WHATEVER the outcome of his trial, Bradley Manning was never likely to be given a medal by a grateful nation.
Edward Snowden's chances of a vote of thanks from Congress were always slim. Glenn Greenwald or Julian Assange can talk all they like about the public's right to know. Governments don't hand out prizes to those alleged to have handled stolen goods with subversive intent.
The consciences of these individuals and others like them might well be pristine. The fact rarely, if ever, cuts much ice in a courtroom. Barack Obama, while neatly prejudging the case of Private Manning, gave the establishment's view on these delicate ethical matters. "We're a nation of laws," explained the commander-in-chief before the soldier's trial. "We don't individually make our own decisions about how the laws operate … He broke the law."
So what if the law stinks, Mr President? What if those who make and operate the laws are malign and corrupt and doing their best to suppress this truth? What is to be done if an administration - your administration, conspicuously - has set out to persecute those who tell the truth and is exploiting a nation's laws simply to protect itself?
By the American government's confession, not a single individual was harmed because Manning passed three-quarters-of-a-million documents touching on the State Department, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Guantanamo prison, to WikiLeaks and Assange. At minimum, the citizens of the US became better informed about their government's actions. The rest of us, if we had not already guessed a few truths, understood the world better. For this, Manning has been sentenced to 35 years in prison.
On one reading, the list of charges against him under the Uniform Code of Military Justice could be summarised easily: he was guilty of embarrassing the state. Astonishingly, he was one of around eight million people with access to the information he leaked, but Manning exercised his conscience. Does America truly want soldiers who can divest themselves of that faculty on command?
Those who applaud the private as a hero are absolutely right, then, but the fact settles no arguments. What was the Pentagon supposed to do? Promote Manning? Was it then to invite the rest of the eight million individuals with security clearance to vet every command decision for ethical purity? Even the idea that a whistleblower should be able to "raise his concerns" is puerile. Manning's revelations were not news to his superiors. They believed - perhaps in good faith - in what they were doing.
His conscience was in conflict with military discipline. An individual had set himself against the collective will of an institution. On enlistment, moreover, Manning had taken an oath of obedience, specifically to "obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me". Yet here was a soldier asserting that he could pick and choose. When he helped himself to those classified documents he was claiming, in effect, that his conscience was paramount.
The paradox is ancient. In every culture on the planet, conscience is venerated. Religions exalt it; those who follow its dictates are celebrated. We accept, and sometimes praise, the conscientious objector. Parliamentary conscience votes are held to be cornerstones of democracy. After it reminds us about freedom and dignity, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that we are each "endowed with reason and conscience" and should act accordingly.
This was tough luck on Bradley Manning. Conscience will probably be American computer specialist Edward Snowden's misfortune, too, if he has any hope of ever again leading a normal life after leaking top-secret details of United States and British government mass surveillance programs. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will have plenty of time to ponder liberty while stuck in the Ecuadorian embassy.
For his part, Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald - who reported on the Snowden leaks and whose partner was arrested at Heathrow airport under the Terrorism Act - might be advised to steer clear of his American homeland for a decade or two. Governments are rather less in awe of conscience than they claim.
Again, this counts as paradoxical. The United Nations declaration states categorically, at its beginning: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought,
conscience and religion." The US and the UK both said amen to that on signing the document in 1948, but both still insist that governments must have secrets and that armies must have obedience. If we choose to support Manning or Snowden, WikiLeaks or The Guardian, we had better work out why the UN declaration isn't necessarily true.
"I only followed orders" is usually held to be one of the least plausible defences offered by those who ignore their consciences and commit terrible acts. In fact, it has been rejected as a legal defence since the Nazis contrived the formulation at Nuremberg. What excuse, we ask ourselves, could be more pathetic or self-serving? Who dares to hide behind miserable "orders" after committing mass murder?
In reality, the fascist killers had a point, of sorts. The German military code under which they operated did, in fact, explicitly rule out conscience as a justification for disobedience. The comparison might disgust Obama, but precisely the same attitude has been applied to Manning and to Snowden. Conscience is no excuse, it seems, in the American "nation of laws", one that supposedly values personal morality above all else.
So every soldier disgusted by what he did in Iraq or Afghanistan is entitled, presumably, to claim that he only followed orders. Every operative at GCHQ or the NSA, busy stripping his fellow citizens of the right to privacy, can take refuge in the duty of obedience on which governments depend.
Those same governments can then excoriate other regimes for their treatment of prisoners of conscience. The contradictions will be ignored because, supposedly, they must be ignored.
For all that, the defence of Manning or Snowden remains patchy. These are brave, ethical individuals. Their consciences would put the rest of us, cowardly in most things, to shame. The soldier has, in effect, sacrificed his young life. The NSA contractor has given up career, relationships and family for the sake of the public's right to know. In both cases the issues at stake and the abuses exposed vindicate these two Americans. But they might yet give us the wrong idea about the miracle of conscience.
It can be clear, it can be overwhelming and it can be dead wrong. Having a conscience proves nothing. Some people, driven by conscience, will refuse to allow medical treatment for their children. Some will burn books, harass journalists, lie to parliament, or make a profit for their company no matter what.
Conscience compels bigots, fanatics, traitors, demagogues and anyone else whose sincere, deeply-held ideas strike the rest of us as stupid or wrong. Some people are terrorists precisely because of what they call conscience.
You could dismiss them as hypocrites. You could call them deluded. Those words have been thrown at Manning and Snowden often enough. But when the people laying the charges are fostering the lie that terrorism excuses every act of government, from mass surveillance to detention without trial, another argument comes into play. What confers legitimacy? Given the treatment of Greenwald's partner, David Miranda, the case for Obama's nation of laws, and for the rule of law, becomes flimsy.
Who believes a proven liar when he says he is acting in good faith? These days, the governments of Britain and the US invite that question. It trumps the claimed need for obedience in armies, for secrecy, for mass surveillance.
Anti-terrorism legislation was misused to harass and intimidate Miranda in an effort to protect the state's agents from exposure. In the process, the state forfeited its moral rights. All that then remained was coercion. And whose conscience, beset by paradoxes as it might be, finds that tolerable?
In 1967, under the editorship of Harry Evans, The Sunday Times was a rather different newspaper from the one still enjoyed by some today.
In that year it set out to investigate the case of Kim Philby, chief among the "Cambridge spies" and the most important agent the Soviet KGB had ever placed within the British Secret Service. Evans believed that the public had a right to know what had really taken place. Much as in the case of Snowden, Greenwald and The Guardian, the Government moved heaven and earth to shut down the investigation.
The excuse was that aid and comfort would be given to an enemy. The same tale is being told today, of course. Then, as now, the enemy already knew all it needed to know. The Government's aim was simply to prevent the exposure of official failures and wrong-doing. The difference was that Philby was a known, notorious and avowed traitor. Yet he, too, was a man of conscience.
Tracked down in Moscow by The Sunday Times, Philby was asked the reasons for his treason. He said: "To betray, you must first belong. I never belonged. I have followed exactly the same line the whole of my adult life. The fight against fascism and the fight against imperialism are fundamentally the same fight." Had he said as much in another context, Philby would have been acclaimed as a British hero. Had his conscience suited the state's purpose, there would have been no betrayal.
PHILBY picked the wrong side. Yet how would he have been regarded in Britain if he had been Russian-born, defecting from the KGB? No doubt as one who had struck a blow against a totalitarian state with a taste for mass surveillance, oppressive policing, arbitrary detention, self-serving secrecy and the abuse of prisoners of conscience. Contrast and compare.
Sometimes these things are a matter of perspective. Isolated incident or not, Miranda's experiences at Heathrow would not have been out of place in Putin's Russia. A Chinese Bradley Manning would probably have been shot out of hand, but the government that keeps a mentally fragile prisoner naked in solitary confinement and then hands him 35 years inside is hardly less cruel.
In both cases, the governments involved assert there was no choice. Secrecy and obedience are essential to security, runs the mantra. Yet where does the individual conscience turn when those demanding extraordinary privileges spurn the idea of consent? When the right to privacy is withdrawn secretly from hundreds of millions of people, when those who reveal the truth are hunted and punished, there is no free society. When that happens, there is no legitimacy, only power.
Why the official frenzy over WikiLeaks, over Snowden, over Greenwald and The Guardian if no "agents in the field" died, if phone tapping and email hacking were old news for the average terrorist?
In essence, it seems, governments grew vindictive simply because they were being forced to justify behaviour they had kept from the rest of us. The Heathrow incident was a sure sign of panic, proof that "Whitehall" doesn't yet know what else Snowden might reveal. Clearly, the spooks and politicians suspect he has material that will make them look very bad indeed.
If that is the case, ministers might bear in mind their own reassuring words. David Cameron, William Hague and Theresa May never tire of them. The words sound so simple, so much like common sense. Thus: "If you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear." That goes for politicians, too.
Or rather, it should. We know better. Changing a government - and this counts as a clue - changes nothing. In America, Obama has been at least as relentless in his pursuit of whistleblowers as George Bush ever was. In Britain, the Coalition is abusing the anti-terror laws put in place by Labour. On both sides of the Atlantic, "terror" has become the all-purpose, Orwellian excuse for any and every exercise of state power. Military obedience is necessary; official secrecy is essential; and the conscience of the individual, right to wrong, is subversive.
The alternative to a soldier disobeying his orders is a soldier obeying every order, no matter how foul. The alternative to secrecy, patently, is shared truth.
Governments which want obedient troops and state secrets must either justify their claims, or impose their will. Your opinion on the choices now being made is, of course, between you and your conscience.
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