I wrote this weeks ago and let it go because I couldn’t be bothered to find citations or write an ending. However, I find it relevant again, so here it is, in raw, unedited glory. I have no idea where I thought I was going with it and am aware that publishing it now only adds to an existing conversation that my “I said this first!1!” assertions cannot hope to influence. Enjoy.Some time ago, Alexa O’Brien tweeted that there is a larger story behind the trial of Pfc. Bradley Manning, and it does not concern his sexuality or gender identity.
In the days since she wrote that, I’ve been reflecting on both my own framing of this case and the stories that others have chosen to tell. For some, Manning’s gender identity or sexual preference may be the key to their own involvement, and I respect that. For others it is his military service, or his connection to Wikileaks that is important to them, and that is fine as well. I commend whatever reasons anyone has for following this case, because it is vital that we bear witness.
A few weeks ago I found myself – by extension, not name – in a cable, as part of the cache that Manning is alleged to have leaked. I have, or thought I had, at least perused all of the cables in the three years since their initial release. At first my interest was only about Iran and issues regarding the post-election violence there or the State Department’s plans for the thousands of refugees who fled the subsequent crackdown on journalists, activists and intellectuals – the best and brightest, essentially. The sphere I operated in at the time of the Cablegate release was determined to ignore their impact, either because it threatened their work as knowledge brokers (see Stratfor or almost any geopolitical analyst) or because of some ideological drive to downplay what their release meant. “It’s nothing we don’t already know,” was the Cablegate-era’s “Don’t focus on the Boston bombing while hundreds die in Iraq every day.” I can at least say that my reaction then was that at least our work was validated – even if we already knew, at least the atrocities were in black and white.
I’ve since gone over the cables dozens of times, looking for references to the MEK or for a laugh at Berlusconi and Putin’s “bromance,” or for a hundred other things. They have been credited with helping to spark the Arab Spring, with embarrassing the U.S., as justification for politically-motivated charges against Julian Assange, and have been endlessly helpful to journalists, analysts, and people just trying to understand.
While in college I worked at a retail shipping franchise. One of my favorite customers moved to China for a year and planned to ship a myriad of belongings, including their son’s high school advanced placement textbooks. International shipping is fun, to me, and I enjoyed getting the 12 or so huge boxes together with their Customs documents and generally using it as an excuse to focus on one thing rather than the petty annoyances that come with working retail. A few weeks after they left, we shipped these boxes. To make it short, although there were 12 boxes, it was considered for Customs purposes to be one shipment. They shared the same paperwork and moved together, and if there was a problem with one box, it was a problem for the entire thing. Well, of course there was a problem, and this is that China would not accept these books. It wasn’t even necessarily the content (which was all over the place – Math, Science, the Italian Renaissance, I think), but the quantity. China restricts shipments of books over a certain number, to keep out subversive literature and Christian missionaries. Everything had to come back, and I learned then the power of information. Countries such as Italy restrict the import or export of clothing, because textiles are a foundation of their economy. Mexico puts restrictions on photographs in an effort to keep child pornography out of the country. Customers could ship all kinds of things to their enlisted family members with APO addresses in the Middle East, but footballs were forbidden to civilian addresses because they are, literally pig-skin. But China….China restricted books, and I fought for months to keep them from destroying the clothing and family possessions along with these dangerous books.
Whoever has possession of information has incredible power – this is how Fred Burton of Stratfor is able to make an income.
Contractors have access to classified secrets, and not always because they need them to do their jobs, but because of the privilege offered by their positions as contractors for the government. Money, or the need to make it, offers access to information that the government has deemed secret and necessary to protect for national security and other reasons often cited by opponents of Manning.
Part of what Bradley Manning exposed is that classification and the stranglehold on classified information is largely petty and superficial.
An unprecedented number of individuals have top-secret clearance; these are not CIA agents, military commanders or drone pilots, but private contractors, who are paid handsomely for outsourced government contracts and granted access to not only the documents but the mechanisms for secrecy and hierarchy of information access.
Even the Department of Homeland Security has recently acknowledged, at least internally, that over-classification is prohibitive and is working to assign lower-level (FO/UO) categories to de-prioritize what is usually mundane information.
What Bradley Manning did was liberate information, and that is what was so dangerous to those who hold the keys to it. He will likely be in military prison for the rest of his life. Aaron Swartz took his own life earlier this year after being the target of relentless prosecution by federal prosecutor Carmen Ortiz, who is notorious for her overreach as well as her political aspirations. Barrett Brown, a journalist often associated with Anonymous, is facing over 100 years in prison, in part because he is alleged to have shared not information itself (hundreds of credit card numbers obtained during a hack of Stratfor, which was itself done under the watchful eye of the FBI through an informant), but a link to a chatroom that itself had a link to this information. Brokering information, whether it be scientific research, State Department cables, credit card numbers or access to them, is profitable for the likes of Fred Burton or Aaron Barr but seemingly deemed criminal when given up for free.
Prosecuting these men and classifying information dissemination as criminal has the effect of deterring whistle-blowers and intimidating journalists. Even if the charges against Brown are dropped or Manning is somehow freed before his death, the message sent is of zero tolerance. Dissidents and journalists are not protected by mainstream media empires, but even the largest ones kowtow to the administration on issues of national security and terrorism. When the Wall Street Journal was presented with (uncovered?) evidence of U.S. drone bases in Saudi Arabia, the publication sat on the story at the behest of the Obama administration until it was deemed appropriate to publish. Reuters had repeatedly requested the now-infamous Collateral Murder video but were denied again and again, only finally seeing the footage when it was published by Wikileaks in 2010.
On Barrett Brown, Charles Swift said: “There is an established tradition where journalists can publish information, classified or not.”
If contractors are operating like government agencies, we need to establish the same rights of access and publication for their information as journalists have traditionally been granted for government agencies.