National Security Roundup

Today’s going to be an overview of some major developments in the national security arena for the U.S.

Trials and Tribulations

Pfc. Bradley Manning was acquitted of the most egregious charge against him, that of aiding the enemy. However, he still faces the possibility of up to 136 years in prison for leaking information, including evidence of U.S. soldiers killing Iraqi civilians, to the website Wikileaks.

Initially, this decision was hailed as some sort of win for journalism, but the judge in the case stopped short of saying that it would not be possible in the future for a whistleblower who leaked information to the press to be charged with aiding the enemy.

Even if she had, being convicted of violating the espionage act and potentially facing life in prison could definitely have a chilling effect on future whistleblowers.

The basis for the aiding the enemy charge was essentially the face that Al Qaeda has access to the Internet; therefore publishing information about U.S. military operations on the Internet was a de facto way of giving that information to Al Qaeda.

The Manning decision leaves the door wide open to continuing to make those same arguments in the future, which could have serious repercussions not just for whistleblowers like Manning but also for the journalists who help them. Which seems less than ideal for the integrity of the fourth estate and the First Amendment.

That brings us to the other big-name national security whistleblower of the moment: Edward Snowden. You’ve probably already heard that he has been granted one year’s asylum in Russia.

Some people have criticized him for his choice of Russia, or labeled it ironic, based on Russia’s less-than-stellar record on human rights and press freedom. While I take their point, I would like to also point out that the U.S. has committed grave abuses at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and continues to keep thousands of prisoners in solitary confinement for extended periods of time, a practice the U.N. and most other advanced democracies recognize as torture. That is without even addressing the issue of the death penalty, which, again, most advanced democracies have gotten rid of.

Then there’s been the mass surveillance of the general populace that Snowden himself exposed and the targeted harassment of the press, such as the phone tapping of the AP. Yet no one scoffs or mutters “hypocrisy” when someone seeks refuge or political asylum in the U.S.

Then there are the arguments that Snowden should not have fled at all, but rather remained in the U.S. to face trial. To that, I would respond that, especially in light of the Manning trial, he has no reason to believe he would receive a fair trial.

For one thing, the Snowden leaks have been broadcast and publicized all across the country, so good luck getting a jury of people who don’t know about it or haven’t formed an opinion. For another, this administration has been far more aggressive in its prosecution of whistleblowers than any other in history: Obama has prosecuted twice as many leakers as all previous presidents combined.

And then, there is the matter of treatment. Even before he was tried, in other words, when he was supposedly still presumed innocent, Manning was kept in solitary confinement. After he was determined to be a suicide risk, Manning was forced to sleep naked in his cell with no pillows or sheets. In addition, Manning’s lawyers were informed that all their conversations with their client would be monitored, which the U.N. recognizes as a violation of his human rights.

The Real Story

Of course, the focus on Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning is important in how it reflects on our country’s treatment of dissidents, but the more important story that is too often not being debated (because people are apparently more interested in Snowden’s girlfriend or whether or not Manning’s sexuality or gender identity played into his decision) is what they actually revealed.

Snowden has finally achieved some of his goals. We are finally beginning to see more debate in Congress over NSA programs like PRISM. An amendment to defund the NSA’s program collecting telephone data unfortunately failed, but it came closer to passing than anyone expected, and will hopefully build momentum for greater oversight and accountability for our intelligence agencies.

Meanwhile, another one of Snowden’s leaks has proved one of his earlier claims (one that the NSA dismissed.) The agency’s data collection abilities and activities go well beyond the “just metadata” we have heard ad nauseum. The XKeyscore program enables them to view the content of emails, chats, search histories, and browsing history, all without any requirement for a warrant. So far, this seems to have been lost in the commotion over Snowden’s asylum in Russia. But that should probably be the thing people actually get upset about.

On the bright side, I will now assume that my posting of this blog is an official record of my disapproval with the NSA.

This post has already gotten longer than I planned for it to be, so for now I’ll wrap it up. But there is plenty more going on in national security news, and I will be sure to write more updates on that soon.

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