Civil Libertarians And The Hills They Choose To Die On

Manning Guilty Plea

So the Big Story in liberal news over the past couple of weeks was this: Bradley Manning pled guilty to certain of the charges against him:

Pfc. Bradley Manning on Thursday [Feb. 28, 2013] confessed in open court to providing vast archives of military and diplomatic files to the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks, saying that he released the information to help enlighten the public about “what happens and why it happens” and to “spark a debate about foreign policy.”

Appearing before a military judge for more than an hour, Private Manning read a statement recounting how he joined the military, became an intelligence analyst in Iraq, decided that certain files should become known to the American public to prompt a wider debate about foreign policy, downloaded them from a secure computer network and then ultimately uploaded them to WikiLeaks.

Before reading the statement, Private Manning pleaded guilty to 10 criminal counts in connection with the huge amount of material he leaked, which included videos of airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan in which civilians were killed, logs of military incident reports, assessment files of detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and a quarter-million cables from American diplomats stationed around the world.

The Manning case is far from over; his plea last week does not address more serious charges against him, including charges under the Espionage Act. Nonetheless, Manning’s guilty plea set off a certain amount of predictable caterwauling from the usual suspects. Hyperbole Czar Glenn Greenwald lavished praise on Manning, stating:

Daniel Ellberg [sic] is now widely viewed as heroic and noble, and Bradley Manning (as Ellsberg himself has repeatedly said) merits that praise and gratitude every bit as much.

Maybe Mr. Greenwald forgets that Mr. Ellsberg initially was complicit in covering up the lies that were used to justify the Vietnam war; so perhaps he’s better viewed not so much as a noble hero but as a guy who’s gotten really good at atoning for his own sins. Not that there’s anything wrong with spending a lifetime atoning for one’s sins, of course. In any event, Milt Shook’s recent post on succinctly states the contrary view of Bradley Manning, as does this comment from an Army officer responding to Andrew Sullivan’s recent post on whistleblowers.

My own views of Manning are conflicted. I don’t share the view that any disclosure of government information, no matter how secret or how legitimately classified it may be, is a priori a good thing. Nor do I think Manning’s supporters believe that there are no circumstances in which the government can properly withhold certain kinds of information from the public, temporarily, at least; but it’s increasing difficult to determine what kind of information they think the government can withhold, and under what circumstances. As I’ve said before, the issue is not so much whether Manning is a good guy or a bad guy, but how the government classifies information, who gets to make the determination that certain information should be classified, what standards are used in making that determination, and whether there is any meaningful review of those decisions or check on that decision-making authority.

You’ll search in vain for any meaningful discussion of those issues, I’m afraid.

But there’s another thing that bothers me about civil libertarians’ love affair with celebrity defendants like Bradley Manning. Not only do they gloss over the genuinely vexing legal issues and policy questions that arise in a case like his (it’s all about the unassailably virtuous Bradley Manning versus the evil Obama Administration), they all but ignore very real, pressing civil liberties issues right here at home.

While civil libertarians obsess over the military’s – and, by extension, the Obama Administration’s – treatment of Bradley Manning, they are far less concerned about daily abuses committed by state and local authorities, which abuses are, admittedly, less sexy and less well publicized. Still, it would be nice if every so often Mr. Greenwald, et al., paused to reflect on a case like this:

Chicago police terrorized six children in the wrong apartment, demanding at gunpoint that an 11-month-old show his hands, and telling one child, “This is what happens when your grandma sells crack,” the family claims in court.

Lead plaintiffs Charlene and Samuel Holly sued Chicago, police Officer Patrick Kinney and eight John Does in Federal Court, on their own behalves and for their children and children.

The six children were 11 months to 13 years old at the time. Plaintiffs Connie and Michelle Robinson are Charlene Holly’s daughters.

[The lawsuit states,] “Defendant Officers John Doe 1-8 burst through the door to the first floor apartment dressed in army fatigues and pointing guns at Charlene and the children. The officers yelled at Charlene and the children to ‘Get on the ground!’ The officers referred to Charlene and the children as ‘m—f—ers’ numerous times.…”

(Via Courthouse News Service.)

Or, you know, a story like this that actually made it into the New York Times:

Last year, police officers in New York City stopped and frisked people 685,724 times. Eighty-seven percent of those searches involved blacks or Latinos, many of them young men, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The practice of stop-and-frisk has become increasingly controversial, but what is often absent from the debate are the voices of young people affected by such aggressive policing on a daily basis. To better understand the human impact of this practice, we made this film about Tyquan Brehon, a young man who lives in one of the most heavily policed neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

By his count, before his 18th birthday, he had been unjustifiably stopped by the police more than 60 times. On several occasions, merely because he asked why he had been stopped, he was handcuffed, placed in a cell and detained for hours before being released without charges. These experiences were scarring; Mr. Brehon did whatever he could to avoid the police, often feeling as if he were a prisoner in his home.

And while civil libertarians bemoan the harsh conditions Manning’s faced in prison – a point on which I happen to agree with them, by the way – it’s kind of sad they don’t have much to say about the tens of thousands of prisoners held in solitary confinement in equally harsh conditions in state and federal prisons around the country.

Unfortunately, whether our civil liberties warriors are aware of it or not, there’s a common thread among the non-Bradley Manning stories I’ve highlighted above, and it’s this: The kinds of abuses these stories involve are disproportionately visited upon people of color. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Manning-obsessed civil libertarians are racist, nor does it mean that they don’t care about the civil liberties abuses people of color face on a daily basis. But if you chose to fight your civil liberties battles only in cases where white celebrity defendants like Manning are involved, you shouldn’t be too surprised if you’re having trouble getting traction among those for whom civil rights are just as important as civil liberties.


14 Responses to Civil Libertarians And The Hills They Choose To Die On

  1. “But if you chose to fight your civil liberties battles only in cases where white celebrity defendants like Manning are involved, you shouldn’t be too surprised if you’re having trouble getting traction among those for whom civil rights are just as important as civil liberties.”


  2. David von Ebers

    Thanks. It took me awhile to figure out how to say that … which was kind of the point of the whole post!

  3. And pieces like THIS are why ALBC is my fav blog.

  4. David von Ebers


  5. “…Andrew Sullivan’s recent post on whistleblowers.”

    I believe Sullivan touched upon, in that very post, the Manning-related contradictions you were getting at: “Sometimes a whistleblower is not only a traitor. He can also be a patriot, uncovering war crimes.”

    “(civil libertarians) all but ignore very real, pressing civil liberties issues right here at home.”

    In some cases, this is undeniably true (i.e. any right-wing Republican now screaming about drones), but as you show above, it’s also true that so many of these domestic civil liberties issues relate to the drug war, and can we really day the President has been forward-looking on that? It is within POTUS’s power to be so yet it is POTUS’s current drug “czar,” (the ex head of the Seattle PD?) is it not, who thinks pot is some kind of deadly weapon. This President closed the sentencing gap between crack and powder cocaine, which is good, and it is one mark in his favor. However, the battle for saner drug laws is a long one, and it’s fair to say this President has a way to go. As one more small example: since he’s admitted to smoking pot, that makes his shaky approach to it all the more baffling to me.

    POTUS himself says he’s the kind of guy who takes/needs/wants direct criticism, so while I know Greenwald’s been a dick to you for a long time, don’t hold him up as the voice of every single person concerned about these things, and criticize the President directly when he deserves it. Such a move wouldn’t “empower the right”; they hate him anyway. Rather, it’d help Progressives act the part.

    “the Manning-obsessed civil libertarians…”

    Couldn’t resist a bit of mockery, eh?

    “But if you chose to fight your civil liberties battles only in cases where white celebrity defendants like Manning are involved, you shouldn’t be too surprised if you’re having trouble getting traction among those for whom civil rights are just as important as civil liberties.”

    Trayvon Martin’s case has received, in my view, a good deal of coverage. As a white guy, I am okay with this. Pre-Martin, I can remember Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima getting plenty of press. I protested the evils done to both men (heck, I’m a recovering Philadelphian, and while I wasn’t old enough to be on the scene then, I certainly know of press folks and committed liberals who protested Frank Rizzo’s treatment of black activists in Philadelphia). These were big stories because, while each was but one case, each pointed to so many larger problems, also, civil rights and civil liberties go together in all three of the instances. So, judging by recent years, at least, I think the appropriate term to use regarding the national press and crimes done to people of color is “flip flop,” i.e. they’ll flip to something for a time, then flop into relative silence. And as for what goes on in individual communities day to day, isn’t the first step to turn to local newspapers and websites, and raise hell with THOSE?

    But look, I have a couple more things to throw in about Manning: I don’t know if it’s “he’s a celebrity” as much as “we’ve been in a ‘war on terror’ for what feels like forever, and this guy stepped into a whole heap of shit related to it.” There are writers whose only beat is the “terror war,” just as there are writers whose only beat is, for example, the American drug war. On both counts, these writers are doing jobs.

  6. Ah, crap.

    I wrote this:

    “So, judging by recent years, at least, I think the appropriate term to use regarding the national press and crimes done to people of color is ‘flip flop…’ ”

    when I should’ve written this:

    “So, judging by recent years, at least, I think the appropriate term to use regarding the national press (as well as parts of the national left) and crimes done to people of color is ‘flip flop,’ ”


  7. Look out Imani – along with canonizing Bradley Manning – all my libertarian and anti-war friends are getting their jones on about Rand Paul blathering for 10 hours for filibuster. Uh, yeah, Mr. Vaginal Micromanagement is all about American personal liberties?

    We should have a real, honest conversation about civil liberties, political realities (Al Qaeda isn’t some made up boogie man) and our national security policies. But most folks are either H.A.M. for full state secrecy and blowing up A-Rabs or want the CIA and Congress to function like an open message board. Thus is the state of American politics – ideologues on both sides rather scream at top of their lungs than work to get things done.

  8. examinator ant

    So let me get this correct the civil Libertarians are for Manning because POTUS is black and their complicity is proven by their lack of rage about a frisking in crime ridden areas that is coincidently predominantly Black, Hispanic areas of NYC .
    Really? Sorry but that is sooooo non sequitor.

    *Your* whole Premise is based on inverse racist generalizations.
    Fact: Elsberg squealed on a White POTUS.
    where is your proof that Democrats who are mostly CIVIL libertarians are all white ? or traitor blacks ?
    Where is your overwhelming proof (not ‘my friends’) are ALL out to get(destroy) the * BLACK* POTUS given that they voted for him twice!
    I’ll think it has more to do with other issues the fact that he’s not white is largely irrelevant except in the minds of those are hell bent on seeing it that way. I’ll put it to you if he had been a albino Kennedy and the policies are the same he/she or transgender will be getting the flack. It’s the policy sister. This Prez has used the 1900 odd act more times that any other.
    Ok I’ll accept that you favor Manning coping his punishment for breaking THE LAW to some degree so do I but unlike you , I believe in context and in his case death penalty ? 60 years in jail gees, ‘make the punishment fit the crime’ even in 1890′s with Gilbert and Sullivan’s satire “the Mikado” made that point.
    So far the all he’s done is expose things that either should be exposed or embarrassed a few Well duplicitous catty assessments of foreign dignitaries.
    Do I deify him No but neither do I equate his treatment with being routed by a cop under orders. Be of no alternative mind I deplore the without cause rousting .
    But to equate that with 12 months in the conditions Manning endured/ Gitmo/ or drone attacks…. please!
    They are all separate issues. Yes there is a link …the selective inhumanity of man . Beyond that you’re reaching two bridges and 50 miles of highway TOO FAR.

  9. examinator ant

    Part 2
    As I’ve state I too have had a life of race and physical discrimination and sexual abuse but I don’t make the 7 league Boots jump your anger does.
    The frisking problem is Crime issue not exclusively Black or Hispanic…80 years ago it was Italian / Irish that were the gangsters. One can and I would that that policing method is not tackling the cause.The cause of the crime is a humanity/ wealth/ opportunity issue.
    You are ignoring the reality that the root cause of the discrimination is the excesses of Capitalism . BTW black millionaires are just as prone to greed as whitie. After all the gangs are there to make money too. Drug distributors don’t do it because they want to spread peace of mind/ comfort.
    BTW much of you generalization better fits the Tea Baggers and not true Civil Libertarians. and or Rump Republicans/Democrats
    Dumbness , fear knows no color , religion or age.
    I seem to remember MLK 2 saying ‘racism will exist in this country until you can meet a man for the first time and 10 minutes later not remember his skin color’ Wise words and it applies to all colors including Black meeting whites.
    Someone once told me that ‘no matter how well you nurse a grudge or an injustice it will never get better’
    Yes they’re a bit twee however they still embody truths.
    I admit I have a fundamental seeing the same boundaries you do, people are people.
    i.e. I expose badness and accept wisdom where ever its found.

  10. Why are you pitting whistleblowers against whistleblowers, victims against victims, muckrackers against muckrakers?

    Manning took action because of injustices committed against Iraqis.

    So, none of the hundreds of thousands in Iraq who were bombed, strafed, raped, tortured, falsely arrested, or otherwise brutalized by our government were people of color?

    Actually, weren’t almost *all* of them people of color?

    Or are you saying that they don’t count, because these are not American people of color?

    We should be glad that Greenwald is tackling the “national security” end of the civil liberties/rights problem. It is not his responsibility to cover every single injustice, any more than those who focus on stopping coal-burning power plants also have to lead smoking cessation and lead abatement programs to be legit. Individuals can only do so much.

    We need 100 more columnists like Greenwald, not for one of the few strong and prominent voices to be targeted for speaking out. The problem lies in our institutions: police, military, government, not in those who do their part to expose them.

    • That Guy With The Ponytail

      OK, I’ll actually stipulate to Bradley Manning being a deeply troubled individual, most likely in a number of ways, as such things rarely compartmentalize well.

      That said, even he admits he did what he’s accused of doing. Does that not count for something?

      The first real issue is that most of the “civil libertarians” of the current era are far more libertarian than civil, in the classical sense of both ends of the term. Their arguments, such as they may be constructed, are far more about being able to do what they damn well please and quite a bi less in tune with the concept of a society where we have responsibilities as well as rights.

      There is also a trend to revise the concept of civil disobedience to the extent that participants no longer expect the sanctions that will inevitably follow, quite unlike those who did such things over the years ranging from Gandhi’s movement through the American Civil Rights years. At that point it stops being civil disobedience and becomes bad behavior.

      Since Greenwald is an advocate of such things – and the people who do them – I suggest we need not 100 more Greenwalds, rather we need one fewer. The sooner the smarmy self-promoting hypocrite sinks into well-warranted oblivion, the more I’ll like it.

      You won’t find many willing to take his side here, nor would any rational person so expect.

  11. The word salad above completely neglects to address the question raised (do any of the Iraqis oppressed by our government count as people of color to the author of this post?) while throwing out several inchoate red herrings to distract from that question.

    But since you raised those red herrings, let’s try to make sense of your misdirection.

    Does it matter if Manning is “troubled,” as far as the broader issues raised by his case? For example, prison conditions (such as prolonged solitary confinement, forced nudity, sensory deprivation, etc.) that other nations consider torture?

    Is it okay for troubled people to be tortured? Does one have to be a perfectly sane and “responsible” dissenter to be entitled to human rights?

    The schoolyard vitriol spewed here at Greenwald (who, by the way, I would bet has written at some point in his career about abuses like stop-and-frisk) smacks of “my injustice is better than your injustice—nyaah!”

    Is there some remote possibility here that one can be outraged by both stop-and-frisk *and* the persecution of whistleblowers—and that different voices will tackle different systemic abuses? If not, could someone provide a complete ranking of injustices in order of priority, so that we know whose suffering takes precedence? Sheesh.

    • Don’t you get it? A-rabs don’t count. They’re all a bunch of sexists who are probably anti-choice.

    • That Guy With The Ponytail

      Bradley Manning is, first and foremost, not, repeat NOT a “whistleblower” so much as a blithering idiot who stole government documents, admits it, and has become a cause despite his complete lack of consequence.

      Ever hear of not doing the crime if you can’t do the time?

      Glenn Greenwald is a sophomoric self-promoter who has frequently met injustices he can live with, as long as they don’t get his name mentioned.

      Is there some possibility you will ever write something useful, Mr. Definition of Word Salad?

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