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WikiLeaks and the Case of Bradley Manning: An interview with Birgitta Jónsdóttir

Me and Birgitta Jónsdóttir

WikiLeaks was one of the largest media stories of 2010 and continues to make headlines. The majority of this attention has remained on Julian Assange. This coverage has often focused on developments around efforts to extradite him from the UKto Swedento face two alleged crimes of rape. For those counting, as of today’s posting (May 14, 2012) Assange has been held under house arrest for 524 days.

While a number of high profile people have offered their support for Assange, less visible in the news is Pfc Bradley Manning, the US intelligence officer charged with leaking the material to WikiLeaks. In fact, one could hazard a guess that, if theUnited Statesgovernment had their way, Manning would become invisible.

Bradley Manning has been in pre-trial detention for 710 days awaiting trial. By the time he goes to trial in September he will have been detained for over 2 years. (In fact, it will be two years by the end of this month).

In the wake of Manning’s detention, the Bradley Manning Support Network quickly formed to raise funds for his legal defense, campaign for better treatment, keep his case visible in the public eye and ultimately seek justice for Bradley Manning.  Despite the network’s committed and ongoing efforts, political and high profile public support for Bradley Manning’s defense seems shamefully low. It shouldn’t be.

Two weeks ago I, along with a fellow professor Dwayne Winseck of Carleton University, had the chance to interview Birgitta Jónsdóttir. Dwayne has already posted an excellent reflection on the conversation as it pertained to Jónsdóttir’s WikiLeaks –Twitter case. So, in my blog post, I wanted to highlight parts of our discussion around WikiLeaks and the case of Bradley Manning specifically.

Jónsdóttir is an Icelandic activist and Member of Parliament. She is also a former WikiLeaks volunteer who helped edit and produce the Collateral Murder video. Released on April 5, 2010, Collateral Murder is a packaged video put together from a leaked video of a US air strike in Iraq. Taken on July 12 2007, the leaked video is shot from a US helicopter gunship over Baghdad and shows a US military air strike where two Reuters staff (Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh) were amongst those targeted and killed by the helicopter pilots (The Collateral Murder video is edited for maximum effect, for comparison, you can also watch the longer unedited footage of the incident).

Birgitta, recounted to us the first time she saw the ‘Collateral Murder’ video:

“I was sitting in a really busy café (in) downtown Reykjavik and Julian [Assange] pulls out his computer… and starts to show it to me on maximum volume: chh chh chh chh chh chh chh ‘Lite’em all up’. I remember the waiter came to ask him to put it down and I am sitting there and I’m in tears. I’m absolutely just horrified to watch”

For those with little direct experience of the theatre of war, the video is quite powerful. Powerful for its grainy images of death; powerful for the detached manner in which the pilots wantonly execute the killings. From Birgitta’s perspective, the video is also powerful because it provides a rare glimpse into an all too often repeating scene, “I know that there are so many videos out there with exactly the same scene just with different people”.

The July 2007 Baghdad air strike video and the snippets of reality provided by the Afghan War Logs and Iraq War Logs offer an insider’s account of the raw reality of war. And, Birgitta suggests, the only way we can end war, is to know more about it:

“I mean, how are we going to end the wars?  We are going to end the wars by knowing what war is. And, that was the beauty and the horror of the Afghan War logs is that you were basically just getting minute by minute snippets out of what war is really about.”

Of course, the files, in the state that they were received by WikiLeaks, were mostly jargon. However through a strategic partnership of hacker know-how and old fashioned investigative journalism the logs were deciphered.  Amongst the revelations in the data were  15,000 civilian deaths that the US military had documented, but not publicly disclosed. It was allegedly Bradley Manning who released this information to WikiLeaks. And if Manning was the leaker –which seems to be the case based on the badass87/ Adrian Lamo chat logs – Birgitta argues that Manning deserves full public support.

Earlier this year Bradley Manning was nominated and won the 2012 People’s Choice Award from the Global Exchange, an international human rights organisation based in San Francisco. Jónsdóttir has taken award efforts even further. She was responsible for Manning’s nomination for a Nobel Peace prize. With Manning’s name now on the long list, she’s working towards securing high profile endorsements from around the world to try and bolster Manning’s nomination.

Even if her bid to win Manning a Nobel Peace Prize is unsuccessful, the campaign still keeps Bradley Manning in the spotlight. The ongoing activism of the Bradley Manning Support Network has also continued to keep public attention on the case with a “Free Bradley Manning Contingent” in the May 20 March Against the NATO Summit in Chicago. From Birgitta’s perspective, one of the most successful Manning actions to date was the serenading of President Obama by the Fresh Juice party at a $5,000 a plate fundraiser inSan Francisco. As she commented, “there is nothing as effective as civil disobedience at the right moment”.

Showing Support for Bradley Manning has become all the more important as many assert that Manning is being made an example of by the Obama administration. Given the nature of the network society and the fact that the information leaked cannot be destroyed or deleted (paper is much easier to burn), Manning is being made an example through, what the UN special rapporteur on torture recently described as inhumane and “punitive”  treatment . In other words, the fate of Manning is what happens to leakers — digital whistleblowers — in the age of the internet.

Those advancing this argument include Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler and lawyer and columnist Glen GreenwaldI have made this argument as well (I will make this into a separate blog post in the future). Along these lines, Birgitta commented, “what they’re doing, is that they are making him into a scapegoat to scare away all the other whistleblowers, all the other potential whistle blowers”.

It is the whistleblowing aspect which is key to Manning’s case. It is the whistleblowing aspect which has made Daniel Eslberg, famed and celebrated leaker of the Pentagon Papers, stand up and say “I am Bradley Manning”. And, likely, it is the Whistle blowing aspect Manning’s defense team will play up come the court case in September. Yet, the discourse around whistleblowing is all but absent in the talk of US politicians. While I will expand on this absence in a future blog post, this is likely part of a strategy to prevent stirring further public sympathy for Manning.

Perhaps one of the biggest paradoxes of the entire Manning case thus far is the lack of support for Manning from the traditional left. Charles Davis, in a guest post on Glen Greenwald’s Salon blog, refers to this as “the liberal betrayal of Bradley Manning“.   The reason for this, argues Davis (and a rationale also supported by Greenwald in a talk he gave in Ottawa, back in April) is that Manning is being prosecuted by a Democratic President. Thus, those on the left, due to “brand loyalty”, find it harder to speak out against their President. Would public support for Manning, and from the left in particular,  be higher if Manning was, like Daniel Ellsberg, persecuted under a Republican President?Davis, in his article concludes that perhaps what Bradley Manning did was too radical for liberals, since Manning didn’t work through the system to affect change but opened the system up wide for the public to see.

From Birgitta Jónsdóttir’s perspective, the material Bradley Manning (allegedly) released “…was an incredibly important gesture for our historical records as humanity”.  I too am certain that history books will treat Bradley Manning with compassion and as a whistleblower; someone who disclosed information about misconduct in the hopes of stopping it. As for how the Military Judge in Manning’s court martial treats Manning? We will have to wait and see. But until then, and most likely afterwards, Manning will need all the support he can from high profile supporters like Birgitta Jónsdóttir and from the public at large.

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May 14, 2012 · 2:19 pm