Lawrence Davidson finds a reversal of values — in who gets punished and who does not — when whistleblowers and publishers expose immoral behavior by governments.
In a May, 22, 2019 appearance in the White House Rose Garden, President Donald Trump declared that “I don’t do cover-ups.” Various news outlets immediately started to enumerate a long list of bona fide cover-ups associated with the president.
What can one say about this bit of Trumpian nonsense? Can you accuse a person of lying who actually seems not to know the difference between truth and untruth? Trump’s inability in this regard is demonstrated daily, and The Washington Post fact checker puts the running count of presidential lies at 10,111, with no end in sight. When it comes to reality, the president appears to be a malignant version of Walter Mitty.
Unfortunately, Trump’s behavior is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cover-ups. One can surmise that just by virtue of being the head of the U.S. government, the president — any president — must be directly or indirectly associated with hundreds of such evasions. That is because, it can be argued without much paranoia, that every major division of the government is hiding something —particularly when it comes to foreign activities.
Of course, being cover-ups by the government may make them appear acceptable, at least to a naive public. Many of them are rationalized as necessary for the sake of national “security.” And, of course, everyone wants to be “secure,” accepting the notion that “people sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
The fact that much of this violence is done to other innocent people trying to get a peaceful night’s rest is “classified” information. So woe be it to the truth tellers who defy these rationalizations and sound off. For they shall be cast out of our democratic heaven into one of the pits of hell that pass for a U.S. prison—or, if they are fleet-footed, chased into exile.
Melodramatic, Except … Assange and Manning
Well, that sounds a bit melodramatic — unless you happen to be Julian Assange, the publisher of WikiLeaks, or his notable informant, Chelsea Manning, or, taking one step back from the firing line, the Freedom of the Press Foundation.
The Trump administration is now seeking, via the “Justice” Department, to destroy Assange and Manning. Both are truth tellers or, if you want, whistleblowers who, by revealing the truth about government behavior during the Iraq War, badly embarrassed Washington. The rush to punishment is being carried out with a maliciousness for which this president and his bureaucratic minions seem temperamentally well-suited. Always keep in mind that there are plenty of unethical professionals, in this case operating in the guise of government lawyers, available to serve the disreputable purposes of disreputable bosses.
Julian Assange has been charged with an 18-count indictment alleging that he “unlawfully obtained and disclosed classified documents related to national defense.” It goes on to allege that Assange accomplished this when he “conspired with Manning and aided and abetted her in obtaining classified information … to be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of a foreign nation.” Manning’s sentence for these “offenses” was subsequently commuted by President Barack Obama, but she is now in jail for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating Assange.
The attack on Assange and Manning has brought into question the viability of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the notion of a free press — seminally important matters. Here is how the Freedom of the Press Foundation describes the implications of the indictment against Julian Assange:
“Put simply, these unprecedented charges against Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are the most significant and terrifying threat to the First Amendment in the 21st century. The Trump administration is moving to explicitly criminalize national security journalism, and if this prosecution proceeds, dozens of reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post and elsewhere would also be in danger. The ability of the press to publish facts the government would prefer remain secret is both critical to an informed public and a fundamental right. … Anyone who cares about press freedom should immediately and wholeheartedly condemn these charges.”
Given these circumstances, one might be surprised, and very disappointed as well, to know that a concerted opposition to this threat from the so-called Fourth Estate (the press and news media) has yet to materialize.
Too Few Protecting Journalism
The truth is that, beyond fact-checking the statements of a pathological president, too few journalists are willing to go out on a limb on the issue of a “free press,” or, if you will, for the integrity of their own profession. As it is, most of the American mass media more or less toes a government line and has done so for a very long time. They do this because their owners and editors are either in agreement with the government, see it as economically necessary to appear as traditionally loyal Americans to their readership, or have selectively hired reporters and other staff who are too passive to resist government pressure. Thus, episodes such as the 1972 reporting about the Nixon-inspired break-in at the Watergate and the revelation of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, along with the occasional local investigative expose, are exceptions rather than the rule of journalistic behavior. At best, if a newspaper or TV station wants to appear politically risqué they will confine the effort to a supposed “balanced” editorial page or segment.
If the journalistic establishment appears hesitant, civil liberties organizations such as the ACLU readily agree with the Freedom of the Press Foundation. The ACLU Director, Ben Wisner, notes that “For the first time in the history of our country, the government has brought criminal charges against a publisher for the publication of truthful information.” The key words here are “publisher” and “truthful information.” Wisner goes on to say that “It establishes a dangerous precedent that can be used to target all news organizations that hold the government accountable by publishing its secrets.” In other words, Trump and his minions are taking a step in the direction of dictatorial censorship.
Two Opposing Issues
Wisner’s comment suggests that there is often a real tension between what the government wishes to keep secret and issues of public morality and common decency. Indeed, Manning’s stated motive in dealing with WikiLeakswas to “remove the fog of war and reveal the true nature of 21st century asymmetric warfare.” Hence, in 2010, Manning, after being rebuffed by The New York Times and The Washington Post, sent WikiLeaks some 750,000 classified or otherwise “sensitive” military and diplomatic documents. Much of this material showed the U.S. waging a cruel and lawless operation in Iraq that any normal American should find troubling. This is probably part of the reason why this revelation was judged by Washington to be injurious to the U.S.
We have two issues here and they are in opposition.
First, there is the formal issue of the government (actually all governments) having made it illegal to acquire and make public, in an unauthorized fashion, classified information. However, it is clear that information is often classified not only because it might be militarily or diplomatically harmful but because it is likely to be found repulsive by a government’s own citizens. This proved to be the case with at least some of Manning’s revelations.
That brings us to the second issue — what are the proper behavioral standards to which we want to hold our government, our military, and our diplomatic corps? How are we to know if they are meeting those standards when they have the advantage of legally keeping official behavior secret?
So it is a conundrum. As libertarians like to put it, “all that which is immoral for men acting individually is equally immoral for men acting in association.”
However, no one seems to have both the legal clout and the courage to demand moral standards for the government, at least not when it comes to foreign policy. Oddly enough, there are domestic laws that make it a criminal offense to withhold incriminating information from the police. But those laws have no application here, though they really should. So the entire situation is managed for the sake of one side of the dilemma — the government. On the other side, the casualties continue to pile up.
Most of us are told that our government is the best, most progressive one in existence — a model for all the world. And, if you go along with the likes of Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the U.S. government takes a seat at the right hand of God.
However, what happens when truth tellers who notice starkly immoral U.S. government behavior reveal that fact to the public? With but rare exception, what happens is that you get a reversal of values. To name the operatives of the U.S. government as criminals, you often must reveal “classified” evidence. It is that revelation that instantly becomes the primary offense. What the revealed information might say about government wrongdoing recedes into the shadows, and it is the truth teller who becomes the primary criminal.
Lawrence Davidson is professor of history emeritus at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He has been publishing his analyses of topics in U.S. domestic and foreign policy, international and humanitarian law and Israel/Zionist practices and policies since 2010.