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The Bradley Manning Trial is One More Step Toward a Post-Constitution America

What if your country begins to change and no one notices?

| Mon Aug. 5, 2013 2:45 PM EDT

Not Manning Alone
Someday, Manning's case may be seen as a bitter landmark on the road to a post-Constitutional America, but it won't be seen as the first case in the development of the post-Constitutional system. Immediately following 9/11, top officials in the Bush administration decided to "take the gloves off." Soon after, a wounded John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban, was captured on an Afghan battlefield, held in a windowless shipping container, refused access to a lawyer even after he demanded one as an American citizen, and interrogated against his will by the FBI. Access to medical care was used as a bribe to solicit information from him. "Evidence" obtained by such means was then used to convict him in court.

Jose Padilla, a US citizen who clumsily plotted to detonate a nonexistent "dirty bomb," was held incommunicado for more three years, over a year of which was in a South Carolina military jail. He was arrested only as a material witness and was not formally charged with a crime until years later. He was given no means to challenge his detention under habeas corpus, as President Bush designated him an "enemy combatant." Pictures of Padilla being moved wearing sound-proof and light-proof gear strongly suggest he was subjected to the same psychosis-inducing sensory deprivation used as "white torture" against America's foreign enemies in Guantanamo.

Certainly, the most egregious case of pre-Manning post-Constitutional justice was the execution of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki by drone in Yemen, without due process or trial, for being an al-Qaeda propagandist. In this, President Obama and his top counterterrorism advisors quite literally took on the role of judge, jury, and executioner. In a similar fashion, again in Yemen, the US killed al-Awlaki's American teenage son, a boy no one claimed was connected to terrorism. Obama administration lawyers went on to claim the legal right to execute US citizens without trial or due process and have admitted to killing four Americans. Attorney General Eric Holder declared that "United States citizenship alone does not make such individuals immune from being targeted."

Then-FBI Director Robert Mueller, asked in a Congressional hearing if the FBI could assassinate an American citizen in the United States, replied that he simply did not know. "I have to go back. Uh, I'm not certain whether that was addressed or not." He added, "I'm going to defer that to others in the Department of Justice." As if competing for an Orwellian prize, an unnamed Obama administration official told the Washington Post, "What constitutes due process in this case is a due process in war."

Post-Constitutional America
So welcome to post-Constitutional America. Its shape is, ominously enough, beginning to come into view.

Orwell's famed dystopian novel 1984 was not intended as an instruction manual, but just days before the Manning verdict, the Obama administration essentially buried its now-ironic-campaign promise to protect whistleblowers, sending it down Washington's version of the memory hole. Post-9/11, torture famously stopped being torture if an American did it, and its users were not prosecutable by the Justice Department.

Similarly, full-spectrum spying is not considered to violate the Fourth Amendment and does not even require probable cause. Low-level NSA analysts have desktop access to the private emails and phone calls of Americans. The Post Office photographs the envelopes of every one of the 160 billion pieces of mail it handles, collecting the metadata of "to:" and "from:" addresses. An Obama administration Insider Threat Program requires federal employees (including the Peace Corps) to report on the suspicious behavior of coworkers.

Government officials concerned over possible wrongdoing in their departments or agencies who "go through proper channels" are fired or prosecuted. Government whistleblowers are commanded to return to face justice, while law-breakers in the service of the government are allowed to flee justice. CIA officers who destroy evidence of torture go free, while a CIA agent who blew the whistle on torture is locked up.

Secret laws and secret courts can create secret law you can't know about for "crimes" you don't even know exist. You can nonetheless be arrested for committing them. Thanks to the PATRIOT Act, citizens, even librarians, can be served by the FBI with a National Security Letter (not requiring a court order) demanding records and other information, and gagging them from revealing to anyone that such information has been demanded or such a letter delivered. Citizens may be held without trial, and denied their Constitutional rights as soon as they are designated "terrorists." Lawyers and habeas corpus are available only when the government allows.

In the last decade, 10 times as many employers turned to FBI criminal databases to screen job applicants. The press is restricted when it comes to covering "open trials." The war on whistleblowers is metastasizing into a war on the First Amendment. People may now be convicted based on secret testimony by unnamed persons. Military courts and jails can replace civilian ones. Justice can be twisted and tangled into an almost unrecognizable form and then used to send a young man to prison for decades. Claiming its actions lawful while shielding the "legal" opinions cited, often even from Congress, the government can send its drones to assassinate its own citizens.

One by one, the tools and attitudes of the war on terror, of a world in which the "gloves" are eternally off, have come home. The comic strip character Pogo's classic warning—"We have met the enemy and he is us"—seems ever less like a metaphor. According to the government, increasingly we are now indeed their enemy.

Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraq Reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. A TomDispatch regular, he writes about current events at his blog, We Meant Well. Van Buren's next book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, will be available March 2014. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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