Supporters of U.S. Army Private First Class Bradley Manning gesture outside the courthouse at Fort Meade, Maryland. Reuters
Do citizens exist for the State or is the reverse true? This question has assumed much significance once again in the wake of Tuesday’s guilty verdict in the case of Bradley Manning, the US army private, who leaked hundreds of thousands of confidential State Department cables to whistle-blower website WikiLeaks.
Although the military court-martial which heard the case cleared him of the charge of aiding the enemy, Manning was found guilty of multiple charges under the Espionage Act for giving classified material to WikiLeaks. If democracy is all about transparency, how can sharing information with fellow citizens be a crime? Manning did what an increasingly secretive regime had failed to do -- a regime that stands accused of violating the fundamental principles of the social contract, to which the State owes its existence.
The State came into being as a result of the people living within an area giving up some of their rights to a governing entity to ensure and enhance their security. Political theorists explain this transformation from the State of Nature to a politically organsied society in terms of a social contract.
While Thomas Hobbes’ explanation of the social contract justifies authoritarianism, democracy is well rooted in John Locke’s exposition of the social contract theory. According to Locke, the State derives its legitimacy to govern only as long as it enjoys the people’s support. The people have the right to revolt against the rulers if they violate the social contract. Since people enjoyed freedom subject to the God-given Law of Nature, the State cannot infringe on liberty. The State’s primary role is ensuring the people’s right to life, liberty and property.
US Army Private First Class Bradley Manning leaves a military court facility after hearing his verdict in the trial at Fort Meade, Maryland on July 30. AFP
But it appears that many a democratic state founded on the principles espoused by Locke will fit into Hobbes’ interpretation of the social contract. The United States’ founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson were highly influenced by Locke’s social contract principles; but today the US is defending the right of the state to exercise absolute authority, violate individual liberty and to be secretive.
The Bradley Manning episode is just another case that underscores the erosion of liberty in the US which was founded on the principles of liberty, morality and justice. Prior to the Manning court martial which began in June, the soldier had spent much of his three-year detention in solitary confinement in a tiny cell and under harsh conditions which the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture described last year as “cruel” and “inhuman”. A democratic state does not torture its citizens, though it punishes them for crimes in terms of legislation adopted in a referendum or enacted by people’s representatives in the legislature. But the United States is accused of not only resorting to torture, but also running a secret rendition programme by which terror suspects were transferred to countries notorious for torture.
A truly democratic state does not hide affairs of the state from its citizens. But many governments do, claiming secrecy is necessary in the greater interest of the people. The then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Manning’s action had put people’s lives in danger, threatened the US national security, and undermined the US efforts to work with other countries to solve shared problems.
But Clinton and other backers of strong government chose not to see Manning’s action as a warning by a concerned US citizen to fellow citizens that the government is veering away from morality, which is one of the key elements in Locke’s social contract theory. The theory assumes that morality, which pre-existed organised politics or the State, was not compromised when the State was formed. Therefore, according to Locke, a state cannot be immoral. Democracy is much more than mere elections. It involves commitment to morality and freedom.
But Manning helped the US citizens and the rest of the world know that the US military was a killing machine. He leaked to the WikiLeaks website a video which showed US troops in a military helicopter gunning down unarmed Iraqi civilians, among whom were a Reuters journalist and his driver. A democratic state does not commit such crimes. Even if such crimes occur, a democratic state will make it public and take corrective measures to ensure that they do not take place again. But the United States hid its crimea from its citizens and the rest of the world to commit more crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. If Manning had not leaked the video, would we have known of this horror? If a concerned military officer had not posted on the internet the sex-torture pictures of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, the US regime which is increasingly becoming undemocratic, would have hushed it up.
There is some merit in the argument that the State has to be secretive in the greater interest of the people. This is why there is no public protest in democracies when state documents are classified. In the US, too, documents are classified based on their sensitivity and released after twenty years or more, depending on the nature of the classification. But the point of contention is that a matter regarded by the government as sensitive may, in the view of the people, be vital information required to protect democracy and the people’s wellbeing. Manning thought likewise and felt that the people should be the ultimate judge who should decide on sensitivity – not the regime which has lost much of its democratic features.
In the United States, where polls show that a majority of the people do not see Manning as a traitor, the government’s right to decide on sensitivity is not challenged because the people, erroneously or otherwise, assume that the government will not betray the trust. But the recent revelations by whistleblowers such as Manning and Edward Snowden show that the government is far from what the people think it is. It has become secretive and immoral, resorting to even lies and deception if it serves the interest of the politicians and their funders, including capitalists and foreign governments.
The controversy surrounding the Israeli attack on the US warship, USS Liberty in 1967 is a case in point. To date, little is known about this incident in which some 34 American servicemen died. It was only in 2003, i.e. 36 years after the attack in the Mediterranean Sea that the US National Security Agency released some documents and tapes. But critics say the selective disclosure was aimed at giving credence to the US government’s position that the attack was accidental. On the contrary, a signed affidavit to the US Congress by a Navy attorney involved in the inquiry claimed that former President Lyndon Johnson and his defence secretary, Robert McNamara, ordered that the inquiry conclude the incident was an accident. In 2007, declassified documents in Israel indicated that the attack was no accident.
Successive US governments have successfully dodged the demands that all documents pertaining to the incident be declassified. Activists say this is a clear case of elected US leaders giving more importance to the interests of Israel and Israeli lobbyists, who are the big funders of their election campaigns, than the US citizens’ right to know.
Manning was fighting the government’s tyranny of secrets. But his argument has no place in a court where judges hold law above the people’s right to know and the need for greater transparency in governance. People surrendered some of their rights to the State when they agreed to move from the State of Nature to organised political society on an assurance that there will be transparency and their right to know was not violated.
Also being violated with impunity is the people’s right to privacy, a right that pre-existed the State, a right which the people did not surrender. But the Snowden revelations show that the government, far from upholding this right, has become more intrusive.
On Wednesday, Britain’s Guardian newspaper published some leaked Snowden slides that detail a secret US surveillance system known as XKeyscore. The programme enabled US intelligence agents to monitor “nearly everything a typical user does on the internet”. According to the latest Snowden revelation, the secret NSA programme allows analysts to search with no prior authorisation through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals. This opens the way for a huge opportunity for blackmail by renegade intelligence officers who have access to people’s secret lives.
Also on Wednesday the Obama administration agreed to declassify -- once again as expected only highly redacted selective details -- regarding the government’s surveillance programme. Intelligence officials of the police state that the US has become described the declassification as a move in the “interest of increased transparency”.
If they say monitoring the people’s phone calls or internet browsing was necessary to ensure national security – an excuse behind which many a dictator has taken cover to justify tyranny and oppression – the US government should have warned the people about the programme; warned them that they were being watched; warned them that the NSA was obtaining their private details, from phone companies like Verizon and internet giants such as Google, Yahoo and Facebook. That such warning was not issued by either the previous Bush government which started the surveillance programme in 2001 or the present Obama administration points to the secretive nature of the government and elected presidents’ sham commitment to democratic values as envisaged by Locke in his social contract.