2011-03-06 Darkness at Noon: Bradley Manning

Authored by Tony Kevin, former Australian Diplomat.

Chillingly, inexorably, the lifepaths of Julian Assange and Bradley Manning are converging.

Not yet in the sense that Manning’s US military torturers hope for, with a desired confession by him whether true or falsely coerced of prior collaboration with Assange to pass US classified intelligence material to Wikileaks. Either would satisfy them, because even a false and forced confession, that could be later disavowed by Manning in court, could be enough in the US judicial system to trigger a valid US secret grand jury arrest warrant for Assange’s extradition to the US. Such a warrant could be served either on the UK or Swedish governments, depending on where Assange was at the time.

More broadly, their stories are appropriately coming together now as stories of two young national heroes, one American and one Australian, who are putting their lives on the line now for the sake of defending the principle of individual moral accountability for the actions of their national states that profess to share similar political values. This principle has been variously expressed by many political leaders and thinkers, of which a few examples here will suffice. I am sure an Obama quotation could be readily found to add to this short list:

US founding father 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 at the height of his US civil rights struggle - Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

"Conspiracy as Governance", Julian Assange, 3 December 2006, from me@iq.org

Every time we witness an act that we feel to be unjust and do not act we become a party to injustice. Those who are repeatedly passive in the face of injustice soon find their character corroded into servility. Most witnessed acts of injustice are associated with bad governance, since when governance is good, unanswered injustice is rare. By the progressive diminution of a people’s character, the impact of reported, but unanswered injustice is far greater than it may initially seem. Modern communications states through their scale, homogeneity and excesses provide their populace with an unprecedented deluge of witnessed, but seemingly unanswerable injustices.

Bradley Manning -
12.15:11 PM) bradass87: Hypothetical question: if you had free reign [sic] over classified networks for long periods of time ... say 8-9 months ...and you saw incredible things, awful things ... things that happened in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a datk room in Washington DC ... what would you do?

(Weblog of an alleged conversation between Bradley Manning and Adrian Lamo, published by Kevin Poulsen, as quoted by Robert Manne in his essay "The Cypherpunk Revolutionary" published in 'The Monthly' of March 2011 (see below)).

Different words, but the same moral message of personal moral responsibility for the actions of one's state.

It is appropriate and timely now that Julian Assange has come out paying public tribute to Bradley Manning’s heroic resistance to his torturers.

The calculated and escalating psychological tortures now being inflicted on Manning, while allegedly staying just within legal boundaries of US military regulations governing the treatment of military prisoners deemed to be a high national security risk, are redolent of political prisoner torture techniques so memorably visualised or recorded in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, George Orwell’s 1984, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle and Gulag Archipelago.

Manning actually and Assange potentially are now experiencing such hells. The US protocols may be more psychological, less physically violent, than the Soviet versions. But the intent is the same: to strip a man of his morale, sense of self and personal rights, and contextual sense of time and place.

Manning’s jailers seem increasingly desperate to break his will and spirit. On the latest horrifying news that they are stripping him naked, on top of the earlier reports of them waking him if they cannot see him clearlyostensibly to check he is alive and denying him human company and exercise, it seems that they have lost any remaining sense of proportionality and human decency. The torturers are now in control of the jail, as the torturers at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo gained control of their jails a few years ago.

Australian, British and Swedish people of good will and moral decency, regardless of political views on the legality of military personnel’s whistleblowing on evil state actions or on the importance of protecting our respective national alliances with the US, now need to understand clearly that this is the kind of treatment that awaits Assange if he should be extradited to the USA on national security breach charges.

We need to understand that Assange faces what Australian citizens David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib went through a few years ago in Egypt, Pakistan and Guantanamo, when their own government failed in its duty to protect them. Australian citizenship did not protect them then and it will not protect Assange now, should he fall into US hands.

It is up to Australian citizens back home now to try and prevent this from happening by making our well-founded concerns for Assange’s safety and human rights clear to our government - (refer Barns, Kemp and Kevin briefing notes for last week’s meeting of Australian parliamentarians).

Similar cruelties were inflicted on British terror suspects illegally rendered to Guantanamo, and on asylum-seekers illegally rendered from Sweden to torture in Egypt a few years ago.

Illustrious campaigners against human rights abuse in the Bush years - eminent international figures like Philippe Sands in the UK and Mark Danner in the US – need to appreciate that it is all starting to happen again in a similar (not identical, obviously) way in the treatment of Manning and Assange.

While the desired goal of Manning’s torturers must be now to extract from him some kind of ‘confession’ incriminating Assange, their fall-back goal would be to reduce him to an insane or vegetable state from which he could not recover in time to mount an effective public defence of himself in the military court-martial. Manning’s open-court testimony – if he could hold on to his courage, integrity and sanity meanwhile - would be severely embarrassing to his accusers, and could arouse American liberal public opinion in his favour. They would want to try to prevent this risk, hence their present apparently desperate escalation of torture.

Thus, the coming days and weeks are crucial. As a Christian who believes in the power of prayer, I am praying for Bradley Manning now. And anyone, be they British Swedish American or Australian, who cares about defending our nations’ common values of human rights and freedom of speech should be making their views on his current mistreatment publicly known and known to our political leaders.

There are encouraging signs here in Australia in recent days of a growing liberal mainstream concern for and about Julian Assange and Bradley Manning. Australians of conscience are beginning to see more clearly the principles at stake here.

Crikey, a well-regarded and widely read independent internet website and daily email newsletter on politics and society, published two articles last week discussing and condemning Manning’s treatment, by top columnists Guy Rundle on 3rd March 2011 and Bernard Keane. (paywall/free trial) also on 3rd March.

In essence, Rundle is horrified but fatalistic at Manning's escalating mistreatment and at him now facing a possible death sentence under new charges of 'aiding the enemy' (whoever the enemy may be). Manning erred, says Rundle. Rundle prays for a 'quality of mercy' from the US government, but is not hopeful this will be forthcoming. For this, Rundle implies, is how ruthless national security states behave.

Keane is openly outraged that, on the face of it, the new death penalty charges define the media which published and discussed the war diaries and the video of the Iraq helicopter killings (titled by Wikileaks as "Collateral Murder") as the enemy.

I think even more significantly, a lengthy essay discussing Assange (and more briefly Manning) by Australia’s most eminent liberal-humanitarian political commentator Robert Manne appeared in the latest (March, 2011) issue of Australia’s leading monthly public affairs magazine, The Monthly (published in a print version, and an internet version is available to subscribers). Extracts from Manne’s essay were published in the open-access Weekend Australian of 5/6 March and here

Manne’s article is closely historically researched. He digs into Assange’s personal development towards the major political figure he is today. Manne contrasts Assange to the other prominent or notorious, depending on one’s point of view, Australian media figure Rupert Murdoch.

Manne does not present Assange as a plaster saint, but it is clear at least to me that he views Assange in a generally positive light – as a sort of polar opposite to the way in which Murdoch’s Fox News is dragging down the language and mores of American political and public life.

Manne traces Assange’s earlier years in Ayn Rand-influenced ‘cypherpunk’ circles, where Assange honed his skills as a computer systems hacker. Manne shows how Assange finally broke away from that culture, repelled by its self-obsession, its political cynicism and nihilism, and its failure of courage when faced with any kind of state resistance: a conversion to a realization of personal moral accountability that Manne (on my reading) seems to admire in Assange, despite their obvious large differences of political values and style.

Manne’s article will influence Australian liberal mainstream opinion in Assange’s favour. Manne also offers brief but important recognition of the public importance of the Afghan and Iraq War logs and videos that Manning had downloaded to Wikileaks, ‘at least according to very convincing evidence yet to be tested in court’ (Manne, op.cit).

The multi-party parliamentarians’ briefing meeting in Parliament House, Canberra on 2 March, on Wikileaks Central website, is a sign of the way public opinion is beginning to build in Australia around a human rights-based concern for Manning’s and Assange’s safety and human rights.

Australia’s best politicians read the public mood carefully. They know that this could become a big issue as the David Hicks case became a big issue in Australia under Prime Minister John Howard in 2001-2007. Hicks came to be seen as a grievously abused Australian victim of American cruelty and injustice, however hard Howard and his ministers tried to portray Hicks as an Al Qaeda terrorist in training.

Australia’s Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard (a lawyer) will not want to go too far down that dangerous road. Under growing pressure of public opinion, I believe the Gillard Government will try to find a face-saving way to better protect the human rights of these two men.

This might not much help Manning as an American citizen in his own country. But it might help Assange.

Gillard‘s forthcoming talks with US President Obama are fortuitously well-timed. I have no doubt that the Manning and Assange cases will be privately discussed. Let us hope those discussions are constructive of humane solutions.