Bradley Manning: Political Prisoner?

12/30/2010 12:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In a recent New Yorker column, titled "Gulag Lite," David Remnick, makes the case that the former Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a political prisoner. Nothing gets old Russia hands like Remnick more excited than the opportunity to moralize about Russian political malfeasance -- it's a particularly satisfying itch to scratch. But this isn't a hard case to make: There is little doubt that the former chairman of Yukos oil has been the victim of selective prosecution. He's already been in jail for seven years and was just convicted of new charges, including embezzlement, alongside his co-defendant and long-time business partner, Platon Lebedev.

The crimes for which Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are serving time -- tax evasion, fraud and the like -- are, needless to say, no different than that which many of their former brethren among the Russian oligarchy are undoubtedly also guilty, but which have not resulted in criminal investigations. Khodorkovsky's real crime, it seems clear, is that he opted out of an unspoken deal with then-President Vladimir Putin that the oligarchs could keep their ill-gotten gains as long as they kept their mouths shut and avoided challenging the Kremlin's prerogatives when it came to political power and control over strategic resources, like oil. When Khodorkovsky got too big for his britches, his days as a free -- and rich -- man were numbered.

Remnick quotes Elena Bonner -- the widow of the late, great Soviet dissident, Andrei Sakharov -- who says of Khodorkovsky's treatment:

"I think that any person becomes a political prisoner if the law is applied to him selectively, and this is an absolutely clear case...This is a glaringly lawless action."

I thought about Bonner's words Wednesday morning while reading Jack Goldsmith's Washington Post op-ed piece about Bob Woodward's many disclosures of classified information in his most recent book, Obama's Wars. Goldsmith writes that:

Several highly classified programs and their code names are described. Subsequent chapters reveal classified reports, memorandums, conversations, programs, meetings and the like.

Woodward unquestionably received much of this information from senior government officials (just as he seemed to receive classified information from officials for his books about the Bush era).

In other words, the source for some of this highly sensitive -- in some cases "top secret" information -- is high-level leaking by senior members of Obama's administration. Goldsmith, a former justice department official under George W. Bush, notes that over-classification has become a rampant problem in recent years. But, he contends, the kinds of information being disclosed in Woodward's book is justly classified on national security grounds.

And Goldsmith believes that there is a disturbing disconnect in the administration's approach to leaking:

The Woodward disclosures are especially incongruous because the Obama Justice Department is engaged in an unprecedented number of prosecutions of lower-level officials for their disclosures of classified information. An attorney for Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, one official under indictment, has said this month that Kim will challenge his indictment in light of top officials leaking classified material to Woodward. This legal strategy is not likely to succeed. But the optics for the government, to put it mildly, are not good.

Goldsmith doesn't mention WikiLeaks or Bradley Manning in his column. But the juxtaposition of the sorts of disclosures that appear in Obama's Wars, the administration's highly selective approach to leaking and the treatment of Bradley Manning, now in his eighth month of solitary confinement, leave little doubt that Manning is a political prisoner in exactly the terms that Bonner, herself a heroic dissident from the Soviet period, describes. Manning, a US army private, is accused of having stolen the cache of government documents that WikiLeaks has begun disclosing.

Manning is alleged to have downloaded documents from a State and Defense Department information network called SIPRNet. Access to that network allows one to see documents marked as "secret," or classifications less sensitive than that. In other words, the alleged source of much of the Wikileaks disclosures passed along documents that, while including some important revelatory disclosures and plenty of embarrassing tidbits, do not rise to the level of national security classification that, according to Goldsmith, the Woodward book contains and that, in fact, news organizations like the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN, among others, regularly publish.

But the officials who leaked to Woodward are not only free men and women but are, as far as anyone can tell, free from any threat or hint of prosecution. Manning, by contrast, is now languishing in the brig in Quantico, under horrendous conditions that, were a Russian tycoon suffering similarly, would surely be branded as "Gulag lite."

Manning has not yet been convicted of any crime but is being subjected to punitive conditions that are unusual in any case and almost unheard of for someone not yet convicted of a crime -- the very definition of selective treatment. Meanwhile, Attorney General Holder is working hard to concoct charges to bring against WikiLeaks, notwithstanding the fact that in the United States, it is not, at least as of now, a crime to publish classified government information (lucky for Woodward, the Times, CNN and every other major news outlet). In fact, this is surely the reason for Manning's unusually harsh treatment -- he's seen as the gateway for attacking WikiLeaks, an organization that the United States government has decided is a grave threat to its own prerogatives.

In the conclusion of his New Yorker piece, Remnick writes:

"The Khodorkovsky affair long ago erased any notion in Russia of an independent judiciary," and calls upon current President Medvedev to pardon Khodorkovsky. This last plea is slightly bizarre, actually, because while Khodorkovsky is surely a victim of selective prosecution, there is also little doubt that he is guilty of the crimes of which he's convicted and, likely, far worse, all in order to enrich himself beyond imagination and not for any larger public purpose.

So no one misunderstands me, I am not writing here to defend the Russian judicial system. In fact, I wrote an entire book criticizing it a few short years ago. And as I have already said, that Khodorkovsky is being punished for political reasons is clear. But if his case so clearly and damningly impugns Russia's indisputably compromised judicial system, what does the Manning case reveal about ours? Bradley Manning has not harmed any individual. If he's guilty of the crimes of which he is accused -- which still needs to be determined in a court of law, according to our system of justice -- he's guilty of no greater crimes than those of which Woodward's sources, for instance, are guilty. His motivation, to the extent that it can be gleaned, had nothing to do with personal enrichment but instead, according to what his main accuser, Adrian Lamo has said, was a belief that these documents should be in the public domain.

And yet he's being subjected to treatment that, it can plausibly be argued, amounts to torture, before he's even been convicted, while better politically-connected individuals go scot free for the same or greater crimes of the exact same type.

Does the Manning case not, therefore, in Remnick's terms, erase the notion of a fair and equitable system of justice in America, when it comes to politically sensitive information? (and yes, I am side-stepping here all the other ways in which one could fairly wonder whether the rule of law has been compromised, if not "erased' in the United States).

I wouldn't mind Remnick (and Secretary of State Clinton among many others) getting so exercised about Khodorkovsky, if I thought there were a larger principle - the insistence of equal application of justice, regardless of political connection or affiliation - at stake in their criticisms. But the WikiLeaks/Manning episode -- in the context of a long and intensifying politically motivated erosion of rights in America -- and much of the mainstream media's embrace of the government's position on that episode leaves the nagging impression that when such criticisms focus on injustice overseas, while ignoring our own, that they are hollow.