AmericanOpinion

Private punishment

Why is the Obama Administration so reluctant to bring Manning to trial?

By Jack Miles

Private Bradley Manning was arrested in May 2010 and charged with transferring classified data onto his personal computer and disclosing defence information to an unauthorised recipient—namely, Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame.

Is Manning guilty as charged? No one knows, for at present writing, 16 months later, he still awaits his first court hearing. For nearly a year, he was kept in solitary confinement in the military brig in Quantico, Virginia under conditions that violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment,” according to reports that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) relied on in a March 2011 open letter to then secretary of defense Robert Gates. ACLU director Anthony D. Romero then wrote:

No legitimate purpose is served by keeping Private Manning stripped naked; in prolonged isolated confinement and utter idleness; subjected to sleep deprivation through repeated physical inspections throughout the night; deprived of any meaningful opportunity to exercise, even in his cell; and stripped of his reading glasses so that he cannot read. Absent any evident justification, such treatment is clearly forbidden by the Constitution.

Why is the Obama Administration so reluctant to bring Manning to trial? One can only speculate, but his case powerfully evokes the memory of another case of a government employee accused of transferring classified information to his private computer and disclosing it to an unauthorised recipient. The earlier case is that of Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-American physicist employed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a nuclear weapons laboratory in New Mexico. The charge against him in 1999 was the extremely grave one of disclosing the “crown jewels” of American nuclear technology to Communist China. Like Manning, Lee was kept in solitary pre-trial confinement for many months during which he was subjected to both physical and psychological abuse. As with Manning, the assumption made by the press, with the New York Times in the lead, was an assumption of guilt. As with Manning, the public challenge to that assumption began in places like churches, college campuses, and the New York Review of Books.

In the end, 58 of the Clinton administration’s 59 charges against Lee were dropped, and for the remaining minor charge he was sentenced to time served. In effect, he was completely exonerated. Lest there be any doubt on that point, James Parker, chief judge of the United States district court for New Mexico, concluded the trial with a personal statement to Lee, a statement I find disturbingly relevant in the Manning case:

The executive branch has enormous power, the abuse of which can be devastating to our citizens… The top decision makers in the executive branch, especially the Department of Justice and the Department of Energy and locally…have caused embarrassment by the way this case began and was handled. They did not embarrass me alone. They have embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen of it…

President Clinton later wrote a personal apology to Lee. More striking still, the wronged physicist won $1.6 million in compensation from the federal government and the press in a civil lawsuit.

Will the Bradley Manning case end as the Wen Ho Lee case ended? The longer the Obama Administration postpones Manning’s day in court, the stronger grows the suspicion that the reason for the delay is not that the case against him is so strong but that it is so weak. I voice this suspicion recalling how devastating clear “the reasons why the executive branch has done all of this” become in Lee’s account of his experience, My Country Versus Me. That book, published in 2001, is at its most persuasive when Lee recalls first-hand the mounting desperation of his FBI interrogators to make him confess a crime for which, absent a confession, they had no probative evidence. It was their dogged determination to protect the FBI and the executive branch as a whole from the very public embarrassment that eventually befell them anyway—this, rather than any plausible concern for national security—that trumped the Sixth Amendment during the long months when Lee was so abused

Thus has it ever been, alas, with executive branch attempts to evade or postpone judicial review. I myself had hoped that Barack Obama, who, as a constitutional lawyer and a liberal Democrat, would restore the Constitutional rights that had been so eroded by the Bush administration during the war hysteria that followed 9/11. After some encouraging early moves, however, the Obama Administration has retreated into near-conformity with its predecessor.

My early confidence finally gave way when Obama himself was asked to comment on the treatment of Private Manning during a press conference. He replied tersely that he had consulted with the Pentagon, and they had assured him that Manning was being well treated.

What makes the Obama Administration’s conduct in the Manning case so dismaying to a former ardent and early supporter like me is that his Department of Justice needs no Republican votes to do the right thing. The budget deficit would not have been worsened—in fact, ever so slightly, it would have been alleviated—if Manning had been given the speedy trial that the US Constitution requires or had been released on bail while awaiting trial.

The four million smaller donors who financed Barack Obama’s rise to power are deserting his re-election campaign, as the New York Times recently reported. Just over half a million have so far turned up for the second round. Last time, I myself twice contributed the legal limit of $4600 for that year ($2300 each for my wife and myself)—once during the primaries and again during the general election—significantly more than I had ever contributed before. This time, I’ve decided to contribute the money to organisations that are fighting against the odds to preserve the Constitutional protections that, I have concluded, have in Barack Obama at best a weak defender.