Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning’s appeal for a presidential pardon casts a spotlight on the role Obama himself had in Manning’s conviction. He was not a bystander in the process; as Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jónsdóttir pointed out, the military commander-in-chief had declared his certainty of Manning’s guilt before the trial had even begun.
The prosecution was closely guided by the government, which demanded a sentence of 60 years, or a lifetime in jail. The judge gave him 35 years, but even with remission he will be dishonorably discharged, losing pay and pension rights, so will presumably be condemned to a life of homelessness after release. Meanwhile those responsible for actual crimes and military atrocities remain at liberty.
David Coombs, Manning’s defense lawyer, told journalist Alexa O’Brien on Democracy Now that not only was the government’s unprecedented charge of aiding the enemy presented without supporting evidence, “in every other charging decision that they made, they pushed the envelope of, and even strained, any realistic reading of what the law is. … It was almost a win-at-all-costs mentality. … every day we had a group of people behind the prosecution, that just sat there. Occasionally they would pass notes to the trial counsel … clearly there were outside influences. … They never deviated from pushing the envelope.”
Does the punitive sentence justify Chris Hedges’ conclusion that “There are no institutional mechanisms left to halt the shredding of our most fundamental civil liberties … State power is to be, from now on, unchecked, unfettered and unregulated”? To assume the defeat of democracy is premature, although Hedges’ frustration at the apparent public docility over these STASI-like stratagems is understandable. It may be that, as Juan Cole says, “the government took us another step down the road to authoritarian government by convicting [Manning] on espionage charges, confusing leaking with spying for the enemy,” but this step hasn’t yet brought us to a police state. The real issue is, where are we on this road?
The detention of David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald’s partner, by the British government at Heathrow was intended to send a message of intimidation to the journalist and his publisher, but another message got sent instead. As Greenwald wrote: “every time the US and UK governments show their true character to the world – when they prevent the Bolivian President’s plane from flying safely home, when they threaten journalists with prosecution, when they engage in behavior like what they did today – all they do is helpfully underscore why it’s so dangerous to allow them to exercise vast, unchecked spying power in the dark.”
The Guardian added: “The detention of Mr Miranda subverts the benefit of the doubt that liberal democracies ask for when they arm themselves against terrorism.” While the White House distanced itself from the heavy-handed way British authorities acted, it did so because their ineptness makes it too clear that the security state does not exist to protect its citizens but to pursue the political agendas of its global masters.
In other words, the extreme nature of the security state’s reaction to Snowden and Manning’s revelations indicates its vulnerability to exposure. This would be unimportant if the public had already accepted the existence of unfettered state power, if its democratic spirit had already been crushed. The threat to state power comes from the possibility that increased scrutiny will lose it popular acceptance of its authority to govern.
Some argue that nation-states are being transformed into “globalized states that serve the interests of transnational capital above the interests of national populations.” A strengthening of the executive branch, in this view, corresponds to relatively autonomous elite rule, weakening the state’s connection with citizens “as the state follows capital into a new global economic system.”
However, there is a tension between this trend and the actual source of governmental legitimacy in popular sovereignty. To avoid major unrest, it is vital for a state to hide from its population how much of its independence has been sacrificed to international capital; in the case of the US, it means concealing the extent to which democratic rights have been superseded by strategic moves towards authoritarian rule. This may go some way to explain why Obama, elected on a platform of transparency, has been so active in defending state secrecy.
Yves Smith suggests that these moves have been exposed to the public before the plutocracy is ready to enforce them. “It isn’t just that the economic rights for ordinary workers and the social safety nets of the New Deal and the earlier labor movements here and abroad are being demolished. … ordinary people are increasingly aware of [the program], and the folks behind it didn’t want to be caught out at this delicate stage. Imagine if you were executing a coup and got exposed, before you had seized all the critical installations you needed to capture for your victory to be complete. The collective awareness of the degree of loss of economic and political rights we had all taken for granted has risen considerably as a result of the Snowden/ Greenwald/ Poitras revelations.”
Apart from domestic surveillance of its citizens, what else does the US government want to hide? Two secret agreements currently being negotiated are the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the US-EU “Free Trade” agreement. Just like the NSA, Congress has nominal oversight of the negotiations while in practice legislators cannot examine the details because the text is classified. Corporations, on the other hand, have participated in the drafting of the agreements.
According to economist Dean Baker, the deals are about securing regulatory gains for major corporate interests, enforcing patent and copyright protection across national borders which threaten to increase prices on specific items like patented drugs by a factor of thousands above the market price. He says: “The Obama administration is negotiating these pacts in secret. It has made almost nothing about the negotiating process public and has shared none of the proposed text with the relevant committees in Congress. … This is yet another case where the government is working for a tiny elite against the interests of the bulk of the population.”
The administration’s close identification with corporate rent-enforcing is confirmed by the political orientation of Obama’s top advisors. One of them, Jim Messina, the campaign manager of his 2012 reelection campaign and chairman of his ongoing grass-roots lobbying operation, has become a consultant to the reelection of the austerity-enforcing, anti-public sector and anti-immigrant party of British prime minister David Cameron.
Harold Meyerson commented that this ideological side-step “reflects an emerging set of political beliefs among some younger Democratic Party leaders who have grown close to Wall Street, Silicon Valley or both – as Messina did while bringing both big money and technological wizardry to Obama’s reelection campaign. This umpteenth iteration of the New Democrats believes in such socially liberal causes as gay marriage but is skeptical of unions and appalled at economic populism.”
The “technological wizardry” of Obama’s reelection campaign treated voters in the same way that Amazon or Google treats consumers – as data points in a spreadsheet to be manipulated. There is a convergence in outlook between the security state, the corporate elite, and leading corporate Democrats like Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and Newark mayor Cory Booker, who defended Wall Street during the election controversy over Bain Capital’s plant closings.
But senators like Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, and Representative Justin Amash, who have fought to reveal the extent of state surveillance are leveraging a bipartisan popular mood of resistance that is increasingly in opposition to corporate Democrats – all of whose Congressional representatives voted against the Amash bill to defund the NSA. They reflect a Congressional leadership increasingly losing its trust in Obama’s credibility. They are catching up with the rest of us.