Thursday, August 22, 2013

Manning v. Ellsberg


A lot of people have made a big deal out of the fact that Daniel Ellsberg has been a vigorous defender of Bradley Chelsea Manning (and also, a little more tentatively, of Edward Snowden). Ellsberg has repeatedly emphasized that "Manning c'est moi."

For people of a certain age and set of political commitments, Ellsberg's defense of Manning has raised a specter: Does doubting the propriety of these contemporary leakers implicitly reneg on one's long-held political commitments about the Vietnam War? Does thinking that these leakers were out of line mean that one has become some sort of Establishment-kowtowing moral midget?

The salient difference between Manning and Ellsberg, it seems to me, has to do less with the nature of their acts, than with the nature of the wars they were aiming to undermine. 

Let us begin by observing plainly that as a general matter leaking is an ethical violation: a violation of the trust of the organization one belongs to. This violation may be justified, of course, if the organization one belongs to is itself committing gross ethical violations that justify the fundamental disruption of the mission of these organizations, or of specific wrong-doers within these organizations.

In this sense, the burden of proof must be on the whistleblower: to prove that the crimes he is exposing are so serious not only that the disruption of the organization is justified but also that the leak is the only way to achieve this disruption. Any other view, it seems to me, is tantamount to suggesting that anyone at any level of any organization has the unilateral right to expose anything he wants any time he sees fit—and plainly no large organization of any sort can be run on these terms, regardless of mission.

The distinction, to me, between Manning and Ellsberg has to do with the nature of the war and the government in each case. From my historical vantage point, the Vietnam War (by 1965 probably and by 1971 certainly) absolutely was such a criminal enterprise that it justified radical measures of institutional disruption of the sort that Ellsberg attempted. Crucially, it was a criminal enterprise not just in its origins, but in its daily implementation: Millions of Vietnamese were being killed, and 100+ American draftees per week were dying in the name of a cause which was not just hopeless but in itself a grave injustice. Under these circumstances, throwing one's body on the gears to stop the operation of the machine, to paraphrase Mario Savio, was more than justified, it was approaching a duty. Ellsberg, for this reason, remains a hero to me.

What I would ask is this: do you believe the same of our current war(s)? To defend Manning's actions, one must make the case that the general operations of the institutions he was attempting to disrupt — not just the Iraq War, let us be clear, but the State Department generally — are so corrupt and evil that they demand such disruption. We are not talking about the origins of the war, the lies that justified it to begin with, but its actual practice. Was it a systematically criminal affair, justifying wholesale leaking in order to disrupt the general functioning of the state (as opposed to narrowly targeted retail leaks about specific incidents)?

To put it in comparative terms: Is Obama's White House no different in its essentials from Nixon's? Is the way the current Long War being prosecuted as criminally murderously as the way the Vietnam War was waged? Perhaps most provocatively: are the Islamic fundamentalist non-state actors, against which the US national security apparatus is primarily arrayed today, no different in their essentials from the national liberation movements of the Global South that the US national security apparatus of 1971 was primarily arrayed against? Believing that Manning is no different from Ellsberg requires answering all these questions mostly in the affirmative.

No comments: