Bradley Manning earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on the information war: Bradley Manning’s case is about more than freedom of speech

The young soldier has become a symbol of the information war and its discontents.

America will be judged by its treatment of Private Bradley Manning. The intelligence analyst was 22 years old when he was arrested for sending a cache of diplomatic and military secrets to the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks. This month, as his trial begins, he is 25 and facing life in prison, where he has already spent three years – much of it under conditions that the UN special rapporteur on torture deemed “cruel” and “inhuman” in 2012.

The US military has a history of getting out of torture allegations on technicalities. Its spokespeople would doubtless claim that keeping Manning in solitary confinement under strip lighting for 23 hours a day, forcing him to sleep naked and depriving him of all rights, strained at the definition of torture but did not snap it. Yet it was within the US military’s power to treat Manning as a human being. It chose instead to torment him in a tiny cell and seemed remarkably relaxed about who knew it. The message to everybody else is clear.

It is no surprise that Manning’s trial has generated at least as much interest and outrage internationally as it has done within the US. The reactions to his story fall into roughly three camps.

There are those to whom Manning represents everything loathsome about modernity. He is a queer, effeminate, angry nerd whose morality took precedence over his loyalty to the US military and who, perhaps worst of all, is frighteningly good at the internet. On the other hand, for every other nerd out there, for everyone who was ever bullied at school, for anyone who grew up different, as Manning did in small-town Oklahoma, his story provokes empathy.

Then there are those who feel that, regardless of whether Manning is a hero, a villain, a lost queer kid or a combination of the three, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are paramount – and so is the protection of whistle-blowers.

States maintain power, in part, by maintaining a monopoly on secrets. Both state and corporate power have historically been associated with the ability to operate beyond scrutiny and, in today’s information-rich society, where sharing data and leaking documents is getting easier than ever, there is an ideological battle taking place. On one side are those who believe that such secrecy is anachronistic. On the other are those determined to preserve it by smashing any dissent with ten-tonne fists.

Manning’s case is about more than whether or not whistle-blowers deserve protection. After all, he didn’t release just one item. The publication of the “collateral murder” video, which shows US troops gunning down civilians in Iraq from a helicopter, made very little impact either on those who already saw the war as unjust or on those who believe in America’s right to slaughter thousands of foreigners whenever it gets jumpy. The video was part of an enormous cache Manning sent to WikiLeaks, one that contained hundreds of thousands of classified documents that took teams of journalists months to read, never mind digest. This was a one-shot, one-man campaign against military secrecy and Manning may well spend the rest of his life in prison because of it.

The case isn’t just about whistle-blowing. It’s not even just about freedom of speech. This is about secrets, and who gets to have them, and from whom, and at what cost. As a gay soldier in an army in which being honest about your sexuality could get you fired, assaulted or both, Manning understood the tyranny of secrets on a personal as well as a political level. This was something made clear in the chat logs between Manning and Adrian Lamo, the hacker who turned him in. This is about information and who gets to hoard it. There are a great many people, not just in the military, who believe that states and institutions operate best by keeping swaths of the population ignorant of their workings. There are a great many people, not just in the US, who are suspicious of unsupervised information exchange, of mass higher education and of the internet. Right now, Manning is only the most high-profile of a large number of “hacktivists” and “crackers” being persecuted for sharing information they weren’t supposed to have. Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer, in prison for hacking the telecoms firm AT&T, is one. Aaron Swartz, who took his own life in January while facing prosecution for downloading millions of subscription-only academic journals, was another.

There are countless more going through the courts in the US and elsewhere. The US is fighting not only a war on “terror” in the Middle East but a war on information in cyberspace. In choosing to give military secrets to WikiLeaks, Manning placed himself on the front line of both.

If there was a chance for us to understand the real Manning, that chance disappeared somewhere between Quantico and a hundred magazine features attempting to dissect the young, gay soldier’s mental state. He has become a symbol of the information war and its discontents. Yet, conveniently for their persecutors, symbols such as Manning have hearts that can be stressed and stilled and bodies that can be brutalised as a warning to others. Every institution faces the choice between appearing just and appearing powerful. The US military, in its treatment of Bradley Manning, has made its choice.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians

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We're running out of time to stop a hard Brexit - and the consequences are terrifying

Liam Fox has nothing to say and Labour has thrown the towel in. 

Another day goes past, and still we’re no clearer to finding out what Brexit really means. Today secretary of state for international trade, Liam Fox, was expected to use a speech to the World Trade Organisation to announce that the UK is on course to leave the EU’s single market, as reported earlier this week. But in a humiliating climb-down, he ended up saying very little at all except for vague platitudes about the UK being in favour of free trade.

At a moment when the business community is desperate for details about our future trading arrangements, the International Trade Secretary is saying one thing to the papers and another to our economic partners abroad. Not content with insulting British businesses by calling them fat and lazy, it seems Fox now wants to confuse them as well.

The Tory Government’s failure to spell out what Brexit really means is deeply damaging for our economy, jobs and global reputation. British industry is crying out for direction and for certainty about what lies ahead. Manufacturers and small businesses who rely on trade with Europe want to know whether Britain’s membership of the single market will be preserved. EU citizens living in Britain and all the UK nationals living in Europe want to know whether their right to free movement will be secured. But instead we have endless dithering from Theresa May and bitter divisions between the leading Brexiteers.

Meanwhile the Labour party appears to have thrown in the towel on Europe. This week, Labour chose not to even debate Brexit at their conference, while John McDonnell appeared to confirm he will not fight for Britain’s membership of the single market. And the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, who hardly lifted a finger to keep us in Europe during the referendum, confirms the party is not set to change course any time soon.

That is not good enough. It’s clear a hard Brexit would hit the most deprived parts of Britain the hardest, decimating manufacturing in sectors like the car industry on which so many skilled jobs rely. The approach of the diehard eurosceptics would mean years of damaging uncertainty and barriers to trade with our biggest trading partners. While the likes of Liam Fox and boris Johnson would be busy travelling the world cobbling together trade deals from scratch, it would be communities back home who pay the price.

We are running out of time to stop a hard Brexit. Britain needs a strong, united opposition to this Tory Brexit Government, one that will fight for our membership of the single market and the jobs that depend on it. If Labour doesn’t fill this gap, the Liberal Democrats will.

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.