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Wednesday, August 21, 2013 

Bradley Manning and the new normal.

Even by the standards we've become used to since 9/11, the 35-year prison sentence for Bradley Manning marks a new low.  Regardless of what you think about the wider fallout from the leaks of the diplomatic cables, anyone who suggests that the release of the "collateral murder" video was not in the public interest simply doesn't deserve to be humoured.  In the the bitterest of ironies, the soldiers who laughed as they cut down innocents that day were never so much as reprimanded for their actions.  Still, at least Manning can be grateful that in a magnanimous gesture he's been credited with 112 days served for the time he spent in what the UN described as conditions amounting to torture.  Speaking of which, those officials that ordered and justified the torture of alleged terrorists during the Bush years had their immunity from prosecution upheld by Obama in one of his first acts as president.  Nor does it seem likely that those who authorised the inhuman treatment of Manning will be receiving disciplinary action any time soon, the commander who ordered it simply being moved to a different job.

In the best possible scenario, failing a successful appeal or a presidential pardon, Manning will be eligible for parole once he's served a third of the sentence, meaning he faces a minimum of at least another 10 years in detention.  Edward Snowden said when he revealed himself as the source of the leaks on the scale of surveillance undertaken by the National Security Agency that he had no illusions about how he would be pursued for doing so, but now he knows just how severe his treatment is likely to be should somehow end up back in America.

One thing the United States hasn't done is accuse either Manning or Snowden of being terrorists outright.  In their continuing attempts to defend the detention of David Miranda on Sunday, both ministers and the supposedly independent of government have come perilously close to suggesting that either the Guardian or the journalists working on the articles on the NSA and GCHQ are in league with those who wish us harm or are far too irresponsible to be trusted with such sensitive material.  That at least is the clear implication from the comments not just from Theresa May, but now Nick Clegg over the visits by the cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood to the Guardian to demand that the files leaked to the paper by Snowden be given back or destroyed "as a precautionary measure to protect lives and security".  If this really has been the concern of the government from the beginning, and not anger at how the Graun has exposed GCHQ's strides forward in "mastering the internet" without the slightest amount of scrutiny or oversight, then perhaps they would like to start being explicit about just who or what is that was causing them such worry?  Surely the paper should know, if it doesn't already, about the threats from within?  Or is it really the case that conversations could be monitored by laser, as a "intelligence agency expert" told the paper?

We do at least know exactly what the security services themselves now think about the leaks, as the man supposedly meant to monitor them made abundantly clear on the Today programme this morning.  According to Malcolm Rifkind, chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, the only people who can make a judgement on what will or won't aid terrorists is, err, the intelligence agencies themselves.  Journalists simply can't make the call, so it seems that regardless of what they've uncovered about the actions of the secret state, it shouldn't be published unless those same agencies say it won't harm national security.  Not that this seems to matter at times, at least to the US intelligence agencies, who only a couple of weeks ago made clear that the alert throughout Africa and the Middle East at a potential terrorist attack came as a result of intercepted conversations between the head of al-Qaida and its affiliate in Yemen.  If they didn't know that was where the intelligence had came from, they certainly did after.

Nor was the apparent concern at what the Graun had published up to the point at which Heywood made his intervention.  One suggestion made on Newsnight from a former MI6 officer was that the real worry was the intelligence agencies themselves couldn't get access to the documents at Graun Towers, while they could those elsewhere, hence why they wanted them back or destroyed.  It's certainly more convincing than the "national security" argument, but it's undermined by the officer's other observation that there was no need whatsoever to hold Miranda for the full 9 hours.  If all they had really wanted was the files he had on his person, they could have confiscated those and let him go far sooner.  Which brings us back to the most obvious explanation, that yes, this has all been about intimidating and attempting to pressure the paper into ending its reporting in the most heavy-handed manner available without resorting to the courts.

This is the point ignored by those like Brendan O'Neill who draw comparisons between this case and those of the tabloid journalists currently awaiting trial for conspiracy to misconduct in public office after allegedly paying civil servants for information, much as I have a certain amount of sympathy for his argument.  The cases that have come up so far involved the sale of information about celebrities, relatives of celebrities, or high profile prisoners.  Where the public interest lies is always going to be defined differently, but it's worth remembering that the other high profile recent instance of "stolen" documents being sold to a newspaper was the expenses files, and no one has suggested that wasn't in the public interest, despite laws clearly having been broken in the process.  Snowden it shouldn't really need to be added hasn't just foregone payment for the documents he "stole", he's been willing to sacrifice almost everything to get out information he believed the world needed to know.

What ought to be apparent by now is that national security is the first recourse of scoundrels.  Not everything is useful to terrorists, but almost anything can be.  Only we can decide what is useful to them, so we can use terrorist legislation even if it's against the partners of journalists just passing through the country.  We're doing so to protect the public from terrorists.  If you disagree, then you should think about what exactly it is you're defending.  You don't have any right to know how exactly we're protecting you, but rest assured the security services operate within the law, which is extremely forgiving when we want it to be, and anyway, if you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear. We'll decide when a debate is over, and when you've had your fun. Go against us, and we'll treat you as a traitor, or as a terrorist enabler. What's more, we've plenty of people who'll defend the indefensible for us. Haven't you going used to the new normal yet?

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