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Chase Madar

Chase Madar

Wide-angle, deep-focus coverage of the Bradley Manning court-martial.

Seven Myths About Edward Snowden, NSA Whistleblower

Edward Snowden. (Courtesy of guardiannews.com)

So many questions! How much of our personal information can the NSA get at, with and without a warrant? What exactly does “server” mean on that NSA PowerPoint slide? Is Snowden in Moscow, Havana, Quito, none of the above? Tracking the fast-evolving scandal of NSA surveillance and whistleblower Edward Snowden requires a bullshit-detector cranked up to eleven. Though the NSA-Snowden affair is scarcely three weeks old, all manner of official folklore and panic-infused idées reçues have already glommed on, limpet-like, to media accounts, often deforming the story beyond recognition. Below is your handy myth-stripping guide to understanding this critical news item.

Myth 1: Leaks of top-secret material are exceedingly rare, so Edward Snowden’s transgression obviously cries out for punishment.

From the banshee reactions of various pols and pundits one might have thought that showing classified material to the media is Washington’s ultimate taboo. What rot! Official leaks are common as dirt, and one can barely go a week without reading in The New York Times or The Washington Post some story built on an unnamed high official’s confidential leaks. Good thing too, because it’s thanks to leaks that we learned the truth about the Watergate break-in, the Vietnam War, Obama’s officially “secret” drone strike program. The Bush-Cheney administration leaked classified prewar intel on Iraq to suit its interests (h/t Jack Shafer), and a top-secret memo on military strategy from Obama’s ambassador to Afghanistan, retired general Karl Eikenberry, wound up on the front page of The New York Times. (Many believe it was the White House itself that leaked that one.) Obama’s former chief of staff William Daley bragged of his leaking prowess to Politico, but made sure to give props to his predecessor Rahm Emanuel as the ultimate “leaker-in-chief.”

Washington leaks are not new; whole gastronomic guides to them have been published. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it three years ago while tamping down the panic from Bradley Manning’s mass exfiltration, “Washington has always leaked like a sieve and everyone knows it.”

Myth 2: The NSA surveillance program has prevented dozens of terrorist attacks, and now Edward Snowden has ruined it!

Ah, but what role has NSA surveillance played in preventing terror attacks? To state the obvious, the balancing act between security and liberty assumes that the intrusive security measures are effective. Have they been?

Supporters of the program insist that the dragnet surveillance has caught lots of terrorists. Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, informs us that the program has foiled “multiple” potential attacks, without giving much more detail. More recently, NSA chieftain General Keith Alexander insisted that the NSA monitoring of e-mail and phone calls has stopped “more than fifty plots” in the United States and overseas.

But how well do these outsized claims hold up? The NSA leak has invited a fresh wave of scrutiny of official claims of surveillance results, from canny bloggers like Marcy Wheeler, from The Guardian, even from ABC News. It’s not just the media—senators are getting in on the act, with Mark Udall announcing that he is not “convinced that the collection of this vast trove of data has led to disruption of plots.”

At the supermarket last week somebody told me she supported NSA surveillance because of the Boston Marathon bombing that the program failed to stop. This is obviously irrational, but it does force a question: If NSA spying is not achieving any of its security goals, just what is the point of so much surveillance?

Myth 3: Glenn Greenwald committed a crime by breaking the NSA/Snowden story.

Greenwald, an American lawyer turned blogger turned columnist and reporter for The Guardian, broke the story of NSA dragnet surveillance, and his important scoop has some people upset.

Like Representative Peter King, the former chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, who frothily opined two weeks ago that Greenwald should be thrown in jail, even though the legality of publishing leaked confidential information is well-established under American law. The excitable King, whose previous fundraising for the Noraid charity would make him criminally liable for “material support” for the terrorist IRA under today’s slackened standards, would do well to refrain from accusing others of national security crimes. Washington Post columnist (and torture enthusiast) Marc Thiessen dug up an archaic statute that criminalizes publication of signals intelligence. The actual enforcement of this law is as likely, and as sensible, as Gainesville, Georgia, enforcing its legal prohibition against eating fried chicken with a knife and fork.

But wait—there’s more! Yesterday morning, Meet the Press host David Gregory asked Greenwald himself why he shouldn’t face criminal charges, “to the extent that [he has] aided and abetted Snowden.” Gregory claimed he was “just asking questions”—not making accusations. To the extent that Gregory beats his wife—hey, just asking hypothetical questions here, not making accusations!—I submit that the TV host is disingenuous. Gregory, who has never had an important scoop in his softball career, also had the cheek to imply that Greenwald isn’t really a journalist at all. As Fox News’s Kirsten Powers tweeted,

O doubly calamitous week, to have lost Michael Hastings and still have David Gregory.

Myth 4. Snowden isn’t a real whistleblower because he spilled to the media instead of taking his concerns to his superiors at NSA.

Last week USA Today scored a videojournalism coup by sitting down a group of former NSA officials-turned-whistleblowers who between them had a century of experience at the agency. Thomas Drake, William Binney and J. Kirk Wiebe did not agree on everything, but they reached an instant consensus that Snowden did exactly the right thing in bypassing the NSA’s internal system and leaking to the press, given that the NSA had fobbed off or bottled up their own complaints for years without taking any action. It would, of course, be peachy if our security institutions responded to internal criticism, but that, according to long-serving veterans of those institutions, is not their nature.

Myth 5: We all should have expected this kind of mass surveillance was happening, so what’s the big deal?

When the scandal first broke, David Simon, creator of The Wire, pointed out that the Baltimore police have been using similar surveillance tactics against suspected crack dealers for years, so what’s the big deal? In fact, many Americans find it to be rather a big deal that the federal government is treating all of us the way the Baltimore police treat suspected crack dealers and find Simon’s tirade irrational (and really annoying). What Simon’s outburst does usefully reveal is that the internalization of Stasi values is not always meek and mild but is just as likely to be accompanied by strutting macho bluster.

As for former House Intelligence Committee member Jane Harman, she too sees nothing new in the NSA surveillance and told Gwen Ifill that the law’s been on the books since FISA courts were established in 1978 then amended with plenty of public debate in 2008. (In 2006 Harman was herself caught on an NSA wiretap offering to lobby for AIPAC personnel charged with espionage, and she was none too pleased about it, but the experience apparently did not infect her with any “empathy” for other Americans now vulnerable to the same surveillance.)

There’s no explaining it away: the NSA’s amassing your phone records and getting into your e-mail is a new and serious state invasion of every citizen’s freedom; even those with nothing to hide have everything to fear.

Myth 6: Snowden good, Manning bad.

Snowden’s released far fewer documents than did Pfc Bradley Manning, whose leak is the largest in US history. For many, this makes Snowden’s disclosure easier to defend, and therefore better.

Enough with the Goofus-and-Gallant dichotomizing. Snowden himself defends Bradley Manning as a “classic whistleblower” who was “inspired by the public good,” and there is no need to make either a villain. And the demonization of Manning is itself based on its own corpus of folklore, beginning with the non-fact that Manning’s leaks were a “data dump,” as chronically misreported. In fact Manning’s valuable disclosures were filtered first by WikiLeaks and then through mainstream publications like The New York Times, Der Spiegel, The Guardian and Le Monde. Only the State Department cables leaked by Manning wound up in their unexpurgated entirety online, but any harm from this misstep has been de minimis, and far outweighed by what we have learned. The blogger OhTarzie has done a stellar job parsing the essential similarity between Snowden’s and Manning’s leaks.

Myth 7: Because the NSA spying program originated in our legal, legislative process, there just can’t be anything wrong with it.

From the president himself on down to lawyer-pundit Jeffrey Toobin, many have pooh-poohed concerns about NSA spying by assuring us that the surveillance was “legally authorized”—and if it’s legal, what could possibly be bad about it?

First, we might ask how “legal” the program is, based as it is on secret interpretations of the FISA law and secret decisions made by the FISA court. Is this good legal process? In its thirty-three years, the FISA court has rejected only eleven out of 33,900 FISA requests: effectively, a rubber stamp. The lead author of the Patriot Act, Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, who is most definitely not a card-carrying ACLU member, has repudiated the NSA surveillance as an unlawful abuse of the statute he wrote. (See also this brilliantly designed ACLU one-pager examining the dubious legal process that spawned the NSA surveillance program.)

Second, just because something is legally permissible does not mean it is wise, effective, just or terrific in any way. Jeffrey Toobin could legally have unprotected sex with a houseful of heroin addicts, then liquidate his assets and give the money to Sarah Palin’s PAC: all of this would be legal. Only a lawyer, and not a very good one, would ever take mere legality an indicator for wisdom, justice or efficacy. We have every right to be discontent with government actions that might be legal while being wrong and foolish for any number of other reasons.

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By the way, is there an absolute duty to obey the law? This was the implication of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone’s purse-lipped scolding of young Snowden. Don’t get Stone wrong; the professor “believes strongly in government transparency, but even more strongly in the orderly rule of law.” I wonder if Stone dares talk this twaddle to a lecture hall that includes LGBT and black students. Does Geoff Stone think that gay and lesbian couples who had illegal sex decades ago were criminals deserving prosecution? Does Stone fault Harriet Tubman for failing to turn herself in after the many glorious capital crimes she committed in her exemplary life?

We all live in a society of laws—can’t do without them—but that does not make our laws infallible. Jurists, in their vanity, frequently mistake the material of their chosen field as divine wisdom handed down from Mount Sinai. We humans, however, should remember that laws are rules made by the state, no more and no less; rules are only as clean or as dirty as our politics and our history. As Columbia academic Marc Lamont Hill pointed out to Piers Morgan in a discussion of Snowden’s leak, “Many heroes break laws.” This line of argument is as old as Antigone, as old as law itself.

Free Bonus! Myth 8: The Democratic Party cares deeply about civil liberties.

The NSA spying/Snowden story has driven a wedge through the Democratic Party–oriented media and intelligentsia. Though many Democrats preached cool about civil liberties under Bush and Cheney, now journalists like Talking Points Memo’s Joshua Micah Marshall profess nary a qualm with Obama’s invasive snooping. Wonky liberals at The American Prospect inform us that “we must reconcile with the need for data collection,” while parroting official claims of the program’s tactical effectiveness; meanwhile, their officemates, The American Conservative (co-founded by Pat Buchanan!), condemn the dragnet surveillance without equivocation. The last article published by the late, tragically irreplaceable Michael Hastings examines why Democrats like to spy on their fellow Americans.

Though the surveillance enjoys support from Democrats and Republicans alike­, the opposition to it is equally bipartisan, with veteran social democrat Representative John Conyers co-sponsoring a bill to rein in the NSA with Tea Party freshman Representative Justin Amash, two ideologically antipodal Michiganders united in defense of civil liberties. Nice Democrats, please know this: the NSA surveillance program will someday be in the hands of a Republican president—will you support it then?

Was Glenn Greenwald aiding and abetting Snowden? NBC’s David Gregory thinks it’s a valid question—but John Nichols argues otherwise.

Why Are Massive National Security Breaches So Ridiculously Easy?

US Army Private First Class Bradley Manning departs the courtroom after day four of his court-martial at Fort Meade, Maryland, June 10, 2013. (Reuters/Gary Cameron)

While attending the court-martial of Pfc. Bradley Manning in Fort Meade yesterday, I was reminded once again that the biggest security breach in US history was as challenging and intricate as instant coffee. Witness after witness from the subcontracted world of “information assurance” took the stand to declaim the military’s ironclad information security (“InfoSec”) protocols and to also mumble about how these rules were never enforced. Installing the instant-message chat program mIRC may have been “not authorized,” but that didn’t keep the military itself from issuing bulletins on how to install it. Reporters from The Guardian long ago sketched the scene in the “SCIF”—“senstitive compartmented information facility”—at FOB Hammer where Manning worked in Army Intelligence as a scene of freshman-dorm indiscipline, with passwords posted on sticky-notes and everyone watching movies and playing online games, against the regs, on their computers. Manning famously exfiltrated the files on CD-ROMs in Lady Gaga drag, got them onto a memory stick which he later uploaded in his secret hideout, a busy Barnes & Noble in suburban Maryland, over an open WiFi signal. There really was no infosec to speak of at Pfc. Manning’s deployment, and the selectivity of punishing him for unauthorized behavior that was pandemic—if not as bold and meaningful as his—will surely come into play when it’s sentencing time.

A bigger question: Why are so many massive national security breaches ridiculously easy?

Consider the crack commando unit that busted into the Y-12 National Security Complex (famous for its uranium processing) in Oak Ridge,Tennessee, last July. By “crack commando unit”: I mean an 82-year-old nun, a housepainter and a man who listed his occupation as “drifter.” And yet these three members of the Transform Now Ploughshares Catholic peace community made it through three layers of security, James Bond–style (hardware-store bolt-cutters through chainlink fence) before eventually being happened upon by security guard Kirk Garland. (Garland was the only one at Oak Ridge fired for the breach; his very creditable lapse was not pulling his gun on the activists.) Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed, I salute your courage, your message of peace and your mockery of the security at our nuclear facilities.

Airport security, it grows ever more intrusive with porno-scanners, pat downs and ten-plus years of gratuitous shoe removal in what few experts consider to be more than gestural security theater. Have our airports been secured? Ask Daniel Castillo, who accidentally beached his malfunctioning jetski on the embanked border of JFK Airport in New York last summer, climbed over an eight-foot fence and walked across two runways in a fluorescent yellow vest before anyone noticed him. Or the drunk driver who crashed his SUV through a fence and onto a runway at Philadelphia International Airport in March last year. And these two guys weren’t even trying!

But it’s infosec that’s the biggest joke of all. Our government sporadically bestirs itself to prosecute an Aaron Swartz or a Bradley Manning in a vain attempt to look serious. But the way the feds and the military handle information is as sloshy as a tray at the height of Oktoberfest. US military hard drives full of classified material, for sale at the Kabul bazaar! Documents about US war crimes in Iraq turning up at the town dump! Leon Panetta spewing, Tourettes-style, operational intelligence to Hollywood people and a top-secret Navy SEAL identity before an audience of a thousand people! Dana Priest and William Arkin in their fine recent study of grotesque secrecy bloat, Top Secret America, note that all sorts of classified material works its way onto the web, often because the senior intelligence officials don’t understand the file-sharing software that their kids install on their laptops.

“Don’t they vet these people?” has been a common indignant snort in response to the disclosures from contractor Edward Snowden. The truth is, there are 1.4 million people with top-secret security clearance, and you simply cannot vet 1.4 million people in any thorough way. Ben Franklin once said that three can keep a secret, if two are dead. Who are we kidding? Any piece of information that 1.4 million people are authorized to get at is really not a secret.

I write this not to bemoan the sluicing porosity of our national security apparatus—that’s exactly how we find out so much essential information that we need to keep our government in line. Keep the leaks flowing! In the meantime, the self-impressed panjandrums of our national security state might quit pretending that their half-assed security measures are anything other than a public nuisance, whether at the airport or in the world of intel. It’s almost axiomatic: authoritarian states that try too hard at controlling everything end up providing little security—remember when an 18-year-old West German kid flew his single-engine airplane to Moscow and landed next to Red Square? (Matthias Rust signed autographs and shook hands for two hours before anyone arrested him.)

We do not want to become more like Sovietized Eastern Europe, we want to be less like those unhappy nations. We could start by releasing about 99 percent of what’s currently classified, and put genuine security measures around the tiny amount of state secrets that are legitimate. It will only make us safer.

(Further reading: Anything security-related by John Mueller, that rare national security expert who is not an preening piece of fraudulence; Mueller’s a political scientist at Ohio State who has been writing about this stuff with great élan since long before 9/11/01.)

UPDATE: Slate's Fred Kaplan asks on Twitter, given that national security breaches are so easy, why are they so rare? 

Bradley Manning vs. SEAL Team 6

Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is escorted into a courthouse in Fort Meade, Maryland, Tuesday, May 21, 2013, before a pretrial military hearing. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.

The prosecution of Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks’ source inside the US Army, will be pulling out all the stops when it calls to the stand a member of Navy SEAL Team 6, the unit that assassinated Osama bin Laden. The SEAL (in partial disguise, as his identity is secret) is expected to tell the military judge that classified documents leaked by Manning to WikiLeaks were found on bin Laden’s laptop. That will, in turn, be offered as proof not that bin Laden had Internet access like 2 billion other earthlings, but that Manning has “aided the enemy,” a capital offense.

Think of it as courtroom cartoon theater: the heroic slayer of the  jihadi super-villain testifying against the ultimate bad soldier, a five-foot-two-inch gay man facing twenty-two charges in military court and accused of the biggest security breach in US history.

But let’s be clear on one thing: Manning, the young Army intelligence analyst who leaked thousands of public documents and passed them on to WikiLeaks, has done far more for US national security than SEAL Team 6.

The assassination of Osama bin Laden, the spiritual (but not operational) leader of Al Qaeda, was a fist-pumping moment of triumphalism for a lot of Americans, as the Saudi fanatic had come to incarnate not just Al Qaeda but all national security threats. This was true despite the fact that, since 9/11, Al Qaeda has been able to do remarkably little harm to the United States or to the West in general. (The deadliest attack in a Western nation since 9/11, the 2004 Atocha bombing in Madrid, was not committed by bin Laden’s organization, though white-shoe foreign policy magazines and think tanks routinely get this wrong, “Al Qaeda” being such a handy/sloppy metonym for all terrorism.)

Al Qaeda remains a simmering menace, but as an organization hardly the greatest threat to the United States. In fact, if you measure national security in blood and money, as many of us still do, by far the greatest threat to the United States over the past dozen years has been our own clueless foreign policy.

The Wages of Cluelessness Is Death

Look at the numbers. The attacks of September 11, 2001, killed 3,000 people, a large-scale atrocity by any definition. Still, roughly double that number of American military personnel have been killed in Washington’s invasion and occupation of Iraq and its no-end-in-sight war in Afghanistan. Add in private military contractors who have died in both war zones, along with recently discharged veterans who have committed suicide, and the figure triples. The number of seriously wounded in both wars is cautiously estimated at 50,000. And if you dare to add in as well the number of Iraqis, Afghans and foreign coalition personnel killed in both wars, the death toll reaches at least a hundred 9/11s and probably more.

Did these people die to make America safer? Don’t insult our intelligence. Virtually no one thinks the Iraq War has made the United States more secure, though many believe the war created new threats. After all, the Iraq we liberated is now in danger of collapsing into another bitter, bloody civil war, is a close ally of Iran, and sells the preponderance of its oil to China. Over the years, the drain on the US treasury for all of this will be at least several trillion dollars. As for Afghanistan, after the disruption of Al Qaeda camps, accomplished ten years ago, it is difficult to see how the ongoing pacification campaign there and the CIA drone war across the border in Pakistan’s tribal areas have enhanced the security of the United States in any significant way. Both wars of occupation were ghastly strategic choices that have killed hundreds of thousands, wounded many more, sent millions into exile and destabilized what Washington, in good times, used to call “the arc of instability.”

Why have our strategic choices been so disastrous? In large part because they have been militantly clueless. Starved of important information, both the media and public opinion were putty in the hands the Bush administration and its neocon followers as they dreamt up and then put into action their geopolitical fantasies. It has since become fashion for politicians who supported the war to blame the Iraq debacle on “bad intelligence.” But as former CIA analyst Paul Pillar reminds us, the carefully cherry-picked “Intel” about Saddam Hussein’s WMD program was really never the issue. After all, the CIA’s classified intelligence estimate on Iraq argued that, even if that country’s ruler Saddam Hussein did have weapons of mass destruction (which he didn’t), he would never use them and was therefore not a threat.

Senator Bob Graham, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2003, was one of the few people with access to that CIA report who bothered to take the time to read it. Initially keen on the idea of invading Iraq, he changed his mind and voted against the invasion.

What if the entire nation had had access to that highly classified document? What if bloggers, veterans’ groups, clergy, journalists, educators and other opinion leaders had been able to see the full intelligence estimate, not just the morsels cherry-picked by Cheney and his mates? Even then, of course, there was enough information around to convince millions of people across the globe of the folly of such an invasion, but what if some insider had really laid out the whole truth, not just the cherry-picked pseudofacts in those months and the games being played by other insiders to fool Congress and the American people into a war of choice and design in the Middle East? As we now know, whatever potentially helpful information there was remained conveniently beyond our sight until a military and humanitarian disaster was unleashed.

Any private-sector employee who screwed up this badly would be fired on the spot, or at the very least put under full-scale supervision. And this was the gift of Bradley Manning: thanks to his trove of declassified documents our incompetent foreign policy elites finally have the supervision they manifestly need.

Not surprisingly, foreign policy elites don’t much enjoy being supervised. Like orthopedic surgeons, police departments and every other professional group under the sun, the military brass and their junior partners in the diplomatic corps feel deeply that they should be exempt from public oversight. Every volley of revealed documents from WikiLeaks has stimulated the same outraged response from that crew: near-total secrecy is essential to the delicate arts of diplomacy and war.

Let us humor our foreign policy elites (who have feelings too), despite their abysmal ten-year resumé of charred rubble and mangled limbs. There may be a time and a place for secrecy, even duplicity, in statecraft. But history shows that a heavy blood-price is often attached to diplomats saying one thing in public and meaning something else in private. In the late 1940s, for instance, the United States publicly declared that the Korean peninsula was not viewed by Washington as a vital interest, emboldening the North to invade the South and begin the Korean War. Our government infamously escalated the Vietnam War behind a smokescreen of official secrecy, distortion and lies. Saddam Hussein rolled into Kuwait after US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie toldthe Baathist strongman that he could do what he pleased on his southern border and still bask in the good graces of Washington. This is not a record of success.

So what’s wrong with diplomats’ doing more of their business in the daylight—a very old idea not cooked up at Julian Assange’s kitchen table five years ago? Check out the mainstream political science literature on international relations and you’ll find rigorous, respectable, borderline-boring studies touting the virtues of relative transparency in statecraft—as, for example, in making the post-Napoleonic Concert of Europe such a durable peace deal. On the other hand, when nation-states get coy about their commitments to other states or to their own citizenry, violent disaster is often in the offing.

Dystopian Secrecy

Foreign policy elites regularly swear that the WikiLeaks example, if allowed to stand, puts us on a perilous path towards “total transparency.” Wrong again. In fact, without the help of WikiLeaks and others, there is no question that the US national security state, as the most recent phone and Internet revelations indicate, is moving towards something remarkably like total state secrecy. The classification of documents has gone through the roof. Washington classified a staggering 92 million public records in 2011, up from 77 million the year before and from 14 million in 2003. (By way of comparison, the various troves of documents Manning leaked add up to less than 1 percent of what Washington classifies annually—not exactly the definition of “total transparency”.)

Meanwhile, the declassification of ancient secrets within the national security state moves at a near-geological tempo. The National Security Agency, for example, only finished declassifying documents from the Madison presidency (1809–17) in 2011. No less indicative of Washington’s course, the prosecution of governmental whistleblowers in the Obama years has burned with a particularly vindictive fury, fueled by both political parties and Congress as well as the White House.

Our government secrecy fetishists invest their security clearances (held by an elite coterie of 4.8 million people) and the information security (InfoSec) regime they continue to elaborate with all sorts of protective powers over life and limb. But what gets people killed, no matter how much our pols and pundits strain to deny it, aren’t InfoSec breaches or media leaks, but foolish and clueless strategic choices. Putting the blame on leaks is a nice way to pass the buck, but at the risk of stating the obvious, what has killed 1,605 US soldiers in Afghanistan since 2009 is the war in Afghanistan—not Bradley Manning or any of the other five leakers whom Obama has prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917. Leaks and whistleblowers should not be made scapegoats for bad strategic choices, which would have been a whole lot less bad had they been informed by all the relevant facts.

Pardon my utopian extremism, but knowing what your government is doing really isn’t such a bad thing and it has to do with aiding the (American) public, not the enemy. Knowing what your government is doing is not some special privilege that the government generously bestows on us when we’re good and obedient citizens, it’s an obligation that goes to the heart of the matter in a free country. After all, it should be ordinary citizens like us who make the ultimate decision about whether war X is worth fighting or not, worth escalating or not, worth ending or not.

When such momentous public decisions are made and the public doesn’t have—isn’t allowed to have—a clue, you end up in a fantasy land of aggressive actions that, over the past dozen years, have gotten hundreds of thousands killed and left us in a far more dangerous world. These are the wages of dystopian government secrecy.

Despite endless panic and hysteria on the subject from both major parties, the White House and Congress, leaks have been good for us. They’re how we came to learn much about the Vietnam War, much about the Watergate scandal and, most recently, far more about state surveillance of our phone calls and e-mail. Bradley Manning’s leaks in particular have already yielded real, tangible benefits, most vividly their small but significant role in sparking the rebellion that ejected a dictator in Tunisia and the way they indirectly expedited our military exit from Iraq. Manning’s leaked reports of US atrocities in Iraq, displayed in newspapers globally, made it politically impossible for the Iraqi authorities to perpetuate domestic legal immunity for America troops, Washington’s bedrock condition for a much-desired continuing presence there. If it weren’t for Manning’s leaks, the United States might still be in Iraq, killing and being killed for no legitimate reason, and that is the very opposite of national security.

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Knowledge is Not Evil

Thanks to Bradley Manning, our disaster-prone elites have gotten a dose of the adult supervision they so clearly require. Instead of charging him with aiding the enemy, the Obama administration ought to send him a get-out-of-jail-free card and a basket of fruit. If we’re going to stop the self-inflicted wars that continue to hemorrhage blood and money, we need to get a clue, fast. Should we ever bother to learn from the uncensored truth of our foreign policy failures, which have destroyed so many more lives than the late bin Laden could ever have hoped, we at least stand a chance of not repeating them.

I am not trying to soft-pedal or sanitize Manning’s magnificent act of civil disobedience. The young private humiliated the US Army by displaying for all to see their complete lack of real information security. Manning has revealed the diplomatic corps to be hard at work shilling for garment manufacturers in Haiti, for Big Pharma in Europe, and under signed orders from then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to collect biometric data and credit card numbers from their foreign counterparts. Most important, Manning brought us face to face with two disastrous wars, forcing Americans to share a burden of knowledge previously shouldered only by our soldiers, whom we love to call heroes from a very safe distance.

Did Manning violate provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice? He certainly did, and a crushing sentence of possibly decades in military prison is surely on its way. Military law is marvelously elastic when it comes to rape and sexual assault and perfectly easygoing about the slaughter of foreign civilians, but it puts on a stern face for the unspeakable act of declassifying documents. But the young private’s act of civil defiance was in fact a first step in reversing the pathologies that have made our foreign policy a string of self-inflicted homicidal disasters. By letting us in on more than a half-million “secrets,” Bradley Manning has done far more for American national security than SEAL Team 6 ever did.

While hunger strikes have put Guantánamo Bay back in the headlines, controversial terrorism trials against Muslim Americans have gone largely unnoticed. Read Victoria Brittain’s report here.

The Passion of Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden. (Courtesy: Guardiannews.com)

There’s really nothing “meta” about metadata. Even without knowing the content of a conversation, knowing whom someone is calling, for how long and how often conveys an enormous amount of information, as former National Security Agency official and whistleblower Thomas Drake and former Department of Justice attorney and whistleblower Jesselyn Radack reminded me and a roomful of others over the weekend. To know whom a journalist is in touch with is to know who their sources are, and a brutally efficient way to kill whatever network of confidential contacts a journalist has built up. (Would you dish the dirt to a reporter you know is being monitored?) The notion that we ought to be grateful because the government is “only” collecting our telecommunications metadata is creepy, dystopian and grovellingly servile. The perfectly reasonable desire to keep the government out of your e-mail and phone records does not make you a “privacy purist” or God forbid, a “libertarian.”

Thanks to The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and 29-year-old whistleblower Edward Snowden, we know that the government has been collecting our telecommunications metadata in enormous data dragnets. We also know that the government has developed backdoor access to e-mail and other intenet communications through arrangements with Google, Microsoft, Facebook and other Silicon Valley corporations.

Snowden revealed his identity yesterday afternoon; it had been the subject of fervid speculation since Greenwald began breaking stories about the data trawling last week. (Steve Clemons, the impeccably Establishment foreign policy journalist and think-tanker, overheard four national security professionals loudly and repeatedly proposing that both Snowden and “the journalist” be “taken out”.) Snowden is not a government man, not exactly anyway: he worked at Booz Allen Hamilton, an enormous and enormously profitable corporation that has gobbled up $1.3 billion in intelligence-related government contracts in the past fiscal year, from digital intelligence gathering to questing after the much-sought-after but spurious link between Al Qaeda and South American narcotraffickers. A common theme in the reactions to Snowden’s whistleblowing is outrage and resentment that a 29-year-old with a GED instead of a high-school diploma is making $200,000 a year off government contracts. In today’s grim economy, one of the few bright spots is the boom field of counterterrorism and intelligence consulting, highly paid jobs that don’t seem to require much in the way of skills, experience or expertise.

Did the leak require all kinds of digital derring-do and expertise? Probably not; the ACLU’s Christopher Soghoian has noted that Snowden probably used the same surveillance-proofing software, Tor, that the United States developed for dissidents in China and Iran. For the time being, Snowden is in Hong Kong where American authorities cannot get at him—at least not today. (According to The New York Times, the Hong Kong government will most likely be very happy to comply with an extradition request from Washington, which is surely being drafted right now.)

The news about government snooping has raised old questions about mass digital surveillance by the state. Not surprisingly, Senator Dianne Feinstein sees nothing wrong with the programs, and assures us that they have already been instrumental in foiling terrorist plots—it’s just that she’s not at liberty to tell us how exactly, because that information is secret. Marcy Wheeler however at her Empty Wheel blog has subjected these official claims to searching scrutiny and finds there is no evidence that the newly revealed surveillance techniques had anything to do with the apprehension of Najibullah Zazi’s plot to bomb the New York subway. It’s not clear if many of the elected officials involved understand the technology or what it means.

But some critics among elected officials are speaking out. Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall have long hinted darkly about the abuse of digital surveillance authorized by the Patriot Act, and they are joined by the libertarian-conservative Senator Rand Paul who has bashed the program as “unconstitutional.” This has opened up an entertaining civil war over civil liberties within the GOP, pitting Paul against big-government hawks like Lindsey Graham. (Free medical advice to progressives and liberals: you will not catch the clap by making common cause with Ron and Rand Paul on this issue, try it and see.)

Will more Democrats push back against this Stasi-like encroachment of the surveillance state? Some clearly will not: MSNBC mainstay Joy Reid whinged earlier today via Twitter that “purist libertarians don’t believe the government is entitled to any secrets. If I’m a covert CIA operative, say, in China, should I worry?” (Her compassion for CIA agents in China is presumably linked to Snowden’s gesturing in a video interview to the location of the American consulate in Hong Kong, not exactly a secret to anyone there.)

Are the surveillance programs legal? Attorneys Ben Wizner and Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU have both addressed this with their usual good sense—and so has The New Republic’s John Judis, looking back at the way he was surveilled and harassed (his friends and family too) because of his antiwar and left-wing political views in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Note to lawyers and wanna-be lawyers: that the program may be in conformity with the law is of course no guarantee that it is not a nightmare; the history of the United States is full of abominations that were permitted, required and violently enforced by legal statute.

Where is Obama? The great compromiser has told the country we cannot expect either “total security or total privacy.” But is the humble expectation that the government is not spying on our phone calls or e-mail an insolent, utopian demand for “total privacy”? Not in the least, but many Democratic voters, who seem to care deeply about civil liberties when a Republican administration is in charge, seem adequately soothed. The enemy is not just the Lindsey Grahams and the Dianne Feinsteins, it’s the apathy and internalization of Stasi values that has been growing like a mold over the nation. Sometimes this psychological internalization is meek and mild, but surprisingly often it comes with a weird macho swagger, as in David "The Wire" Simon's online rant that it's really no biggie for the feds are treating all Americans the way Baltimore police treat suspected crack dealers. Read the twitter feed @_nothingToHide which retweets statements offering shrugging approval to the NSA spying from bestselling intellectuals like Sam Harris as well as ordinary citizens--and weep for our future.

The morning after whisteblower Edward Snowden revealed his identify, Greg Mitchell writes about the NSA leaks and the contrasting narratives of how the Snowden went public.

What Is in Bradley Manning’s Leaks, Anyway?

Image via Flickr, courtesy Clark Stoeckley, author of The United States vs. PFC Bradley Manning

Courtroom action is adjourned until next Monday, June 10, giving us a chance to pause and take a good look at what this court-martial is really all about: the leaks themselves. Too often, the content of the leaks—thousands of stories of individual lives destroyed or damaged by war—gets subsumed in the drama surrounding the leaks—Manning, Assange, Wikileaks and their travails. Michael Arria at Vice Motherboard has an excellent analysis of this tendency to overlook the leaks’ content, including a good brisk run-down of some of the major leaks, lest we forget.

In Slate, Ryan Gallagher efficiently lists ten significant revelations in Slate while Alex Kane in Mondoweiss focuses on what Manning’s documents have taught us about Washington’s relations with Israel and Palestine. The Nation has run excellent analyses of the leaks about US policy towards Haiti—how the State Department, for example, lobbied on behalf of garment-making corporations to keep the minimum wage down in Haiti, poorest country in the Americas. Corporate influence on US foreign policy will not surprise anyone, but it is richly instructive to read primary sources on how, for instance, Big Pharma gets the US State Department to eagerly do its bidding. (Ask yourself: does anyone in your extended family benefit when Washington tries to export our godawful intellectual property regime for meds to other countries? Didn’t think so.)

Many journalists, authors and advocates have made thrilling use of the material Manning declassified. I’m thinking of the splendid new book Useful Enemies by David Keen, all about the counterintuitive dynamics of modern warfare. Or Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett’s controversial (and I think, quite excellent) new book, Going to Tehran, which finds much dreary evidence in the leaks that the Obama administration never made any good faith effort to open diplomatic relations with Iran. And the leaks have fueled the first-rate reporting of Jeremy Scahill, The Nation’s own national security correspondent and author of the new hit Dirty Wars (the film of which opens this weekend in New York):

“It would be impossible to quantify the significance of Wikileaks not just to my or your work but to the world’s understanding of US covert and overt operations. It was the most significant document dump in modern history. It altered history. It was like an earthquake. It was the most real confrontation of American empire certainly since the Pentagon Papers but it may prove to be more significant. The idea that you had a democratisation of classified documents and access to them, you can go in and search any country and figure out what the US relationship is with various political forces or factions. I dug deep into the relationship between the US and Somalian warlords. I found individuals who were on the CIA payroll because of Wikileaks and went and found them and got them on record. I would never have known that these people even existed but for Wikileaks.”

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In the course of my researching my book on Pfc Manning, the most moving tribute I heard, bot to the leaks and the young man behind them came from Haitian-American community activist Tony Jean-Thenor, who told me that the leaks are of immense value to everyone in the Haitian diaspora and homeland. “Bradley Manning will be alive for generations and praised for what he did to help, not only Haitians but oppressed people all over the world.”

Reading this leaked material is not a privilege, and it’s more than a right: it is an obligation, the duty of any American with access to an internet signal and a browser. If we ever want a foreign policy that serves the interests of the 99 percent, step one is to put on a pot of coffee or crack open a beer and read up on your Wikileaks!

Do you think Bradley Manning would be better off in civilian court?

Chase Madar is a civil rights attorney in New York and the author of The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower (Verso). He tweets @ChMadar.

Would Bradley Manning Be Better Off In a Civilian Court?

Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is escorted into a courthouse in Fort Meade, Md., Tuesday, May 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Today in Bradley Manning’s court-martial, witnesses from his Army Intelligence unit at FOB Hammer in Iraq were called to the stand to ask questions about what kind of authorization the defendant had to comb through the military field reports found on the SIPRNet; what kind of websites the enemy was known to frequent; what kind of non-disclosure agreements members of the unit were aware of signing, even if there was no actual information security (“infosec”) to speak of at the base. All of this speaks to whether Pfc. Manning knew that declassifying those thousands of documents would specifically help Al Qaeda and associates, which is what the prosecution needs to prove in order to make the “aiding the enemy” charge stick. I give them only a one-in-three chance of success with this bit of Orwellian overreach. (Full transcripts of the day’s proceeding here.)

Three days into the trial, let’s step back and ask: Would Manning be better off in a civilian court instead of the court-martial where he is being tried?

It’s true that Americans forfeit certain rights upon military enlistment and that the court-martial system is built for speedy outcomes, with fewer procedural safeguards for defendants. So it is understandable that many who are sympathetic to Private Manning assume he’d be a lot better off in a civilian court. But are civilian courts really milder or more fair-minded in national security cases?

Let’s ask Syed Fahad Hashmi, a Brooklyn College student who stored in his apartment socks and rainproof ponchos supposedly destined for an Al Qaeda training camp, set up by an FBI informant. Hashmi spent just shy of three years in pretrial solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correction Center in Manhattan. Thank you, civilian justice system.

How about Tarek Mehanna, serving a seventeen-year sentence, handed down by a federal court in Boston, for posting Jihadist pep talks online. You don’t have to sympathize with Mehanna’s politico-religious worldview to be appalled by the penalty handed down by a civilian court in this case.

Or Javed Iqbal, convicted by a civilian court to six years in prison for including access to Hezbollah’s TV station in the cable boxes he installed in Staten Island and Brooklyn.

Just ask the Holy Land Five, or the animal rights and environmental activists who are isolated in “communication management units” in federal prisons.

Yes, civilian courts are capable of meting out brutal sentences when the charges relate, however tenuously (socks and raincoats! a cable TV station!) to terrorism and national security.

On the other hand, military courts, even the tribunals at Guantánamo, sometimes issue mild sentences. For instance Salim Hamdan (Osama bin Laden’s chauffeur) was for time served plus five and a half months. Hamdan’s back in Yemen now.

This isn’t to defend the abomination that is Gitmo. (Close it already!) Nor is it to say that the military justice system is a suite at the Ritz-Carlton. In fact in many ways our military justice system a flaming mess—see how infinitely forgiving military justice is of rape, sexual assault and most of all, the killing of foreign civilians. I’ll be developing that theme in a later, less-bloggy essay.

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But in the assumption that military justice is automatically more brutal than civilian justice, I can’t help but detect a note of unwarranted smugness. We are kidding ourselves if we think that Guantánamo is the only legal “black hole” in the US justice system, or if we think that our civilian and penal systems are gleaming citadels of enlightened, impartial justice. As I have argued elsewhere, many (but not all) of the features that make Guantánamo an abomination are easily found at home in our everyday “normal” justice system. Bradley Manning’s treatment would most likely not be any less harsh if this soldier were somehow magically being tried in the civilian court system.

Don’t miss Chase Madar’s post on Adrian Lamo.

Bradley Manning's Informant: On Adrian Lamo

Adrian Lamo climbs into a vehicle in Fort Meade, Maryland, Tuesday, December 20, 2011, after testifying at a military hearing of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Pity the wretched Adrian Lamo! The genius hacker is a celebrity among the digerati and DefCon regulars, but to those of outside those circles, Lamo looks pretty much like every other police informant: a convicted felon with a history of mental illness. (Lamo was involuntarily committed just a few weeks before he was contacted by Pfc. Manning from Forward Operating Base Hammer in Iraq.) So much of what we know about Manning is from the six-day conversation between him and Lamo via instant-message chats in May of 2010 when the soldier still deployed at FOB Hammer in Iraq, the hacker at home in California. The (nearly) unexpurgated logs were published by Wired in July 2011 and they are a twenty-first-century non-fiction novella written in the abbreviated online lingo of the millennials. Manning does nearly all of the chatting: about his childhood, his life as a high school graduate on his own living out of his car in the Chicago O’Hare parking lot, his aspirations for college, what he saw and did and was asked to do but did not do in the US military and why he became a Wikileaks source.

Lamo doesn’t say much in these chatlogs. He asks questions. He listens, or seems to. By the second day of the conversation he’s turned Manning in to the authorities.

Many people detest Adrian Lamo and have tried to cast him as Iago in this story. Not me, though. Lamo’s pathetic and unlikeable, for sure, a guy who posed as a friend to Manning while shopping him to the feds—not, I suspect, out of security-minded patriotism (as he has sometimes claimed) but to cover his own ass from further prosecution. A sad wretch, and I’m not interested in burning the calories required to despise a guy who is not worth it.

Yesterday Adrian Lamo took the stand as a witness for the prosecution, who are desperate to nail Manning for the capital offense of aiding the enemy, the most serious of the twenty-two charges against the young soldier—but also the most ridiculous. Because members of Al Qaeda, like everyone else in the world with an Internet connection, had access to Wikileaks, Manning was their accomplice! (It’s a bit like prosecuting Nike for aiding the enemy if they had found a pair of vintage Air Jordans in bin Laden’s armoire.) The law on aiding the enemy is disturbingly vague: most capital crimes require a specific intent (mens rea) to commit the criminal act, it can’t be a matter of negligence or recklessness. Did Manning specifically intend to aid Al Qaeda? Not remotely, not even, from everything that we know.

But the prosecution has pushed hard for broader interpretation of the “aiding the enemy” charge—and they have largely succeeded. In pretrial hearings, Judge Denise Lind ruled that the prosecution must only prove that Manning had specific knowledge (not an intent) that his declassified documents would reach and help Al Qaeda—a lower, blurrier standard. The prosecution has come out guns blazing to pin Manning to bin Laden, and many reporters who should know better have lapped this up. (Cf. the Atlantic’s lurid and imbecilic headline, “The Thin Line between Bradley Manning and Osama Bin Laden.”)

So it was a bit of a relief when Adrian Lamo testified yesterday that Manning had never expressed any desire to harm the United States. Manning’s attorney, David Coombs, asked Lamo if the defendant had ever voiced any intent to harm the US, desecrate the flag or aid the enemy.

“Not in those words, no.”

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The prosecution is going to have a very difficult road to hoe in making the aiding the enemy charge stick.

Note: I missed Monday’s opening statements, as I was running around Manhattan doing media appearances on the quinoa circuit of left-of-center and foreign TV studios. If you want the scoop on the prosecution and defense’s opening orations, don’t waste your time with sites like MSNBC or the Atlantic, tune in to Kevin Gosztola of Firedoglake or Nathan Fuller of the Bradley Manning support network, who has covered every breath of the pretrial hearings and will be down at the Ft. Meade courthouse for the duration of its twelve to sixteen weeks. (Me, I’ll be down there next week, reporting firsthand). And thanks to the Freedom of the Press Foundation for hiring a stenographer and supplying TRANSCRIPTS of the courtroom action.

Check out Chase Madar’s last post, “Seven Myths About Bradley Manning.”

Seven Myths About Bradley Manning

Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is escorted into a courthouse in Fort Meade, Maryland, Tuesday, May 21, 2013, before a pretrial military hearing. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Today begins the court-martial of Private First Class Bradley Manning, Wikileaks’ source inside the US military. Because Manning was arrested over three years ago, the global news media have already written much about the young soldier from Crescent, Oklahoma. And though news accounts have frequently gotten the facts right (he’s 25, was deployed to FOB Hammer in the Mada’in Qada desert of Iraq, is 5 foot 2), most reports have written about the big issues that collide in this case without the slightest sense of context and perspective, leading to all kinds of basic errors and distortions—for instance that the leaks were “top secret”; that Wikileaks is on a “utopian” quest for “total transparency,” that Manning did what he did not for political but for psychological (or sexual!) reasons. As Pfc. Manning’s court-martial proceeds over the next three to four months in Ft. Meade, you can bet that media reports will continue to put across the same funhouse distortions. So to kick off my blog coverage of the court-martial for The Nation, here’s a quick debunking trip through the thickets of folklore that have sprung up around this case.

First, it is routinely asserted or implied that Manning declassified the field reports and diplomatic cables because he is a nut job, or because he is gay, or because he is a gay nut job. In fact, Manning’s motive was expressly political: “I want people to see the truth…regardless of who they are…because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.” People can disagree about the consequences of Manning’s leak, but his motive for declassifying the documents is plainly stated, and it has nothing to do with his mental health or sexuality. As former infantry soldier Ethan McCord (seen through the helicopter gunsight camera in the leaked “Collateral Murder” video rescuing wounded children from a shot-up van) wrote, to fixate on Manning’s sexuality “erases Manning’s political agency.”

Another common smear, Myth #2, is that Bradley Manning and Wikileaks are “utopian,” probably the worst curse word in educated English, carrying as it does connotations of extremism and intolerance wrapped in naïveté, or that they are “idealists,” almost as bad. But is there anything “utopian” about declassifying less than 1 percent of what Washington classifies in a given year (92 million documents at last count)? Manning’s leak, though the largest security breach in US history, has not put us on the precipice towards “total transparency,” a mystical condition which neither Manning nor Wikileaks has ever called for or even mentioned. The young soldier’s act is best seen as a very practical, defensive move against dystopian levels of government secrecy—again, the classified material that Manning leaked is less than 1 percent of the 92 million documents that Washington annually declares a state secret. (According to the feds’ own Information Security Oversight Office, the annual cost of all this classification is about $11 billion.)

A corollary (Myth #3) is that Wikileaks is “anti-American,” perhaps because it palpably disapproves of the US invasion of Iraq—but then this opinion is now shared by a supermajority of us Americans. Wikileaks’ mission statement quotes Jefferson and Supreme Court Decisions—an odd kind of anti-Americanism—and its ideology of tech’ed-up classical liberalism comes straight out of Silicon Valley. Digging through Manning’s and Wikileaks’ public (and private) statements reveals no bias against the USA.

On the level of straight fact, there is the common, false assertion, Myth #4, that Bradley Manning leaked “top secret” material. It is true that Pfc. Manning did enjoy top-secret security clearance, a distinction he shared with the 1.4 million other people who are eligible for Top Secret security clearance. (And how, by the way, can any secret accessible by a population the size of all of Vermont and North Dakota together, a group larger than the population of Washington, DC, itself, be a secret?) It so happens that not a single one of the documents that Pfc. Manning declassified was “top secret” status. (By contrast, every last one of the thousands of documents comprising the Pentagon Papers was Top Secret, yet many of Manning's critics claim to love Daniel Ellsberg.) More than half of the diplomatic cables are not classified in any way, and neither was the infamous helicopter gunsight video that shows an Apache gunship slaughtering a dozen Iraqis, including two Reuters news agency employees.

Although the US government has not embraced much responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who have died in the past ten years, it is frequently assumed (Myth #5 ) that Manning’s leaks have gotten people killed or at least damaged US national interests. But in the three-year span since these leaks came out, there is no evidence of a single civilian or soldier or even spy being harmed by the documents’ release.  (I've written at greater length for TomDispatch about the accusations of Manning and Wikileaks having "blood on their hands" come loudest from the same pols and hacks who backed the Iraq War and Obama's Afghan Surge.) Yes, two US ambassadors were recalled from Latin American countries, but this is hardly the diplomatic Armageddon that then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton luridly promised us.

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A very different charge (Myth #6), and equally false, is that Manning’s leaks have been insignificant. In fact, the leaks played a small but significant role in the Tunisian rebellion and they prevented the extension of American troops’ increasingly unwelcome deployment to Iraq. The declassified documents supplied hundreds if not thousands of front-page stories in the world’s leading newspapers and magazines from Berlin to Delhi to, yes, Washington. If Manning’s leaks have been “insignificant,” then all journalists should aspire to publish such bagatelles.

The foundational ur-myth behind all of the above, its Genesis 1:1 and Myth #7, is that knowledge puts us at risk and that cluelessness will bring us security. It cannot be emphasized enough that the American military and humanitarian debacle in Iraq could never have been possible without extreme levels of government secrecy, distortion and even some lies. The same could be said about our even more catastrophic wars in Southeast Asia a generation and a half ago—dystopian levels of state secrecy entail a very heavy cost in blood (and money), both of the United States and several orders of magnitude more on the foreign nations we invade. It should be no surprise that major foreign policy decisions wind up in catastrophe and failure when made without the benefit of essential information.

These are the myths that have misshaped and deformed so much of the media coverage about Pfc. Bradley Manning and Wikileaks—and will continue to do so as the court-martial progresses through August and September to its inevitable conclusion.

Chase Madar is a civil rights attorney in New York and the author of The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower (Verso). He tweets @ChMadar.

Don’t miss Greg Mitchell, also following the Bradley Manning case.

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