teleSUR, 27 September 2014 **** Front Page

What do WikiLeaks, Manning and Snowden Reveal about US Political Culture?

By Bruno Jäntti

The reactions to the Manning-WikiLeaks disclosures by governments and influential media outlets in the US and the EU have, by and large, been negative and hostile. The reactions also rarely seem to deal with the content of the disclosures. 

The documents leaked by US army soldier Chelsea Manning and those disclosed by former CIA and NSA employee Edward Snowden have elicited quite different reactions. As the immediate reaction in the US to these groundbreaking cases has settled, few would deny that the American society regards surveillance of American citizens by the NSA vastly more shocking and condemnable than mass slaughter of Afghanis and Iraqis by the US military.

Let us consider the Manning and Snowden leaks individually. Thus, we can see how the rule of law is regarded as a pertinent principle when we are talking about US citizens and a naive, idealistic and unrealistic ideal when talking about victims of US military aggression in the Middle East.

Manning leaked what are now known as the Afghan War Diary, a collection of 91,731 internal US army documents on the War in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War Logs, a compendium of 391,832 US army field reports on the Iraq War. The Afghan War Diary and the Iraq War Logs constitute the vastest and most detailed body of data of primary sources ever published on any wars. Arguably, these are the most consequential WikiLeaks disclosures to date.

The publications include prima facie evidence of multiple international crimes, including widespread killing of civilians, extra-judicial executions and torture. Furthermore, the Iraq War Logs reveal 15,000 previously unreported deaths of Iraqi civilians.

The reactions to the Manning-WikiLeaks disclosures by governments and influential media outlets in the US and the EU have, by and large, been negative and hostile. It also merits emphasis that these reactions rarely seem to deal with the content of the disclosures. Rather, attacks against Manning, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks seem to be a more common phenomenon.

According to Hillary Clinton, the WikiLeaks releases are “not just an attack on America's foreign policy interests” but “an attack on the international community”. Former presidential candidate Sarah Palin implied that Mr. Assange should be ‘'pursued with the same urgency we pursue Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders”. A well-known Democratic political pundit Bob Beckell stated on Assange that, “I'm not for the death penalty, so — there's only one way to do it: illegally shoot the son of a bitch.” A former White House deputy Chief of Staff labeled  Assange “a criminal” who “ought to be hunted down and grabbed” while the minority leader of the US Senate explained that Assange “needs to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and if that becomes a problem we need to change the law.”

The most common lines of attack against WikiLeaks and Assange belittle both the severity of the crimes revealed by the massive primary source disclosure and, accordingly, the role of Assange and WikiLeaks in bringing those crimes to the attention of the international community. Chelsea Manning, for her part, was found guilty of 20 of the 22 charges she faced, including espionage and fraud. After being detained for more than three years without trial, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

The source for the NSA leaks that proved the existence of massive state surveillance by the US government was a former CIA and NSA employee Edward Snowden. Originating from the US Intelligence Community, the disclosed material revealed that the US and British governments are engaged in mass surveillance of US and non-US citizens alike.

Among the most pertinent questions in the debate Snowden's disclosures initiated is to what extent, if any, can individual rights, such as the right to privacy, be infringed by state organs in the name of security. Combating various types of ostensible security threats is offered as the justification for both the ever-growing surveillance programs that gather detailed metadata on hundreds of millions of people and the equally growing trend of secrecy exercised by state organs.

Those who seek to denigrate WikiLeaks, Manning and Snowden often point out that states have traditionally had, and must continue to have, the right to large-scale secrecy and massive information gathering. Even if one is to accept this point of view, the question of the qualitative and quantitative mandate of that surveillance should not be overlooked as a mere triviality. Those who champion states' rights over its citizens in the name of national security also draw the line of legitimate surveillance and secrecy somewhere. Should war crimes be, and remain, state secrets? Should the authorities of a single state have the right to intercept practically all electronic communication of hundreds of millions of people, regardless of their citizenship?

Probably for tactical reasons, the most prominent critics of the national security state, such as investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, have kept their disparagement within rather narrow limits. This has been a sound tactical decision. However, the criticism can be developed further and to a different direction.

Given the uniquely vast scope of illegal US activity around the world — be it direct involvement in unlawful wars of aggression or large-scale economic and military support for regimes that violate international law — why would the international community grant the US Intelligence Community any right to conduct surveillance, especially towards foreign nationals? After all, the US Intelligence Community is an integral part of the various illegal US operations.

The most conspicuous and topical concerns are twofold. Firstly, how to enforce accountability most effectively on those US politicians and members of the US armed forces who have violated international law? Secondly, where should the line between transparency and secrecy be drawn?

Although WikiLeaks has been the target of a considerable amount of attention in the US and the EU, it is noteworthy that the principle of the rule of law barely figures in this debate. The leaks and their legal implications, however, serve as a textbook example of a test that determines whether a state, here most prominently the US, meets the minimum standards of a nomocracy.

In short, the internal surveillance debate in the US highlights the importance of, say, adhering to the US Constitution and possibly even prosecuting those officials who have broken the law. However, the extensive documentation in Afghan War Diary and Iraq War Logs of criminal conduct towards Afghanis and Iraqis has not lead to calls for prosecution in the domestic political debate in the US. Sure, unlawful Surveillance is a problem. Destroying countries and massacring civilians is quite a bit more severe.

The extent to which the Obama administration has pursued whistle blowers and the sweeping immunity enjoyed by US army personnel and the personnel of other state organs in the face of brazen war crimes and probable crimes against humanity is indeed noteworthy. It gives new depth to the concept of “Western democracy”.


The archive: Bruno Jäntti, Wikileaks-Cgelsea Manning-Edward Snowden, United States, Afghanistan, Iraq, Tariq Ali, Phyllis Bennis, Noam Chomsky, Patrick Cockburn, Mark Curtis, Robert Fisk, Glenn Greenwald, Gabriel Kolko, John Pilger, Arundhati Roy


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