In what is now a regular occurrence, a large media outlet published on Monday a calculated perception-management article on a figure centrally involved in the ongoing Wikileaks story. WL Central addresses the mendacity.
New York Magazine's Steve Fishman profile on Bradley Manning was hyped for several months, and, as happened with Vanity Fair's much anticipated "Wikileaks exposé" in February, where the published article contained new information it was not newsworthy, and where it contained newsworthy information it was not new.
More perniciously, Fishman's piece is far from an impartial presentation of the facts of the case. Instead he has crafted a highly suspect narrative, employing some of the more deceptive techniques at the disposal of a writer: distorting facts, stating conjecture as if it were fact, misquoting key sources and omitting important information, among others. The resulting story - implausible though it is to anyone with adequate familiarity with the facts at hand - is as favourable as any story could be to the prosecution in the ongoing Grand Jury investigation in Alexandria, Virginia. The investigation therefore looms large behind the article, although its sole mention is in passing, on the second last page:
After Manning, [Assange] was a hero to some on the left, “the most important person to ever live,” as one of his circle maintained. So important that the military drew up a plan to undermine him (which was leaked to WikiLeaks). The U.S. convened a grand jury to investigate WikiLeaks under the 1917 espionage act. (Separately, Assange is under house arrest in England, awaiting a hearing on extradition to Sweden, where he faces questioning for sexual misconduct.) And the pressure has taken a toll on WikiLeaks. A top lieutenant, fed up with what he saw as Assange’s dictatorial ways, defected to launch his own site—OpenLeaks.
Readers will be aware that the present U.S. administration intends to use the Espionage Act to prosecute Wikileaks, and in so doing, to criminalize any form of journalism disclosing confidential information unfavourable to the official propaganda of the U.S. government. The prosecution has been trying to satisfy the Grand Jury that there is evidence of a conspiracy between Julian Assange and the alleged leaker, Bradley Manning: evidence that they associated and worked in concert to exfiltrate information from the U.S. government. While the parties might be argued by the prosecution to be criminally liable separately under other provisions of the Espionage Act, the use of a conspiracy charge would allow the prosecution to embroil each of the accused conspirators in the more serious of the charges available under the Act, charges which carry the gravest sentences.
This is, on all fair accounts, a fraught attempt at prosecution. Wikileaks was designed in the knowledge that one of the traditional ways for the powerful to go after whistleblowers is to put pressure on the press to reveal their identity. In order to create a bulletproof leak infrastructure - in order to reduce disincentives for conscientious whistleblowing and make it impossible to seek the identity of the source through the publisher - Wikileaks' submission system and protocol was designed such that the identity of the leaker was never given to Wikileaks. The anonymous submission system is one of the innovations that makes Wikileaks different to the traditional press in this regard; it is a press organization exclusively and powerfully tailored to facilitate one of the more important functions of the press: public interest exposure of secret information. Whenever Wikileaks has had occasion to comment on its sources, its spokespeople have been able to truthfully claim that they can neither confirm nor deny Bradley Manning's role in the last year's leaks. They simply do not know.
These details present insurmountable difficulties for any narrative that is attempting to descry a "conspiracy." It is worth noting in passing, however, that even were Wikileaks to have used the more traditional method of receiving leaks, the application of a conspiracy charge here would be a serious abdridgement of the freedom of speech and of the press, criminalizing most important political journalism in the United States, and, by exercise of extra-territorial jurisdiction, outside of it too.
Since the initiation of Cablegate, and for reasons we shall not speculate on here, the U.S. press has been shaping public perception of the affair, normalizing the assumption - for which there is no evidence - that Manning and Assange were conspiring together, sharing an intention to commit espionage. There has, as noted, been a dearth of supporting evidence for this notion, and a weight of countervailing evidence. Fishman, however, has come up with a simple means of negotiating this difficult obstacle. He simply makes it up.
There is much at fault in Fishman's article, and WL Central has already addressed one of the more insidious facets of the piece here, but it is possible to see all of the article's faults as derivative of the core problem: its attempt to fabricate, and make seem more plausible, some form of close cooperation between Bradley Manning and Julian Assange.
Distorting the facts
In fact, Fishman concocts an absurd narrative, whereby Assange - an older man - exploits a sexually vulnerable Manning, and exercises such influence over him as to cause him to exfiltrate classified information. Assange here is made the architect of the leaks, and Manning's agency is downplayed to make this more plausible. He is cast as the wretched incompetent: psychologically troubled and serially deceptive. Evidence as to his conscientious motivation is either omitted or introduced dismissively, as if the idea were absurd. Manning's legitimate moral qualms with the work of the U.S. military in Iraq are scoffed at, and it is made seem that there could be no possible public interest justification for blowing the whistle on the government:
Manning explained to Lamo that he had targeted innocent men, as if that justified a seemingly endless leak of government secrets.
The attack on Manning's autonomy targets his psychological health. As discussed before, his sexuality and gender are presented as if they were prima facie evidence of weakness and reduced capacity. Elsewhere, more legitimate evidence of stress symptoms and erratic behaviour are presented as if they were intrinsic weaknesses, and by implication, the reason he "became... a traitor." They should instead be seen as a form of stress-induced trauma common to whistleblowers, who in the course of exposing wrongdoing must strive against enormous institutional and social pressure for conformity, and live in fear of grave personal consequences.
That Manning employs alternative identities on the internet - an extremely familiar practice for most people today - is treated as duplicitous and unhealthy. In fact, at times it is described in terms that suggest popular notions of schizophrenia:
Manning shipped out to Iraq with a top security clearance, his multiple identities held close inside him.
Fishman consistently interposes his own unfavourable reading while reporting the content of chatlogs involving Manning. Where something Manning said displays any inconsistency with a less favourable witness, Fishman assumes that Manning was flattering himself.
To ZJ, however, he related a more flattering version... Bradley concocted a more satisfying story for ZJ—on the web, he controlled the narrative.
Broader efforts are made to harnass conservative prejudices so as to stigmatize Manning, militating against identification with him. Much is made of his small stature and above-average intelligence. While there has been some contention that the intrusion of the press into the most intimate details of his private life might humanize him in the eyes of readers, this is probably optimistic. His sexuality and gender identity, sadly, will alienate a cross section of a society in which - despite many victories - the rights of LGBT people to such basic things as marriage are still very much under dispute. Likewise, mention of Manning's atheism will likely fail to endear him to the public at large in a culture where atheists are systematically demonized and marginalized. At worst, it will fund adverse inferences as to his ability to reason morally at all, as happened recently to a British conscientious objector.
Reporting conjecture as fact
It is no accident that Fishman plays up Manning's sexual identity: he wants sex to be on the reader's mind, because his version of events is to be a species of potboiler romance where sex is the force driving all of the important interactions. Throughout the article Fishman presents Manning's whistleblowing not as an effort to inform the public of concealed crimes and illicit behaviour in the military but as a symptom of sexual vanity - an attempt to get closer to Julian Assange:
According to the government, it was in November 2009, the same month that he reached out to the gender counselor, that Manning began to work with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange... Assange’s appeal to Manning was obvious. The WikiLeaks leader was a celebrity in Manning’s hacker world — dashing, mysterious, and cartoonish in equal parts. There was his striking appearance: knife-thin with a constantly cocked head and that saintly white hair.
Observe, also, how Fishman explicitly states, as if it were common knowledge, that Manning "began to work with" Assange. Fishman has a wealth of documentary material to substantiate some of his more ancillary claims. Chatlogs given to him by acquaintances of Manning appear to confirm the details about his private life. However, the pivotal element of his story - the connection between Manning and Assange - is apparently pure conjecture. It is, however, presented as if it were widely known. Inserted into the text alongside the less salient - although better substantiated - aspects of the story, they lead the reader to assume that Manning and Assange were in direct contact, and were well acquainted with each other. This is false and misleading. It is, sadly, endemic. The sexual subtext that Fishman reads into the affair serves only to dispel doubts that the two individuals knew each other. After all, if readers can be made believe that they were intimate then they could not be strangers.
It was while in Iraq that Manning came across WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange—a charismatic authority figure who, far from rejecting him, as had so many others, took a passionate interest in him and what he had to contribute. Manning had an awakening—and he became, says the U.S. government, a traitor.
Later, a similar comment asserts, without a shred of evidence, that Assange found Manning "irresistible." The language Fishman uses throughout the story is not only suggestive, but explicitly alleges that there was "seduction" involved:
The seduction worked both ways. For Assange, someone like Manning was irresistible, too. WikiLeaks had revealed political and banking scandals in Kenya and Switzerland, but a person like Manning had access to more impressive secrets, involving the United States, a central perpetrator of injustice in the world, as Assange saw it, and one on which there were few checks.
There is no evidence that Julian Assange had any idea who Bradley Manning was, far short of taking a "passionate interest" in him, or "seducing" him. All likelihood is to the contrary. Fishman either has an unnamed and incendiary source he can't even acknowledge, or is indulging in fabrication. The only evidence which purports to describe the means by which Manning dealt with Wikileaks is to be found in the chatlogs released by Adrian Lamo, which have not been confirmed, and whose provenance must remain doubtful. Even still, they do not support Fishman's statement.
Selective misquotation and misattribution
In the chatlogs released by Adrian Lamo, Manning's comments, while using the word "relationship," indicate that, at most, he may have had intermittent and anonymous contact with Assange, to confirm the trustworthiness of Wikileaks as a recipient of information he had already decided to leak. As long ago as a year, and repeatedly since then, Assange has made it clear that this sort of communication would not be unusual, but neither would it implicate Wikileaks in a conspiracy, since the role is inherently passive.
(2:04:29 PM) Manning: im a source, not quite a volunteer
(2:05:38 PM) Manning: i mean, im a high profile source… and i’ve developed a relationship with assange… but i dont know much more than what he tells me, which is very little
This excerpt from the chatlogs is the only point at which demonstrable reality intersects with Fishman's story. Notably, however, when he deals with it Fishman cherrypicks the quote about how Manning had developed "a relationship" with Assange, and omits the further qualifying information. He also exploits the connotative ambiguity of the word "relationship" to continue to develop the conceit of romance between the two individuals:
For months, Manning later said, he tracked Assange, and eventually, he claimed, the WikiLeaks founder responded. “He finds you,” Manning later explained. It was something like a courtship, at least from Manning’s point of view. “i’ve developed a relationship with assange,” he wrote. Assange’s attentions flattered Manning, and his beliefs spoke directly to the troubled, impressionable private.
In another similar passage, Fishman again cherrypicks a quote, this time from the slightly less redacted chatlogs released by BoingBoing, and transposes it from a context where Manning castigates himself for talking too much to Lamo, to a new context - fabricated by Fishman - where it appears to support the idea that Manning was leaking material in order to impress Assange. The quote is now an admission of exhaustion from Manning. It was no such thing in its original context.
Manning claimed he was a source to Assange, not quite a collaborator, but he had certain privileges: “i mean, im a high profile source.” To maintain his status in the hierarchy of Assange’s attentions, Manning had to produce, which ratcheted up the pressure. The process exhausted him. “I’m a total fucking wreck,” he later wrote.
Fishman technically avoids telling a lie by inserting the word "later" into "he later wrote." The deviousness is not alleviated, however, since the entire structure of the paragraph strongly implies what is not true. Calculated mendacity in the use of quotation is not isolated to these examples, but is in fact rife throughout the article. Fishman displays a considerable sleight of hand in his use of quotations. He later lifts a quote from Assange's TED interview, and - while advertising he is doing so - transposes it to a context where it could only poison the well:
Assange didn’t admit that Manning was a source, but he couldn’t quite abandon him. Assange generally cared more for principle than people, whom he considered either useful or not. “I’m not so big on the nurture,” he admitted in a different context. But Manning was special.
This paragraph is exceptionally misleading. Fishman here implies that Assange knows Manning is the source, but was unwilling to say so. This is, as we have rehearsed, false, but it is just assumed by Fishman. Furthermore, Fishman pretends that the refusal to "admit" Manning was a source is a partial betrayal of Manning, when - if Assange knew as much - it would only incriminate Manning to identify him. Finally, having misled the reader this far, Fishman implies that Assange cares about sources only so much as they are useful: again, a malicious lie. The very existence of Wikileaks - which is Assange's attempt to protect anonymous sources - is testament to his concern for them. Furthermore, Wikileaks' silence on the identity of its source - which is only correct - has been accompanied by generous contributions to the legal defense fund of Bradley Manning, since Wikileaks undertakes to assist with the legal fees of everyone accused of being a source.
Fishman's use of quotations throughout the article is tantamount to journalistic malpractice. He manages to utterly distort his subject matter to encourage adverse inferences about his subjects. In one paragraph, he alleges that Manning was more of a proactive seeker of information than a classic whistleblower, and, again, supplies an out-of-context quote which appears to support the idea:
Manning isn’t a classic whistle-blower. Disturbing information didn’t cross his desk, prodding him to act. Manning snooped—according to the timetable he proposed to Lamo, he’d been at it since almost the moment he arrived in Iraq. “i had always questioned how things worked, and investigated to find the truth,” he said.
This quote is interesting, because while it has been misleadingly used, it is related to another incident, which Fishman made reference to in his article, but which he also distorted so as to cast an adverse light on Manning. Fishman describes a situation where the Iraqi police had "made a mistake." Manning informed his superior, and was told to return to work. The event sounds reasonably unimportant, and Fishman supplies another misleading quote at the end of the paragraph, to imply that Manning's main greivance was that he had not been paid adequate attention:
Any illusions Manning had about saving lives quickly vanished. At one point, he went to a superior with what he believed to be a mistake. The Iraqi Federal Police had rounded up innocent people, he said. Get back to work, he was told. “I was never noticed,” he later said.
The quote in this paragraph has nothing to do with this incident, and the incident itself is actually far more serious than Fishman makes it seem. In fact, in the Lamo chatlogs, Manning describes the incident as a transformative experience of systematic injustice, which - if the chatlogs are to be believed - is likely to have contributed to his conscientious motives. As revealed in the Iraq War Logs, and as Manning was at this stage aware, the Iraqi Federal Police were engaging in systematic torture of suspects, and the U.S. military was aware of this fact. A strong imperative is created by international law to investigate torture-related injustices. The quote Fishman misused in support of his claim that Manning is not a classic whistleblower was lifted from this passage:
(02:31:02 PM) Manning: i think the thing that got me the most… that made me rethink the world more than anything
(02:35:46 PM) Manning: was watching 15 detainees taken by the Iraqi Federal Police… for printing “anti-Iraqi literature”… the iraqi federal police wouldn’t cooperate with US forces, so i was instructed to investigate the matter, find out who the “bad guys” were, and how significant this was for the FPs… it turned out, they had printed a scholarly critique against PM Maliki… i had an interpreter read it for me… and when i found out that it was a benign political critique titled “Where did the money go?” and following the corruption trail within the PM’s cabinet… i immediately took that information and *ran* to the officer to explain what was going on… he didn’t want to hear any of it… he told me to shut up and explain how we could assist the FPs in finding *MORE* detainees…
(02:36:27 PM) Manning: everything started slipping after that… i saw things differently
(02:37:37 PM) Manning: i had always questioned the things worked, and investigated to find the truth… but that was a point where i was a *part* of something… i was actively involved in something that i was completely against…
It is clear from the above passage that the incident was for more serious, and Manning's alleged conduct far more indicative of laudable moral stature, than Fishman allowed in his retelling. It is also clear that the quote in question does not imply that Manning was a "snooper" and not a "classic whistleblower." To accept the chatlogs on face value: that he perceived systematic injustice, that he perceived a culture in which a blind eye was turned to it, and that he acknowledged a moral imperative to make a disclosure, places him firmly in the ranks of the classic whistleblower.
The examples are more numerous than can be recounted here, but even the examples rehearsed above should give ample indication of the dishonesty at work in this piece. A great deal of effort has gone into crafting a story which will manage perception of the Wikileaks controversy. Multiple ends are achieved: Manning is alienated and stigmatized, Assange is falsely implicated, and the mission of Wikileaks is denigrated as a reckless and foolish enterprise.
Fishman's deceptions will not be used as evidence in the Wikileaks Grand Jury investigation, but this is not the only danger. At a time when the U.S. government is mounting a direct attack on the freedom of the press, that same press ought to be leading the counterattack, and drawing attention to the gravity of the transgression. The erosion of liberty is made all the more possible if there is a lack of public opposition. Instead of accurately informing the public, however, the establishment press has - for reasons unknown - gone to great lengths to normalize the government's narrative, and to distort the facts in a manner favourable to the prosecution of Wikileaks. This serves to diminish the likelihood of popular dissent, should the Wikileaks case ever get to trial.
Towards the end of his article, Fishman quotes the last lines of the Lamo-Manning chatlogs, again in a misleading manner:
Lamo couldn’t muster any sympathy. A little later, Manning wrote, “im not sure whether i’d be considered a type of ‘hacker’, ‘cracker’, ‘hacktivist’, ‘leaker’ or what.” Lamo offered another possibility: “or a spy :),” adding a smile.
Fishman leaves it here, happy to tacitly endorse the suggestion that Manning was, indeed, committing espionage against his own country. But Manning, in the original, did actually have a last word here, and it is a last word worth ending on.
(04:42:16 PM) Manning: im not sure whether i’d be considered a type of “hacker”, “cracker”, “hacktivist”, “leaker” or what…
(04:42:26 PM) Manning: im just me… really
(04:45:20 PM) Lamo: or a spy :)
(04:45:48 PM) Manning: i couldn’t be a spy…
(04:45:59 PM) Manning: spies dont post things up for the world to see
(04:46:14 PM) Lamo: Why? Wikileaks would be the perfect cover
(04:46:23 PM) Lamo: They post what’s not useful
(04:46:29 PM) Lamo: And keep the rest