Obama on Manning: “He Broke the Law”
At a fundraiser for President Barack Obama at the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco, a group of progressive supporters of Bradley Manning paid tens of thousands of dollars to attend and disrupt the event. Oakland activist Naomi Pitcairn personally paid for tickets so people from her group could attend . The group sang a song with lyrics they wrote expressing their disgust with the way the Obama Administration has responded to Manning’s inhumane treatment.
Someone with the group also managed to confront President Obama on Manning. Obama’s handlers may have been preoccupied because in this clip that runs about a minute Obama opens up about what he thinks about what Manning did.
“People can have philosophical ideas about certain things,” President Obama explains. “But, look, I can’t conduct diplomacy on open source.” He then goes on to add that he has to abide by certain classified information rules or law and if he had released material like Manning did he’d be breaking the law.
Now, here is the remark that deserves the most attention: “We’re a nation of laws. We don’t individually make our decisions about how the laws operate.” He adds, “He broke the law.” Finally, before removing himself from the conversation, he says Manning “dumped” information and “it wasn’t the same thing” as what Daniel Ellsberg did because what Ellsberg leaked “wasn’t classified in the same way.”
First, President Obama says Bradley Manning did it. It is not entirely clear that he did it unless you solely rely on the chat logs published by <em>Wired</em> magazine. Manning is the alleged whistleblower in the case. And, displaying this attitude that he is guilty before he actually is put on trial and convicted may prejudice Manning’s case. In the same way that criminal and civil liberties lawyer Alan Dershowitz suggested former President George W. Bush was prejudicing the legal process against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange when he declared he’s “willfully and repeatedly done great harm” and refused to participate in an event with Assange, Obama was making it hard for Manning to get a fair military trial.
Because consider this: if the Commander-in-Chief openly says a soldier is guilty of a crime, then what are the chance the military hands down a sentence that runs contrary to the Commander-in-Chief?
Second, President Obama’s suggestion that supporters of Manning’s alleged action want the government to have “open source” diplomacy plays to the dominant narrative. Nobody thus far has suggested that all diplomacy be conducted out in the open. Why a number of people support the disclosure of the “Collateral Murder” video, the Afghanistan and Iraq War Logs and the US State Embassy Cables is because of the extent of corruption, human rights abuses, backroom deals, lobbying for US corporations, spying, manipulation of justice, etc.
Finally, the suggestion that the US is a nation of laws and people don’t get to make decisions about how the laws operate demands clarification. He may be right in the sense that the majority of US citizens do not get to make decisions about how laws operate. But, President Obama can make such decisions and has made such decisions. He can wield the power of the unitary executive and outright skirt the law. He can promote a culture of overriding the laws of this country as well.
President Obama can defy a judge’s order, as the San Francisco Chronicle did February 28, 2009, when it filed papers refusing to allow lawyers for an Islamic organization to review classified surveillance documents related to their case. Obama can have his administration file a brief essentially saying, “This decision is committed to the discretion of the Executive Branch and is not subject to judicial review. Moreover, the Court does not have independent power” to grant counsel access to classified information “when the Executive Branch has denied them such access.”
President Obama can continue to allow warrantless wiretapping in the country that explicitly violates laws. He can choose to not oppose the notion that a President can ignore Congressional restrictions on domestic eavesdropping and violate FISA by eavesdropping on US citizens without a warrant.
President Obama can take the US to war in Libya and embrace lawlessness. He can embrace the idea that the President is the “sole organ for the Nation in foreign affairs,” continue the “ideology of lawlessness” promoted by former Bush Administration officials like John Yoo and commit to the pursuit of a mission even if Congress chooses to pass a resolution restricting or outright opposing the mission.
President Obama can refuse to follow a court order and not release photos showing torture.
President Obama can choose to not take apart the legal architecture the Bush Administration set up to give them the authority to militarily detain without charge or trial detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
His administration can cite “state secrets” privileges and prevent torture victims from obtaining justice or compensation in US courts. It can push a “targeted killing” program that could potentially be used to kill US citizens suspected of terrorism, without giving attention to the legal questions raised by such a program. It can prevent investigations of officials who likely violated the law by pushing policies of torture and abuse in prisons.
Most importantly, he can have his administration aggressively pursue whistleblowers and fine tune the law so that individuals like Thomas Drake, who allegedly leaked information about waste and incomepetence at the National Security Agency (NSA) and Bradley Manning, become examples of what happens to citizens that choose to act out against government power and expose the system.
Contrary to what he suggests, if he thinks he can manipulate the law like the Bush Administration, than he can probably release classified information selectively to the media like Julian Assange and WikiLeaks has done as well. Former vice president Dick Cheney asserted in 2006 that he could declassify whatever information he wanted because of an executive order that granted the president and him “classification authority.” Chances are the Obama Administration would be willing to suggest this order still gave them the power to release material (if necessary).
Ideally, the US is a nation of laws but in reality it is not. The Executive Branch led by the President of the United States can choose what legal restrictions to abide by and what not to and it can choose what violations of the law to prosecute and what not to prosecute.
Thus, Manning can become a captive of the American system while soldiers who committed the act shown in the “Collateral Murder” video walk free, while the superiors who promote a culture of inhumanity that leads to incidents like what is seen in the “Collateral Murder” video aren’t held accountable and while former Bush Administration officials that engaged in lawless activity go unprosecuted.