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Counterproductive and Stupid

"What is being done to Bradley Manning is ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid on the part of the Department of Defense."
- P.J. Crowley

To pure open government advocates and many anti-war progressives, Private Bradley Manning is a prisoner of conscience, held without trial in solitary confinement in the Quantico brig for allegedly providing a vast store of secret U.S. government documents to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. To the right (and much of the military), he's a traitor, pure and simple - the supplier of secrets to American enemies all too happy to use them against the nation.

I think Manning was legitimately sickened by what he saw in America's endless, grinding war policy, but wildly misguided in his methods. The massive leak of secret gigabytes wasn't a whistleblower's case against the state's wrong-doing - an argument against crime or policy; it was vast spray-painted vandalism, devoid of a message or a real goal. And Manning's alleged choice of a partner could not have been more disastrous for the 23-year-old Army private. Assange has turned a promising new form of journalism and distribution that may have eventually promoted more open government into a widely-loathed platform of preening, anarchistic nonsense, tarred by anti-Semitism, sex abuse charges, and an increasingly insular and paranoid cult of personality. While the brave-but-misguided Manning wastes away in the brig, the posing WikiLeaks czar reworks images of himself as Che Guevara into T-shirts for sale.

This does not excuse the American government, nor its Democratic President, from responsibility in the Manning case. Reading the accounts of Manning's confinement leaves little doubt that he is the target of some rather special incarceration tactics designed to break him down emotionally, and cause him to assist the Obama Administration in its apparently still-active movement toward prosecuting WikiLeaks. Both the treatment of Manning and the pursuit of Federal charges against WikiLeaks and Assange are grave political mistakes - and the former is a serious ethical failing.

The treatment of Private Manning is well-documented. He is confined to his spartan cell 23 hours each day. He is not allowed to exercise. His contacts with the outside world are severely limited. Much of his treatment is attributed to suicide prevention, yet a United Nations anti-torture investigator has submitted an inquiry about Manning to the  State Department, as did Amnesty International to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Last week, Manning's lawyer released a letter from the prisoner in which he describes how he has been "left to languish under the unduly harsh conditions of max [security] custody" ever since he was brought from Kuwait to Virginia in July last year. From The Guardian's coverage:

The most graphic passage of the letter is Manning's description of how he was placed on suicide watch for three days from 18 January. "I was stripped of all clothing with the exception of my underwear. My prescription eyeglasses were taken away from me and I was forced to sit in essential blindness."

Manning writes that he believes the suicide watch was imposed not because he was a danger to himself but as retribution for a protest about his treatment held outside Quantico the day before. Immediately before the suicide watch started, he said guards verbally harassed him, taunting him with conflicting orders.

When he was told he was being put on suicide watch, he writes, "I became upset. Out of frustration, I clenched my hair with my fingers and yelled: 'Why are you doing this to me? Why am I being punished? I have done nothing wrong.'"

He also describes the experience of being stripped naked at night and made to stand for parade in the nude, a condition that continues to this day. "The guard told me to stand at parade rest, with my hands behind my back and my legs spaced shoulder-width apart. I stood at parade rest for about three minutes … The [brig supervisor] and the other guards walked past my cell. He looked at me, paused for a moment, then continued to the next cell. I was incredibly embarrassed at having all these people stare at me naked."

Too often since 2001, our government had made decisions in which security transcends our humanity. These decisions are, in effect, our decisions - from the disastrous and immoral Iraq invasion to the abandonment of our deeply-held judicial principles at Guantanamo Bay. I am generally a defender of President Obama and - in the main - fairly positive about his tenure in office thus far. Hell, I've been flayed as an abject apologist by lefty friends. I admire the President. But in no area am I more disappointed with the candidate I voted for rather proudly in 2008 than in the realm of civil liberties. I thought Barack Obama would lift the moral fog of the 9/11's fear-tinged national security hangover. He has not yet chosen to do so, preserving - and in some cases, extending - the security-driven abuses of the Bush era, punishing whistleblowers, and simply ignoring several of his most prominent campaign promises.

Yesterday, the White House fired State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley for saying out loud at an MIT forum on Friday what most on the diplomacy side of the Federal government's foreign policy apparatus believe: that the treatment of Bradley Manning is "ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid." It's not as if Crowley, an Air Force veteran, is a huge fan of Manning's actions or WikiLeaks; indeed he also told the panel "nonetheless, Bradley Manning is in the right place," and "there is sometimes a need for secrets ... for diplomatic progress to be made."

Yet Crowley's remarks - ironically transmitted by a blogger in these more open days of government communications - prompted a question about Manning's treatment at the President's press conference. As CNN's Ed Henry reported, "Sources close to the matter said the resignation, first reported by CNN, came under pressure from the White House, where officials were furious about his suggestion that the Obama administration is mistreating Manning, the Army private who is being held in solitary confinement in Quantico."

 In a single ill-timed move, President Obama has squelched even polite, mild public dissent in his Administration, appearing both in thrall of the security hawks who have governed too much of U.S. policy since 2001 and thin-skinned about being asked a semi-tough question at a press briefing.

That the White House would make such a move on the very eve of Secretary of State Hillary's Clinton's crucial trip to the Middle East to meet with transitional leadership in Egypt and Tunisia, and with the Libyan revolutionaries, frankly reveals just how much stock the President himself puts in message cohesion on his Bush era national security stance.

John Cole, not exactly a political enemy of the President's, may have put it most colorfully (and correctly):

You don’t screw with the national security state. They do what they want, and if you speak up, you just gotta go. So much for that team of rivals shit.

And if you are wondering why we will stay in Afghanistan for as long as Obama is President, wonder no more. The mildest disagreement with the national security state and the war pig is cause for immediate dismissal.

I am no fan of WikiLeaks and its naked political ambition, but it's impossible to justify the Obama Administration's reaction to what is a minor threat and a major opportunity to pivot U.S. policy and practice on a new axis and seize the high ground. The firing of P.J. Crowley will, I think, have repercussions well beyond a single spokesperson's tenure. And Bradley Manning just became a prisoner of conscience for many more Americans - including me.

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