Transcript: Panel Q&A on Bradley Manning and the media on June 2, 2013

Partial transcript of remarks by at the “Manning and the Media” panel held at All Soul’s Church Unitarian in Washington, D.C. on Sunday June 2, 2013. The panelists were Pentagon Papers whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg, Government Accountability Project director and DOJ whistle-blower Jesselyn Radack, Center for Constitutional Rights president emeritus Michael Ratner, and former senior State Department Official Peter van Buren.

You mentioned that there aren’t many human rights activists or journalists present at the Bradley Manning trial. Why is the reason? Why is that?

Jesselyn Radack:
I think as with a lot of the whistleblowers defended by labeling someone an enemy of the state or charging them with espionage – that is the most serious charge that can be leveled against an American. And once they lay that charge on you, you become radioactive even to the groups that would normally help you, like civil liberties groups, First Amendment groups, whistleblower groups, good government and open government groups. And I saw that happen with Tom Drake, John Kiriakou, Peter van Buren. Everybody was hands off and I think that’s a deliberate attempt by charging people under the Espionage Act when there is a multitude of other laws that can be used to charge for the mishandling of classified or secret information.

What do you say to those who accuse Bradley Manning of being a traitor? …We keep hearing people accusing Bradley of being a traitor and he is the enemy and he deserves what he gets in prison.

Daniel Ellsberg:
I heard that word addressed to me a lot 40 years ago and it’s very, very unpleasant especially for someone who thinks of himself as a patriot…To some degree, you get used to anything if you hear it enough. I’m not sure you ever get used to being called a traitor.

However, from the very beginning, I did reflect what’s clear to me that a lot of Americans did not appreciate the nature of the government they have been living in, which we happen to live in a country up ’til now, and it’s changing rapidly…It can’t be treason to tell the truth to the public. That’s not treason…

Bradley Manning – people think he has been charged with treason; he has not been charged with treason. I was not charged with treason although the President – Nixon and Agnew – both used that word informally on me – called me a traitor…At the time they said it, a lot of people believed it. It’s the one crime that is defined in the Constitution…so that it can’t be changed or broadened except by an amendment. And the reason that a very narrow definition is given in the Constitution – it’s “making war against the United States or, adhering to its enemies, giving them aid and comfort”.

Now, nobody wanted to claim that I adhered to the Viet Cong; nobody will claim that Bradley Manning adheres to the Taliban or wish them well or wish his country harm. [They] couldn’t charge that but just let it be thought that’s what he’s being charged with. They use the phrase “aid and comfort to the enemy” without any element of intent…It’s a very broad charge that could apply to anybody here or elsewhere who tells truths that are going to give pain to our government because it exposes to crimes or lies, and that may indeed have the side effect of giving comfort to the enemy by embarrassing the United States…

Why is perhaps Obama doing this – using techniques to stop whistleblowers that even his predecessors didn’t use. And I think it’s because he’s carrying out policies – some of the same as before, some even worse by some respect – that are shameful, criminal, deceptive, aggressive, and he has constituents who would not like that. It would embarrass him with people who voted for Democrat Barack Obama. And so it’s especially urgent for him to keep secret the very policies he inherited from George Bush whose constituents thought these were dandy, in general no problem. This is just a conjecture but it wasn’t as important for him to keep those secrets; he did what he could to keep them secret but he could afford to let them be known because he got votes for it whereas Obama risks votes when these truths come out.

…People should realize that this is not a country where telling the truth about the government is treason. People are mistaken when they say that. They don’t know how lucky they are to live in a country that officially, at least, projects that standard.

And what Obama should do is to stop carrying out policies that are so shameful, criminal that they require this level of secrecy to keep them from his own people, his own voters.

Jesselyn Radack:
Shortly after 9/11, I blew the whistle in the case of the American Taliban John Walker Lindh. An unnamed, anonymous government official called me a “traitor”, a “turncoat”, and a “terrorist sympathizer” in the New York Times. And that was done to alienate me from all my neighbors, all my friends.

Again, please, if you do see trashy movies like “We Kill Secrets”, remember the smearing of the messenger like Bradley Manning or Julian Assange rather than listening to the message is what the government wants you to do and what some filmmakers want you to do.

Daniel Ellsberg:
I got asked that question so often 40 years ago on the air. I didn’t like to give the same answers all the time and I would think of different things to say. My favorite answer was very openly conservative…”What does it feel like to be regarded as a traitor by so many Americans?” [Response] “Well, you know, this country is founded by traitors. Every signer in the Declaration of Independence – when they pledged their life and sacred honor, they knew they were liable to be named for treason, and some of them were…”

You mentioned earlier about journalists not paying attention to Bradley Manning’s case until now and of the 350 journalists who applied for a permit to enter the court room to report the story. Why do you think now that the attention of the media’s happening? Is it because of the Obama administration’s crackdown on the media? They want to retaliate somehow?

Michael Ratner:
Jesselyn and I were just saying what we think this is happening now. I mean, one, it’s the trial, though a good part of the trial that was important has already passed by those journalists. And so it may be the last two weeks, what we’ve seen with Fox, the AP, claiming about the shield law, all of it, on journalists, whistleblowers, Jeremy Hammond…maybe they’re beginning to have an interest in the three-month trial.

But one aspect of the trial that I meant to bring out – when you go into the trial…none of the public documents that are either read by the judge or the motions made by the prosecutions or any of the papers, even though they’re public papers, are given to anybody. Occasionally we get some of the defense papers because David Coombs – Bradley’s lawyer – is trying to get some of them out. So we have a trial going on that’s essentially almost a secret trial in the sense that we don’t read anything that’s filed even though it’s public. And if you ever sat there…the judge is reading her opinions at 180 words a minute. And even I as a lawyer, the statutes just go right by me; I can’t understand any of it. So you’re getting a trial on someone who allegedly leaked secrets or admittedly leaked secrets that’s being held in part in secret.

…I’ve never heard of a situation [where you] walk into a court and you can’t get the public documents that are being read, you can’t get the judge’s opinion…

And then you get to the second part of that, which is the 24 witnesses that are going to be secret. And that’s like a charade. I mean, you can’t even begin to understand it…

And then ask yourself “What’s going on?” How can this be that we’re going to be watching a trial when we know every document but it can’t be exposed?

…So we have a secret trial for a major whistleblower.

Peter Van Buren:
The absurdity of the way the documents are handled extends far into the government and has become part of the crazy way that the government starts to think about itself.

When WikiLeaks documents first leaked, I was still working at the State Department. And even though we had access to the actual classified documents – because I was part of a group that was reviewing that – we could not look at WikiLeaks on our other computers because it was blocked by the State Department so that we couldn’t see WikiLeaks. And there was this absurdity to say that I could turn over here and look at this computer and read the actual cable but I couldn’t turn over here and read the WikiLeaks versions of those cables because this was blocked off to, I guess, to protect me from turning into a rabid or something like that. It got sillier and sillier and the State Department began blocking websites that talked about WikiLeaks on the idea that it was going to disclose some classified things to people who had access to the information already. It’s hard to kind of get your head around these things because this was the world that we were living in. And at one point, they were blocking everything until we couldn’t look at CNN, we couldn’t look at the BBC. And finally, there were enough people complaining that we had to actually look at CNN to do our jobs that they very slightly relented.

Interestingly enough, although they allow CNN to talk about WikiLeaks they blocked FireDogLake… they blocked a number of sites that there critically examining WikiLeaks, claiming fear of classification, while allowing CNN and the others who were just kind of mumbling along about this thing to come through.

And this kind of topsy-turvy way of thinking became part of the life that people were expected to lead inside the government and, I’m afraid, contributes to the poor performance of your government.

Jesselyn Radack:
I agree. And Peter got in trouble not for leaking to WikiLeaks but for linking to WikiLeaks in his own personal blog, done on his own time and on his own computer…

Peter van Buren:
…On my personal blog, I linked to a document on WikiLeaks and I was called in and grilled by security people and had my security clearance taken away, claiming that the link represented me disclosing classified information to my blog readers…


Learn More: