Letter from the US: Manning, Snowden have changed the debate

Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

When NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden gave his first public interview in Hong Kong, he said his greatest fear was that his revelations of huge US government spy programs might fall on deaf ears.

If that had happened, then his great personal sacrifice would have been for naught.

WikiLeaks whistleblower Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Snowden have paid a steep price for revealing US war crimes and the US government's huge violations of the Bill of Rights and global spying program.

Manning was sentenced to 35 years in a military stockade for exposing the truth. Snowden has been forced into exile, hunted by the criminal administration in Washington.

But their sacrifices have not been in vain. Manning and Snowden have met their aim of initiating a serious discussion of these matters nationally and internationally.

Snowden’s revelations, coming after those of Manning, changed the context of Manning’s court-martial. The exposure of the secret NSA programs caused many to begin to question Washington’s real intentions in prosecuting the soldier.

WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange said Manning’s sentence was a partial victory, in that it was much less than what the administration wanted. The prosecutors argued strongly for a life sentence without the possibility of parole for “aiding the enemy” — in essence, treason.

The atmosphere created by Snowden’s revelations made that impossible. Their final demand was a sentence of 60 years, a virtual life sentence.

Manning’s lawyers say she will be eligible for parole in about seven years, having been given credit for the over three years she has already been held in prison, which included months of torture.

Her defence now moves into a new phase. After she was sentenced, Manning issued a strong open appeal to President Barack Obama for a pardon. That will be pursued legally.

Then Manning publicly stated she would now live her life as a woman, and changed her name to Chelsea. She said she would seek medical treatments to change her physical body accordingly.

The army immediately responded that it would allow no such treatments. Now Chelsea is challenging that in the courts. This is part of the fight for her to receive fair and good treatment in prison in general.

These campaigns will help keep her case in the public eye, and prepare, if necessary, to fight for her early release at the first opportunity for parole.

The New York Times editorialised that Manning’s sentence was “excessive”. But it said she deserved some punishment because she broke the law by revealing classified documents.

Manning should not have been charged at all for revealing serious crimes by the US government and military. But the NYT's position reflects a division in the ruling class over the Manning-Snowden revelations.

Another indication was a close vote in the House of Representatives against defunding the NSA’s program of monitoring every phone call in the US. Obama has also noted the unease in the country over the NSA’s spying.

Another aspect causing unease is the issue of freedom of the press. The Justice Department is seeking to force NUT reporter James Risen to testify in its case against former CIA officer Jeffry Sterling.

The Justice Department alleges Sterling leaked classified information to Risen for his coverage of the CIA. So far, Risen has resisted testifying, but he might face contempt of court charges.

The administration would like to move against the NYT and other papers for printing some of Manning’s and Snowden’s revelations, but they are afraid of creating a backlash.

Now some US officials are seeking to put groups like WikiLeaks in a new category of “non-legitimate” journalism, that would not be protected by the constitutional guarantees of press freedom.

Such a move would raise its own problems for the ruling class, such as in reporting by social media. Would a teenager who posted Snowden’s documents be fair game for the spooks?

It is likely Assange is already under secret indictment for publishing Manning’s material, as well as for aiding Snowden.

A section of the ruling class does not want to go that far in tearing up the Bill of Rights.

Another cause for concern in ruling class circles has been the wide international repercussions of Manning’s release of State Department cables embarrassing to the government, and the wide international net of the NSA’s spying.

A recent release of documents leaked by Snowden to journalist Glenn Greenwald, reported in Der Spiegel, revealed new information of US spying on Germans. The revelations created consternation.

Even conservative German Chancellor Angela Merkel has raised the need for a mutual pact with the US against spying on each other’s government, citizens, and businesses — a suggestion to which Obama has not even replied.

Another new revelation reveals the NSA has broken into the encrypted discussions in United Nations delegations, in violation of UN rules.

The ham-fisted way that US and British authorities have targeted Snowden has raised international concern. Washington’s bid to capture Snowden, going so far as to force down an official plane carrying Bolivia's president, has created an international uproar.

Further outrage was generated when Greenwald's partner, David Miranda, was detained at London’s Heathrow airport for nine hours.

Miranda was on his way back to Brazil from a meeting in Berlin with journalist Laura Poitras, who is working with Greenwald on further Snowden releases.

The British political police claimed they were acting under a law to ferret out information about terrorism.

But the spooks didn’t even raise anything about terrorism when they grilled Miranda. Greenwald said: “The only thing they were interested in was NSA documents and what I was doing with Laura Poitras.”

British authorities confiscated all Miranda’s electronic documents and equipment. A court later ruled that his computers and records would have to be returned, but gave the police seven days to copy them.

The Brazilian government strongly objected. There is no doubt London acted in collaboration with Washington.

The British political police also threatened to shut down The Guardian, its editor Alan Rusbridger revealed. This was in retaliation for the paper’s publishing material from WikiLeaks and Greenwald.

The police said they would shut down the paper unless it turned over its hard drives containing the leaked material, or destroyed the hard drives. Rusbridger decided to destroy them under the watchful eyes of three police thugs.

The act was ridiculous since the material on the hard drives exists elsewhere. The intent was clearly to intimidate.

The credibility of the US administration has been damaged, both the revelations (and there are more to come), and the authoritarian response.

That this has caused consternation at the top presents new opportunities to expose the truth about Washington’s crimes. When thieves fall out, we should take advantage.

[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]