Private Bradley Manning narrowly avoided conviction on the charge of “aiding the enemy” in a US military court, but make no mistake: the verdict is a severe one.
The tormented young man who downloaded hundreds of thousands of intelligence files while listening to Lady Gaga and then leaked them to the world had already pled guilty to serious charges, which by themselves promised decades in prison. From the start, US authorities have been determined to make an example of the soldier, pressing forward with charges that were tantamount to treason.
The whole sorry episode, which began in 2010, has broken American politics down along unfamiliar lines. Conservatives have rightly criticised liberals for accepting — or at least acquiescing to — policies of Barack Obama that they would have howled about if his predecessor, George W Bush, had adopted them.
Undoubtedly, America’s liberals would not have been so comfortable with drone strikes, targeted assassinations, and the unprecedented crackdown on leakers if a Republican were in the White House.
Yes we can (outdo George W)
Many progressives, however, have looked on with dismay as the Obama administration embraced an intrusive and heavy-handed approach to national security, and they have been joined by unlikely allies — libertarian-leaning and Tea Party conservatives such as Rep. Justin Amash, (R-MI) and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) have also voiced outrage at a security apparatus whose power grows unchecked whether it’s in liberal or conservative hands.
All of this comes as an unwelcome surprise for civil libertarians and human rights supporters of all political stripes. Obama had campaigned not only to correct the fiscal and foreign policy disasters of an administration that slashed taxes on the rich while invading a country (Iraq) that posed no threat to the US.
The charismatic young senator from Illinois also promised to roll back the worst abuses of the Bush administration, including the use of “enhanced interrogation” (ie: torture), indefinite detention, and the expansion of surveillance under the PATRIOT Act. Obama’s campaign promised the “most transparent” administration in American history.
Such promises were music to the ears of liberals, who felt that their country had lurched into dark territory in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 2001. A course correction was in order, and the election of Obama, the constitutional law professor, appeared to guarantee it.
Little did progressives realise that they would get a president who went beyond Bush in trampling on civil and human rights. The signs, however, were there. Shortly after clinching the Democratic nomination in the summer of 2008, Obama embraced a legislative compromise that let major telecom companies like AT&T off the hook for violating consumers’ privacy when they co-operated with the Bush administration in vast, warrantless surveillance.
At the time, political observers believed that Obama was simply being pragmatic, tacking to the centre in order to win the White House. Indeed, past Democratic nominees had been trounced when they appeared to look weak on crime or national security and Obama was determined to avoid the fate of George McGovern or Michael Dukakis.
The unfortunate result is that the liberals’ saviour has adopted a relentlessly aggressive posture on foreign policy. The Obama administration’s assiduous pursuit of Bradley Manning and his fellow leakers, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, is part of this bigger picture: the first Democratic administration of the post-9/11 era - and one willing to pay almost any price to retain the initiative on national security.
Big Brother has grown up
This is no excuse, of course - and cold comfort for believers in civil liberties and human rights. More than the War on Terror, we live in an age of stark information asymmetry. The US government feels entitled to know everything about us, but wants us to know as little as possible about it. The NSA can monitor your phone records, and even a casual snoop can find out a great deal about you just by browsing social media.
A teenager in Texas has spent months in jail for posting that he wanted to “shoot up a kindergarten” on Facebook; he insists he was only joking, having followed the comment with “LOL” (“laugh out loud”).
Such dilemmas about privacy, secrecy, and surveillance are here to stay. Gone are the days when spies passed nuclear designs to the Soviets on little slips of paper; Manning was able to download massive amounts of secret data while listening, fittingly, to Lady Gaga’s song Telephone. Manning showed how easily the curtain can be pulled back on the inner workings of government, just as the state now possesses innumerable new ways to spy on us.
But the balance is not equal. If the cases of Manning, Assange, and Snowden are any indication, government has its thumb on the scales and it appears that the enormous power of information technology ultimately means less privacy and more surveillance.
The last time there was a reaction against such abuses in the US was in the 1970s, when significant reforms curbed a national security apparatus that had grown too powerful in the climate of fear that permeated the Cold War. Progressives might have expected a similar turn after George W Bush left office — but if a liberal like Obama is not willing to tame the leviathan, it is hard to see who will.