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Mar 3, 2011

Rundle: with WikiLeaks, Manning erred in being human

Just at the point when the WikiLeaks saga was collapsing into final absurdity, US soldier Bradley Manning faces 22 additional charges, including that of aiding the enemy, which attracts the death penalty.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle

Correspondent-at-large

Just at the point when the WikiLeaks saga was collapsing into final absurdity — with Julian Assange’s apparent outburst about a Jewish conspiracy, his attempt to trademark his name (to be fair, this is to protect him from false endorsement claims, etc), and the announcement that Steven Spielberg has bought the rights to  The Guardian book and the tell-all by former WikiLeaker Daniel Domscheit-Berg — something comes along to tip it into tragedy again, and that is the charging of US soldier Bradley Manning with 22  additional crimes, including that of aiding the enemy, which attracts the death penalty.

The other charges include wrongfully obtaining classified material, fraud, and illegal transmission of defence information. The capital charge relates specifically to the presence of names of informers in many of the leaked documents, and the argument that such release may have led directly to deaths in Afghanistan.

None of the charges mention WikiLeaks, and WikiLeaks claims that it has no way of knowing who its sources are — or were , when it had the capacity for people to submit material — but it is usually supposed that Manning is the source for the “Afghan” and “Iraq” war logs, and the entire “Cablegate” archive. Manning, a low-level military information operative in Iraq and then back in the US, copied the archives over eight months from the US US SIPRNet network, and passed them on to WikiLeaks — or so he claimed to Adrian Lamo, a well-known hacker, who shopped him to the authorities. Lamo already had criminal convictions on hacking charges, and was terrified of massive retaliation by the authorities.

That retaliation has now fallen on Manning, who has been held virtually incommunicado, save for lawyer contact, for the past 10 months. Despite being innocent until proven guilty, even under military law, his extended remand has been a bloody-minded application of every regulation associated with US “supermax” prisons — he is in permanent solitary confinement (even his one hour/day exercise), under permanent surveillance, must make a verbal response to a query every 10 minutes, and if he attempts to take exercise in his cell — push-ups, for example — he is physically prevented from doing so. Visitors — including former Salon journalist Glenn Greenwald and Congressman Dennis Kucinich — have been prevented from visiting him.

The clear intent of such a process is to break Manning down to a pitiful state of desperation, and persuade him to incriminate Julian Assange as an active conspirator (although even then, it would be difficult to charge a non-US citizen with espionage charges). In his online chats with Lamo, Manning talks of some contact with Assange but it would be up to the prosecution to prove that this was something more than idle chat.

Whether it achieves that or not, it may well overshoot the mark and drive Manning completely and irrevocably insane. Such forms of confinement are unquestionably torture, but they are torture of a very specific kind — a sort of paradoxical torture. If the aim of torture per se is to make the prisoner’s body rebel against their soul — have animal pain and terror fill the consciousness until any principle, belief, or commitment is undermined — then the “supermax” regime is the opposite — it dissolves subjectivity by removing all that is most basically human, from diversion to human connection.

This is the point made most famously by Foucault: that the notion that neat antiseptic prison regimes are more humane than physical punishment is the founding conceit of modernity. In many ways they can be worse. Solitary confinement and the microcontrol of a prisoner’s behaviour are designed as a form of total annihilation, because they exert enormous energies in ensuring that the prisoner goes on existing, while depriving him of anything resembling life. That division of existence from purposeful life is effectively a standardised and routinised way of producing despair.

Not surprisingly, it is a particularly American form of human annihilation. The “supermax” prisons, and such total regimes, are the descendants of the first modern prison schemes, the penitentiaries established by the Quakers in Pennsylvania in the 1830s. Where other prisons housed prisoners collectively in squalor as part of their punishment, the Quakers believed that this merely bred criminality. The object was to make a prisoner repent (as the name suggests) by developing a relationship with God — and the only way to do that was to deprive a prisoner of a relationship with anyone else.

Thus, prisoners in the penitentiary were ideally utterly isolated from anyone else — they even had separate corridors so they couldn’t see each other. Eventually through their screaming isolation they would seek and find God. The gentle and peaceful Quakers thought that this invention was a force for good; many of those who observed it, such as Charles Dickens, thought it was a horrifying nightmare. But someone who never saw a problem with it was Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America was based on the trip he took to the US to report on this marvellous new prison system, for the French government.

Much of Democracy in America was devoted to trying work out what the problems of the new American society might be. He never realised that the answer was the very thing he was sent to study — the penitentiary was the other side of American depthlessness, an indifference to the full humanity of others hidden from oneself by following correct procedure and affirming goodness of heart.

The penitentiary is bad enough when it’s part of a God-centred culture; when part of one — even the US — where God is a shaky notion, then it’s a literal Hell. Its deeply anti-human nature does achieve what the Quakers sought, since many prisoners become believers out of the sheer need for someone to talk to, but it’s a counterfeit conversion, won through psychological warfare.

With 2 million Americans in prison, many of them in semi-penitentiary style incarceration, the prison system mirrors key aspects of American life — in particular the substantial atomisation and isolation of everyday life.

It even reflects much of the case at hand. Manning, a gay man, joined the military out of lack of direction, and found himself in a situation where he had to live the shadow-life of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. It was a relationship in Boston that brought him into contact with hackers such as Lamo — and the end of that relationship that plunged him into the loneliness and despair that prompted him to blab to Lamo. Lamo himself writes as a floating child of the aether — an isolated, disconnected depressive and chemically enhanced. There’s no doubting the genuineness of Manning’s outrage at much of the material he saw, but nor is there any doubt that the chaotic and unstable way in which this has all come about is a much a measure of the age, as is the content of the cables themselves. Their lives, and the punitive regimes Manning is under are of a piece with the war he was exposing, where a high-tech obsessed with notions of its own virtue could — as illustrated by the “collateral murder” video — distance itself from any consequences of individual action, any basic shared humanity.

What options there are for Manning now is anyone’s guess, but he’s in a tight corner. The WikiLeaks process has been part of an argument that governments should be more open, that power relations should be reconstructed in a new era. That’s not the same as saying that individual operatives should have the legal right to distribute as they wish. At some point, the prosecution of such an act becomes an act of decorum essential to the state’s existence, and to suggest that a massive classified document leak could be ignored is simply unreal. For Assange and WikiLeaks, a defence is clear and absolute. Manning erred in being human; his only hope may now lie in finding a quality of mercy. Judging by his treatment to date, that is a long way off.

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33 comments

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33 thoughts on “Rundle: with WikiLeaks, Manning erred in being human

  1. shepherdmarilyn

    I suspect the charges against him will be thrown out by the Supreme court but Obama and Holder are making a dreadful mistake here in this case.

    The only “evidence” that Manning did anything at all is the word of Lamo who is clearly unhinged if not dangerously insane.

  2. Bob the builder

    Fascinating discussion about the horrors of sterile imprisonment. I remember talking to a soldier who went AWOL (from an Australian base in peacetime – the ’90s) for a day or two and was sent to military prison. I asked him what it was like and a look of genuine horror came over his face. Rough, brutal, I thought. No, completely regulated; to get a ciggie, prisoners would have to line up and progress across a series of marks, each time saluting and yes-sir-ing and generally be completely obedient and controlled. This regimentation and humiliation was present in every aspect of the prison and a few weeks of that had deeply shaken this bloke.

  3. Michael James

    Manning is subject to military justice and is being held by the US Military in the standard US Military detention facility, known officially as a stockade. The treat ment he is receiving is likely the same as other military personnel held there.

    As for decrying his experience as a gay man in the US army, he was surely well and truly aware of the US military’s ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. To then blame that for his actions, where he broke the laws he was subject to, looks like a cheap cop out.

    You might think that the actions he undertook were for some ‘greater good’, but the truth is he stole classified material and passed the material to people who were not authorised to receive it. In any military in the world, that is a very serious offence and Manning is being charged and will stand trial for it.

  4. Martin Doyle

    The US Military should need to provide some evidence to show that the release of this classified information caused someone’s death.

  5. baal

    so much to say, so little time and space to say it

  6. klewso

    Watching Domscheit-Berg on Lateline last week, started me wondering what sort of personality is attracted to work for WikiLeaks? What sort of person does it take to hold them all together, and what happens if “one” of them starts to thinking they aren’t being appreciated enough, aren’t getting the sort of recognition they think they deserve? He’s done all right.

    (The week before it was John Burns (London’s NY Times boss) lining up for a free-kick, waffling on about how Assange wasn’t a real journalist or something – and the resources/”inclination” they have to put into “investigation” of such things – apparently forgetting the ironic fact that “Murdoch” has “journalists” working for them – from “News of the World” to “FUX News”, doing just that!)

  7. Fitz

    A fine evocation of some of the horrors of getting entangled in the American legal system (in almost any way in any capacity).

    I hope it will eventually get through to some of our unimaginative though high-minded civil libertarians that extraditing Australians anywhere is to be avoided if possible. It is one thing to be a Conrad Black on trial in Chicago but most people are more like the lonely hacker who was gaoled in the US for a copyright “crime” even though he had never been to the US and had to be extradited – to the shame and disgrace of those who allowed the Free Trade Agreement to give the US so much.

    Why shouldn’t a Zentai, the 89 year old still resisting extradition to Hungary, be tried in Australia? Let the necessary legislation be passed if there are difficulties. As there are no living witnesses even the old arguments about convenience (for the prosecution!!!!) are not even theoretically available. And this is 2011 after all….

    Back, almost, to GR’s article. Isn’t it obvious that, amongst the hundreds of thousands who, after 9/11 were given the access that Manning had, the Chinese and Russians have found a few who will have given them all those secrets for money or because of blackmail? Wikileaks ought to be thanked for showing us how unsafe our secrets are in the hands of the Americans.

  8. Kevin Tyerman

    Guy Rundle reports:
    Despite being innocent until proven guilty, even under military law, his extended remand has been a bloody-minded application of every regulation associated with US “supermax” prisons — he is in permanent solitary confinement (even his one hour/day exercise), under permanent surveillance, must make a verbal response to a query every 10 minutes, and if he attempts to take exercise in his cell — push-ups, for example — he is physically prevented from doing so.

    Michael James points out:
    The treat ment he is receiving is likely the same as other military personnel held there.

    So, is this typically how the US military treats it’s personnel before they are found guilty of any charges? Are they treated this way throughout all imprisonment?

    Does “must make a verbal response to a query every 10 minutes” apply 24 hours a day and amount to a rather serious case of effective sleep deprivation?

  9. Tony Kevin

    Guy Rundle’s ‘s article was informative, depressing but I believe missed the main point about why Bradley Manning did what he allegedly did.

    Bradley did not ”err’. As his revealed email to Lamo makes clear. he made a moral judgement that he knew great evils – crimes against humanity – were being routinely committed in Iraq by the organisation of which he was a part, the US Army, and he felt morally obliged to make those great evils public whatever the cost to him.

    This is the the same moral judgement written about by Benjamin Franklin in 1792: ”a nation as a society forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society’. Martin Luther King made the same point: “Our lives begin to end the moment we become silent about things that matter.”‘ And Assange has made a similar point on his website – if we ignore state evil, we become part of it. I believe it too, which is why I wrote my book on SIEV X.

    What must now terrify Manning’s torturers is that he will stay sane and brave enough to say such things in court, in which case he will become a martyr. They would rather drive him insane so that he cannot say them. I pray for him that he will find the strength to face as a hero a death that , if it comes, will not have been in vain.

  10. MLF

    Agree, fascinating discussion on Manning’s treatment – how do we know this by the way? Is it from his lawyer? And although you lost me a little in the middle, I’m outraged that – despite his crimes – he can be held for so long without trial.

    “The WikiLeaks process has been part of an argument that governments should be more open, that power relations should be reconstructed in a new era. That’s not the same as saying that individual operatives should have the legal right to distribute as they wish. At some point, the prosecution of such an act becomes an act of decorum essential to the state’s existence, and to suggest that a massive classified document leak could be ignored is simply unreal.”

    So true, Rundle, so true. Thanks for the balance.

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