A poem for Chelsea Manning on her birthday

US Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning turns 27 in prison today, serving 35 years for leaking proof of torture and other US war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. On the eve of her show trial in summer 2013, I wrote this poem for Chelsea (then known as Bradley).

As I explained in that post, I’d been reading a lot of Adorno: The title is a reference to his infamous dictum that “to write a poem after Auschwitz would be barbaric”, while the epigraph is a quote from a poignant passage in Dialectic of Enlightenment about the knowing resignation with which Americans accept their powerlessness in the capitalist economy.

We’ve let Chelsea down, and we’ll let her down every day of our lives until we honor her actions by our own courage to seek justice.

“No poems after Auschwitz”

KS 6/1/2013

It’s a free country

But freedom has rules:

You can say what you want about the Market

but if you don’t play ball

you’re not one of us.

We don’t leak the wrong footage

of the wrong Apache helicopters

swarming over Baghdad

picking off civilians like flies.

And on a rainy Tuesday in November

every four years

we pick Dear Leader

like free people do.

You’ll never change the world.

But to those who will try –

The risk you bear is

unspeakable

it’s terrifying

 

I am a failure, sagt der Amerikaner. – And that is that.

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Bradley Manning’s trial is still an unmitigated disaster for press freedom

On Tuesday, US Army Private Bradley Manning, the whistleblower who leaked evidence of US government misdeeds (including torture and other war crimes) to WikiLeaks, was convicted by a military judge on 20 counts, including 5 counts of violating the Espionage Act. Army Col. Denise Lind acquitted Manning, however, of the most severe and outrageous charge, that of “aiding the enemy” by helping to publish documents that were then (allegedly) read by Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

As legal experts and civil liberties advocates have been pointing out, besides carrying a life sentence for Manning, the prosecution’s “aiding the enemy” charge posed an existential threat to the future of US journalism, particularly on national security issues. The Obama administration and federal prosecutors have essentially claimed that it is an act of treason to make public any information about the government – classified or not – that could be of interest to “the enemy” (whoever that might be).

It’s hard to overstate how radical this theory is – even for an administration notorious for having prosecuted more whistleblowers for “espionage” than all other administrations combined. For that reason, there was something about the “aiding the enemy” charge, beyond the simple injustice of it, that didn’t sit quite right with me.

Then, after the verdict was read, I scanned the corporate media headlines, which ranged from some form of “Manning Is Acquitted of Aiding the Enemy” or “Manning spared on ‘aiding the enemy'” to the truly ludicrous, like this headline from MSNBC’s Now with Alex WagnerManning supporters relieved over verdict”.

The truth is that there’s very little cause for relief, whether you’re Manning, a prospective whistleblower, a serious journalist, or just a good person. This verdict leaves Manning facing up to 136 years in prison – much more than a life sentence – for exposing state crimes. Instead of equating whistleblowing with treason, this military court has magnanimously equated whistleblowing with espionage.

Julian Assange made exactly this point on Wednesday’s Democracy Now!, arguing that the “aiding the enemy” charge seemed fishy precisely because it was a “red herring”: “[W]hile it has attracted a lot of people’s attention, because it has a possible life sentence or death penalty, really, it was just part of the extent of overcharging in this case.”

Let’s be clear: small victories should be celebrated and learned from. Tuesday’s verdict, regardless of what Manning’s sentence will be, is nothing of the sort. In response to the verdict, the ACLU released a statement that read,

While we’re relieved that Mr. Manning was acquitted of the most dangerous charge, the ACLU has long held the view that leaks to the press in the public interest should not be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. Since he already pleaded guilty to charges of leaking information – which carry significant punishment – it seems clear that the government was seeking to intimidate anyone who might consider revealing valuable information in the future.

The press freedom group Reporters Without Borders echoed this concern, adding that fellow whistleblower Edward Snowden “would have every reason to fear persecution, as defined by the Geneva Conventions, if he were to return to the United States.”

RWB brings up another point as well, which I think is crucial: “Persecution” doesn’t just refer to the charges against Manning or the final verdict, but also to the Obama administration’s treatment of him since his arrest. On June 1, two days before the court martial was set to begin, I wrote,

The response of the Obama administration has been ruthless, charging Manning with “aiding and abetting” Al Qaeda and imprisoning him for over 1,000 days without trial. He has been held in solitary confinement for much of that time, prompting the UN special rapporteur on torture to denounce his treatment as “cruel, inhuman and degrading”.

Notwithstanding the US government’s habit of redefining torture to exclude its own “interrogation techniques”, the President who “ended torture” saw fit to subject this young man to prolonged psychological abuse. In addition to social isolation, Manning endured arbitrary “prevention of injury” measures (resulting in physical humiliation) and sleep deprivation (which even the US State Department considers “torture”).

President Obama had Manning tortured for three years. Why? As a matter of fact, to punish Manning before any judicial process violates both civilian and military law, no less than the President’s 2011 statement that Manning “broke the law” made a mockery of the presumption of innocence.

Never mind that top Pentagon officials, including then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, are on the record as saying that the government’s review found no harm has come about as a result of the leaks. Never mind the complete lack of evidence that Manning intended to “aid” anyone other than the people of the US and the world. Manning threatened the US government, and its clients worldwide, with transparency and accountability, and for that, Obama made an example of him.

At the same time, it’s possible that the administration wanted something more concrete from Manning as well, and hoped to “break” him through torture. The most plausible explanation is that Manning would be very useful in the US government’s persecution of WikiLeaks and Assange, who has been claiming for some time that the Justice Department has prepared a sealed indictment against him.

If so, then Manning’s show trial, as grotesque a performance as it’s been, is also a prelude to the next act of the Obama war on dissent. The President’s personal intervention to keep Yemeni reporter Abdulelah Haider Shaye in prison isn’t so much an anomaly as it is a sign of what this administration does to dissident journalists when it thinks no one will care.

Until now, the White House and its lapdogs have been more or less successful in convincing US journalists that Assange and WikiLeaks are not “one of them”. And hardly anyone has heard of Barrett Brown, the journalist facing 105 years in prison for exposing a secret plan, cooked up by the private security firm Stratfor, to mislead and then publicly discredit WikiLeaks and Glenn Greenwald.

Peter Ludlow’s Nation article about Brown’s reporting on Stratfor, and the DOJ’s wildly fallacious charges, is worth reading in full, but maybe the most startling thing is this: One of the main charges is that Brown committed fraud by posting a link to hacked Stratfor data, which happened to contain someone’s credit card information. I can’t think of a more straightforward example of how the government and multinationals can abuse electronic surveillance to punish those who publish leaks without White House authorization.

This past May, it was revealed that, in an FBI affidavit used to seize James Rosen’s emails, the DOJ had named the Fox News reporter not as a witness to a leak, but as a “co-conspirator” in the leak. And only two weeks ago, a DC Circuit Court ruled that the First Amendment doesn’t protect New York Times reporter James Risen from having to testify against the source of a leak he published. 

The Obama personality cult has convinced many liberals that this President is really “on our side”, that they can trust him not to abuse authoritarian powers. There doesn’t seem to be much we can say to change their belief. But maybe they can learn from one of Obama’s heroes, a President who, after being caught in a lie, once admitted to his Fellow Americans: “My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.”

A poem for Bradley Manning

Today, June 1, is the international day of solidarity with Bradley Manning, the US Army whistleblower charged with leaking classified information to WikiLeaks. Among other things, the leaked documents exposed Bush-era war crimes, including running torture centers and death squads in Afghanistan and Iraq. The response of the Obama administration has been ruthless, charging Manning with “aiding and abetting” Al Qaeda and imprisoning him for over 1,000 days without trial. He has been held in solitary confinement for much of that time, prompting the UN special rapporteur on torture to denounce his treatment as “cruel, inhuman and degrading”.

The most notorious of the leaks was this video footage of a 2007 US airstrike in Baghdad, dubbed “Collateral Murder” by WikiLeaks, which shows helicopters massacring a group of unarmed men (including two Reuters war correspondents) with the chilling glee of someone playing a video game. At a pretrial hearing in February, Manning said that, “I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information contained within the CIDNE-I and CIDNE-A tables, this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general, as well as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan.” That debate has yet to occur, and the culture of bloodlust and impunity surrounding every act of state violence, past and present, remains intact.

As I struggled to come to terms with our silence, I wrote this poem for Bradley. At the time, I was deeply immersed in the work of Theodor W. Adorno. The title refers to Adorno’s dictum that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric”: After the horrors of fascism and the Holocaust, it’s clear that achieving the height of culture hasn’t civilized us. On the contrary, it has distracted from, and rationalized, our other achievement – the apex of our disregard for individual human life. The poem’s epigraph is a quote from a passage in Dialectic of Enlightenment about Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s impressions of Americans (Since the English in the quote is also in English in the original, I’ve left the German words [sagt der Amerikaner, “the American says”] untranslated). Americans, they write, judge their self-worth based on their market value; they aren’t ignorant of their powerlessness in the capitalist economy, nor do they celebrate it – rather, they accept it.

We’ve met with willful indifference the actions of a young man whose courage and plight should’ve been a wake-up call to a nation that claims to value human rights and freedom. We – not only the government, not only the media, but we, the people of the United States – have let him down.

“No poems after Auschwitz”

KS 6/1/2013

 

It’s a free country

 

But freedom has rules:

You can say what you want about the Market

but if you don’t play ball

you’re not one of us.

 

We don’t leak the wrong footage

of the wrong Apache helicopters

swarming over Baghdad

picking off civilians like flies.

 

And on a rainy Tuesday in November

every four years

we pick Dear Leader

like free people do.

 

You’ll never change the world.

But to those who will try –

The risk you bear is

unspeakable

it’s terrifying

 

I am a failure, sagt der Amerikaner. – And that is that.

Immunity for Bush-era torturers ensures abuses will continue

“We need to look forward, as opposed to looking backward,” President-elect Obama said on ABC News when asked about prosecuting Bush officials for torture and warrantless wiretapping. “When it comes to national security, what we have to focus on is getting things right in the future, as opposed to looking at what we got wrong in the past.” Four years later, it should be clear to anyone that for the Obama administration, “getting things right” means expanding, legalizing and normalizing the same national security policies they weren’t going to investigate.

Not long before last week’s 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, a Guardian/BBC Arabic report was released documenting the torture centers and death squads run by the CIA and US military as part of “counterinsurgency” in Iraq. The report highlighted the role of James Steele, a retired colonel who’d helped implement these polices in the US proxy wars against leftist guerillas in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Steele was chosen by the Bush administration to organize Shia militias who could kill or imprison anyone as a “terror suspect”. At its height, the terror regime claimed 3,000 victims a month. Apart from Steele, the report also directly implicates General David Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The invasion and resulting sectarian conflict have so far killed 1.4 million Iraqis (This strategy is still being used to disastrous effect in Afghanistan).

The documentary details how, with the Bush administration’s full knowledge and support, detainees were held without charge and tortured with electroshocks, power drills, boiling water, rape, and so on. These and other “techniques”, besides being some of the most savage treatment imaginable, are considered war crimes by both US and international law. That they violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, the UN Convention against Torture, and other treaties the US has signed is not a matter of dispute. An estimated 100 detainees were killed in US hands, but the Bush torture regime extended from the notorious prisons at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Abu Ghraib to many other sites in 54 countries (including Qaddafi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria).

A couple of points are worth thinking about. For one, the argument put forth by President Obama and others for granting legal immunity to the Bush administration and CIA torturers is basically that prosecution would be disruptive at a time when we must all “resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future.” True to its word, the Obama administration has killed every probe into Bush-era torture, both domestically and internationally. But their argument assumes that it’s up to Obama to decide if the United States will try Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney for war crimes. Article 7 of the UN Convention against Torture compels the US to do so, no matter which way the President wants to look. And besides the principle of justice, there’s also the practical matter that exempting a group of people from the law encourages lawlessness. Why shouldn’t elites abuse their power if they won’t be held responsible for it?

Let’s say the Obama administration is really Looking Forward Not Backward. Surely it wouldn’t have prosecuted 7 whistleblowers, more than twice the total for all previous administrations, under the Espionage Act? The real policy is one of immunity for top government officials and investment bankers, and the most ruthless retribution for dissent. Why else would the only officer to be tried in connection with CIA torture be John Kiriakou, the man who blew the whistle on it? A lot of what we know about Bush-era crimes, including the death squads and torture militias in Iraq, was found in memos leaked to WikiLeaks by Bradley Manning. For exposing government wrongdoing, Obama has punished Manning by making an example of him.

He was held for over 1,000 days without trial, much of that time in solitary confinement, and now faces charges of “aiding and abetting” Al Qaeda. The UN’s special rapporteur on torture declared that Manning’s treatment at the hands of the US government has been “cruel, inhuman and degrading”. Meanwhile, Obama picked his “Assassination Czar” John Brennan to head the CIA, the agency where Brennan had embraced torture under Bush. And though the administration claims it ended extraordinary rendition of detainees to black sites for torture, it didn’t.

It seems that if you ask the Democratic Party and President Obama, it’s not torture and mass murder that threaten our safety. It’s the people who dare to expose them. And polls of liberals and Democrats repeatedly show that when both parties support a policy that used to be controversial, people who identify with those parties are far more likely to support it as well.

And since that policy can no longer be a point of partisan bickering, it’s barely covered in the media and drops out of the mainstream debate completely. This has now happened with the issue of torture. Back in 2007, Slavoj Žižek wrote that “a clear sign of progress in Western society is that one does not need to argue against rape: it is ‘dogmatically’ clear to everyone that rape is wrong. If someone were to advocate the legitimacy of rape, he would appear so ridiculous as to disqualify himself from any further consideration. And the same should hold for torture.” The fact that US-run torture has employed, and likely still employs, rape and sexual abuse only drives this point home further.

Not just politicians, but also the media are responsible for selling Americans on torture. During the Bush years, there was the series 24, whose very premise – Jack Bauer only has 24 hours to stop the terrorists and save America – made the case that torture can be justified in an emergency. Last year, the film Zero Dark Thirty revived the argument by erroneously depicting torture as instrumental to finding (and killing) Osama Bin Laden. The order of events shown implies a connection between the torture of a detainee and what most Americans think is the most significant foreign policy achievement of the last decade. In other words, the plot exploits the jingoism of US audiences to convince them that while the CIA did some ugly things, it was all worth it in the end.

This kind of ideological manipulation is especially worrying in light of the filmmakers’ heavy collaboration with the CIA. The hacks behind Zero Dark Thirty got exclusive access to information about Bin Laden’s murder that was denied to the public. In return, the CIA got Oscar-nominated, chest-thumping propaganda. While some have claimed that the interrogation scenes are actually critical of torture, the camerawork and editing are careful to show us everything from the point of view of the CIA officers – not the detainee. For example, when he is stuffed into a box too small for his body, terrified and in pain, we don’t go in there with him. Our perspective stays outside. We’re invited to identify not with the tortured, but the torturers.

The controversy around Zero Dark Thirty brings up a larger question about how we can criticize the War on Terror without accepting its basic premises, like “torture is more excusable if it works.” My own view is that we can’t limit ourselves to abstract arguments about right and wrong. We have to look at the cases to judge whether these illegal and unethical practices were even necessary to fulfill their own stated goals. In the case of the Bin Laden raid, it’s clear that they were not.

As Glenn Greenwald pointed out on MSNBC, “Americans know that torture is brutal – That’s why they think it works. They have supported torture because they believe that the people that we’re doing it to are primitive, violent, horrible savages who need to be treated brutally, because that’s the only way we can get information, and that’s the way we stay safe.” Of course, we should insist that torture is barbaric. But to dismiss the question of results completely is to radically misjudge what we’re up against.

The War on Terror reopened our public debate about torture. Over a decade later, the debate has been won – for the first time since the Middle Ages – by authoritarians in both parties. Their gains will be institutionalized for at least a generation, and they aren’t resting on their laurels. The age of Obama has already turned the worst excesses of the Bush years into the only game in town.