conservative (I also write for the magazine) and has been published by Counterpunch, Al Jazeera, London Review of Books and TomDispatch. After a string of reports and commentaries about the plight of Manning in federal custody, he said, TomDispatch publisher Tom Engelhardt encouraged him to write the book and became a mentor.

It is of course, not the only tome written on the subject. The Nation’s Greg Mitchell has just published his second book on Manning, written with Kevin Gosztola, Truth and Consequences: The U.S. vs. Bradley Manning. Denver Nicks, who has been writing exhaustively about the soldier’s case for The Daily Beast, is set to release Private: Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks, and the Biggest Exposure of Official Secrets in American History in May.

Unlike Nicks’ book, however, Madar freely admits his is not a journalistic exercise. His goal is one of a defense attorney’s brief — defending not only the actions of Manning but of all government whistleblowers. And though he might have considered footnotes rather than the sweep of links in the endnotes, Madar attributes and makes tidy work of other’s capable reporting, weaving in his own interviews with legal experts, former military and government sources.

He then posits that Manning was in fact doing his job, as an American, and as a man who once swore an oath to the U.S. Constitution.

“A great many of the approximately 700,000 leaked documents are not classified at all; many should be covered by the Whistleblower Protection Act,” Madar writes.

“But many would not be so covered, and Manning — or whoever it was — deserves all the more credit for this act of civil disobedience…Bradley Manning’s alleged act was an act of intense political courage.”

This was not born out of idealism or utopianism, as suggested by critics and naysayers, Madar insists, but of a simple principle Manning has lived by at his own peril: “do the right thing.” Manning’s “alleged act” began with his leaking of what was later referred to by WikiLeaks as the “Collateral Murder” video. In it, a U.S. Apache gunship is seen shooting down Iraqi civilians, including children, in 2007. The military tried to keep the video hidden. “I just couldn’t let these things stay inside the system … and inside my head,” Manning told Lamo during their online chats.

The trove of documents he allegedly then sent to WikiLeaks told us that the U.S. military was hiding the number of civilians killed in Iraq (after being told officially “we don’t do body counts”). They told us the military was condoning Iraqi torture of prisoners, that there was a secret U.S. military assassination team engaging in extrajudicial justice in Afghanistan, that our government pressured other countries not to prosecute our rendition practices, and of course, catalogued all sorts of cozy relationships with creepy dictators and questionable diplomatic allies.

While the leaks have “added to our store of knowledge of how American foreign policy works, and that is a good thing,” said Madar, “Washington has learned absolutely nothing from the failure of prolonged war … instead you have a lot of pretending that the real damage to our country and our prestige as a nation is because of Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks.”

Madar’s wants to turn that thinking on its head.

To do that he asks the reader to step back from two years of the mainstream conventional thinking about Manning’s alleged catastrophic behavior, assumptions created in great part by what Madar calls the government “hypochondriacally groaning about the damage done by Manning’s alleged leaks,” which has turned out to be a lot of bluster. “Not a single death has been traced to Pfc. Manning’s alleged leaks,” writes Madar.

As for the diplomatic fallout of the leaked State Department cables, “the real diplomatic shakeup has been, on the surface, quite minor — a small price to pay for this treasury of knowledge.”

It is of no surprise, really, that the mainstream media and the establishment it serves have largely ignored the blistering revelations in the leaks themselves. Doing otherwise would have complicated the simple narrative of boy-does-treason. It would have forced the public to answer the ultimate question: what is more important, the fact Manning allegedly broke the rules regarding classified information (which official Washington does all the time when it suits), or finally getting the truth about all the spying, torturing, killing and other pernicious if not completely immoral deeds going on in secret, and largely without the consent of our elected representatives in Washington?

“The leaks themselves have almost been swallowed up by the story of the leaks,” Madar laments.

If we are ready to consider the more sober realities of Manning’s case, Madar suggests beginning with the classification system itself. Some 77 million government documents were classified in 2010 alone, a 40 percent increase over the year before. Experts agree there is a problem with over-classification in that it keeps the public out of the decision-making process. Even then-candidate Barack Obama promised to tackle the issue of transparency in government when he was running for president.

Yet conversely, classification has been used under the Obama Administration to censor and punish whistleblowers — like Tom Drake and Peter Van Buren — and to keep information endeavored to be shared by whistleblowers, out of the public domain. It’s gotten so that documents and reports are no longer classified exclusively to keep the nation safe, but to keep our leaders safe from embarrassment — and accountability. They’ve even started to classify things retroactively.

In other words, we may never know how much of the cache Manning let loose should have been classified in the first place.

But Manning broke the rules, right? And “rules are rules.” Manning is accused of stealing public records, tampering with government computers, knowingly publishing intelligence information on the internet where it could “aid the enemy,” transferring defense information in violation of the Espionage Act. But as Madar points out, “elite leaks of classified material to the media are frequent and routine — an accepted means for official Washington to communicate with the public.”

If a rule is only selectively enforced it ceases to be a rule and becomes something else — an arbitrary instrument of authority, a weapon of the powerful — but not a rule….

There is no legal distinction between the leak of, say, the classified drone strike procedures by some unnamed CIA official and what Bradley Manning allegedly did … when official Washington decides to leak, the law fades away…

Sadly, Americans seem more forgiving when the government lies about weapons of mass destruction to get us into war, engages in and denies the rendition and torture of terror suspects, destroys classified information to cover its tracks or kills American citizens abroad under the rubric of “the war on terror.”

If Bradley Manning had launched a war that slaughtered hundreds of thousands; if he had tortured prisoners, if he had shot dead Iraqi civilians: if he were a lawyer, justifying all of the above, or some general or cabinet level official whispering state secrets to Bob Woodward over a martini — he’d emerged unscathed.

Of course he’s none of those things, he’s Pfc. Manning, unconnected and against odds too great to even contemplate. His lawyer, David E. Coombs, has filed a series of motions, one of which asks that all charges against Manning be dismissed. Coombs claims the government — surprise — is withholding evidence the court needs to adjudicate Manning’s case fairly and effectively, including official damage assessments of the leaks. And at least two outside groups have filed letters to the military court complaining about the lack of access to what should be public court filings.

Manning’s case has become a waning sideshow, kept alive only at the periphery of our mainstream attention span by a very vocal support network, and not surprisingly, the foreign audience. But as Madar points out, “ignorance is not just a matter of information supply, but of demand.” Today’s Americans care less about “the truth,” much preferring celluloid rebels and the formulaic black and white tension of The Lorax and The Hunger Games to the ethical and moral complexities associated with flesh ’n blood risk takers and truth-seekers.

“The paucity of public-spirited citizens speaks poorly of American rebelliousness,” writes Madar. “After all, what country can remain free if its citizens no longer have any ‘issues with authority?’”

Manning may indeed become a martyr to his cause, but he is far from being widely accepted as an American hero. Madar in his own small way, is trying to change that, one page at a time.

Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.