In a short new book about Bradley Manning, journalist and civil rights lawyer Chase Madar necessarily and appropriately looks beyond the figure of Manning himself to ask how we understand information, how we perceive our relationship to state authority, and how people who serve the armed power of the state see their own place in its project. Writing from what often seems to be a leftist perspective, Madar nevertheless builds on a deeply conservative explanatory foundation in which political illnesses have cultural causes.
“The United States is an increasingly depoliticized society,” he writes, “and we struggle to comprehend the very concept of the political.” Our most urgent problem lies not in the nature of government but in the failures of civil society. The pathologies of empire and the national-security state grow from our own pathologies of thought and speech. This approach is familiar: it’s a republic if you can keep it, and we apparently can’t.
Madar is most successful at two points. First, he places Manning’s attempt to explain himself against the explicatory efforts of an exhaustingly banal news media. In chat sessions with a stranger on the Internet who (shockingly enough) turned out to be an FBI snitch, Manning is said to have written that he wanted to share “the non-PR versions of world events and crises” with his fellow citizens. Information, he wrote, “should be a public good,” allowing people to assess state action with something more than the information the state chooses to provide. Like Madar, Manning appears to have blended the premises of the left and the right, promising to reveal “how the first world exploits the third” in very nearly the same breath with which he compared his own alleged leaks to the release of the Climategate emails. However it varies in theme and perspective, though, Manning’s discussion focuses on state power and public engagement: what is government doing, and what do we know about it?
“The intel analyst’s intent is conscious, coherent, historically informed and above all it is political,” Madar concludes. Manning is alleged to have leaked to an organization that “quotes Madison and the Federalist Papers” in its mission statement. The people behind Wikileaks, Madar writes, “are, essentially, eighteenth-century liberals who are good with computers.” Pulling at the masks that cover neoconservative and neoliberal foreign policy, Manning seems to have been engaged in a small-r republican project, looking for ways to give informed citizens the knowledge to restrain state power.
News coverage of Manning’s alleged leaks, on the other hand, shoved aside politics to focus on the young soldier’s homosexuality and the fact that he had sought gender-identity counseling. The explanation for Manning’s actions was steered into a few permissible channels: sexual, emotional, psychiatric, pharmacological. This guy leaked information that brings the projects of state power into question—what caused him to go crazy like that? Was it a boyfriend thing?
Second, Madar cogently examines the culture of unchecked government secrecy. There’s something vaguely Soviet about the American security state these days, a familiar sense that the surreptitious and the pathetic are one in the same. In 1991, Madar writes, the federal government classified six million documents; in 2010, it classified 77 million. The rapid growth of secrecy matches the rapid growth in bad ideas and administrative incompetence, as overclassification protects “the delicate ego of the foreign policy elite, whose performance in the past decade has been so lethally sub-par.”
The phrase at the end of that sentence is my favorite moment in the book. Nor is it only in foreign policy that our political elites are implicated in this lethal mediocrity. The worse they get, the more they hide.
Examining at some length the material Manning is alleged to have leaked, Madar compares the claimed harm and the known harm from several leading examples. A classified list of “vital strategic interests” compiled by the State Department reveals such sensitive information as the fact that the Strait of Gibraltar is “a vital shipping lane” and that the Congo is “rich in mineral wealth.” Secrets like these, he writes, may as well have been “tabulated by a reasonably capable undergraduate intern” but their release prompted agonized howling from government spokesmen. “Have we in America become so infantalized that tidbits of basic geography must now be state secrets?” Madar asks. “Maybe better to leave that question unanswered.”
The secrecy isn’t exactly secrecy, though. A government that increasingly targets leakers and whistleblowers from its lower and middle ranks is the same government that leaks constantly from the top. But the difference is in the use of those leaks, as senior officials shape political perception by the process of control. Leaks are okay, as long as they serve the interests of power; “when official Washington decides to leak, the law fades away.” Again, the taste is faintly Soviet, and Madar correctly describes the effect of metastasizing classification in a government that also freely hands out secret information when it serves state purposes. “If a rule is selectively only enforced it ceases to be a rule and becomes something else—an arbitrary instrument of authority, a weapon of the powerful—but not a rule.” If anything, Madar is being too polite on this point.
Covering a series of topics—a brief history of whistleblowing, secrecy, and the rule of law; Manning’s personal background; the scope and nature of the leaked information—Madar falls significantly short in only one area of analysis. Discussing Manning’s pre-trial detention, many months of which took place in absurdly punitive solitary confinement, Madar allows that “after a decade, the ‘excesses’ of the War on Terror may have seeped into our domestic justice systems.” But he quickly pronounces this understanding of Manning’s treatment to be “incomplete,” moving on to a chapter that looks at the record of solitary confinement and disciplinary brutality in domestic prisons. “On the whole,” he concludes, “the GWOT has been all-American.” Military prisons at Guantanamo Bay and Bagram Air Field are just Pelican Bay and the federal “supermax” cellblock picked up and planted overseas, and Manning was caught in that same model of incarceration. Prisoners at San Quentin would recognize Abu Ghraib; our domestic model of prison brutality is our model of prison brutality abroad.
But it seems to me that the premises of war and threatened security lie deeply at the roots of that model, as increasingly harsh domestic confinement has grown up alongside the rapidly expanding national-security state. War is the health of the state, but that increasingly vigorous state doesn’t fall asleep at the edge of the battlefield. The legal historian Nasser Hussain has usefully described the “jurisprudence of emergency” in the British empire (and in the postcolonial states it left behind). Closer to home, Alfred McCoy has described American counterinsurgency in the Philippines as a site of origin for the 20th-century American surveillance state. At the very least, each feeds the other; domestic power and foreign aggression blend together, sharing sources and outcomes.
But Madar is finally successful at opening a discussion that needs to be opened. The war over government secrecy is fully joined. Darrell Issa is living on leaks from the Justice Department in the “Fast and Furious” scandal, for which Border Patrol agent Brian Terry’s family must feel nothing but gratitude. The Food and Drug Administration has been spying on its own scientists in an effort to catch and punish internal critics. And the Obama administration, that great fountain of transparency and good government, is pursuing criminal charges against more whistleblowers than every previous administration combined. As government tries to pull itself down the rabbit hole, its success is unlikely to be prevented by a supine press, especially if Obama is re-elected. Whatever victories we may have against a political elite that wishes to free itself from the restraint of the society it seeks to control will come from a culture of shared republican values. And they will come from a genuine freedom of information.
“If we hope to know what our government is so busily doing all over the world, massive leaks from insider whistleblowers are, like it or not, the only recourse,” Madar concludes. We need Bradley Manning.
Chris Bray is a historian and former soldier.