On Thursday morning Pacific Time, a group of Bradley Manning supporters staged a flashmob at a Barack Obama fundraising event in San Francisco. Even more amazingly, one of those supporters, Logan Price, was able to question the US President directly afterwards:
Here’s a close-to-verbatim account of what was said:
So people can have philosophical views [about Bradley Manning] but I can’t conduct diplomacy on an open source [basis]… That’s not how the world works.
And if you’re in the military… And I have to abide by certain rules of classified information. If I were to release material I weren’t allowed to, I’d be breaking the law.
We’re a nation of laws! We don’t let individuals make their own decisions about how the laws operate. He broke the law.
[Q: Didn't he release evidence of war crimes?]
What he did was he dumped…
[Q: Isn't that just the same thing as what Daniel Ellsberg did?]
No it wasn’t the same thing. Ellsberg’s material wasn’t classified in the same way.
I suppose it’s reassuring to hear the US President reaffirming the importance of the rule of law (if not, unfortunately, the principle of innocent until proven guilty). Nevertheless, if “we don’t let individuals make their own decisions about how the laws operate” maybe he should point this out to James Averhart, who decided off his own back that suicide watch could be used as a means of punishment rather than protection.
Barack Obama might also want to have a quiet word with Denise Barnes about the use of forced nudity as a punitive measure. The President may moreover find it worthwhile to talk to that “senior official” at Quantico who reportedly ruled back in January that Bradley Manning should never have his Prevention of Injury Order lifted, against the repeated recommendations of Quantico psychiatrists. This same official is quoted as saying: “We’ll do whatever we want.”
It seems increasingly evident that at least one civilian and at least one military official at the Pentagon has come to the conclusion that these three individuals and their – how should I put this? Interesting use of initiative? – now have the potential to cause them very serious problems indeed once David Coombs’ writ of habeas corpus receives due consideration. There is ample precedent in case law that members of the US military are entitled to due process in that they are presumed innocent until proven otherwise and that procedures for the relief of their conditions need to work in a fair way and not be subject to the predetermination of military authorities.
Not only do the acts of certain individuals at Quantico risk putting the entire legal process against Bradley Manning in jeopardy, should those inividuals be found to be at fault, there is a mechanism by which they may be found personally responsible. Article 93 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice provides that “Any person … who is guilty of cruelty toward, or oppression or maltreatment of, any person subject to his orders shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.” If the US is indeed a “nation of laws”, then they should have reason to be concerned.
A great piece has just been posted at WLCentral that takes a different – somewhat more pessimistic – slant on Obama’s words, noting that the US President is an individual who very much can “make decisions about how the law operates”:
Ideally, the US is a nation of laws but in reality it is not. The Executive Branch led by the President of the United States can choose what legal restrictions to abide by and what not to and it can choose what violations of the law to prosecute and what not to prosecute.
This being so, the author argues that when a figure with this kind of discretion openly dispenses with any sensitivity to the case being sub judice, the ramifications are very serious indeed:
Displaying this attitude that he is guilty before he actually is put on trial and convicted may prejudice Manning’s case. In the same way that criminal and civil liberties lawyer Alan Dershowitz suggested former President George W. Bush was prejudicing the legal process against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange when he declared [he had] “willfully and repeatedly done great harm” and refused to participate in an event with Assange.
Michael Whitney at firedoglake clarifies that the writ of habeas corpus David Coombs was considering filing is now “moot” as a result of the move. Shame.
Barack Obama’s predetermination of the case against Bradley Manning is now being picked up by mainstream media outlets. CBS are now covering the story, the New York Daily News (whose record on reporting this case is not great) concede it “may have run afoul of Presidential protocol” and Politico actually cite a couple of commentators unafraid to take the President to task:
“The comment was not appropriate because it assumes that Manning is guilty,” Steven Aftergood, a classified information expert at the Federation of American Scientists, told POLITICO. “The president got carried away and misspoke. No one should mistake a charge for a conviction – especially the nation’s highest official.”
Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice and military law expert, predicted that before the end of the day the White House will have issued a corrective statement.
That “corrective statement” has yet to appear.
An updated version of the Politico article includes a not-terribly-convincing response from the White House:
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Obama was in fact making a general statement that did not go specifically to the charges against Manning. “The president was emphasizing that, in general, the unauthorized release of classified information is not a lawful act,” he said Friday night. “He was not expressing a view as to the guilt or innocence of Pfc. Manning specifically.”
This is, to say the least, an interesting interpretation of the sentence “He broke the law.”
Politico then cite Steven Aftergood and Eugene Fidell on the likelihood of Obama’s comments having an influence on Manning’s court martial:
Aftergood and Fidell agreed that Obama’s remarks — while unfortunate — probably will not affect whether Manning will receive a fair trial. “It’s not that hard to ensure that unlawful command influence hasn’t in fact prejudiced the right to a fair trial,” Fidell explained. “If the case goes to a court marshal, the military court will have to make sure that none of the members of the military jury have been influenced by the president’s stated belief that Manning broke the law.”
It is not surprising that the White House is keen to play down this incident. Military case law indicates that “pretrial publicity itself may constitute unlawful command influence” (United States v. Simpson, 58 MJ 368) and, if this is raised at court martial, the US Government will have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the case has not been prejudiced. (United States v. Reed, 65 M.J. 487) Should unlawful command influence be proven, incidentally, then dismissal of the case is possible “as a last resort.” (United States v. Douglas, 68 M.J. 349)
Glenn Greenwald has now written a typically excellent piece on all this, pointing out the hypocrisy of Obama calling the US a “nation of laws”:
…it’s long been clear that this is Obama’s understanding of “a nation of laws”: the most powerful political and financial elites who commit the most egregious crimes are to be shielded from the consequences of their lawbreaking — see his vote in favor of retroactive telecom immunity, his protection of Bush war criminals, and the way in which Wall Street executives were permitted to plunder with impunity — while the most powerless figures (such as a 23-year-old Army Private and a slew of other low-level whistleblowers) who expose the corruption and criminality of those elites are to be mercilessly punished. And, of course, our nation’s lowest persona non grata group — accused Muslim Terrorists — are simply to be encaged for life without any charges. Merciless, due-process-free punishment is for the powerless; full-scale immunity is for the powerful. “Nation of laws” indeed.
Greenwald also draws attention to this interesting precedent of a US President pre-judging a criminal case. This example involves Richard Nixon and, as Greenwald points out, what Obama has done is arguably far worse:
Amazingly, this incident … is highly redolent of the time Richard Nixon publicly declared Charles Manson’s guilt before the accused mass murderer had been convicted. Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell, was at Nixon’s side when he did it and immediately recognized the impropriety of Nixon’s remarks, and the White House quickly issued a statement claiming that Nixon misspoke and meant merely to suggest Manson had been “charged” with these crimes, not that he was guilty of them. Obama’s decree was worse, of course, since (a) Obama has direct command authority over those who will judge Manning (unlike Nixon vis-a-vis Manson’s jurors); (b) Manson’s jurors were sequestered at the time and thus not exposed to Nixon’s proclamation; and (c) Obama is directly responsible for the severe punishment to which Manning has already been subjected (h/t lysias).