My letter to Reality

IMG_20180309_092047.jpgIt appears that I won’t get that phone interview with the main character in my upcoming story. In my effort to do so, I sent the following letter, with a SASE, to the place where she’s being detained. Posting it below, and hoping she still appreciated hearing from me.

Reality Winner, 3342,

Lincoln County Jail

P.O. Box 970, Lincolnton, GA  3081

Dear Ms. Winner,

I’m sending this on International Women’s Day, which feels appropriate: you’re a woman of great courage, as well as strength and energy.

You don’t know me yet, but I was one of those wearing carnations at your hearing last week. I’m grateful that your family welcomed me to “Stand With Reality,” and encouraged me to write to you. They know that I’ve spent the past 10 years writing a book about veterans, some as young as you. A few have had experiences similar to yours, too — and cheered me on as I headed to Georgia for last week’s hearing. I’m hoping that you’ll write back to me, and eventually consider calling me collect so you don’t have to write responses to my questions,

Getting ready to write this, I reread your Twitter feed, to get a sense of your voice. Much of what you RTed felt like it could have been mine, especially the stuff about Standing Rock. And your election night post was pure poetry.

And your mom knows I really felt it when I learned your bio-dad died six months before The Troubles. My wife’s dad died last spring, and she’s only now having times when she doesn’t grieve him every day. (The sweetest guy in the world, a Coast Guard vet and retired firefighter, he also died of COPD, so I even know a little of how those final weeks felt.)

I’d love to hear more about  Mr. Winner. Some of the questions that popped in my mind  How did he react when you joined the Air Force? Did you share thoughts about the 2016 election, while it was going on?  Was it his COPD that trapped him in a wheelchair? Were you able to be there when he died?

I’m curious about a lot more, of course — from how it felt to go from Texas to Monterey to Fort Meade– Did you miss the South, is that why you chose Augusta when you were discharged?– to how a brilliant desk-jockey like you stayed a jock, from playing soccer school to Crossfit and yoga. Did you take up Crossfit at DLI or at Fort Meade? And why CF AND yoga? To me they seem like opposite approaches to fitness. Why do both?

If I were a potential student (and a lot younger ;-), how would you explain the combination? Did you need both to manage the stress of your AF missions? I’ve read and thought a lot about movement, especially dance,  as a way to know who we are. Is that why you like to teach it?

I’m sorry if that’s too many questions; I know answering them on paper likely feels like work.  I’d be deeply honored to hear from you. I hope the weather down in Augusta has gotten less swampy, though even that sounds awesome right now from my snowy Philadelphia street.

 

Sincerely,

Chris Lombardi

Chris L

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Well, that felt like an episode of Law and Order. But #Justice4Reality?

As readers of this blog know, I love watching lawyers work. I remember telling David Coombs, one day at Fort Meade, that it was like watching a great painter as layers and layers gradually create a picture. This week, in federal court, I watched prosecutors paint  a black-and-white editorial cartoon, then saw that picture turned full color  by defense attorney Matthew Chester (of the powerhouse firm Baker Donelson.)

A local news report elegantly summarized Chester’s argument: “Winner’s lawyers say agents made her believe she was in custody by taking her cell phone, car keys, blocking her car, and following her around her property,” But ‘blocking her car’ doesn’t evoke the image, supported by defense photographs, of more than seven cars blocking her small driveway, or the 11 FBI agents streaming through her small Augusta home.

The effect of all of this on a 25-year-old young woman, not much taller than my own (shrimpy) height): she felt as though she had no choice but to do what they asked.  “This was a custodial interrogation,” Chester said. None of the agents ever told her she was free to go, though one made sure to say at intervals, “You’re here voluntarily.”

The National Law Reporter  did even better with this headline: “Reality Winner’s Lawyers Say FBI Interrogation Was Unconstitutional.” The reporter also got down Chester’s list of why:

  • FBI agents informed Winner they had search warrants for her residence, her car and her person, suggesting she was not free to leave until she was frisked.
  • Agents took Winner’s car keys and cellphone as she arrived home from the grocery store.
  • Winner was never advised that she was not in custody. When she asked if she was going to be arrested, agents hedged, according to defense lawyers and a transcript of the conversation, telling her they did not know.
  • Winner was not searched until after her arrest—another indication that she was not free to leave.
  • Agents remained at Winner’s side as she put away groceries, including perishables that had been sitting in her car in the summer heat, when they began their inquiry.
  • Agents also accompanied Winner as she leashed her dog and secured her cat.
  • At one point, Winner also felt compelled to ask permission to go to the bathroom, asking agents, “How’s that going to work?” according to a transcript of her interview.
  • After asking if there was a place they could speak privately, agents directed Winner to a small, unfurnished room she said she didn’t like.
  • During the interview, two agents blocked the entrance and questioned her as Winner faced them with her back against the wall.
  • At the end of the interrogation, she was arrested rather than released.
  • Agents also made what the defense described as “accusatory statements … that the evidence against her was ‘very, very, very compelling’ and that she was ‘the most likely candidate by far and away.’” They also told her she was “the prime suspect” in the possible mishandling of classified information.
  • FBI agents informed Winner they had search warrants for her residence, her car and her person, suggesting she was not free to leave until she was frisked.
  • Agents took Winner’s car keys and cellphone as she arrived home from the grocery store.
  • Winner was never advised that she was not in custody. When she asked if she was going to be arrested, agents hedged, according to defense lawyers and a transcript of the conversation, telling her they did not know.
  • Winner was not searched until after her arrest—another indication that she was not free to leave.
  • Agents remained at Winner’s side as she put away groceries, including perishables that had been sitting in her car in the summer heat, when they began their inquiry.
  • Agents also accompanied Winner as she leashed her dog and secured her cat.
  • At one point, Winner also felt compelled to ask permission to go to the bathroom, asking agents, “How’s that going to work?” according to a transcript of her interview.
  • After asking if there was a place they could speak privately, agents directed Winner to a small, unfurnished room she said she didn’t like.
  • During the interview, two agents blocked the entrance and questioned her as Winner faced them with her back against the wall.
  • At the end of the interrogation, she was arrested rather than released.
  • Agents also made what the defense described as “accusatory statements … that the evidence against her was ‘very, very, very compelling’ and that she was ‘the most likely candidate by far and away.’” They also told her she was “the prime suspect” in the possible mishandling of classified information.

Later, I told one of Winner’s lawyers that the day had felt a little like an episode of Law and Order. “Usually,” he said, “a day in court is much more boring.”

Attorneys on both sides have military/intel backgrounds; Winner’s senior counsel (not Chester) is former NSA, Tuesday’s main prosecutor a former JAG.  The latter, who told court personnel that she missed military life sometimes, said she found “insulting” that Chester had noted the sex of the 11 FBI agents. I later told Billie Winner that the prosecutor was  the whitest woman in the room, someone who’s never had a reason to fear the police.

 

outlaw!

Tuesday night, at a gathering hosted by Reality’s mom and stepdad, I met the three-legged dog, Outlaw (above), that Reality has adopted as her mascot. I also saw the small room where Winner was interviewed. I can’t see how three people could stand comfortably in there, less have the casual conversation described in one agent’s testimony:, “It looked like 3 people talking in a Starbucks line.”

Another agent described Winner’s affect that day as “flat, unemotional.” Again, I refer you to my post on “the politics of grief.” Winner’s biological father had died about six months earlier, a trauma she was still processing.  When the FBI showed up, she turned on a cheery vibe , a cheery mix of competent professional and the good Texas girl her parents raised.  As a trained intel analyst, she knew she was in trouble.  In the courtroom, we all listened to bits of the audio of that day in June, and I could feel the tightness in her voice. She wasn’t about to show these strange men what she was thinking and feeling, really.

As the hearing ended, both sides promised to submit briefs using the classified evidence that can’t be discussed in court. My guess is that the prosecution will try to drag the issue out of Law and Order, more toward Homeland  or 24, reviving their image of this kid as some kind of terrorist mastermind.  She’d joked (in a text to her sister) that she might fail her background check! She had done Internet searches on “How to make friends with the Taliban!” Worst of all, she had money in the bank, all cited as reasons to deny her bail. The judge-magistrate, Brian Epps, was persuaded enough that Winner’s still in county jail.  Still, Epps was open to Winner’s constitutional claims, and said he’d welcome the additional briefs.

Whether or not Epps eventually agrees that Winner’s confession should be suppressed, her trial will take place before a different judge, likely  not till the fall. But I’ll write here when that decision is reached, with news from the court of public opinion.

 

 

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.  .

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.

Continue reading

Bradley Manning: WIRED folds, and my dilemma is moot.

WIRED has just released the full transcripts of the conversations between Manning and that snake Adrian Lamo – meaning that everyone that cares about Manning, thinks him hero or traitor, has no way of not knowing about the gender issues. They’re mesmerizing reading, though I agree with Gawker that Lamo turns out to be even more unethical than we knew before (and as much of a scumbag as Glenn Greenwald has said all along.)

And here I just got my letter from David Coombs, basically refusing to discuss it – and I was trying to figure out if that was a coded request to honor what was left of his client’s privacy. Now, I feel that writing about this respectfully is the only way to show that respect. What do you think?

More later when I’ve finished reading the transcripts:  comments sorely requested. Was it Hemingway who said, “The writer’s job is to find out the truth and then write it. But that can be very difficult.”?

it sounds so much simpler when he says it

I know this blog has been silent for so many m0nths: more than six! How can it be? But I  didn’t feel like I could keep writing here until I had the book actually delivered to the publisher.

That has now happened, and I’ll say more about it later. But right now, I wanted to talk about the clip below, in which Lt.  Dan Choi is unapologetic in his support for whistleblower Bradley Manning. (At right, the March rally in which Daniel Ellsberg and Ann Wright were both arrested, protesting Manning’s treatment at Quantico.)

“A soldier who lived up to the mandate of the soldier.” That’s elegant. I now wish I’d managed to interview him directly, before including him as one of the major figures of my final chapter. Manning, of course, is a far more major figure, embodying at least three of Ain’t Marching’s core themes. And the first change suggested by my editor, when she read the book, was in its title: it’s now I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Soldiers Who Dissent, From George Washington to Bradley Manning.  I couldn’t say it better than Choi above, though I certainly did at greater length.

Like Choi and almost everyone else expressing an opinion about his case, I’ve not had the opportunity to speak to Spc. Manning, or even to his attorney or best friend. I’m trying not to project onto him my own ideas about dissent, or whistleblowers as mavericks, or the inherent challenge thrown at militarism by its gender issues. I’m hoping to be able to cover his  court martial this fall, and perhaps to offer some somewhat more direct observations.

But right now, it’s both true and poetic that the whole Wikileaks scandal has punctured anyone’s ability to make conventional assumptions about our foreign policy. And if that’s not dissent, I’m not sure what is.4

What do you think?

Two medical whistleblower stories today

Newest first: Mark Benjamin’s story about a Camp Lejeune psychiatrist who was booted after going public with concerns about PTSD treatment practices.

In one instance last April, for example, Manion warned Cmdr. Robert O’Byrne, head of mental health at the Camp Lejeune Naval Hospital, of “immediate concerns of physical safety” due to mistreated Marines teetering on the edge of violence. “There was — and continues to be — no means of discussion of high-intensity/dangerous cases,” he wrote. Later that month, Manion quoted to O’Byrne some Marine superiors who were calling troubled Marines “worthless pieces of shit” if they sought help.

Manion’s reward for raising important issues? He’s a contractor with Spectrum Healthcare, a company that touts a “gold star from the Joint Chiefs” on its website, which is itself a subsidiary of a corporation with over a million in DOD contracts and the Sesame Street-tinged name NiteLines Kuhana. Manion was pulled from Lejeune after a simple note from the DOD:

The contractor told Salon that the Navy ordered Manion fired on Sept. 3, four days after Manion wrote the inspectors general. “The treatment facility at Camp Lejeune notified [NiteLines] that Dr. Manion did not meet the Government’s requirements in accordance with the contract, and they directed he be removed from the schedule,” it reads. His termination dated that day notice provides no explanation.

Afterward, as the intrepid Benjamin (who must have more than one therapist for all his secondary PTSD, having exposed so much soldiers’ pain) learned, Manion’s positive evaluations appear to have been altered to make them negative, and the originals ordered destroyed. The uniformed dissenter here is the lieutenant commander who refused to play along, telling the base attorney that “Kernan Manion was considered clinically competent to practice general psychiatry…I had no specific concerns about his judgment or ethical conduct” and adding that he’d been ordered to sign the eval after “drastic” changes.

And from NPR yesterday comes another about physical illness, via  the invaluable Kelly Kennedy at Military Times.  She was talking about how in the first few years of our Iraq occupation, trash — including medical equipment and ordnance –was all going into burn pits, of the kind long banned in the U.S. because of health hazards. Kennedy said that when Military Times began to run articles about one such burn pit, in Balad, they received hundreds of letters from recent vets saying they were having breathing problems. (The headline in Army Times adds, somewhat unsurprisingly: “Officials deny risk.”)

When I think of Balad, of course, I think of all those “third-country nationals” I mentioned last month here, who are feeding and cleaning soldiers on those bases, many  under duress. But Congress finally got  involved, and Kennedy said optimistically to NPR:

I think in this case, you’ve got President Obama saying we’re not going to let this become another Agent Orange. You’ve got Congress calling for measures to be taken. You’ve got General Shinseki at the VA saying we’re going to take care of these guys. I think there’s enough people paying attention …and demanding help that it’s going to be taken care of.

Do you agree? And what would constitute “taking care” of it?

In an odd way I don’t envy the guys trying to shush these whistleblowers. The task of simultaneously caring well for a community of two million-plus scattered all around the world while running two wars — even if you outsource the taking-care part — is not just a “challenge,”  especially when a substantial portion of that caring is about cleaning up after your own mess.

But the true compassion, as ever, is reserved for the guys who took a pledge just as sacred as the military oaths in question. Remember “do no harm?”