Bergdahl, from @Serial to serial trouble

ARM-Bowe-Bergdahl-post-rescueI know, I know. I kind of left you on tenterhooks after that November skirmish between Bergdahl’s counsel and the Army. That was shortly after I published my Guernica broadside on the challenges of telling Bergdahl’s story while deciding whether Bergdahl’s name deserved inclusion in my book’s title. (That last decision was easiest, and will be explained below.}

I then spent the rest of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 finishing the newest draft of this book, in time for editors at The New Press to decide what should happen next. My limited energy needed to be expended on those hundreds of pages — even as events in the Bergdahl case accelerated.  The soldier himself was and is on desk duty at Fort Sam, as seen in the Army Times photo above.

Now, we’ve seen 5 episodes of Sarah Koenig’s podcast, including the compelling “Escaping” and the perplexing “5 O Clock Shadow,” all of them filling in much of what I never knew about Bergdahl.   After the podcast’s first episode, though, General Abrams overruled the recommendations of both General Dahl and the hearing officer, and ordered a full court-martial for Bergdahl, on both the desertion charges and the anachronistic “misbehavior before the enemy.”

Since then, most Bergdahl news has constituted legal battles between the Army and Eugene Fidell, mostly over how much of the evidence in the case should be available to him and to the public. My email inboxes sag with Fidell’s motions to the Army  Court of Federal Appeals, though he hasn’t always shared the court’s responses. No one reported that Fidell had finally, last week, won a minor victory when Col. Jeffrey Nance, appointed last month to oversee issues of classified data,  ordered the prosecution to turn over every piece of evidence to the defense, now.  The Army then turned to the Court, and that’s today’s news — that a writ has been granted freezing any such action, effectively delaying all proceedings for now. No wonder the court-martial itself was scheduled for August, giving time for such delays.

Bergdahl’s case is thus, as I’ve long predicted, entering that no-man’s land of the national security state, and like Manning’s will only be partially visible to the rest of us. But the delay also gives us time to reflect on what we’ve learned so far, and whether Sarah  Koenig’s mission is diverging even further from mine.

dustwun-screen-shot-2015-12-10-at-5-56-08-pmThe Army denies that the timing of the charges had anything to do with the episode of Serial that preceded them, DUSTWUN, but it can’t have thrilled prosecutors to hear  Bergdahl’s voice that way, or to learn of the wealth of information to come from 35 hours of conversations between Bergdahl and filmmaker Mark Boal (known for working w/Kathryn Bigelow on ZERO DARK THIRTY).

That first episode was named for the status assigned to any missing soldier, dustwun (short for “duty status-whereabouts unknown”), also shorthand for the kind of tumult that follows someone being declared so. He wanted to “cause a DUSTWUN,” Bergdahl told Boal, so that when he reappeared at a nearby FOB he’d be able to inform higher-ups of “serious issues” with his base’s command. He also told Boal that he was trying to be a hero, and saw himself as being someone “like Jason Bourne” of all those movies.

I’m not  the only person who was nonplused by Bergdahl’s declarations, which at least implied that what he had to say was worth the cost to his peers of throwing his base upside down.  Or by how, when  he got lost, his Bourne plans included getting Taliban intelliigence that still might prove him a hero.

At least one journo colleague of mine soured on Bergdahl entirely, calling him a “douche” — an assessment that didn’t shift much when the show moved on to heart-rending accounts of his capture and torture. Koenig also interviewed many of his platoon-mates as well as people associated with the Taliban, who had their own version of how they captured Bergdahl and turned him over to the Haqqani network (kind of the Sopranos of the Taliban). And adding a lot of value has been accounts from military prisoner-recovery personnel, including some who got Bergdahl’s family involved in fighting to make Bergdahl a priority. The harder they all worked, the more of a mysterious child the soldier himself seems.

And if you’ve been following my Twitter feed, you got a glimpse of Episode 5, billed as “Bowe explains why he did it.”  At first I was intrigued by the “good soldier” with a “philosopher-nerd component.” But then he decries FOB Sharana as too cushy: “I wanted adventure, I wanted action.”  And in the middle of making his case for why he didn’t trust his battalion commander, he calls his unit’s counterinsurgency mission “bullshit” and that rather than communicating with locals, they “should have been out there just killing these people who were trying to kill us.”

The episode also included important discussion of COIN and of different kinds of command discipline, as a way of exploring the behavior that caused Bergdahl to believe that his brigade commander “didn’t have our interests at heart.” Important to try to understand the situation for these units in Afghanistan in 2009: but less and less of a story of dissent,less so even than if it had been a case of simple desertion. Though I do tend to think that 5 years being tortured by the Taliban is adequate punishment for what he did, I’m seeing Bergdahl as less a dissenter than an anomaly.

Which brings me back to why Bergdahl only belongs in this project more for what he represented as for what the still-young man ever believed or did.  He certainly doesn’t belong in the title;  even if Bergdahl proved a stealth conscientious objector, using his name would date the book unnecessarily. Better to go with  the new and final subtitle, “From the French and Indian War to the Forever War.”

I’ll still keep listening, and following the case; I’m grateful to Bergdahl’s counsel for keeping me abreast.  It’s an interesting Rosetta Stone, anyway – as Veterans for Peace and others continue with their “Free Bowe Bergdahl” campaigns, just as the GOP presidential contenders compete in calling for his execution.  .

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Ellsberg on Manning

Image:  ReutersListening now to the audio (available here): the voice of a young techie like so many I know, more comfortable describing the software he used as an intelligence analyst than his thoughts and emotions around the war crimes he wanted to expose.

But when he describes the Collateral Murder video, the anger comes out scorn for “what sounded like bloodlust.” Riveting.

Before talk about it any more, here’s the best authority on what Manning has done: Daniel Ellsberg, whose similarly groundbreaking leak occurred in what now feels was a gentler time. (And yes, I know we’re talking about the Nixon era.) Many thanks to Democracy Now for a terrific interview..

these might be giants: report from Fort Meade

I went back to Fort Meade this week, more than two years after  Manning was first brought to court. Now in dispute during these last pre-trial motions before the court martial, now scheduled for June 3: those two-plus years.

If there’s not another delay, that means that Bradley Manning’s court-martial will begin almost exactly three years after he was first detained in Kuwait, on May 26, 2010. Please excuse the bold/italics: that’s  three years which already have felt plenty long in actual life — without imagining I’d spent them in military detention, much of it in a single cell without all my clothes.

All of this despite the fact that the Uniform Code of Military Justice includes a guarantee of “speedy trial” that must begin within 120 days of arrest. And much of last week’s proceedings were about that — whether all the delays were due to inevitable national-security issues, and whether the government is obligated to cooperate with the defense and share what it found in its long investigation. There were also some interesting rulings — including how much the trial will cover Manning’s motivations for his actions, something important when someone is  charged with “aiding the enemy.”

But I won’t write much about the hard news here: I’ve been hired by Boston Review to do that (yay!) so you’ll have to wait. In the meantime, check out summaries from Ed Pilkington at the Guardian, Julie Tate at the Washington Post, and Hari Sreenivasan of PBS’s Newshour  (who delivers his report in that worried middle-of-the-road tone we all know so well).

David-Coombs-attorney-for-0071You should definitely check out Scott Shane’s profile of David Coombs, seen at right exiting the Fort Meade courthouse.

When I decided what to title this post, Lt. Col. Coombs is one of the two people I meant. I never got a chance to see William Kunstler or Clarence Darrow at work, but I now feel I kind of know how that feels.

Shane’s coverage of the case itself is predictably bland. But he manages, if you look at it closely, to convey some of the slyness of the veteran advocate:

Mr. Coombs, 43, is deep into one of the most high-profile American military cases in recent years, leading an aggressive, if unorthodox, defense. In weeks of pretrial hearings, the tall, crew-cut lawyer, flanked by uniformed military lawyers who make up the rest of the defense team, has attacked the government’s case on every conceivable ground, even as he conceded that Private Manning was the WikiLeaks source.

Coombs, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, served 12 years in the Army before leaving active duty and opening a military-oriented defense practice in 2009 in Providence, R.I. He has worked, both in court and in a public speech last month, to frame Private Manning’s disclosure of documents not as a reckless act of national security vandalism but as a deed of conscience, intended to expose government misdeeds and defend the public’s right to know.

It was an honor to watch Coombs deliver his speedy-trial brief, in which he countered the government’s catalog of everything they’d been doing by enumerating the ways in which it could have acted with more alacrity, adding on every single week in which he saw government inaction “while Pfc. Manning remained in pre-trial detention.”

Each individual omission added up like layers of paint on a canvas, until Coombs closed by citing the Rule of Court-Martial 707(d):”The accused’s constitutional right to a speedy trial have been violated. And the sole remedy for such a speedy trial violation is dismissal [of the affected charges] with prejudice.”

The whole presentation led to a super-caffeinated rebuttal by the prosecutor, which told me that it was as brilliant as it had looked.

The other giant I met this week was someone I knew only from her posts at Firedoglake, without realizing who she was: Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project, who gives her take on the trial below.

jesselyn_radackWith all my attention around soldiers who dissent, I find I’m sorely ignorant of much of the history of civilian whistleblowing, and had forgotten about Radack in specific. And I’m not sure I ever knew her full story, as one of the few employees in John Ashcroft’s Justice Department who actively questioned its behavior in the aftermath of 9/11.  The photo is from the Brown alumni magazine around that time, when she refused to help interrogators corners in the questioning of John Walker Lindh.

Radack has been offering legal and logistical support to Manning’s defense, adding him to the Government Accountability Project’s Whistleblowers honor roll. I hope I can go to DC to meet with her and the rest of GAP, to explore what whistleblowing really means in the 21st century. (And maybe ask how she’s kept her  multiple sclerosis at bay, since with her it’s still the invisible kind).

One of the most fun, and humbling, things about this project is how often I come into contact with such giants. Though it has me listening to this band, so much that I had to include the video below. Tell me the lyrics to the song don’t get you hoping for a whistleblower of your own.

A book by its cover?

With my book in total re-moulting mode, a dear friend designed four concepts for a possible cover for the book. I don’t have the rights to any of the images, but it does feel like a weighty historical tome this way. And either way, I think I’ll make it the signature image for the Kickstarter campaign I hope to launch next week, to help fund this last (really!) push.

What do you think? Any other images or approach you’d prefer?

Design by Brian Siano

Video: Michael Ratner tells Manning’s story, David Coombs explains

michael_ratnerI mentioned this presentation in yesterday’s Manning post, and thought I’d post it at the end. But when I actually saw it, I realized that as important as David Coombs was the presentation by Michael Ratner, longtime anchor of the Center for Constitutional Rights.    When I met Ratner in 2004, was bemused when I told him that some American soldiers were nearly as powerless as the Guantanamo detainees I was interviewing him about. But that was before Wikileaks rocked CCR’s world, likely due to this one military prankster. (Also before Ratner’s late mentor, William Kunstler, became a major character in this book.) At right, Ratner in Democracy Now’s coverage of last week’s proceedings.

Now, watch as Ratner narrates — with aplomb born of outrage— the experience Manning described of his unprecedented pre-trial detention.   If former Major William Kunstler was watching from the beyond, he was applauding.  Watch that part, even if you have no patience for the careful arguments of Manning’s attorney.

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Saving Breanna Elizabeth Manning

If you just looked at  my Twitter feed (at right) you might think that my book is about the eponymous private that’s in the title — that all that came before, from stories of 1781 mutinies to Phil Ochs tributes, was all marshaled in support of one 24-year-old charged with treason by the national security state.

Not so. But it’s been clear, for a very long time, that the case of “the Wikileaks guy” did contain many of the elements that make this topic so compelling: the ethical challenge thrown up by dissent, the mixed motivations, the charged gender subtexts and faux-masculine performances assumed by people in authority.

This is not the blog in which I try to unpack any of that.

But this was the week in which Private Manning gave personal testimony under oath for the very first time: I had no choice but to pay as close attention as I could, even though I couldn’t go to Fort Meade and watch the proceedings.

In a courtroom sketch, Bradley Manning explains his Qauntico marine brig cellManning’s attorney, David Coombs, was presenting a detailed case for reducing or dropping charges against Manning due to the over-long term of pre-trial confinement and the conditions of hir confinement at Quantico, with the governmen repeatedly asserting that they’d done so for justified reasons. And for the first time, with full knowledge of Manning and counsel, the gender issue that has tormented me from the beginning was brought into the open — thus the title of this post. (Tormented for reasons of confidentiality and respect, not for any reasons of transphobia.)

The only real news this morning is that Manning’s court-martial has been delayed until March (from Feb), which means that the trial might not be decided before three full years have passed since his arrest. (Manning’s attorney, David Coombs, is speaking about it publicly this evening, broadcast on C-SPAN: I can’t wait.)

In  case you don’t follow my parallel site on Facebook, here are some links to get you up to speed:

  • The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson, as brilliant as they come. Her title: ““I’m Stuck Inside This Cage”: Bradley Manning Testifies.” She starts with Manning’s testimony about his Kuwait detention and makes us feel it from there.
  • Alexa O’Brien at Second Sight, who tweets at @carwinb, has been there every day with sharp reporting, and shared important trial documentation as well.

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Status report

calendarFor those who might be wondering why this whole project is so overdue.and/or why you DIDN’T see it on the fall catalog for UCPress.

When I started working on this book, its subtitle was Soldiers Who Dissent: From George Washington to John Murtha, the latter name because back then, in 2006,  it wasn’t that long since the late Rep. Murtha first spoke against the war in Iraq.  I was originally scheduled to deliver a manuscript in 2008.

That was, of course, awhile ago.  George W. Bush would still be president. In that time, the U.S. war in Iraq has ended under a new president, who expanded that in Afghanistan and commenced an unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers, which is why the subtitle has changed to focus on one such whistleblower — who as I write this is undergoing pre-trial proceedings at Fort Meade.

For most of that time I was also working as a reporter and a Web editor, which limited the time I could devote to the ms. — just as the amount of material I had to cover seemed only to expand. There was a lot to do:

Doing right by the past. Since my explicit focus is on both servicemembers and veterans, the fruits of my reporting showed a far deeper bench of dissenters from earlier eras: rather than the one-big-pre-WWI chapter evinced in the proposal, there’s now five. Even the 1980s deserved their own chapter.

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