Tag Archive | wikileaks

The inside story of U.S.’s illegal grounding of Evo Morales’ plane

In a recent interview with Democracy Now!, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange provided an inside account of the controversial grounding of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane by the United States in July 2013.

WikiLeaks had been providing logistical support and legal advice to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in his quest to reach Latin America for political asylum in the wake of his massive disclosures of the NSA’s bulk surveillance programs, and to keep the U.S. manhunt for Snowden off-track, was using various decoys and distractions, recounted Assange.

There was an international oil conference in Moscow at the time, Assange recalled, and because several presidential jets were departing the Russian capital at around the same time, there were discussions within the WikiLeaks organization whether to utilize one of those planes in order to ferry Snowden out. In their coded language WikiLeaks referred to Bolivia in order to confuse U.S. investigators who were hunting down Snowden (and presumably tapping WikiLeaks’ phones and reading their emails to do so).

This coded language was picked up by the U.S. intelligence community and was combined with a statement that President Morales had made publicly that was generally supportive of Snowden, and as Assange describes it, they “put two and two together and made 22.” As he told Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman in an interview aired Thursday:

A number of presidential jets are flying back, and we are considering one of these. And so, we then—our code language that we used deliberately swapped the presidential jet that we were considering for the Bolivian jet. And so we just spoke about Bolivia in order to distract from the actual candidate jet. And in some of our communications, we deliberately spoke about that on open lines to lawyers in the United States. And we didn’t think much more of it. We had engaged in a number of these distraction operations in the asylum maneuver from Hong Kong, for example, booking him on flights to India through Beijing and other forms of distraction, like Iceland, for example. We didn’t think this was anything more than just distracting.

But the U.S. picked up a statement, a supportive statement made in Moscow by President Evo Morales, and appears to have picked up our codeword for the actual operation, and put two and two together and made 22, and then pressured France—successfully pressured France, Portugal and Spain to close their airspace to President Evo Morales’s jet in its flight from Moscow to the Canary Islands for refueling and then back to Bolivia. And as a result, it was forced to land in Vienna. And then, once in Vienna, there was pressure to search the plane.

Although Morales refused to let the authorities board the plane, which under international law functions as a “flying embassy” with all of the rights, privileges and immunities guaranteed by the 1961 Vienna Convention, the fact that the United States forced the plane to land at all was a serious breach of diplomatic protocol and international law, for which Washington has still refused to apologize.

It also demonstrated the intense arrogance and contempt that the United States shows to Latin America in general and the subservient nature of European countries to the superpower across the pond.

At the time, a livid Evo Morales stated that “We have had enough humiliation at the hands of the Americans,” arguing that the incident revealed a “neo-colonial” attitude to his entire continent.

“It is a crime not against Evo Morales, but against the people of South America and the Caribbean. It is utter discrimination,” he said, insisting that no head of state should be treated as a “second-rate president.”

The incident also demonstrated that despite occasional grumblings from Europe about U.S. misconduct on the world stage, Europeans will always kowtow to Washington when pressured.

Although European leaders were humiliated by the United States when it was revealed by Edward Snowden’s leaks that the NSA had been tapping the telephone lines and computer networks of EU offices in Brussels, New York and Washington — as well as the governments of Germany, France, Greece, Italy and others — Europe fell into line in submitting to U.S. dictates regarding Snowden’s asylum requests, and then agreed to cooperate in the illegal grounding of Morales’ plane.

Just like forcing down the Bolivian president’s plane, the U.S. spying on diplomatic missions of the EU and European nations was a violation of the Vienna Convention which states that “the official correspondence” as well as “the premises” of diplomatic missions “shall be inviolable.”

When Snowden’s leaks revealed the NSA snooping into the emails and phone conversations of European nations, European leaders feigned outrage. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, described the disclosures of massive U.S. spying in Europe as unacceptable.

Her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said, “If it is confirmed that diplomatic representations of the European Union and individual European countries have been spied upon, we will clearly say that bugging friends is unacceptable.”

The French president, François Hollande, also called the spying intolerable.

“We cannot accept this kind of behaviour between partners and allies,” Hollande said. “We ask that this stop immediately.” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that if confirmed, the activities would be “totally unacceptable.”

Yet, when push came to shove, European leaders fell over each other to do the bidding of the United States, even when they were asked to violate international law in forcing down the plane of a sitting head of state, an act that was described at the time as “an act of air piracy and state terrorism.”

As Assange explained it on Democracy Now!:

So, it’s really a quite extraordinary situation that reveals the true nature of the relationship between Western Europe and the United States and what it claims are its values of human rights and asylum and the rights to asylum and so, and respecting the rule of law, the Vienna Convention. Just a phone call from U.S. intelligence was enough to close the airspace to a booked presidential flight, which has immunity. And they got it wrong. They spent all that political capital in demanding this urgent favor to close the airspace, which was humiliating to those Western European countries, and they got it wrong.

Assange recommends that the appropriate thing to do at this point is issue apologies all around. “The U.S. should apologize to Evo Morales, to Portugal, to Spain, to France” Assange said. “Portugal, Spain and France should apologize to Evo Morales for not following the law.”

He pointed out though that while the grounding was unfortunate for President Morales, it was a good thing to see because “it revealed the arrogance and hypocrisy of the United States in pressuring Western Europe in that way. It revealed the nature of the relationship between Western Europe and the United States.”

In a practical sense, it also led directly to Russia’s decision to grant Snowden’s asylum request. After this incident, “at a legal level, in terms of asylum law, it was very clear that there could not be a fair process,” explained Assange. Further, not only was it very clear he could not receive asylum in Western Europe, but at a political level, the Russian government had to respond.

As Assange points out, Russia couldn’t react by handing him over, because it would look “weak and unprincipled.” The only other card that Russia had was to grant him asylum.

And two years later, despite one of the largest manhunts in world history, Snowden is still living in the Russian Federation under political asylum. So, not only were the U.S. actions in summer 2013 illegal and arrogant, they were ultimately counterproductive.

Leak cases’ double standards bolster political prisoner claims

Although many government officials and contractors have gone to prison in recent years as a result of the Obama administration’s unprecedented “war on whistleblowers,” David H. Petraeus, the retired general and former director of the CIA, won’t spend a day behind bars if the government has its way.

This is despite the fact that Petraeus has agreed to plead guilty to giving highly sensitive classified information to Paula Broadwell, his biographer and mistress, in 2011 – a crime comparable to those of Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a former State Department intelligence advisor, who was sentenced to 13 months in prison after pleading guilty to disclosing a report about North Korea to a reporter, or John Kiriakou, a 14-year CIA veteran, who got 30 months for disclosing to a reporter the identity of an undercover operative who subjected suspected terrorists to torture.

There is also the ongoing case of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling who was charged under the Espionage Act for disclosing classified information about an ill-conceived and reckless CIA mission meant to slow Iran’s nuclear program to New York Times reporter James Risen, who then wrote about the CIA’s Iranian plot in his 2006 book, State of War. A Washington, DC, area jury convicted Sterling last month and he now faces a prison sentence of up to 80 years.

Then of course there is the case of Pfc. Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, a former Army intelligence officer who is serving a 35-year prison sentence for divulging three important bodies of documents to WikiLeaks: the Iraq war logs, which consist of 391,000 field reports, 90,000 Afghan war logs, providing a devastating portrayal of the deteriorating war in Afghanistan, and 260,000 diplomatic cables, possibly the most controversial of his leaks.

The government had sought a 60-year prison sentence for the Army private, with military lawyers saying that a stiff sentence was necessary to send a message to other conscientious soldiers or government employees who might be considering exposing government wrongdoing.

“This court must send a message to those who release confidential information,” prosecutor Army Capt. Joe Morrow said to Judge Denise Lind. “There is value in deterrence, Your Honor. This court must send a message to any soldier contemplating stealing classified information.”

As Nathan Fuller of the Bradley Manning Support Network explained at the time,

The prosecution insisted there has to be deterrence and we need to set an example out of Bradley Manning. They made it clear that anyone else thinking of releasing classified info should look at Manning. They want to go above and beyond what would be considered a reasonable sentence.

In contrast, the plea deal reached with Petraeus for leaking Top Secret/Secure Compartmented Information materials to his mistress – with a punishment of a $40,000 fine and two years of probation – amounts to a slap on the wrist.

This discrepancy of punishment is all the more glaring considering the sensitivity of the materials that he disclosed. According to the criminal complaint, among the materials in the eight “Black Books” Petraeus shared with Broadwell were:

…classified information regarding the identities of covert officers, war strategy, intelligence capabilities and mechanisms, diplomatic discussions, quotes and deliberative discussions from high-level National Security Council meetings, and defendant DAVID HOWELL PETRAEUS’s discussions with the President of the United States of America.

The Black Books contained national defense information, including Top Secret/SCI and code word information. Petraeus reportedly kept those Black Books full of code word information including covert identities and conversations with the President “in a rucksack up there somewhere.”

The blatant inconsistency in the treatment of Petraeus and other, less favored government leakers such as Kiriakou, Sterling and Manning has been obvious enough to lead to a flurry of commentary lamenting the apparent double standards of the government. “The whiff of a double standard is overwhelming,” wrote the Los Angeles Times in an editorial today. “If anything, a leader at Petraeus’ level should be held to a higher standard than lower-level officials or contractors.”

But in a deeper sense, these wildly divergent sentences are not just evidence of double standards, but of the fact the U.S. government engages in a systematic policy of repression of political “enemies,” solidifying the status of victims such as Manning as political prisoners.

While there is no single internationally agreed upon designation of what constitutes a political prisoner, the intergovernmental organization Council of Europe in 2012 agreed upon one of the most useful and balanced definitions ever put forward.

The resolution adopted  by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe includes the following criteria: “if, for political motives, the length of the detention or its conditions are clearly out of proportion to the offence the person has been found guilty of or is suspected of,” or “if, for political motives, he or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared to other persons.”

With the slap on the wrist that Petraeus is receiving for divulging classified documents, it stretches credulity to argue that Manning and Sterling are not being treated in a discriminatory manner, or that the length of detention is consistent with the crime. After all, how can one person get a 35-year sentence and another never spend a day in jail for committing essentially the same offense? It’s clear that the government has singled out Manning for a discriminatory, unnecessarily harsh sentence, and if they have their way will do the same to Sterling.

This makes them political prisoners.

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Bradley Manning, political prisoner

bradley manning george orwell

Whistleblower Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison today, despite the government’s failure to provide a single example of any real harm to have come from his leaking of thousands of classified documents to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.

In handing down the sentence, Judge Col. Denise Lind said that “Manning had reason to believe the information could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation,” but no evidence was ever produced demonstrating how the information had actually done so.

Although Brig. Gen. Robert Carr, who had headed a special task force assessing the damage caused by the leaks, testified last month that an Afghan national was killed as a result of the disclosure of battlefield reports from Afghanistan, Judge Lind ruled that the testimony was inadmissible because Carr could not identify the individual by name.

That was the one and only case in which the government concretely alleged that Manning’s leaks had brought harm to someone, and the military judge ruled it inadmissible. In contrast, hundreds of thousands of innocent people have been killed in the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, senseless deaths for which no policymakers or generals have ever apologized or been held accountable.

Even outright war crimes such as the Haditha massacre or the “Collateral Murder” incident that Manning exposed have by and large gone unpunished. Indeed, with Manning’s sentence today, it seems clear that the only people who can expect to go to prison are those who expose crimes, not those who commit them.

The government itself has essentially acknowledged that its persecution of Manning has less to do with the actual harm to have come from his actions than it does with fact that they want to make an example of him. In arguing for a 60-year prison sentence for the Army private on Monday, military lawyers said a stiff sentence was necessary to send a message to other conscientious soldiers or government employees who might be considering exposing government wrongdoing.

“This court must send a message to those who release confidential information,” prosecutor Army Capt. Joe Morrow said to Judge Lind. “There is value in deterrence, Your Honor. This court must send a message to any soldier contemplating stealing classified information.”

As Nathan Fuller of the Bradley Manning Support Network explained,

The prosecution insisted there has to be deterrence and we need to set an example out of Bradley Manning. They made it clear that anyone else thinking of releasing classified info should look at Manning. They want to go above and beyond what would be considered a reasonable sentence.

The harsh sentence handed down today solidifies Manning’s status as a political prisoner of the United States government. While there is no single internationally agreed upon designation of what constitutes a political prisoner, the intergovernmental organization Council of Europe last year agreed upon one of the most useful and balanced definitions ever put forward. The resolution adopted last year by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe includes the following criteria:

a. if the detention has been imposed in violation of one of the fundamental guarantees set out in the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols (ECHR), in particular freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression and information, freedom of assembly and association;

b. if the detention has been imposed for purely political reasons without connection to any offence;

c. if, for political motives, the length of the detention or its conditions are clearly out of proportion to the offence the person has been found guilty of or is suspected of;

d. if, for political motives, he or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared to other persons; or,

e. if the detention is the result of proceedings which were clearly unfair and this appears to be connected with political motives of the authorities.” (SG/Inf(2001)34, paragraph 10).

It’s clear that Manning meets most if not all of these criteria, especially points “C” and “E”. Considering the fact that even the government acknowledges that the damage done to “national security” by his leaks was more theoretical than concrete and that not a single individual was harmed by the information he released, it is difficult to comprehend how a 35-year sentence is truly justified.

In other words, the length is clearly out of proportion to the offenses he was convicted of.

Further, the proceedings were unfair from the beginning, as Manning’s rights were violated every step of the way and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, President Barack Obama, declared his guilt long before the trial even began.

In short, Bradley Manning is a political prisoner and he should be recognized as such by leading human rights organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch, as well as international organizations such as the EU and the Organization of American States.

Emergency demonstrations in support of Manning and calling on President Obama to issue a presidential pardon are taking place today, including one this evening at the White House.

Manning’s apology: An Orwellian concession that 2+2=5

Courtroom sketch of Bradley Manning (Reuters)

Courtroom sketch of Bradley Manning (Reuters)

In a plea for leniency from military judge Col. Denise Lind yesterday, U.S. political prisoner Bradley Manning apologized for releasing thousands of classified documents to the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, dubiously conceding that he may have hurt people by doing so.

“I am sorry that my actions hurt people,” he told the judge. “I’m sorry that they hurt the United States.”

It was not clear however exactly what he meant by hurting people, since the government has been unable to demonstrate that any harm came to a single person as a result of his leaks – despite many grandiose claims to the contrary.

When Judge Lind opened the sentencing portion of Manning’s court-martial last month, retired Brig. Gen. Robert Carr, who had headed a special task force that spent more than 10 months assessing the damage caused by the leaks, testified that one Afghan national was killed as a result of the disclosure of battlefield reports from Afghanistan. He based this claim on a Taliban statement that the group had killed the Afghan.

But on cross-examination, Carr acknowledged that his task force was unable to identify the individual by name and Judge Lind ruled that the testimony would not be admitted into the record.

That was the one and only case in which the government concretely alleged that Manning’s leaks had actually harmed someone, and the military judge ruled it inadmissible. In contrast, hundreds of thousands of innocent people have been killed in the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, senseless deaths for which no policymakers or generals have ever apologized or been held accountable.

Yet, much like Winston Smith at the end of the novel 1984, Manning found himself yesterday acknowledging falsehoods as truths in a desperate attempt to secure a merciful sentence from the presiding judge, a woman who quite literally holds his life in her hands. Like Smith, Manning was essentially saying “two plus two equals five,” in a final acquiescence that it is the State that determines what is true and what is not, regardless of verifiable, objective reality.

By apologizing for “hurting the United States,” what the whistleblower may have really meant is that he is sorry for embarrassing the U.S. government. After all, what he did was to expose war crimes and atrocities, as well as malfeasance, corruption and a complete lack of accountability in the government, and it is for that “crime” that he is being punished.

The fact is, when WikiLeaks first exposed the story of the 2007 Apache helicopter massacre in Baghdad with the release of the “Collateral Murder” video in 2010, it was simply providing documentary evidence for what had long been an open secret: war crimes and atrocities were commonplace in U.S.-occupied Iraq.

The video had in fact long been known about – and sought after – by the Reuters news agency, which had lost two of its employees in the massacre. Despite a Freedom of Information Act request for the video, which Reuters wanted to examine in order to improve the safety of its journalists working in Iraq, the Pentagon denied the video’s existence and refused to release it.

It took the courage of Bradley Manning to bring the evidence of this war crime to light.

But yesterday he expressed regret for doing so.

“In retrospect I should have worked more aggressively inside the system,” Manning said to the judge. “I had options and I should have used these options.”

While it is understandable that Manning would strive to show contrition to the judge in the face of a possible 90-year prison sentence, it is unclear exactly what he means by saying that he could have effected change by working within the system.

winter soldierThe fact is, numerous soldiers have spoken out about crimes that they have witnessed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan both from within the system and from without, and no one is held accountable. Just two years prior to the WikiLeaks-Manning disclosures, dozens of veterans participated in the Winter Soldier hearings in Maryland in which they offered first-hand accounts of atrocities they had witnessed or participated in during their service.

Clifton Hicks and Steve Casey, for example, testified about their experiences in a “free-fire zone” where everyone was considered enemy combatants regardless of age or any other factor. In November 2003, according to Hicks, an AC-130 gunship opened fire on an apartment complex, completely destroying it and killing an unknown number of civilians.

Atrocities such as these have long been open secrets within the context of the U.S.’s military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. All that Bradley Manning did by exposing them in his release of “Collateral Murder,” as well as the Iraq and Afghan war logs, was to strip the U.S. government of “plausible deniability.”

The “Cablegate” disclosures were just plain embarrassing, exposing routine U.S. spying on allies and aggressive lobbying on behalf of U.S. corporations like Monsanto.

“Unfortunately, I can’t go back and change things,” Manning said yesterday. “I can only go forward. I want to go forward. Before I can do that, I understand that I must pay a price for my decisions and actions.”

Sadly, he may indeed pay a very high price. But what’s perhaps even sadder is that no one else involved in this saga – whether the war criminals he exposed or his captors who mistreated him for the first year of his unlawful pre-trial incarceration – will pay any price at all.

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Renewed international support for Manning in wake of ‘short-sighted’ verdict

Supporters of U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley E. Manning hold signs to show support during a demonstration outside the main gate of Ft. Meade July 30, 2013 in Maryland. (AFP Photo / Alex Wong)

Supporters of U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley E. Manning hold signs to show support during a demonstration outside the main gate of Ft. Meade July 30, 2013 in Maryland. (AFP Photo / Alex Wong)

Acquitted of the most serious charge of “aiding the enemy,” U.S. political prisoner Bradley Manning has been found guilty of 20 charges in total, including theft, computer fraud and a newly conceived crime of “wanton publication.”

Manning, who provided classified information to the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, including video evidence of a U.S. war crime in Baghdad, now faces the possibility of up to 136 years behind bars. The sentencing phase, which is underway, could take a month before a final penalty is decided.

As soon as Manning’s verdict was handed down last week, support for his cause and calls for leniency from Judge Col. Denise Lind in his sentencing poured in from around the world. An open letter from 17 Members of the European Parliament called for President Obama to pardon the young Army private, who spent three years in pre-trial incarceration – much of it in conditions amounting to torture in violation of international law.

“As Members of the European Parliament, who were elected to represent our constituents throughout Europe, we are writing to express our concerns about the ongoing persecution of Bradley Manning, the young U.S. soldier who released classified information revealing evidence of human rights abuses and apparent war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan,” reads the letter.

Rather than causing harm, Bradley Manning’s release to WikiLeaks of the Iraq War Logs and the Afghan War Diaries shone much needed light on those occupations, revealing, amongst other abuses, the routine killing of civilians. The bleak picture painted by these war diaries contrasts greatly with the rosy progress reports being provided to the public by military and political leaders. PFC Manning has said he felt that if the American public had access to this information, this could ‘spark a domestic debate’ on American foreign policy ‘as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan’. Far from being a traitor, Bradley Manning had the best interests of his country in mind.

The Iraqi people continue to suffer the consequences of this war, even after the withdrawal of foreign troops, with millions of homeless refugees and the resumption of sectarian violence. Meanwhile, eleven and a half years after the U.S invaded Afghanistan, that nation has yet to form a functioning democracy or to free itself from the Taliban and fundamentalist warlords.

Russian Commissioner for Human Rights Konstantin Dolgov said that the United States is applying double standards in Manning’s case “without paying attention to the observance of human rights.”

“This double standard that we see in the U.S. authorities’ assessment of approaches to this situation [around Manning] raises questions,” said Dolgov. “If you demand full observance of freedom of speech from others, in principle, you should apply this position to yourself. If the applied standard is different, this cannot help but cause complaints on the part of both other governments and human rights institutions.”

He also expressed doubts that the U.S. will take into account international human rights in determining Manning’s punishment. “I think that [Manning’s] sentence will not likely take into account the view the international human rights organizations,” Dolgov said.

Amnesty International welcomed Manning’s acquittal on the “aiding the enemy” charge, but regretted that the U.S. government continues its persecution of the whistleblower, which it said demonstrates misplaced priorities on national security.

Noting that the hundreds of thousands of documents Manning leaked included videos and dossiers that revealed human rights violations and breaches of international humanitarian law by U.S. troops and the CIA, Amnesty said that it undermines accountability when the U.S. government is so selective about who it chooses to investigate and prosecute.

“The government’s pursuit of the ‘aiding the enemy’ charge was a serious overreach of the law, not least because there was no credible evidence of Manning’s intent to harm the USA by releasing classified information to Wikileaks,” said Widney Brown, Senior Director of International Law and Policy at Amnesty International.

She added:

The government’s priorities are upside down. The US government has refused to investigate credible allegations of torture and other crimes under international law despite overwhelming evidence.

Yet they decided to prosecute Manning who it seems was trying to do the right thing – reveal credible evidence of unlawful behaviour by the government. You investigate and prosecute those who destroy the credibility of the government by engaging in acts such as torture which are prohibited under the US Constitution and in international law.

Any sentence imposed for the other charges must take into account information relating to Manning’s reasonable belief that he was exposing serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, Amnesty said.

Brown also noted that Manning’s overzealous prosecution – not to mention his gross mistreatment during three years of illegal pre-trial confinement – was most likely intended to provide a warning to other potential whistleblowers who might be considering exposing the rampant criminality and corruption of the U.S. government.

“It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that Manning’s trial was about sending a message: the US government will come after you, no holds barred, if you’re thinking of revealing evidence of its unlawful behavior,” Brown said.

This of course would qualify Manning as a political prisoner and/or prisoner of conscience under Amnesty International’s own definition of the term, but to this date, for some confounding reason, the human rights group has declined to designate the imprisoned whistleblower as such.

As Amnesty International has previously explained its use of the term “political prisoner,”

In AI’s usage, the term includes any prisoner whose case has a significant political element: whether the motivation of the prisoner’s acts, the acts in themselves, or the motivation of the authorities. “Political” is used by AI to refer to aspects of human relations related to “politics”: the mechanisms of society and civil order, the principles, organization, or conduct of government or public affairs, and the relation of all these to questions of language, ethnic origin, sex or religion, status or influence (among other factors). The category of political prisoners embraces the category of prisoners of conscience, the only prisoners who AI demands should be immediately and unconditionally released, as well as people who resort to criminal violence for a political motive. In AI’s use of the term, here are some examples of political prisoners:

a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime carried out for political motives, such as murder or robbery carried out to support the objectives of an opposition group;

a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime committed in a political context, such as at a demonstration by a trade union or a peasants’ organization;

a member or suspected member of an armed opposition group who has been charged with treason or “subversion”.

A definition of “political prisoner” adopted last year by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe includes the following criteria:

a. if the detention has been imposed in violation of one of the fundamental guarantees set out in the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols (ECHR), in particular freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression and information, freedom of assembly and association;

b. if the detention has been imposed for purely political reasons without connection to any offence;

c. if, for political motives, the length of the detention or its conditions are clearly out of proportion to the offence the person has been found guilty of or is suspected of;

d. if, for political motives, he or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared to other persons; or,

e. if the detention is the result of proceedings which were clearly unfair and this appears to be connected with political motives of the authorities.” (SG/Inf(2001)34, paragraph 10).

It’s obvious that under any number of these criteria, Manning would qualify as a political prisoner, if not a prisoner of conscience. He was motivated by his conscience and out of concern over the evidence of war crimes, corruption and general wrongdoing committed by his government that he was privy to as an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq. Further, the potential sentence he faces of 136 years in prison would clearly be out of proportion to the offenses for which he has been convicted.

Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir, who has been one of WikiLeaks’ most vocal defenders and has nominated Manning for a Nobel Peace Prize, noted the perverted sense of justice being displayed by the United States by prosecuting the whistleblower but not the crimes that he exposed.

“Let’s not forget,” she said, “that nobody has been held accountable for the war crimes that the whole world was able to see depicted in the video, collateral murder. No one has been held accountable for that except the whistleblower and that’s absolutely outrageous.”

“I find it very strange that even if you can actually see soldiers shooting and killing a wounded person nobody has been questioned so may be its time to figure how the U.S. legal system works so somebody could be held accountable for that,” she added.

WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange called last week’s judgment “a dangerous precedent and an example of national security extremism.”

Noting that the verdict was the first ever espionage conviction against a whistleblower, Assange said it was “a short sighted judgment that can not be tolerated and must be reversed.”

“It can never be that conveying true information to the public is ‘espionage,’” he added, further noting that the Obama administration has systematically been “chipping away democratic freedoms in the United States.”

Bradley Manning’s mother, Susan Manning – who has health problems – has said she believes she may never see him again, but urged her son to “never give up hope.”

She said: “I know I may never see you again but I know you will be free one day. I pray it is soon. I love you Bradley and I always will.”

Her sister, Sharon Staples, said that the family is now “praying for leniency” as the judge considers Manning’s punishment.

In an online campaign, nearly 3,000 Americans have volunteered to serve any sentence that Manning receives. “Bradley Manning provided information to the American people which our own government would not provide,” the pledge reads. “He did us all a favor and in turn I am willing to serve part of his sentence.”

Other campaigns in support of the political prisoner include a #ThankManning letter-writing initiative spearheaded by Amnesty4Manning, as well as rallies and vigils being held across the United States and around the world.

Abandoned by international community, Bradley Manning begins fight for his life

bradley manning

Just over three years since being arrested on suspicion of being the source of a massive leak of classified documents – many providing evidence of U.S. war crimes and other serious crimes of state – to the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning began his trial yesterday, facing the extremely serious charge of “aiding the enemy” which could potentially result in a death sentence.

Despite the international implications of the trial and the grave human rights abuses he has endured since his arrest in May 2010, leading human rights groups and international organizations are maintaining relative silence regarding the case.

Manning has spent his entire pre-trial period of three years in jail despite military law setting a maximum of 120 days of detention before a trial. His pre-trial punishment is also likely a breach of his rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the United States ratified in 1992. The Human Rights Committee of the United Nations has held that confinement of more than six months is incompatible with article 9 (3) of the ICCPR, which states:

Anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release. It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody, but release may be subject to guarantees to appear for trial, at any other stage of the judicial proceedings, and, should occasion arise, for execution of the judgement.

In providing practical guidelines for the use of pre-trial confinement, the UN’s Handbook of International Standards relating to Pre-Trial Detention recommends that governments establish a maximum period of time during which a person may be detained without trial, which must abide by international standards, and if a prisoner’s detention exceeds that amount of time, he or she shall be released.

Needless to say, the U.S. military has not seen fit to adhere to these standards, unnecessarily delaying Manning’s trial for many months. As his lawyer David Coombs demonstrated at a pre-trial hearing earlier this year, although prosecutors were supposed to arraign Manning within 120 days, they took well over 600. Coombs also showed substantial periods of their inactivity and needless delay, despite a legal requirement to remain actively diligent throughout the proceedings.

For nine months of his pre-trial imprisonment, Manning was subjected to solitary confinement and other forms of punishment such as forced nudity, which were clear violations of his rights under international humanitarian law, including the ICCPR, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

Manning’s denial of work and exercise opportunities, for example, was arguably a violation of the Standard Minimum Rules‘ stipulation that “An untried prisoner shall always be offered opportunity to work, but shall not be required to work. If he chooses to work, he shall be paid for it.” Further, despite the international requirement that “Every prisoner who is not employed in outdoor work shall have at least one hour of suitable exercise in the open air daily if the weather permits,” Manning was denied meaningful exercise opportunity.

Being forced to wear shackles while out of his cell was also likely out of step with the Standard Minimum Rules, which state: “Instruments of restraint, such as handcuffs, chains, irons and strait-jackets, shall never be applied as a punishment.”

Manning’s forced nudity clearly breached the letter and spirit of the Standard Minimum Rules’ stipulation that “An untried prisoner shall be allowed to wear his own clothing if it is clean and suitable.”

At the time of some of Manning’s most egregious treatment at the hands of his captors, the international community rallied to his defense, issuing strongly worded condemnations of U.S. actions which seemed to have a real effect in improving his living conditions.

In January 2011, for example, while Manning was being held in prolonged solitary confinement, Amnesty International sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, calling Manning’s detention “unnecessarily harsh and punitive” and in “breach of the USA’s obligations under international standards and treaties.”

According to Amnesty:

The conditions under which PFC Manning is held appear to breach the USA’s obligations under international standards and treaties, including Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which the USA ratified in 1992 and which states that “all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person”. The UN Human Rights Committee, the ICCPR monitoring body, has noted in its General Comment on Article 10 that persons deprived of their liberty may not be “subjected to any hardship or constraint other than that resulting from the deprivation of liberty; respect for the dignity of such persons must be guaranteed under the same conditions as for that of free persons …”.

In an open letter to President Obama, members of Congress and Pentagon officials in November 2011, members of the European Parliament expressed concern that “Manning has been subjected to prolonged solitary confinement and other abusive treatment tantamount to torture.”

Manning’s solitary confinement regime “constitute[d] at a minimum cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of article 16 of the convention against torture,” according to Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. “If the effects in regards to pain and suffering inflicted on Manning were more severe, they could constitute torture,” he told the Guardian in 2012.

Largely in response to this international pressure, Manning was removed from solitary confinement and placed in medium security at Fort Leavenworth prison in April 2011.

Even the military judge, Col. Denise Lind, eventually agreed that the treatment he received was “more rigorous than necessary.”  At a pre-trial hearing in January 2013, she ruled that Manning had been subjected to illegal pre-trial punishment while held in a military prison in Quantico, Virginia.

Despite his supporters’ pleas that the remedy for this unlawful treatment should be immediate release from prison, Lind instead simply credited a total of 112 days toward any potential prison sentence Manning receives if convicted. (What this means if he receives a death sentence or life without parole is unclear.)

Unfortunately, since the partial victory in 2011 that resulted in slightly improved living conditions for the accused whistleblower, the international community and leading human rights organizations have largely remained silent over Manning’s case.

As David Cronin recently pointed out at CounterPunch,

Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, is a fearless defender of human rights – when it suits her. Happy to champion political prisoners in Iran and Ukraine, she is prepared to overlook persecution when it is carried out with the approval of her bosom buddies in Washington.

A search on Ashton’s website indicates that she has not issued a single statement on Manning’s incarceration. I asked her spokesman to explain this silence; he did not respond. Members of the European Parliament who have tried to solicit her views on this matter haven’t fared much better. Last year, Ashton answered a parliamentary question about an investigation by Juan Méndez, the UN special rapporteur on torture, which concluded that the treatment of Manning was “cruel and inhuman”. Ashton noted that the Méndez report highlighted “potential violations of rights” before making a vague commitment that the EU would “seek clarification” from the US authorities on “what measures they intend to take”.

He further notes the confounding silence on the case by Amnesty International.

There is little doubt that Manning has been imprisoned because of his sincerely-held political beliefs. So it is baffling that Amnesty International has so far declined to consider him a prisoner of conscience and to undertake a major campaign for his release.

Amnesty has told the Canadian blogger Joe Emersberger that it cannot deem Manning to be a prisoner of conscience until it has verified if he released the information in a “responsible manner”. I contacted Amnesty to check if Emersberger had accurately reflected its position but received no reply. Assuming that Emersberger is correct – and I’ve no reason to suspect he is not – Amnesty should specify what it means by “responsible”.

This silence has led to a grassroots effort to shame Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, in particular, to take a clear stand in support of Bradley Manning as his trial begins. As the campaign Amnesty4Manning points out, “When it comes to Manning support, Amnesty International has beat around the bush for three years. Human Rights Watch has been silent since the ONE article the organization published in 2011.”

The campaign is urging people to contact AI and HRW to ask questions such as “How does Amnesty International assess actual and potential human rights violations?”, “What is Amnesty International’s definition of a prisoner of conscience?”, and “Would Pfc. Bradley Manning fit Amnesty International’s definition of a prisoner of conscience?”

Avoiding the question of whether Manning qualifies as a prisoner of conscience (a label that Amnesty freely offers to various prisoners, such as the Pussy Riot punk rockers who are serving sentences of two years in Russia for hooliganism), Amnesty issued a rather mild-mannered press release yesterday calling for the U.S. to allow Manning’s defense to argue that he “acted in the public interest when he distributed information to Wikileaks.”

“The court must allow Manning to explain in full his motives for releasing the information to Wikileaks,” said Anne Fitzgerald, director of research and crisis response at Amnesty International. “It disturbing that he was not permitted to offer the ‘public interest’ defense as he has said he reasonably believed he was exposing human rights and humanitarian law violations.”

While it could be seen as welcome that Amnesty is finally breaking its silence on this case, the statement yesterday was seen as a bit too mild by some. As one Amnesty member posted on the group’s Facebook page, “I want to know where the hell Amnesty’s been on this, possibly the most significant, courageous political prisoner in a generation?” Another wrote, “Why hasn’t Amnesty recognized Bradley as the political prisoner he is?!?!”

Instead, Amnesty chose to focus on the more limited question of whether Manning should be allowed to explain his motives for releasing the documents to WikiLeaks.

“Allowing Manning to explain his motives only at the sentencing stage could have a chilling effect on others who believe that they are whistle-blowing, or acting in the public interest in disclosing information,” noted AI’s Fitzgerald. “Manning should have been allowed to explain how, in his opinion, the public interest in being made aware of the information he disclosed outweighed the government’s interest in keeping it confidential.”

Although Manning has not had the opportunity to formally explain how his actions were intended to benefit the public interest in a trial setting, he has made it clear that by releasing the information to WikiLeaks he hoped to inform the public of what its government does in its name.

Reading from a 35-page prepared statement at a pre-trial hearing earlier this year, Manning said: “I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information … this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general.”

Further, it’s clear that the decision to leak the documents provided a real public service, considering the extent to which the government has overclassified historical documents, even those dealing with topics from three decades earlier. As investigative journalist Robert Parry recently explained in an article defending Manning’s actions,

I thought of Pvt. Bradley Manning when I recently received a response to one of my Freedom of Information Act requests to Ronald Reagan’s presidential library. I was seeking documents about President Reagan’s secret strategy of aiding Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in its war with Iran.

Reagan’s tilt to Iraq in the early 1980s – while his administration also was winking at Israeli weapons sales to Iran – was part of a clandestine U.S. approach to the region which generated huge profits for arms dealers while feeding sectarian violence and political animosities that echo to the present day. It seemed to me that it was way past time to know the full truth.

However, though many of the events in question are now more than 30 years old – and thus are commonly thought to be readily accessible under FOIA – the reality is that the U.S. government still makes seeing such documents extremely difficult.

The letter from the Reagan library said the archivists would not even begin to process my request for “128 months,” that is more than 10 years, and then the process would involve time-consuming declassification reviews in which various agencies with “equity” interests would each have to sign off, along with whoever the sitting president is.

So, essentially, without courageous whistleblowers and leakers such as Bradley Manning willing to take the risks of providing classified documents to news outlets such as WikiLeaks, Americans may be denied access to information in perpetuity, even regarding events that took place over a generation ago.

There’s also the matter of whether Manning was within his rights and duties as a soldier to release information of wrongdoing. A recent column by legal expert Marjorie Cohn makes the case that not only was Manning right to release these documents, but according to the law, actually had a legal mandate to do so.

“Manning fulfilled his legal duty to report war crimes,” Cohn says. “He complied with his legal duty to obey lawful orders but also his legal duty to disobey unlawful orders.”

She further explains,

Section 499 of the Army Field Manual states, “Every violation of the law of war is a war crime.” The law of war is contained in the Geneva Conventions.

Article 85 of the First Protocol to the Geneva Conventions describes making the civilian population or individual civilians the object of attack as a grave breach. The firing on and killing of civilians shown in the “Collateral Murder” video violated this provision of Geneva. …

Enshrined in the US Army Subject Schedule No. 27-1 is “the obligation to report all violations of the law of war.” At his guilty plea hearing, Manning explained that he had gone to his chain of command and asked them to investigate the “Collateral Murder” video and other “war porn,” but his superiors refused. “I was disturbed by the response to injured children,” Manning stated. He was also bothered by the soldiers depicted in the video who “seemed to not value human life by referring to [their targets] as ‘dead bastards.’ “

Whether Manning’s actions were worth it in terms of the positive effects they have had is certainly a matter of debate, especially considering the enormous personal costs he is paying for those actions, and the unfortunate reality that Americans are generally ambivalent when it comes to war crimes and other violations of international norms committed by their government. But what’s beyond debate is that his heart was in the right place.

As his lawyer David Coombs pointed out in his opening arguments yesterday,

He was 22 years old. He was young. He was a little naive in believing that the information that he selected could actually make a difference. But he was good intentioned in that he was selecting information that he hoped would make a difference.

He wasn’t selecting information because it was wanted by WikiLeaks. He wasn’t selecting information because of some 2009 most wanted list. He was selecting information because he believed that this information needed to be public. At the time that he released the information he was concentrating on what the American public would think about that information, not whether or not the enemy would get access to it, and he had absolutely no actual knowledge of whether the enemy would gain access to it.

Young, naive, but good intentioned.

Fortunately, although being largely abandoned by mainstream human rights groups and forgotten by the international community, Manning does have significant support, as demonstrated by a rally over the weekend including the antiwar groups Veterans for Peace and Code Pink.

Bradley Manning’s ‘show trial’ set to begin as grassroots campaigns gain momentum

bradley manning hero

With Bradley Manning’s court martial trial finally set to begin next week — more than three years after his initial arrest on suspicion of being the source of the biggest leak of classified documents in U.S. history — various campaigns are gaining momentum to ensure that he receives a fair and transparent trial, and to urge the world’s leading human rights organizations to recognize Manning as a political prisoner or prisoner of conscience.

A petition at Avaaz calls on Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, in particular, to take a stand in support of this imprisoned whistleblower:

It is very important that the two biggest human rights organizations acknowledge Bradley Manning as a “Political Prisoner” and/or “Prisoner of Conscience” before his trial begins on June 3, 2013. If his actions can be misconstrued as “aiding the enemy” by the law, despite his providing the information to the public at large via “non-enemy” news sources, this sets the precedent of criminalizing of all future whistleblowers.

A blog called Amnesty for Bradley Manning, using the hashtag #Amnesty4Manning on Twitter, has also been launched with the sole purpose of pressuring Amnesty International to declare Manning a prisoner of conscience. Advocating that Amnesty International’s members and the general public call, email, tweet and send postcards to the Secretariat of Amnesty International, the #Amnesty4Manning campaign notes,

Manning has been imprisoned for over three years and was subjected to psychological torture accompanied by highly abusive treatment for nine of those months. Torture techniques included solitary confinement, humiliation, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, and stress positions of being shackled in a 6’ x 8’ cell. Through his imprisonment, Manning has exposed the dark side of the US justice system which keeps his case shrouded in secrecy. One has to question what the US government is doing behind closed doors. Why shield the public from information regarding his case?

Pointing out that Amnesty International’s own website urges members of the public to contact them with information on human rights violations, #Amnesty4Manning states, “It’s time we give them a call.” The campaign provides contact information for Amnesty International and even offers several printable postcards that can be mailed to the Secretariat in London.

bradley manning post card

Although the concept of “political prisoner” is rather ill-defined in international law, several workable definitions have been proposed over the years, including by Amnesty International. Under some of these definitions, it seems clear that Manning would qualify.

As Amnesty International has explained its use of the term “political prisoner,”

In AI’s usage, the term includes any prisoner whose case has a significant political element: whether the motivation of the prisoner’s acts, the acts in themselves, or the motivation of the authorities. “Political” is used by AI to refer to aspects of human relations related to “politics”: the mechanisms of society and civil order, the principles, organization, or conduct of government or public affairs, and the relation of all these to questions of language, ethnic origin, sex or religion, status or influence (among other factors). The category of political prisoners embraces the category of prisoners of conscience, the only prisoners who AI demands should be immediately and unconditionally released, as well as people who resort to criminal violence for a political motive. In AI’s use of the term, here are some examples of political prisoners:

  • a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime carried out for political motives, such as murder or robbery carried out to support the objectives of an opposition group;
  • a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime committed in a political context, such as at a demonstration by a trade union or a peasants’ organization;
  • a member or suspected member of an armed opposition group who has been charged with treason or “subversion”.

A definition of “political prisoner” recently adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe includes the following criteria:

a. if the detention has been imposed in violation of one of the fundamental guarantees set out in the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols (ECHR), in particular freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression and information, freedom of assembly and association;

b. if the detention has been imposed for purely political reasons without connection to any offence;

c. if, for political motives, the length of the detention or its conditions are clearly out of proportion to the offence the person has been found guilty of or is suspected of;

d. if, for political motives, he or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared to other persons; or,

e. if the detention is the result of proceedings which were clearly unfair and this appears to be connected with political motives of the authorities.” (SG/Inf(2001)34, paragraph 10).

According to a more concise definition of the term in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, a political prisoner is “someone who is in prison because they have opposed or criticized the government of their own country.”

It’s clear that under any number of these criteria, Manning would qualify as a political prisoner, if not a prisoner of conscience. He was clearly motivated by his conscience and out of concern over the evidence of war crimes, corruption and general wrongdoing committed by his government that he was privy to as an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq. Further, the potential sentence he faces of death or life in prison for the “aiding the enemy” charge that the government is pursuing would clearly be out of proportion to the offense he is accused of.

Regarding his decision to provide the documents to WikiLeaks, Manning explained before making his decision in online chat logs with his friend Adrian Lamo (who ultimately betrayed him), that his motivations were purely altruistic, concerned for example by “how the first world exploits the third,” and recognizing that the information could have a great impact on the earth’s entire population:

(12:15:11 PM) bradass87: hypothetical question: if you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time… say, 8-9 months… and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC… what would you do?
(12:16:38 PM) bradass87: or Guantanamo, Bagram, Bucca, Taji, VBC for that matter…
(12:17:47 PM) bradass87: things that would have an impact on 6.7 billion people
(12:21:24 PM) bradass87: say… a database of half a million events during the iraq war… from 2004 to 2009… with reports, date time groups, lat-lon locations, casualty figures… ? or 260,000 state department cables from embassies and consulates all over the world, explaining how the first world exploits the third, in detail, from an internal perspective?

He further elaborated on his motives in full testimony at a pretrial hearing earlier this year, which was later leaked and posted on YouTube:

Manning said he was particularly disturbed by a 39-minute video showing Apache helicopter pilots laughing during a 2007 attack in Baghdad that killed a number of civilians and a Reuters journalist:

They dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life, and referred to them as quote-unquote “dead bastards,” and congratulated each other on their ability to kill in large numbers. At one point in the video there is an individual on the ground attempting to crawl to safety. The individual is seriously wounded. Instead of calling for medical attention to the location, one of the aerial weapons team crew members verbally asks for the wounded person to pick up a weapon so that he can have a reason to engage. For me, this seemed similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass.

According to his statement, after being rebuffed by his commanding officer, to whom he attempted to bring information of human rights abuses in Iraq, and after being rejected by traditional news outlets such as the Washington Post and New York Times, he ultimately decided to release a trove of classified information to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.

Manning provided three important bodies of documents to WikiLeaks: the Iraq war logs, which consist of 391,000 field reports, including the notorious video of the Apache helicopter gunning down a crowd of Iraqi civilians and Reuters journalists in July 2007 (killing over a dozen of them and injuring several small children). This batch of information also included documentation of the Haditha massacre in which 24 Iraqi civilians, most of them women, children and the elderly, were systematically murdered by U.S. Marines (a crime for which the perpetrators were never punished).

Following that release by WikiLeaks, there were 90,000 Afghan war logs, providing a devastating portrayal of the deteriorating war in Afghanistan. The war logs, made public in July 2010, revealed how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents in Afghanistan and how a secret “black” unit of special forces has hunted down suspected Taliban leaders for “kill or capture” without trial. Another document of great public interest expressed suspicion that the Pakistanis were arming and funding the Afghan insurgency.

And, finally, Manning’s document release included 260,000 diplomatic cables, possibly the most controversial of his leaks, since the sheer volume called into question whether his actions demonstrated any self-restraint or caution. These leaks, however, also included some of most explosive revelations, and arguably had the most impact globally, including providing the spark for the Arab Spring.

These leaks included details on how the U.S. government had lobbied to keep down the minimum wage in Haiti so as to keep manufacturing costs low for American employers and also provided documentation of Tunisian corruption, which played a role in the revolution there.

In addition, the leaked State Department cables revealed that the United States had been routinely violating the Vienna Convention by committing espionage against UN officials. As the Guardian reported on Nov. 28, 2010, “Washington is running a secret intelligence campaign targeted at the leadership of the United Nations, including the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon and the permanent security council representatives from China, Russia, France and the UK.”

More recently, the Cablegate documents have provided the backbone for research by the U.S.-based NGO Food and Water Watch, which recently released a report based on an extensive analysis of the cables. Significantly, Food and Water Watch found that “The U.S. State Department has launched a concerted strategy to promote agricultural biotechnology, often over the opposition of the public and governments, to the near exclusion of other more sustainable, more appropriate agricultural policy alternatives.”

The report, Biotech Ambassadors: How the U.S. State Department Promotes the Seed Industry’s Global Agenda, further explains,

The State Department worked especially hard to promote the interests of Monsanto, the world’s biggest biotech seed company in 2011. Monsanto appeared in 6.1 percent of the biotech cables analyzed between 2005 and 2009 from 21 countries. The State Department exercised its diplomatic persuasion to bolster Monsanto’s image in host countries, facilitate field-testing or approval of Monsanto crops and intervene with governments to negotiate seed royalty settlements.

Taken together, the State Department cables, the Afghan war logs and the Iraq war logs have been highly embarrassing for the United States government, and have undermined the regime of secrecy that the Obama administration has so aggressively attempted to maintain.

This secrecy is now playing out in Manning’s trial itself, which has been marked by an extraordinary lack of openness. In response to the secrecy surrounding the trial, a group of prominent journalists has filed a lawsuit calling on the military judge presiding over the trial to “grant the public and press access to the government’s filings, the court’s own orders, and transcripts of the proceedings.” None of these have been made available to the public to date.

“Secret trials are commonplace in dictatorships, but have no place in this country.” said co-plaintiff Amy Goodman of Democracy Now. “The Obama administration conducts unconstitutional dragnet surveillance of journalists to uncover protected sources, and targets whistleblowers with unprecedented use of the espionage act.”

WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, who has been granted political asylum by the Ecuadorean government to protect him from persecution by the U.S., has gone so far as to call Manning’s upcoming court martial a “show trial.”

“This is a show trial,” he explained on Democracy Now. “The trial is meant to go for 14 to 16 weeks, And the prosecution, the Pentagon and possibly White House is hungry for this.”

The Center for Constitutional Rights goes to federal court in two weeks to argue the lawsuit seeking press and public access to the court-martial proceedings and documents. For the time being, the Freedom of the Press Foundation is crowd-funding donations to hire a grassroots court stenographer to record trial transcripts, as the U.S. government has so far refused to make transcripts available to the public.

A “Mass Rally for Bradley Manning” is taking place at the site of the court martial at Fort Meade, MD, on June 1 to demand a fair trial for the accused Army private. “Now is the time to get loud and show the government why you oppose the over-prosecution of this brave whistleblower,” says the Center for Constitutional Rights.

More information about the rally, including transportation options, are available at the Save Bradley Manning website. A list of solidarity actions in other cities and countries is available here.

bradley manning poster

Monsanto feels the heat on global day of protest

Hundreds of cities across the world held marches Saturday in a first-of-its-kind global demonstration against one of the world’s most powerful (and hated) corporations, Monsanto.  According to organizers, more than two million people participated in 436 cities in 52 countries.

With a focus on the health dangers of the genetically-modified foods that Monsanto has pioneered – including increased rates of cancer, infertility and birth defects – the demonstrations also sought to bring attention to the undue influence that this company wields over the political system, especially in the U.S.

As the movement explains on its website, “In the United States, the FDA, the agency tasked with ensuring food safety for the population, is steered by ex-Monsanto executives, and we feel that’s a questionable conflict of interests and explains the lack of government-led research on the long-term effects of GM products.”

This conflict of interest is perhaps best exemplified by the current Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the FDA, Michael Taylor, who has spent his career benefiting from the lucrative revolving door between the food industry and the government agencies that purportedly regulate it.

An attorney for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1970s, and then in the 80s, a private lawyer at the D.C. law firm King & Spalding, where he represented Monsanto, Taylor returned to government as Deputy Commissioner for Policy for the FDA from 1991 to 1994. He then went back to private industry as Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto from 1998 until 2001.

When President Obama appointed him to the FDA in 2010, Taylor was a Senior Fellow at the think tank Resources for the Future, working on issues related to agricultural assistance in Africa.

As April Short explains at Alternet,

Ex-Monsanto executives run the United States Food and Drug Administration, the agency tasked with ensuring food safety for the American public.

This obvious conflict of interest could explain the lack of government-led research on the long-term effects of GM products. Recently, the U.S. Congress and president together passed the law that has been dubbed “Monsanto Protection Act.” Among other things, the new law bans courts from halting the sale of Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds.

The pro-Monsanto “Farmer Assurance Provision, Section 735,” rider was quietly slipped into Agricultural Appropriations provisions of the HR 933 Continuing Resolution spending bill, designed to avert a federal government shutdown. It states that the department of agriculture “shall, notwithstanding any other provisions of law, immediately grant temporary permits to continue using the [GE] seed at the request of a farmer or producer [Monsanto].”

Obama signed the law on March 29. It allows the agribusiness giant to promote and plant GMO and GE seeds free from any judicial litigation that might deem such crops unsafe. Even if a court review determines that a GMO crop harms humans, Section 735 allows the seeds to be planted once the USDA approves them.

Because policies enacted by corrupt governments often serve special interests such as Monsanto at the expense of the interests of the general public, the revolving door practice so prevalent among Monsanto executives and federal agencies in Washington is prohibited by international law.

As a state party to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, the United States has agreed to taking measures to prevent conflicts of interest and corruption in both the public and private sphere.

In particular,

Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, endeavour to adopt, maintain and strengthen systems that promote transparency and prevent conflicts of interest.

Each State Party shall endeavour, where appropriate and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to establish measures and systems requiring public officials to make declarations to appropriate authorities regarding, inter alia, their outside activities, employment, investments, assets and substantial gifts or benefits from which a conflict of interest may result with respect to their functions as public officials. …

Preventing conflicts of interest by imposing restrictions, as appropriate and for a reasonable period of time, on the professional activities of former public officials or on the employment of public officials by the private sector after their resignation or retirement, where such activities or employment relate directly to the functions held or supervised by those public officials during their tenure.

The U.S. has long disregarded these provisions of the UN Convention against Corruption, and in certain cases, such as the cozy corporate-government relationship with Monsanto, has taken the cronyism to another level. As revealed by the WikiLeaks “Cablegate” expose of 2010, Monsanto and other biotech companies enjoy an extremely comfortable status within the State Department, with U.S. diplomats routinely lobbying on their behalf with foreign governments.

According to a report based on an extensive analysis of the WikiLeaks cables, just published by Food and Water Watch,

The U.S. State Department has launched a concerted strategy to promote agricultural biotechnology, often over the opposition of the public and governments, to the near exclusion of other more sustainable, more appropriate agricultural policy alternatives.

The U.S. State Department has lobbied foreign governments to adopt pro-agricultural biotechnology policies and laws, operated a rigorous public relations campaign to improve the image of biotechnology and challenged commonsense biotechnology safeguards and rules — even including opposing laws requiring the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods.

The report, Biotech Ambassadors: How the U.S. State Department Promotes the Seed Industry’s Global Agenda, further explains,

The State Department worked especially hard to promote the interests of Monsanto, the world’s biggest biotech seed company in 2011. Monsanto appeared in 6.1 percent of the biotech cables analyzed between 2005 and 2009 from 21 countries. The State Department exercised its diplomatic persuasion to bolster Monsanto’s image in host countries, facilitate field-testing or approval of Monsanto crops and intervene with governments to negotiate seed royalty settlements.

U.S. embassies have attempted to burnish Monsanto’s image. The consulate in Munich, Germany, promised Monsanto that it would seek “even-handed” treatment of Monsanto’s core business by Bavarian officials, where farmers’ resistance to adopting biotech crops affected its brand. The embassy in Slovakia sought to “dispel myths about GMOs and advocate on behalf of Monsanto.”

In 2009, the embassy in Spain asked for “high level U.S. government intervention” at the “urgent requests” of Monsanto and a pro-biotech Spanish official in order to combat opposition to GE crops.

The State Department has even gone so far as to force other nations to accept biotech crop and food imports against their will. Working with the U.S. Trade Representative to promote the export of biotech crops, the State Department has used the full weight of U.S. diplomacy – with both carrots and sticks – to force nations that do not want these imports to accept U.S. biotech foods and crops.

As the March Against Monsanto puts it,

For too long, Monsanto has been the benefactor of corporate subsidies and political favoritism. Organic and small farmers suffer losses while Monsanto continues to forge its monopoly over the world’s food supply, including exclusive patenting rights over seeds and genetic makeup.

It is in this context that two million people took to the streets over the weekend.

Demonstration in Copenhagen, Denmark: middelalder monsanto 292 middelalder monsanto 295 middelalder monsanto 299 middelalder monsanto 288

March against Monsanto in Tokyo, Japan:

March against Monsanto in San Diego, CA:

monsanto san diego

monsanto san diego 2

Washington, DC:

“We will not stand for cronyism,” says the March Against Monsanto on its website. “We will not stand for poison. That’s why we March Against Monsanto.”

Mounting alarm over media crackdown in the United States

free-pressAs the U.S. government’s crackdown on the press intensifies, international organizations and media freedom advocates are expressing growing alarm over what is seen as a systematic attempt to muzzle journalists and deny the public the right to unimpeded access to information.

Following last week’s news that the U.S. Justice Department had seized records for 20 telephone lines of journalists at the Associated Press, the largest and oldest news organization in the world, the reaction was intense. The AP had not been informed in advance of the prosecutors’ actions, nor did the Justice Department initiate a notice and negotiation process, leading the AP to send an angry letter to Attorney General Holder about the spying, stating in part,

There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters. These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations, and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.

That the Department undertook this unprecedented step without providing any notice to the AP, and without taking any steps to narrow the scope of its subpoenas to matters actually relevant to an ongoing investigation, is particularly troubling.

The U.S.-based NGO Freedom House issued a strongly worded statement expressing “deep concern” over the revelation of spying and called on Congress to revive a federal “shield law” that would provide journalists with a measure of protection from prosecutors’ demands for information.

“For some time we have been concerned about the administration’s over-zealous pursuit of alleged leakers and the efforts to force the testimony of journalists,” said David J. Kramer, Freedom House president. “Preserving secrecy in national security deliberations is important, but this scatter-shot intrusion into the news-gathering affairs of the Associated Press is truly disturbing. What we’re now seeing is an entirely new level of government involvement in the affairs of a free media.”

The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, said she was distressed over the revelations of government surveillance of the press, and called for an investigation.

“There is simply no justification for such a broad violation of these reporters’ constitutional rights,” Mijatović said. As an official with the intergovernmental Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which counts the United States as one of its 57 member states, Mijatovic also issued a letter directly to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

“There may be occasions when, in the interest of security, a limited intrusion on reporters’ activities, judicially authorized, may be justified, but the sheer scope and breadth of this action is simply a deprivation of basic constitutional rights,” Mijatović wrote in the letter. “The action also calls into question the ability of sources to talk to reporters without fear of government eavesdropping.”

There is no indication that the State Department has responded in any way to the direct criticism from the OSCE.

Following this controversy, a new revelation emerged over the weekend that a federal agent was granted a warrant in 2010 to search the email account of Fox News correspondent James Rosen on suspicion that the reporter had violated the 1917 Espionage Act by soliciting classified information from a State Department official.

This previously undisclosed development, which the FAS Project on Government Secrecy called “a startling expansion of the Obama Administration’s war on leaks,” was first reported in the Washington Post on May 19.

The search warrant was issued in the course of an investigation into the suspected leak of classified information allegedly committed by Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a former State Department contractor, who was indicted in August 2010.

“I believe there is probable cause to conclude that the contents of the wire and electronic communications pertaining to the SUBJECT ACCOUNT are evidence, fruits and instrumentalities of criminal violations of 18 U.S.C. 793 (Unauthorized Disclosure of National Defense Information), and that there is probable cause to believe that the Reporter has committed or is committing a violation of section 793(d), as an aider and abettor and/or co-conspirator, to which the materials relate,” wrote FBI agent Reginald B. Reyes in a May 28, 2010 application for a search warrant.

As Steven Aftergood of the FAS Project on Government Secrecy explained, “the Reyes affidavit all but eliminates the traditional distinction in classified leak investigations between sources, who are bound by a non-disclosure agreement, and reporters, who are protected by the First Amendment as long as they do not commit a crime.”

The affidavit also highlights the government’s ability to monitor activity within classified networks with a fine mesh, and to correlate document downloads with external communications.

“So far, the FBI’s investigation has revealed in excess of 95 individuals, in addition to Mr. Kim, who accessed the Intelligence Report [containing the information reported by Mr. Rosen] on the date of the June 2009 article and prior to its publication. To date, however, the FBI’s investigation has not revealed any other individual, other than Mr. Kim, who both accessed the Intelligence Report and who also had contact with the Reporter on the date of publication of the June 2009 article,” the affidavit noted.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation, which has advocated on behalf of new media organizations such as WikiLeaks, drew a parallel between the ongoing campaign against Julian Assange’s right to gather and publish classified information in the public interest, and the new revelations of assaults against the Associated Press and Fox News for doing the same. “Under the law, the AP, Fox News, and WikiLeaks are no different (a fact that even the government argues),” Trevor Timm of the Freedom of the Press Foundation pointed out today. “If one falls, the others will not be far behind.”

The press freedom advocate lamented that many journalists and mainstream media organizations remained silent when WikiLeaks first came under attack by the Justice Department in early 2011.

“That disappointing silence left open the possibility that the Justice Department could use those same tactics against others in the future,” wrote Timm. “And unfortunately now it’s clear: virtually every move made by the Justice Department against WikiLeaks has now also been deployed on mainstream US journalists.”

Just as the intimidation of WikiLeaks has done, the case raises concerns about stifling effect of these investigations on a critical element of press freedom: the exchange of information between reporters and their sources.

“Search warrants like these have a severe chilling effect on the free flow of important information to the public,” said First Amendment lawyer Charles Tobin, who has represented the Associated Press, but not in the current case. “That’s a very dangerous road to go down.”

By chilling the flow of information as the Obama administration appears to be systematically doing in its attacks on media organizations and government leakers, the U.S. government may be violating not only the First Amendment to the Constitution, but also its international obligations.

As Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states,

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

This obligation is reiterated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the U.S.  ratified in 1992. In its general comment on the importance of this provision of the ICCPR, the Human Rights Committee of the UN noted in 2011,

A free, uncensored and unhindered press or other media is essential in any society for the ensuring of freedom of opinion and expression and the enjoyment of other Covenant rights. It constitutes one of the cornerstones of a democratic society. The Covenant embraces a right to receive information on the part of the media as a basis on which they can carry out their function. The free communication of information and ideas about public and political issues between citizens, candidates and elected representatives is essential. This implies a free press and other media able to comment on public issues without censorship or restraint and to inform public opinion. Pursuant to article 19, the public also has the right to receive information as a corollary to the specific function of any journalist to impart information.

Just last week, the U.S. government reaffirmed its commitment to these principles at the OSCE media freedom seminar in Warsaw.

“Underlying our OSCE commitments on media freedom are Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights and our obligations under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act to respect the fundamental freedom of expression,” said the State Department’s Sabeena Rajpal, representing the U.S. delegation at the seminar. “This fundamental freedom is the birthright of every human being; it is inherent in the individual and not for governments to dole out or deny as they see fit.”

“Our OSCE commitments require participating States to ensure that their laws will conform to their international legal obligations,” she added.

If the United States is serious about these commitments, it would do well to halt its attacks on press freedom. If the attacks continue, the U.S. finds itself in increasing danger of becoming a full-blown “totalitarian security surveillance state,” in the words of former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges.

Protests mark Bradley Manning’s 1,000th day of pre-trial imprisonment

1000 days

Protests took place in dozens of cities across the world yesterday to mark the 1,000th day that accused WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley Manning has spent in prison without a trial. Manning was arrested in May 2010 in Iraq on suspicion of having passed classified material to WikiLeaks, including evidence of war crimes and other violations of international law by the United States.

Despite failing to provide any evidence of how the information disclosed by Manning has put any lives in danger or concretely damaged national security, the U.S. government has charged him with “aiding the enemy,” a charge akin to treason which carries a potential death sentence. Prosecutors however have said they will not seek the death penalty, instead seeking life in prison for the young Army private.

Manning has been held in detention for nearly three years despite military law setting a maximum of 120 days of detention before a trial. His pre-trial punishment is also a grave breach of his rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the United States has subscribed. The Human Rights Committee of the United Nations has held that confinement of more than six months is incompatible with article 9 (3) of the ICCPR, which states:

Anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release. It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody, but release may be subject to guarantees to appear for trial, at any other stage of the judicial proceedings, and, should occasion arise, for execution of the judgement.

In providing practical guidelines for the use of pre-trial confinement, the UN’s Handbook of International Standards relating to Pre-Trial Detention recommends that governments establish a maximum period of time during which a person may be detained without trial, and if a prisoner’s detention exceeds that amount of time, the he or she shall be released. The Handbook notes, however, that any guideline on maximum pre-trial detention must abide by international standards.

Manning’s supporters note that as someone motivated by his conscience to expose evidence of war crimes committed by the U.S. military, he should be considered a prisoner of conscience and released. Indeed, the government’s own evidence against him consists mainly of online chat logs between Manning and his friend Adrian Lamo (who ultimately betrayed him), chat logs which reveal that Manning’s motivations for leaking the government’s secrets were purely altruistic:

(12:15:11 PM) bradass87: hypothetical question: if you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time… say, 8-9 months… and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC… what would you do?
(12:16:38 PM) bradass87: or Guantanamo, Bagram, Bucca, Taji, VBC for that matter…
(12:17:47 PM) bradass87: things that would have an impact on 6.7 billion people
(12:21:24 PM) bradass87: say… a database of half a million events during the iraq war… from 2004 to 2009… with reports, date time groups, lat-lon locations, casualty figures… ? or 260,000 state department cables from embassies and consulates all over the world, explaining how the first world exploits the third, in detail, from an internal perspective?

Michael Ratner, the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, summarized the situation well in an article yesterday:

America, Bradley Manning stood up for your right to know what the government does in your name and with your tax dollars. The truth was ugly, eye-opening, embarrassing for the Bush and Obama administrations alike. It also came at a high cost: As of today, Bradley Manning has spent over 1,000 days in prison without trial. He was tortured. And if the U.S. government gets its way, he will have a trial marred by secrecy and spend the rest of his life locked up.

He also notes that the government is doing all it can to ensure that Manning is convicted, even if that means abrogating his right to a fair trial. In particular, the government is not allowing the soldier to explain his motivations in defending his actions, which could make it nearly impossible for him to prove that he never intended to “aid the enemy.”

The government is trying to charge Manning under the Espionage Act, accusing him of aiding Al Qaeda. They are subjecting him to incredible pressure to implicate his publisher, WikiLeaks, and they are making not just his legal defense but also media coverage of his case practically impossible.

Walking into the pre-trial hearings has been like waking up in a Franz Kafka novel: endless proceedings, one’s legal defense made impossible. This is quickly becoming the government’s playbook for whistleblower cases. Jeremy Hammond’s case is a concurrent example. Aaron Swartz’s a tragic one.

And so, despite the excellent work David Coombs is doing to defend Manning, I wonder if anything short of massive mobilization by the American people will change this brave soldier’s fate. How can his lawyer defend him when the key evidence the government is supposedly using to claim Manning harmed U.S. national security can be withheld? How can he show Manning did not intend to “aid the enemy” when the judge will not allow him to present evidence about Manning’s motives for releasing the information? It’s outright absurd.

At a pre-trial hearing in January, a military judge ruled that Manning had been subjected to illegal pretrial punishment while held in a military prison in Quantico, Virginia. Col. Denise Lind found that during the nine months he spent in solitary confinement in a Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Va., the treatment he received was “more rigorous than necessary.”

She credited a total of 112 days toward any prison sentence Manning receives if convicted. Instead, his supporters call for the soldier’s immediate release.

Manning’s lawyer David Coombs points out that although prosecutors were supposed to arraign Manning within 120 days, they took well over 600. Coombs has also showed substantial periods of their inactivity and needless delay, despite a legal requirement to remain actively diligent throughout the proceedings.

As the Bradley Manning Support Network puts it, “Manning’s due process rights have been clearly violated, and the only legal remedy is to dismiss charges.”

To support the efforts to free Bradley Manning, click here.

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