In 2009 the American ambassador to Tunisia spent the evening at the home of Mohamed Sakher el-Materi, the president’s son-in-law. In a cable, made public by WikiLeaks, the diplomat wrote: ‘The house was recently renovated and includes an infinity pool … there are ancient artefacts everywhere: Roman columns, frescos and even a lion’s head from which water pours into the pool’. By Tunisian standards it was particularly obscene. El-Materi owned a tiger and fed it four chickens a day.
The US diplomatic corps in Tunis understood this was a problem. In a cable the previous year they’d written: ‘With Tunisians facing rising inflation and high unemployment, the conspicuous displays of wealth and persistent rumours of corruption have added fuel to the fire.’ But the US continued to back the Tunisian president preferring a dependable dictatorship to an unpredictable democracy.
WikiLeaks did not cause these uprisings but it certainly informed them. The dispatches revealed details of corruption and kleptocracy that many Tunisians suspected, but could not prove. They also exposed the discrepancy between the West’s professed values and actual foreign policies.
Bradley Manning, the young man who leaked those diplomatic cables, has already pleaded guilty to 10 charges but that is not enough for the US military that has levelled 22 charges against him, including espionage and ‘aiding the enemy’.
If the leaks laid bare the hypocritical claim that the US was exporting democracy, then the nature of his incarceration and prosecution illustrate the fallacy of its insistence that it is protecting both freedom and security at home. Manning’s treatment since his arrest in May 2010 has involved a number of serious human rights violations. At various times since his arrest he has been held in solitary confinement for 23 out of 24 hours a day for five months in succession and held in an 8ft by 6ft cell.
The case against him indicates the degree to which the war on terror privileges secrecy over not only transparency but humanity. This is exemplified in one of his leak’s more explosive revelations — a video that soon went viral showing two Reuters employees, among others, being shot dead by a US Apache helicopter in Iraq. The soldiers, believing the camera to be a weapon, opened fire, leaving several dead and some wounded.
An investigation exonerated the soldiers on the grounds that they couldn’t have known who they were shooting. No disciplinary action was taken. Were it not for Manning the video would never have been made public. So the men who killed innocents are free to kill another day and the man who exposed them is behind bars, accused of ‘aiding the enemy’. In this world, murder is not the crime; unmasking and distributing evidence of it is. Avoiding responsibility for action, one instead blames the information and informant who makes that action known.
Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, told the Washington Post that Manning’s leaks were a “reckless … data dump … [but] he is not an enemy of the state”. But it’s not just about Manning. It’s about a government, obsessed with secrecy that has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined. It’s about wars in which the resistance to, and exposure of, crimes and abuses has been criminalised while the criminals and abusers go free. If Manning is an enemy of the state then so too is truth.