Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Manning, Mau Mau, and the Violence of State Secrecy

What ever happened to Bradley Manning?

Manning, of course, was the soldier accused of passing classified documents to Wikileaks, the whistle blowing non-profit which shed unprecedented light on the machination of governments around the world. 

The revelations about the cynical actions of the U.S. government, and the corruption of regimes across North Africa and the Middle East played a role in spurring the now sputtering Arab Spring, thereby bringing the hitherto hidden cause of the region’s oppressed to global attention.  It might be difficult to remember over a year on just how much our attention was gripped by popular risings in Tunisia and Egypt in particular, but their domination of our television screens was a testament to the power of freedom of information to promote justice and thereby change people's lives.

What Manning stands accused of doing is of course, in legal terms, a crime.  And his treatment by the U.S. government, which not only incarcerated him along fairly inhumane lines, but began an informal and high level prosecution of him through insinuations about his mental health and pronouncements of guilt from high-level administration members, made it clear that he had hit a nerve.

One could be forgiven for believing that the litany of details about Manning’s personal life that have sadly come to dominate coverage of the former soldier’s actions constitute an attempt by the government and the military to change the entire focus of the conversation about Manning and Wikileaks.  Wikileaks’ most visible spokesperson, Julian Assange, is no angelic character, but proponents of secrecy and state power have been surprisingly vicious in their smearing of the whistleblowing organisation by association with its founder.  Efforts to check the distribution of documents also verged on the absurd, as universities were informed by the government that their students should consider any future government careers jeopardised if they looked at the files. 

One after another, Obama’s neocon vulcans donned their Darth Vader costumes and breathily informed the public that lives were at risk...even if they couldn’t work up the gumption to identify any specific incidences.  They are now trying to make the case that Manning deliberately “aided the enemy” by releasing the files to another party.  This scaremongering has not only earned the prosecution a warning from a judge that they had better not be wasting the court’s time, but is also a good example of how blinkered our national security apparatus is, to the point that it is unable to recognise that its secretive and immoral prosecution of our foreign policy is the greatest gift to groups like Al Qaeda.  It is, indeed, the gift that keeps on giving, for without the jingoism, the paranoia, and the reflexive violence that has come to characterise U.S. policy, groups like Al Qaeda would quickly be deprived of their raison d’ĂȘtre (and the neoconservatives, the arms industry, and the intelligence community of their means of survival). 

The focus on Manning and Assange’s personal lives and the invocation of the “troops’” safety were meant to take our minds off of the fact that our government had lied to the Red Cross about keeping prisoners secretly, ignored whistleblowers who sought to call attention to instances of torture in Iraq, aids and abets corrupt and authoritarian governments around the world (hardly newsworthy in itself, although many of the details are chilling), and was engaging in more than a few underhanded tactics in prosecuting its utterly senseless war in Afghanistan.  These are things that should be publicly known.  Our government serves us, rather than the other way around, and we have a right to know about the conditions in which it is holding prisoners, about its conduct of warfare, about the regimes that it supports, and about the worryingly close entanglements between finance, the arms industry, and our civic institutions.


This week, people around the world, or at least those of them who were paying attention, got a glimpse of why we need organisations like Wikileaks and people like Manning.  In London, at the High Court, torture victims of one of Britain’s ugliest imperial wars, having won the right to bring their suit against the British government for atrocities committed against them in Kenya during the 1950s, continued to press their case and elicited a tacit admission of guilt from the British Foreign Office.

Everyone knew that the suppression of the anti-colonial uprising in 1950s Kenya was a dirty business, but few non-participants knew just how brutal it had been until two historians published accounts of the Mau Mau war almost simultaneously in 2005.  They relied on hitherto un-used archival sources, as well as interviews with the victims and perpetrators of violence.  Inspired in part by the eloquent telling of their stories, a group of Kenyan veterans brought a suit against the British government, and in the process, it has been revealed that the British government, in Kenya and in London, engaged in a massive cover-up.

Over one ton of documents were destroyed, and others were diverted from the National Archives—the government record depository accessible to the public and researchers—to a government research facility.  They provide a catalogue of official malfeasance: shockingly deliberate violence followed by cover-ups, and more of the same.

The raft of revelations about the dying days of British colonialism in East Africa are revealing not only more details of the atrocities, but also the extent to which efforts to shed light on them at the time were suppressed.  And they were suppressed through the use of state secrecy.  Complaints were filed away, inconveniently nosey individuals were moved on or simply ignored, and troubled officials always managed to suppress their qualms.  They were able to perpetrate this violence, both against bodies and the historical record, because of the culture of silence and acquiescence which enveloped the colonial state from gilded corridors of Whitehall to the detention camps in the Kenyan deserts. 

The British government has at last admitted that its agents practised an almost sadistic level of violence on a mass scale, but it is preparing to argue in court that too much time has passed since the 1950s for the case to be heard.  Theirs is an absurdly disingenuous claim given that this case could not have been made at any time since the 1950s because the British government went to such criminal pains to hide and destroy evidence.  The British government’s suggestion that the Kenyan veterans should sue the Kenyan government for crimes committed against them by the British government is a demonstration of how little justice matters to the powers that be.


In a chilling letter outlining the colonial government’s legal dilemma in sanctioning the mass incarceration and torture of Kenyan anti-colonial guerrillas, Kenya’s attorney general, Eric Griffith-Jones, told the Governor that “if we are going to sin, we must sin quietly”.

Bradley Manning, Wikileaks, and every other individual and organisation which speaks truth to power, which pulls back the black veil of secrecy which masks altogether too much of what our governments do, deserve our support.  That their actions sometimes violate the law says more about the occasional immorality of that law, and the manner in which it can be twisted to hide dark deeds, than it does about the character or integrity of those who risk so much, for whatever reasons, to make our governments more accountable. 

Those in our government who protest that the keeping of secrets is their prerogative, and that they know best what is in the interests of our security are profoundly arrogant and profoundly wrong.  They are the ones, after all, who have sent thousands of young men and women to their deaths for oil, ideology, and poll numbers in the last decade, while giving material aid and moral comfort to authoritarian leaders, military despots, and repressive fundamentalists.  They have empowered private armies to do our dirty work and enriched private companies at great expense to our nation in terms of lives and resources.  They do not know best and they have no divine right to secrecy.  They are confusing their political interests and those of their corporate clients with those of our society.  And they must not be allowed to impose the modern-day equivalent of a royal mandate of silence upon those who would question them.

Justice and secrecy sit uneasily—in fact incompatibly—alongside one another, and at the end of the day, I know which is more important to me and more essential to our democracy. 

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