Creating Technology for Social Change

The Passion of Chelsea Manning: Chase Madar and Noam Chomsky

Liveblog by @schock of the Starr Forum talk by Chomsky and Madar at MIT, sponsored by the MIT Center for International Studies. All errors mine!

Chomsky and Madar are introduced by John Tirman, Director of the MIT Center for International Studies. Chase Madar wrote the Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story of the Suspect Behind the Largest Security Breach in US History. He’s a civil rights attorney who has written for many publications, including the Nation, the Atlantic, Le Monde, and so on. Noam Chomsky, says Tirman, needs no introduction.

Chomsky on ‘national security’

Noam Chomsky introduces Chase Madar. Chomsky begins by saying that Bradley, now Chelsea, Manning was committed to years of torture, and will spend years in jail, for the crime of letting the people of the US know about what their government is doing. Snowden will suffer the same fate when he is apprehended. We recently heard from Secretary of State John Kerry that kidnapping people in other countries is legal; no other country has that right. Chomsky says that Yemenis can’t come to the US and kidnap John Kerry. But it was nice to see a statement by the Secretary of State, approved by media and commentators, basically admitting that the US is a rogue state that uses violence where we choose. In fact, we didn’t need Manning and Snowden to release this information, Kerry was willing to do it himself. It says something about us as a society: this statement passed without comment. What about Manning’s supposed crime, the crime of letting people know what the government is doing?

Chomsky points out that there’s a pretext for the imprisonment: it “harmed national security.” Chomsky says there are good reasons to think seriously about that pretext. It’s important to ask: Is there evidence it’s true? When a State pleads national security, the plea carries no information, even in the technical sense, since it’s perfectly predictable. Any action can be justified as state security. Chomsky says that MIT students know that a perfectly predictable statement carries no information: it’s worthless.

Chomsky says that it is assumed that security is the highest priority of states, but the record doesn’t show that. Except for in the special sense of “security of the state from its own population.” He says that if you’ve worked through reams of classified documents, which you can do here in the USA since it’s a very free country with a lot of access to documents, you find that invariably the State is trying to hide things from the population. As for the documents that Manning leaked, Chomsky maintains that there’s essentially nothing there that threatens national security in any meaningful sense. Instead, he sees an effort to keep the population from knowing what we’re up to. For example, Obama’s drone campaign, which Chomsky calls ‘the biggest terrorist campaign being waged in the world by far.’ He points out that It’s also a terrorist generating campaign.

Risky State behavior 1: drone attacks in Yemen

He illustrates this point with an anecdote: A couple of days after the Marathon Bombing in Boston, there was a drone attack on a village in Yemen. Ususally you hear nothing about these. This time there was a young man from the US who was there, who testified to the Senate. This young man testified that for years the Jihadis in Yemen had been trying to convince the villagers to turn against the US. Bu they resisted, because he was living here in the US writing positive letters about his experience here. The drone strike turned the whole village against the US. Noam says this happens over and over: drone strikes are increasing the threat of terror in the US. When the US invaded Iraq, US and British intelligence services informed the governments that the invasion would increase the threat of terror. In fact it did. Peter Bergen and another terror-ologist used RAND corp data and concluded that terrorism increased by a factor of 7 in the first year after the invasion. This was as anticipated.

Risky State behavior 2: assassination of Osama Bin Laden

Chomsky continues: Last May, Obama gave a widely reprted speech on national security. He took credit for the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. We might remember that 800 years ago there was the establishment of a principle: ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ In any case, he was assassinated by a NAVY Seal team. Obama took pride in it. But he also publicly said that the Seal team might have been engaged in a firefight with the Pakistani army, and that luckily, this didn’t happen. However, Chomsky says there’s more to the story. The invasion was detected by the Pakistani intelligence services. The Pakistani chief of staff assumed it was an Indian invasion. Meanwhile Petreaus had ordered the US air force to respond if Pakistan scrambled jets. Pakistan is a nuclear state, deeply committed to its own national project and to its own territorial sovereignty. If there had been a real battle, nuclear weapons could have been launched. But it was considered ‘worth the risk’ to assassinate someone, rather than apprehend and bringing him to trial.

Risky State behavior in the past

Chomsky says that this pattern goes back through history. He offers several examples of how ‘security’ is not a high concern for States. Not just the US. He says that we happen to know a lot about how the process works here, because the US is quite open about it. Let’s go back to 1950: The US had overwhelming power. It had half the world’s wealth, control of both oceans, and so on. There was one potential threat: ICBMs with hydrogen bomb warheads. They didn’t exist, but they were under development. That was the threat. However, no one even attempted to develop a treaty with the Soviets. This could have saved the US from the threat of destruction, but it wasn’t even considered. In another example, in 1971, when India invaded Pakistan to end atrocities in east Pakistan (millions of people were being slaughtered), Nixon and Kissinger were furious. This was because Nixon was planning a secret trip to China, this was threatened by the invasion. Kissinger wanted to use nuclear weapons against India. Chomsky says Kissinger insisted we had to use nuclear weapons. Nixon decided that “famine would be sufficient.” This was 1973. A third example: In 1983, the Reagan administration decided to test Russian defenses by simulating air and naval attacks in Russia. The Russians couldn’t tell if these were real or fake attacks. The CIA recently came out with a study concluding that this was extremely dangerous. The Russians nearly interpreted the fake attack as a real one. Just a few of days ago there was a revelation that a Russian officer disobeyed orders – automated systems were assessing the likelihood of a missile attack on Russia; he was supposed to transmit this to high command but didn’t. It continues.

Overall, Chomsky urges us:

“When you hear a State plead ‘security’ as a justification, there are two things to remember:

  1. The statement carries no information.
  2. States do not give a high priority to protecting their citizens. The protect themselves from their citizens. That’s why Manning is in Jail. That’s not national security.”


Chase Madar

Chase Madar begins with a joke: “It’s every intellectual’s dream to take the stage after Noam Chomsky.”

He is going to tell us a story of principles, values, and individual heroism. Mostly, it’s a story of the Iraq War. It’s a War that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, 4.5 thousand US soldiers, destroyed the country’s infrastructure, and cost trillions of dollars. It was a strategic and humanitarian disaster. It’s a war we sped into because of government secrecy, distortion, and lies. It’s fitting that the finale end with the prosecution and court martial of someone who told the truth.

Madar says that the story of Chelsea, formerly Bradley, Manning, has been misconstrued. He’s going to debunk the folklore, a series of myths, starting with the first:

First Myth: That the security leak put the US on the precipice of radical transparency.

The myth is that we are on the slope to so much transparency that we’ll have no functioning state anymore. Madar says this claim has constantly been made by journalists who should have known better. Chelsea leaked less than 1% of what is classified in a given year. Far from a floodlight, it was a modest and helpful beam of light. It hardly cost the distruption of our diplomacy or statecraft, for better or worse. Instead, secrecy has sped up. Last year there were 95 million classified documents, up from 13 million in 2003. We have a parabolic increase in state secrecy since the election of Obama, who promised major declassification, and also promised to be the whistleblower’s best friend. Even as classification increases, Madar points out that Declassification moves in geological tempo. The NSA just finished declassifying documents from the presidency of James Madison. This timing is measured in centuries. The effect on our national memory is severe. How can we function if we don’t know what we’ve done? It’s a form of dementia.

Meanwhile, it’s rare that a week goes by without a major news story that doesn’t rely on unnamed high officials leaking classified information. Most of these leaks are authorized in some way, although that doesn’t make them legal. Indeed, leaks are how we find out about all kinds of things, like our drone program, or cyberwar against Iran. So that’s the first myth: that leaks are new and scandalous.

Second Myth: the leaks have damaged American Interests.

Each leak was met with panic. The narrative is always the same: “it will cost lives, it’ll put people at risk.” But, Madar says, when reporters do their jobs and follow up, they’re always told there’s no concrete evidence of anyone being harmed. This summer, the government wasn’t able to marshal any evidence of concrete harm towards individuals. Chase says it’s remarkable, the real casualties of war, and of extrajudicial killings, including civilian deaths, don’t get any press. But when it comes to hypothetical damage caused by Wikileaks, the press become “gushing defenders of humanitarian concern.”

Third Myth: They’re Out to Get Us, or they’re Utopian

Madar says that Utopian is a curse word used to attack anyone who deviates from the Washington consensus view. If you look on Wikileaks’ site, you see quotes from Jefferson, from the US Constitution. It’s an odd kind of “destructive, radical position.” Wikileaks’ ideology actually fits easily in the broad mainstream of liberalism. Madar claims that Wikileaks are basically “classical liberals who are handy with computers.” James Madison wrote two centuries ago that a popular government without information is a prelude to a tragedy, farce, or perhaps both.

Fourth Myth: Psychologizing the Leaker

Another myth is that Chelsea leaked these documents as a form of ‘antisocial behavior.’ In other words, there’s an attempt to say that the leak was ‘crazy,’ linked to Chelsea’s gender dysphoria. Whistleblowers are always pathologized. When Ellsberg was revealed to be the leaker of Pentagon Papers, Nixon immediately authorized a raid on his psychologists’ office to find dirt that could deligitmize him. Russian dissidents also faced lock up and subjection to psychoactive drugs; the position of the Russian state was that dissidence was a form of ‘mental illness.’ Chelsea Manning was made for months to stand at attention naked before her jailers. This was in line with that Soviet treatment. It also opposed the recommendations of the military psychiatric advisors. This treatment was torture.

Madar walks us through Chelsea’s decision to leak the documents. She was a soldier deployed in 2010, who quickly realized that Operation Iraqi Freedom had little to do with Iraqi Freedom. Chelsea was disturbed by the ‘Collateral Murder’ video, footage of the Apache attack that killed Reuters journalists, civilians and bystanders. Manning read an account of this attack by David Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, and it didn’t accord with what she had seen in the video. She also learned there was an express US policy to ignore torture committed by the Iraqi military, as well as an order from Rumsfeld not to interfere with torture. This further angered Manning. There was also an incident where young Iraqis who had made a critical pamphlet called ‘where does the money go’ were arrested and taken away. Manning wrote “I want people to see the truth… regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.” She failed to see why this was contentious, especially in the midst of the destruction she saw taking place in Iraq.

Fifth Myth: the US Military is a delicate flower

According to Madar, another myth is that even if these leaks are beneficial, are used by newspapers for major stories, helped spark the Tunisian rebellion that brought down a dictator, and so on: the law is the law. The military will fall apart if the law is not enforced. According to this argument, the 35 year sentence is warranted in order to preserve order. But does the military really require Manning to be punished? Will military order collapse if she’s set free?

Madar suggests that the answer is no. First, military law is infinitely forgiving when it comes to killing civilians, especially foreign civilians. For example, when 24 civilians were killed in cold blood by a Marine Corps unit, the only punishment was the demotion of the unit leader. No jail time for killing Iraqi civilians.

The US military law is also elastic when it comes to rape and sexual assault. There’s been little effort to stop it. Recently, Obama has been denouncing rape and sexual assault in the military. Chelsea Mannings’ lawyer tried to use ‘unlawful command influence’ as an argument; but the motion to dismiss charges due to unlawful command influence didn’t work for Manning. It does work when it comes to rape.

In other words, If Chelsea Manning had committed rape or murdered civilians, she wouldn’t be in jail.

Madar points out that pardons are also possible. Every military in history has had pardons. Conservatives often understand this better than the center left. The right wing gov in Mississippi issued over 200 pardons; the outgoing Czech president pardoned about 1/3rd of the prisoners in the Czech Republic. This happened in the land of Kafka. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that in nations and societies where military law reigns supreme, usually these aren’t nice places to visit. Surely we can do better.

Sixth myth: Knowledge is dirty

Finally, there’s also a belief that knowledge is evil, it’s a contaminant. An idea that if we study reports from the Iraq or Afghan war, we’ll become somehow dirty, and lose our innocence. But Madar says It’s not fair to put all of this brunt on the soliders: “There’s nothing less patriotic than a people that refuse to look at how their wars are being conducted.”

Conclusion: destructive, narcissistic, reckless little punks

Madar concludes: 99% of what’s classified in the USA has no business being made a secret. To argue against the harsh prosecution of Chelsea Manning is an argument for reasonableness, and for responsible citizenship. The more people hear from Chelsea Manning, the more they’ll realize that she’s the responsible, ethical citizen. Her persecutors in government and the media are the destructive, narcissistic, reckless little punks. Thank you.


Q: First, what are some of the key truths revealed in the leaks? Second, the defense was inadequate, and the timing of the announcement about her gender was terrible.

Madar: It’s important to remember that Chelsea Manning, apart from being a cause, is also a human being. Her choice to announce her gender transition the day after the sentencing was her choice to make. She was thinking about this since before she was caught, over 3 years ago. If we want to support her now, we have to think also about getting her hormone treatment while still in prison. Even the NY Times has been taking this up, a positive outcome. We have to get her into the properly gendered prison that she asked to be moved to. The bad thing is that most of the country needs to catch up and accept transgender people as individuals, with dignity, just like cisgendered people, like everyone else.

I don’t think Chelsea’s lawyer did a bad job. This is a person of conscience. These are powerful arguments, but they’re not effective arguments in this case. The task of the lawyer isn’t to get a point across, it’s to defend his client. The politicla conditions are different now; when Ellsberg was tried, it was possible to make those arguments. But there’s no mass antiwar movement. There’s no hated right wing president, as in the Ellsberg case.

Chomsky: The narrow reason why Ellsberg wasn’t convicted was Nixon’s individual criminality. I happened to be testifying at the trial at the moment the judge recused himself and declared a mistrial. The reason was that Nixon tried to bribe the judge, offered him a position as head of the FBI. So the judge had to recuse himself.

As for the leaks, there were several of some interest. One was about the ambassador to Pakistan. She supported US special forces and drone actions in Pakistan. But she pointed out that they’re dangerous; they’re radicalizing Pakistan, they’re creating a Jihadi atmosphere; she pointed out that Pakistan has nuclear weapons, and this is dangerous. This is important for the American people to know.

There were leaks from the Embassy in Honduras. In 2009 there was a military coup in Honduras, the military threw out the elected president, who was getting too liberal, talking about minimum wage and things like that. The whole world condemned the coup. Obama had a few words, then recognized the coup government as constitutional. One of the leaks said: this was unconstitutional, it violated the Ecuadorian constitution. Obama knew it, but refused to say it. That was worth knowing.

Another leak was, sites around the world of supreme strategic significance. Most were what you expect. One was right outside Haifa. A military industry zone, where drones were developed. A contracter, Rafael, that’s so integrated into the US strategic and military system that we must protect it as a site of extreme strategic significance. They moved their management closer to DC to be closer to the money. To understand Israel/Palestine, it’s important to know about the highest level military and economic links with the client state in the region.

A final case that was amusing: one of the wikileaks exposures got huge publicity. Someone in Saudia Arabia said they support US policy in Iran: “cut the head off the snake.” Leading commentators in the US, financial times, others were joking that the CIA must be behind wikileaks, because they’re leaking stuff that’s so supportive of US policy. But the interesting thing no one said was: these are the attitudes of the dictators; what about the opinions of the population? There are consistent polls by leading Arab pollsters; they show that the Arab public dislikes Iran but don’t regard it as a threat; they regard the US and Israael as threats. So the leaks were saying: who cares what the public thinks? If the dictators support us, great! It’s an interesting insight into the state of public debate.

Q: So much of the controversy around this trial has to do with Chelsea Manning’s non normative gender and sexual orientation. The rhetoric of both sides was violently transphobic. Linking wikileaks with queerness, talking about mental unstability. What is the consequence of queerness being linked so tightly to leaking and instability?

Madar: First, thank you. What is the relationship between Chelsea’s gender and sexual identity and the rest of the story? It’s a key part of Chelsea’s personal story. But it’s tangential in many ways. It has nothing to do with Chelsea’s motive. Yet many tried to make it all about sex and gender identity. The New Yorker tried to do this. There are 4 million Americans with security clearance. You can bet that thousands of those with security clearance are queer: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender. Yet they’re not all leaking. It’s not a genetic characteristic of transgender people. It’s like arguing that Cheney pushed for the invasion of Iraq because he’s a cisgender straight guy. But it’s important in terms of how Manning has been treated. Part of the 14 month isolation was about gender dysphoria. It made it easier for them to marginalize Manning. In the end it’s a classic trope to equate treason with being queer. Norman potter, the neocon, used to like to accuse James Baldwin and Gore Vidal of being a “queer fifth column.” Many see this as bigoted nonsense. For the lawyer, the job is to defend the client. Because gender dysphoria is in the DSM, they tried to make something out of it, in a desparate situation. I don’t think this is going to foster transphobia in the US military.

John Tirman: there’s a longstanding trope of ‘the sissification of American Men,’ it’s often used politically.

Q: You talked about the misclassification of Chelsea by critics. Do we also see the danger of that coming from supporters? Do we sometimes read what we want to into her intentions and personality?

A: There’s a risk to project onto any figurehead, using that person as a blank screen. It’s unethical and wrong. We should listen to what the individual is saying. Chelsea released a statement today to the Guardian saying “I’m not a pacifist, I just think people need to know to make better foreign policy decisions.” That shouldn’t stop other people from seizing these documents and constructing arguments with them. People should be careful not to use Chelsea Manning as a projection screen.

Q: re: transparency generally: you made the argument that Chelsea released less than 1% of what’s classified, and also said that you don’t advocate complete transparency. So for each of you, where does that balance lie?

Noam: There’s no general algorithm for transparency. You have to look case by case. Ellsberg didn’t release all of the Pentagon Papers. I had access to them before the release; he felt there was a volume on ongoing negotiations, he thought it should be kept secret. He felt that crossed the line; it might harm ongoing negotiations. When I read it, I didn’t feel that way, but he made a legitimate decision. The most interesting parts of that document is the way it embarasses world leaders based on things they were saying at the time. I sent this information to historian friends on condition they not use it publicly until it became public. When Johnson was planning to bomb North Vietnam, he asked allies what they thought. At the time, a Nobel Peace Laureate in Canada said ‘that’s a good idea, but stick to iron bombs, not nuclear bombs.” The Nobel Peace candidate. That fit the general pattern. Security’s an issue, but the security of power from scrutiny. Look at classified documents and see what you think. It’s a good research project.

Madar: to take the side of Chelsea doesn’t mean you spport ‘total transparency.’ It’s a functional ipossibility anyway. The size of our government makes it impossible. Nobody wants nuclear launch codes floating around. We can all agree there are a number of secrets that would truly endanger public security. The burden should be on the government to prove concrete palpable harm from a leak, not just ‘you can’t do that because I say so.’ Diplomats, or any professional group, always want a maximum of secrecy. The public reaction even among intellectuals who should know better seem to assume that our diplomats have been doing a great job, and wikileaks is spoiling it. Get real. Our foreign policy has been one disaster after another. Anyone in the privaate sector who screwed up like this would be fired on the spot. There’s a political science discourse about the positive impacts of transparency. Look at Linsley on transparency and its uses. Look at Vienna, transparency negotiations contributed to peace in Euope. Look at Wodrow Wilson on public diplomacy.

Q: You made the point that certain things should be kept covered, for example nuclear launch codes. But if they’re leaked, then changed, and the government can’t prove tangible harm, where does that lie? It’s a fuzzy line.

A: All lines have fuzzy edges, but they should still be drawn.

Q: I’m faculty from STS. Obama was elected as one of the most liberal presidents, first Black president. His record of prosecuting whistleblowers has been worse than Bush. The sentences, and the number of prosecutions. My question: in the first term, I can understand that to counter the Republican onslaught. But why this persistence in pursuing these people so harshly?

Noam: I was never a supporter of Obama, and I don’t say that in retrospect. Before the primary, I wrote about him, using material from his own self presentation. I’m not surprised. However, I do not understand the tenacity of his attack against civil liberties. It’s very strange. It doesn’t get him anything. It includes whistleblowers. Prosecutions using the espionage act include maybe 10 total, ever, and seven are under Obama. Some of the cases his Justice dept has initated are scandalous. One is Holder v Humanitarian Law Project. They essentially criminalized speech. It says if I go visit someone on the terrorist list, which I’ve done – Nasrallah – that could be material assistance to terrorism. It used to mean ‘you gave him a gun.’ Under Obama, it means research. In the case in question, it was about advising them of their legal rights, or urging them to turn to nonviolent means. What’s the point of this extreme step?

Chase: even though there’s no public clamor for these prosecutions, there’s no public clamor against them. So it’s a small polical price to pay. This is changing somewhat. US Senators, not just ACLU members, are defending Snowden as a whistelblower. This is fracturing both parties. I hope this continues. I’m not sure any president since Eisenhower has been in charge of the national security apparatus anyway. But whether Obama is in charge of it or letting it happen, it’s not as simple as flipping it on or off. This isn’t to excuse him, but to point out just what it would take to roll back.

[Out of batteries! lost the last few questions. If you have notes on them, please add in the comments below! – sc ]