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Manning, Obama and U.S. Moral Leadership

April 11, 2011 - 11:19 am No Comments

By Glenn Greenwald
Salon

On December 15, when I first reported the inhumane conditions of Bradley Manning’s detention, I did not assign any blame to — or even mention — Barack Obama. Although, as Commander-in-Chief, Obama was technically responsible for Manning’s treatment, there was no evidence that he even knew about it, let alone planned it. But since then, the Manning controversy exploded into national prominence and Obama has explicitly defended the treatment, leaving no doubt that it directly reflects on who he is as a leader and a person.

For that reason, as The Guardian reports this morning, a letter signed by “more than 250 of America’s most eminent legal scholars” that “includes leading figures from all the top US law schools, as well as prominent names from other academic fields” — featuring “Laurence Tribe, a Harvard professor who is considered to be America’s foremost liberal authority on constitutional law”; who “taught constitutional law to Barack Obama and was a key backer of his 2008 presidential campaign”; and “joined the Obama administration last year as a legal adviser in the justice department, a post he held until three months ago” — not only denounces Manning’s detention but also the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner’s personal responsibility for it:

[Tribe] told the Guardian he signed the letter because Manning appeared to have been treated in a way that “is not only shameful but unconstitutional” as he awaits court martial in Quantico marine base in Virginia. . . . Tribe said the treatment was objectionable “in the way it violates his person and his liberty without due process of law and in the way it administers cruel and unusual punishment of a sort that cannot be constitutionally inflicted even upon someone convicted of terrible offences, not to mention someone merely accused of such offences”.The harsh restrictions have been denounced by a raft of human rights groups, including Amnesty International, and are being investigated by the United Nations’ rapporteur on torture. . . .The intervention of Tribe and hundreds of other legal scholars is a huge embarrassment to Obama, who was a professor of constitutional law in Chicago. Obama made respect for the rule of law a cornerstone of his administration, promising when he first entered the White House in 2009 to end the excesses of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism. . . .The protest letter, published in the New York Review of Books, was written by two distinguished law professors, Bruce Ackerman of Yale and Yochai Benkler of Harvard. They claim Manning’s reported treatment is a violation of the US constitution, specifically the eighth amendment forbidding cruel and unusual punishment and the fifth amendment that prevents punishment without trial.In a stinging rebuke to Obama, they say “he was once a professor of constitutional law, and entered the national stage as an eloquent moral leader. The question now, however, is whether his conduct as commander in chief meets fundamental standards of decency.”

Professor Benkler, echoing the point that I’ve repeatedly emphasized as I believe it to be the most important one, said “Manning’s conditions were being used ‘as a warning to future whistleblowers’.” Indeed, Manning’s treatment lacks even a pretense of justification; it — just like the Obama administration’s unprecedented war on whistle-blowers — is clearly meant to threaten and intimidate future individuals of conscience who, like Manning, might consider exposing government deceit, corruption and illegality: one of the few remaining avenues for learning what the Government does. Aside from what conduct like this reveals about Obama, it also severely undermines the ability of the U.S. to exercise any shred of moral leadership in the world.

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