In Praise of (Some) Government Employees

Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan

After nearly seven years of detention and imprisonment, Chelsea Manning is free from her government cage.

According to an Army spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Jennifer Johnson, Pvt. Manning will remain on active duty following her May 17, 2017, release from military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, but she will be on “excess leave” while her court-martial conviction is under appellate review.

Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst in Iraq, faced an unprecedented 35-year prison sentence for disclosing secret military and State Department field reports, diplomatic cables, war footage, Afghan and Iraq War Logs, and other documents published by Wikileaks.

One need not commend a kidnapper for releasing their hostage, yet thankfully in the final days of his presidency, Barack Obama commuted the bulk of Manning’s remaining sentence. Obama’s act of decency should at least be acknowledged, although a full pardon rather than a commutation was warranted, but let it not be mistaken as forgiving his administration of its myriad other offenses in the realm of foreign and domestic policy.

For libertarians, after all, a certain degree of nuance is necessary to applaud current or former government employees for their actions, but whistleblowers like Manning, however, deserve unequivocal praise.

Manning, Wikileaks, and the State

Although the documents have been discussed endlessly by the media and continue to aid investigative journalists today, confusion surrounding the information Manning released has remained in the public debates since her disclosures were first published by Wikileaks beginning in 2010.

In a recent interview with The Nation’s Greg Grandin, Chase Madar, author of The Passion of [Chelsea] Manning: The Story Behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower, added context to the significance of Manning’s leak, which was the biggest in U.S. history:

“So what did Manning leak? Thousands of individual field reports form the Iraq and Afghan Wars, and they give us a mosaic portrait of two flailing pacification campaigns. They’re looking back at incidents that already happened—night raids gone wrong, checkpoint shootings of civilians, outposts built then abandoned—not planning documents for future military actions. These revelations are frequently referred to as ‘war crimes,’ but technically they are mostly atrocities that happen to be permitted by the laws of armed conflict, which are much looser than most people imagine. The real function of the laws of war is to protect soldiers from legal liability, not to protect civilians in occupied countries. What really pushed Manning to leak was the awful things she witnessed as an Army intelligence officer deployed to Iraq. But, in fact, it was official US policy to condone torture and not interfere with it when practiced by local Iraqi authorities, as revealed by Fragmentary Order 242, leaked by Manning,” said Madar.

“We understand US foreign policy much more clearly as a result of her leak, and I’m afraid I don’t see why that’s a bad thing,” Madar concluded. “After the disastrous performance of US foreign-policy elites, they clearly need more public supervision, and that’s what Manning’s enlightening leaks provide.”

Contrary to the claims of her detractors, Manning brought these crimes to the attention of her superior officers. Manning was ignored, just as she was by mainstream news sources before she finally contacted Wikileaks. In an article posted following Manning’s release, Glenn Greenwald eviscerates critics who argue that her actions were dubiously motivated and endangered lives:

“Though Manning’s case has been somewhat colored by the changing perceptions over time of WikiLeaks, she actually first attempted to contact traditional media outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Politico with her revelations, only to be thwarted by a failure to get their attention. In the online chats that she had with a deceitful individual who thereafter became a government informant and turned her in, she said her motive in leaking was solely to trigger ‘worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms,’ adding: ‘I want people to see the truth … regardless of who they are … because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.’

In the wake of these disclosures, the U.S government – as it reflexively does – claimed that the release of the documents would endanger lives, and that those responsible for publishing the leaks had ‘blood on their hands.’ But subsequent investigations by AP and McClatchy found those accusations utterly unfounded, and ultimately, even Defense Secretary Robert Gates ridiculed the hysteria driving the government’s claims about the leak’s harms as ‘significantly overwrought.’

In sum, though Manning was largely scorned and rejected in most mainstream Washington circles, she did everything one wants a whistle-blower to do: tried to ensure that the public learns of concealed corruption and criminality, with the intent of fostering debate and empowering the citizenry with knowledge that should never have been concealed from them. And she did it all knowing that she was risking prison to do so, but followed the dictates of her conscience rather than her self-interest.”

Government Dissenters

Manning’s liberation of government documents is worthy of admiration along with other whistleblowers who have exposed government crimes.

Smedley D. Butler, U.S. Marine Corps Major General, was the most decorated Marine in U.S. history at the time of his death in 1940. He has become a legend as a proto-libertarian for his 1935 speech and short book, War is a Racket. Butler essentially described the military-industrial complex, from his perspective as one of its highest-ranking participants, decades before President Eisenhower’s renowned speech.

Daniel Ellsberg, former U.S. military analyst and RAND Corporation employee, famously released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, exposing the government’s top-secret study of U.S. political and military intervention in the Vietnam War.

In recent years, former officials like DOJ lawyers Jesselyn Radack and Thomas Tamm, FBI special agent Coleen Rowley, ret. Air Force Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, CIA analyst and case officer John Kiriakou, NSA employees Thomas Drake and William Binney, and NSA contractor Edward Snowden have all exposed crimes and failures that were tolerated – if not encouraged – by the U.S. government’s foreign policy and surveillance state maneuvering.

Manning’s case and subsequent imprisonment elicit other libertarian critiques of State power beyond foreign policy as well, including issues regarding ubiquitous government surveillance, restrictions on freedom of speech, and the horrors of solitary confinement and the carceral state.

The value of these whistleblowers in exposing the government’s overreaches, undermining its policies, and delegitimizing its authority cannot be overstated, nor can their libertarian inclinations to reveal government power and corruption go unnoticed.

Libertarian Seditionists

A 2009 chat log obtained by New York magazine revealed Manning’s political leanings and general disposition:

(9:41:48 PM) bradass87: im surprised you havent asked the usual question: why is a gay, libertarian, atheist, computer nerd in the army

Manning’s question wasn’t odd, in fact, considering the number of military personnel who broadly identify as libertarian and support a non-interventionist foreign policy.

Former Congressman Ron Paul, himself an Air Force veteran, earned more financial support from active duty members of the military than any other politician in the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaign cycles. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden supported his 2012 campaign, too.

It was Dr. Paul who, during a Republican presidential debate ten years ago, heroically challenged Washington’s foreign policy consensus, personified by Rudy Giuliani. He popularized the CIA’s term blowback, the notion that interventionist U.S. foreign policy has violent, unintended consequences, and his political efforts subsequently refocused national attention on matters of war and peace.

“Truth is treason in the empire of lies,” Dr. Paul presciently wrote in his 2008 book, The Revolution: A Manifesto, years before Manning’s disclosures to Wikileaks.

And in a recent USA Today op-ed, he defended whistleblowers as “both heroic and pro-American,” as the revelations from their actions further underscore the libertarian critique of the State.

“We are told that the government must be allowed to operate in secret in order to keep us safe, but how much security do we really have if we allow the government to deprive us of our liberty?” Dr. Paul asked.

Murray Rothbard, the late economist and libertarian theorist, understood this as well, viewing foreign policy simply as an extension of domestic State power, and bearing all the drawbacks of any other government program. He recognized war as “…the foreign counterpart of the domestic aggression against the internal population. I see the two as united.”

Rothbard expanded on this point not long before his death:

“During my lifetime, my ideological and political activism has focused on opposition to America’s wars, first because I have believed our waging them to be unjust, and, second, because war, in the penetrating phrase of the libertarian Randolph Bourne in World War I, has always been ‘the health of the State,’ an instrument for the aggrandizement of State power over the health, the lives, and the prosperity, of their subject citizens and social institutions. Even a just war cannot be entered into lightly; an unjust one must therefore be anathema.”

The Realignment

Karl Hess, former speechwriter for Sen. Barry Goldwater and libertarian activist, was quoted by the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne in his 2004 book, Why Americans Hate Politics, commenting that “Whenever you put your faith in big government for any reason, sooner or later you wind up an apologist for mass murder.”

This lesson should be contemplated and internalized by everyone, regardless of ideology.

Prominent whistleblowing cases, like Manning’s, suggest that the libertarian inclinations of Americans are alive and well. Manning’s case has become a litmus test on foreign policy, just as the late Will Grigg’s “Tom Joad Test” reveals one’s sympathies regarding domestic law enforcement. The disclosures present opportunities to connect with disparate individuals and groups in a broader effort to realign American politics towards liberty.

For the libertarian championing peace when the State is advocating war, finding common cause with non-libertarians is essential to building a significant transpartisan antiwar movement. Galvanizing a new coalition against the perpetual warfare state will be difficult – and different – in the coming years, but if our recent history is any indication, it is an endeavor that must be pursued with utmost urgency.

If the relationship between foreign and domestic policy is correctly understood – that war is the antithesis of free markets and the culmination of everything wrong with the State – then it is obvious why libertarians must lead the opposition against the American Empire and support whistleblowers who attempt to thwart its machinations.

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Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan