Alexa O’Brien is a journalist, researcher, and social activist. She is currently investigating the Bradley Manning trial and the US government’s pursuit of Wikileaks.
JAMES GREEN: Could you start off by telling me about the work you’re doing right now on the Bradley Manning case?
ALEXA O`BRIEN: Sure. I’ve been researching and covering the Bradley Manning trial and the US investigations into WikiLeaks, Assange, Manning, and supporters. Manning’s been in pre-trial confinement for over 900 days. I’ve been transcribing that trial by hand, and when the Military District of Washington (MDW) allows the press to actually use computers – which they haven`t lately – I type them. There is no public docket for the trial. It is being conducted in de facto secrecy. So, I am trying to get as much information out as a journalist so that legal scholars, the public, and other press can scale off of the work that I do. I’ve researched the U.S. investigations into Wikileaks, Manning, supporters and the press and that`s available at usvwikileaks.org.
And then there is more in-depth coverage and profiles I’ve built, including witness profiles and a reconstructed Appellate List available at http://www.alexaobrien.com/secondsight/archives.html. I’ve essentially built an appellate list – reconstructed it out of open court as well as the defense filings.
GREEN: Just for people who are not familiar with the legal jargon, what is that?
O’BRIEN: It`s basically the court docket. Normally in the United States you have trials where you have a public docket and public filings and rulings. The defense files a motion, the court rules on a motion and the Government files a motion and there is a back and forth. And there are exhibits that are filed into the court and it`s a public record. It’s a First Amendment right to have access to trials essentially. In this particular case there is no public docket. So when the court rules on something this judge will read it into the court record, but she reads it so quickly that you can’t gather the most important aspects of her ruling on the legal level, like what precedent or what case law is cited and such. This is important because this is the largest leak trial in American history, and it’s being covered by less than a handful of bloggers, myself included. It’s absolutely a disgrace.
GREEN: What is the justification given for it being done in such secrecy? Is this a military trial?
O’BRIEN: It is a military trial, but it doesn’t matter. The constitution is the constitution. Look at the Guantanamo trials. The Government will publish transcripts for the biggest Guantanamo trials. We don’t have transcripts here.
GREEN: Where exactly are these trials taking place?
O’BRIEN: To give you a kind of high overview, US v. PFC Bradley Manning is being conducted at Fort Meade in Maryland on the base. Right now we’re in the motions and discovery phase still, two years in, so his trial has not actually started. It won`t start until at least February 2012, although the Government would like to push it to August of 2013. He`s essentially on trial for 22 charges. The broad view is that these charges relate to the “unauthorized disclosure of information to Wikileaks.” He’s been charged with aiding of the enemy, he’s been charged with the espionage act (18 USC 793), he`s been charged with unauthorized access (18 USC 1030), and while the prosecution says they will not seek the death penalty that`s really not the prosecution`s decision. It’s actually up to the General Convening Authority – Maj. Gen. Michael S. Linnington, commander of the Military District of Washington.
GREEN: What is the General Convening Authority?
O’BRIEN: Essentially it’s the individual who has the final say on and jurisdiction over the individual in the legal proceedings. And, since Pfc. Bradley Manning is in a general court martial, that jurisdiction comes from the General Convening Authority.
GREEN: So are there no other professional journalists in attendance at these proceedings?
O’BRIEN: At the pre-trial hearing there was a smattering of mainstream media there. They left during this period. The`re not there now. All of the American networks were there for the first couple of days, but to be quite honest with you, they were looking at pictures of George Clooney and shopping for wedding shoes in the press pool while this trial was being conducted. That is a fact. I was there, and I saw them doing it. The AFP is there. I haven`t seen the AP in the last few Article 39(a) sessions which are the motion hearing sessions. So, no it`s not being covered.
GREEN: I took a look at your website where you post some of the documents and your written up transcripts of the trial. Some of that, for someone like me who does not know the legal jargon, is difficult to decipher. Can you run down some of the material that you`re putting up there for people to have access to and why it`s important?
O’BRIEN: Well coverage of this trial is incredibly important because for one thing it`s trail blazing in military law. It`s just busting through precedents. The Government told the judge to “go out on a limb.” The Government is trying to craft an Official Secrets Act with this case. The other reason why this trial is important in terms of military law is with the National Defense Authorization Act military law seems to be becoming the ruling law of the United States for citizens. And so if the military is going to craft an Official Secrets Act and we already have the passage of the NDAA – and it looks like the Second Circuit will probably throw out Judge Forrest`s decision – I think it`s important that Americans stay abreast of what is happening in military law. The third thing is that this is the largest leak trial in U.S. history. So it has constitutional ramifications with regards to the First Amendment, and also the designation of the “enemy” and the Espionage Act.
If you look at the Espionage Act the only thing that makes it constitutional is the notion of mens rea which is basically “guilty mind.” The Government would like to get rid of that and craft this Official Secrets Act. So if I disclose any information that the Government designates as unauthorized, it doesn’t matter if I`m disclosing war crimes, it doesn’t matter if I`m exposing corruption. If I disclose that to you, a member of the press, I`m committing espionage because the way that these charges are crafted the Government alleges Manning “indirectly” communicated to the enemy via Wikileaks, which is a media organization.
GREEN: Now if you had given me some kind of classified information you wouldn’t be held under the same requirements that Private Bradley Manning was, because he was officially part of the military, right? As a member of the military is he held to different requirements about what he can and cannot do with that information?
O’BRIEN: Actually, interestingly enough, the military has a broader sense of discovery rights than civilian courts. So at civilian courts there is Brady. Since the Government controls the information involved in this case, it`s their files, their investigation, he`s a member of the military, essentially the defense has a right to anything that mitigates his punishment or serves in the preparation of his defense. This particular Government prosecutor has done everything to prevent the defense from getting any information. And in fact the U.S. State Department has played a role in blocking discovery rights for this particular defendant. In terms of Manning being in the military, people often times forget that the Constitution is still the Constitution. He still has a right to due process. He still has First Amendment rights. And it comes back to the Espionage Act and mens rea that I mentioned before. If he is uncovering corruption or war crimes, or if the information should be in the public domain – yes the Government can and will do everything they can to slam the book at this young man – but the the fact of the matter is however, if you look at the way in which he allegedly leaked it`s not indiscriminate. There is a certain methodology to it that reveals certain facts.
If you look at the Iraq War Diary for example you can see how the U.S. was complicit in torture of Iraqis by handing them over to the Iraqi Federal Police. If you look at what he actually leaked, he didn’t leak anything above secret. In fact, Collateral Murder is not even classified. In terms of scale, scale is a natural outcome of the information age, and data modeling and the like are a implicit and common reality in today’s journalism that isn’t watching Granny’s prime time TV news.
GREEN: How does that effect the Government`s attempt to use the Espionage Act? Tell us more about the Espionage Act and what it says about what is legal and illegal.
O’BRIEN: Let me approach that question this way. This particular president has prosecuted more whistle blowers than any other president or all presidents combined. And Bradley Manning is simply another notch in this particular president`s belt when it comes to using the Espionage Act. In fact his campaign literature brags about the fact that he has prosecuted more people under the Espionage Act, which is completely ridiculous. But he wants to “appear” like he is tough on national security issues.
This particular frequency of use of the Espionage Act is frightening. When you combine that with the fact that he is pushing for the NDAA, and the indefinite detention of Americans without trial or charges, it`s very frightening.
GREEN: Could you talk about the NDAA and how it connects to the prosecution of Bradley Manning?
O’BRIEN: Well I think it does in this regard. What the U.S. Government is attempting to do is to codify and expand the AUMF. I could sit and dissect every single thing, but I think that it`s important that Americans are actually informed about what the AUMF is so if they don`t know what it is, they should Google it. But essentially what is happening here, in the war on terror the Government says that it’s fought with intelligence and information. And if you look at Secretary Clinton`s comments about the fact that we are in an information war, that we`re in a media war, this notion of substantial support actually impedes First Amendment rights. And what the U.S. Government can actually use the NDAA for is essentially to indefinitely detain terrorists and who the Government deems are “terrorist sympathizers”.
Now what`s a terrorist sympathizer? In the Government`s eyes it`s the Yemeni journalist Shaye, for example, who covered the war on Yemen and US cluster bombs there and interviewed members of Al Qaeda and is now sitting in a Yemeni prison at the request of President Obama. It`s Sami al-Hajj the Al Jazeera cameraman who spent more than six years at Guantanamo Bay because the U.S. Government wanted to get intelligence on Al Jazeera, a media organization. So if you look at the efforts of Congress to continually expand this nexus notion around prosecuting terrorists – expanding material support to now substantially support. Even the term support, something that Bruce Afran the First Amendment lawyer in the NDAA case mentioned, there is something implicitly First Amendment and vague about that word “support” and “substantial support.” “Support” is an expressive word, to support something. This is really the Government`s attempt to control what they term is an “information environment.”
GREEN: What is NDAA designed to do? In terms of the plaintiffs who are fighting it – you and Chris Hedges and others – describe it by saying that this is a danger to journalists and normal citizens. What is the Government`s claim about what the NDAA is for?
O’BRIEN: The Government are sophists. The Government in it`s original hearing asked a question of the plaintiffs that it couldn’t even answer at the second hearing. The Government says whatever it needs to say in order to justify this unconstitutional abomination. The Government was asking me if I knew if anyone was detained under the NDAA and I responded that this clearly has secret applications, but I gave them examples of how the U.S. Government has detained journalists under the AUMF. In the second hearing the Government couldn’t answer the question when the judge asked if the Government is detaining anyone under the NDAA – which contradicts the Government on what was said in the previous hearing, that the NDAA is merely the AUMF. The Government is completely…like the military prosecutor in the Manning trial who has lied, flat out lied to the judge in open court. And because there is no official public transcript it’s very hard for the press to nail them on that. Of course I have a practically verbatim transcript so I know that he`s lied. The Government lies. The Government will do anything it wants to do and can do to preserve and expand executive power. And that`s what is happening in this case. I`m talking about the NDAA case, I`m talking about the Manning case, I`m talking about the prosecution of Thomas Drake, I`m talking about the whole expansion of executive power in the post 9/11 “inter-agency” world.
GREEN: Where is the NDAA case at now?
O’BRIEN: The Southern District of New York, Judge Forrest, ruled in our favor. And she permanently enjoined Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act. What ended up happening was the Government basically moved the court to stay the implementation of her ruling and she denied it. The Government then filed an appeal in the Second Circuit Appeals Court to stay her stay. And so currently the Second Circuit is considering her ruling on the NDAA being unconstitutional. But in the meantime they have prevented Judge Forrest`s ruling – immediately enjoining Section 1021 – from being put into effect. So the NDAA is essentially in effect while we wait for the Second Circuit.
GREEN: A few days ago you put out an open letter regarding the NDAA and how it directly effects you as a journalist and someone working on these cases. Could you talk about that letter and why you put it out? I was specifically struck by how in the NDAA case there were some articles that you had written that were referred to that could potentially be used to prosecute you under the NDAA and how because of that you held back from publishing them.
O’BRIEN: The articles in question related to the war on terror, including interviews with detainees and the like. The Government essentially said in open court at the first hearing that they wouldn’t guarantee that I would not be detained because of my work. The judge had actually asked the Government that question. And the judge even cited the exchange in her ruling. I spent two days in deposition with the Government for this particular case and they were very interested to know about the articles I was holding back. I mean if I`m not going to publish it, I`m not going to talk to them about it. They love word games too. It was pretty nerve wracking to be in deposition with them for two days. I think it was actually the longest out of all the witnesses.
The reason I put that letter out is I`m really not someone who likes to do a lot press interviews. I really like to work. There`s a whole way you have to approach the press. You have to make sure you have your talking points together and such, because there`s just so much work that needs to be done, and I just want to get the work done. But I felt that it was important that my friends and family understood what was going on. I`m not really a blabber mouth. I don`t run around telling everybody what`s going on and I just felt it was important that people understand – especially in this election season – what Obama is doing. What the Government is doing. And what the implications are in reality. It`s not like I said to myself, “Yippee! I want to join the NDAA Case!” You know what I mean? That`s not what happened. I`m even reluctant about the term activist because I feel like in the state of civic society in the United States, it`s a demographic. It`s like someone out, off there in the stratosphere. Or, like someone who buys a hipster magazine that gets marketed to. And it`s not like something much more closer to home which is just you and me and everybody engaging in – not only the battleground of civic society, because clearly there is a push and pull between different interests – but also that joining thread between all citizens. The structure of our Government. And the principles underneath that allow people who are from different opposing interests to find common ground.
GREEN: How did you get involved in the NDAA originally? You were doing work related to Wikileaks? And you had also been involved in the US Day of Rage where as a result of that somehow you were then accused of being involved with Al Qaeda?
O’BRIEN: I was covering Wikileaks releases. US Day of Rage is separate and was started in March of 2011. Prior to that I had been covering Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, the revolutions. The liveblog for Bahrain had 60,000 hits a day and it wasn’t because it was a master work liveblog. It`s because there was so little coverage of Bahrain and people wanted the information and I was able to curate and aggregate that credibly through social media. So, I was doing that and covering the Wikileaks releases on Guantanamo, the Guantanamo files. And not only the detainee profiles themselves but also the media partners that worked with WikiLeaks, like Andy Worthington who is the foremost Guantanamo historian and author. I got to interview him. I got to speak with Omar Deghayes.
US Day of Rage started separately at 3 o`clock in the morning when I was watching what was going on in Wisconsin, and the thing sort of took off and it had a life of it`s own. I think what ended up happening if you look at the time line is that Government contractors tried to link US Day of Rage to Islamic fundamentalists. And there were more than one. I was told by someone who identified themselves as a federal agent warning me about a memo being sent out to law enforcement across the country. I had other journalists tell me that they had seen documents not only from the Department of Homeland Security but also other agencies about US Day of Rage. And at my former place of work the person in charge of federal contracts who was a former interrogator informed me in a business meeting that people in the federal Government were asking about me by name. So I was warned to be very careful.
GREEN: You eventually got pushed out of your job as a result of that.
O’BRIEN: Yes. It was a mutual decision. It’s detailed in the court transcripts. I left because it became impossible for me to conduct my work there. There was no way that I was going to be promoted, and people were very skittish about what I was doing. I`m also not someone who likes to bring my misfortune into the laps of others, so I agreed to leave.
GREEN: What is it about US Day of Rage that made it the target of these investigations?
O’BRIEN: Ask the Government. I don`t have an answer to that question. The only purpose of US Day of Rage is to reform our corrupt elections. Ask the Government how they are arguing the NDAA. I don`t have time to psychologize or even rationalize or justify the Government`s positions on this because they are completely out of bounds.
GREEN: Tell us more about US Day of Rage. Where is it active and what is it doing?
O’BRIEN: US Day of Rage is focused on reforming our corrupt election system which is a complicated issue. It`s simple and it`s complicated. Clearly there is a constitutional aspect to that with Citizens United. We need to get Citizens United overturned. And we need a constitutional amendment that makes it possible for only human citizens to make campaign contributions, and we believe those should be capped at some level. The Right could probably stomach a constitutional amendment for only human citizens – and you need the right and left in this country to get any kind of reform to happen – a structural reform like this. I don`t know if the Right would stomach capping election contributions. But we need to cap them so that the wealthy don`t capture Government. These are very democratic republican principles. Right now we are working on getting a constitutional amendment together.
GREEN: Are there branches? How does it work?
O’BRIEN: It’s an idea. The whole economic and social landscape has changed in the United States. The way that we approach politics is – if you look at how people organize today, especially people who are 45 and younger, if you look at how different classes organize, heavy social capital is important and it works, but people have more numerous weak social ties today, and organize around ideas and experiences. So essentially US Day of Rage is an experiment in that.
GREEN: I would personally attest to how US Day of Rage acted as an idea because I can remember the time before Occupy had started, USDOR had a presence. I didn’t know exactly what they were doing but I definitely saw a step from there being USDOR into there being Occupy. I wonder how you perceived that time around when Occupy sprung up. How did it appear to you? Where did it come from and what were the elements that came together to make Sept 17th, 2011 happen at Zuccoti park? I`m guessing there were people who had been involved in US Day of Rage who brought those ideas to the mix that helped engender the ideas for Occupy. Did you see that happening?
O’BRIEN: We organized 6 protests on Sept 17th, 2011. There were protests in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, Portland and New York. And we organized all the non-violent civil disobedience trainings – and legal observers – because the General Assembly couldn’t figure out whether it was violent or non-violent and we were inviting people from all over the country to this and we are pretty clear that we`re non-violent. I look at it from a political science point of view. I don`t think you would have the kind of movement that you saw from Tunisia onward if it weren’t for political economy. Number two, in the case of Egypt you have an aging tyrant and stuff like that, but public information played a role. I would attribute Wikileaks releases to the energy and the way in which information was moving through social media. The way it was aggregated and curated through twitter and other social media. I think it had an effect on the way in which people were getting their information and understanding what was happening in other countries and the way people were organizing around that information across boundaries and borders.
I’m not saying the Arab Spring happened because of social media alone. I`m not writing a dissertation on it. I`m only talking about it from my experience. There was an energy that happened and I think that Occupy was a part of that movement.
GREEN: Occupy now is active but maybe it`s not so clear to people where and how it`s active because people associated Occupy exclusively with these camps, and yet there are definitely people who are still involved with Occupy related activities. Does that seem problematic, that they don`t have such a strong surface presence. Or do you think that the work that is going on right now is effective.
O`BRIEN: I think questions like that are like the question “Do I look fat?” They are in the same genre to me. It`s not an insult to you. There`s just a neurotic-ness to it. The most important thing is that citizens – whether they are Occupy or not Occupy, conservative or progressive – reclaim the civic space in the United States. So I look at Occupy as being successful and I think that Occupy will continue to be successful if it inspires and galvanizes that kind of movement at the grass roots in America.
The success of the NDAA case and the ruling – I`m not in the mind of Judge Forrest – but if you look at the amicus briefs which are filed in support of our case, they came from “Gun Owners of America” as well as the the “Left”. There is a stake that all people have in our design for Government. Now some people may think that`s a bit of a fairy tale and I`m not trying to say there isn`t a battle of interests or ideologies in the political space. In terms of Occupy, I think that if Occupy continues to stand in the mirror and ask itself if it looks fat, it`s a waste of time. But there are people who aren`t worried about that. They are doing the work that needs to be done. And whether you call it Occupy or Poccupy, I don`t really care, as long as the civic space opens up in this country. That`s what I care about more than anything else.
GREEN: Well people are not getting together and doing the same things with the same intensity, or at least it doesn’t appear that way to me. And I have these discussions in between different people who are involved in activism. On one side there are people who, if they hear the idea that Occupy is dead, flatly deny it or even say it`s stronger than ever. On the other side I had a conversation a few weeks ago with Norman Finkelstein talking about Occupy who says Occupy is dead. They`re not there at Union Square and why is it that a couple of bulldozers could come along and not just wipe out the camp but essentially remove the movement. And for Occupy to really get back into gear it has to engage in some difficult questions about what it did wrong.
So I`m curious from your perspective, someone who was involved in Occupy, what your sense of what went wrong might have been, if there were places that were really problematic, so that people can say “let`s change that” or “let`s do something different” now. Was it in the assemblies? Was it because of not addressing issues more directly with actionable solutions? What are the steps that need to happen to create that civic space again? To fight back against the attack on civil liberties in the U.S.
O’BRIEN: It takes work and it takes time. This is work and it`s not something that people necessarily do in public. If you`re spending hour and hours and hours on research or trying to get something passed, or to lobby, that takes a tremendous amount of work. What did Occupy do wrong? In a certain sense I have the kind of former Czechoslovakian anti-politician view towards Occupy. I think that people shouldn’t ask for permission. If they want to do the work they should simply take the torch, push it, and do the work, get it done instead of sitting around trying to figure out whether or not the work needs to get done or not, or if everybody`s feelings need to be taken care of. I`m talking for myself, I`m not speaking for anyone else. I`m not speaking for USDOR. I also think political correctness is a problem within Occupy. It`s the kind of political correctness that`s actually a sort of tyrants political correctness.
GREEN: What does that look like?
O`BRIEN: It looks like trying to make it so that everybody is ok, and being absolutely – gender, culture – everybody is absolutely ok, instead of doing the kind of work that needs to be done for one`s own interests. I don`t look at Occupy as a political party. Out of Occupy will come political parties. Out of Occupy will come leaders and reform. It might not have the Occupy brand name attached to it, but who cares. My favorite quote is, “You can do anything as long as you don`t care who takes credit.” And it`s the truth. Defining what it is, is part of the problem. Just simply getting the work done is what`s important. And, in that – for many of us since Congress no longer deliberates – is an implicit learning curve and “deliberation.”
If there are particular issues within working groups or things people want to get done, they should do it instead of asking for permission. If it`s important enough and convincing enough, you`ll get the support. I think the working groups were fantastic. And I know that they are still working. Whether or not they are part of a General Assembly – that was somebody else’s specific intention. Occupy is much bigger than the General Assembly. So this is something that I’ve said from the beginning. If you look just in the digital space, it`s all of the work that`s being done on that end to push out information or to gain consensus, it`s also that aspect, which is of a different nature than having the heavy social capital of a General Assembly. And I think that part of the problem is that a lot of people know that is happening but they are not standing on a street corner with a billboard. But, they are also doing that work, and that is also part of the fabric of Occupy – the myriad weak social ties that make up the game generation, or the internet generation and how they organize around ideas. That`s continuing to evolve.
At certain moments you can certainly diagnose and make a plan and strategize for a particular political action. But that`s also just simply the ether of assembly and association in the digital age and how it`s shifting. Like with liquid politics in Germany and the Pirate Party, and Falkvinge talking about “Internet swarms” The sort of swarms that people talk about when they talk about Anonymous. All of those things are in the mix and they are part of Occupy, and they also helped organize Occupy. You wouldn’t have had Sept 17th if it wasn’t for #OPBART happening. Those protests that were organized by Anonymous that I watched as an observer. You wouldn’t have Occupy without Madison, WI earlier in the years either. All of us learned from those kinds of experiences and continue to learn. So I`m not so worried. If particular assemblies and particular communities want to figure out what they did wrong or what they did right, I say they are just do whatever they need to do and keep running with the torch. Keep doing the work that needs to be done. And people will follow the work.
GREEN: Chris Hedges, who says that at this point the legal system we`re working under has become so problematic and corrupt that we`re at the point where civil disobedience is our only option, is at the same time actively involved in the NDAA case which is an attempt to engage with the legal system.
O’BRIEN: I adore Chris Hedges by the way. I really have a lot of respect for him. So if he wants to talk about the fact that our judicial system is completely weak and that we have had a coup d`etat – which I completely agree with him on – and he wants to also try to use the rule of law and the legal system to actually reform it, I say go for it. Do whatever you can. Use every single tactic you can. Civil disobedience is really important. I`m not an ideologue. I`m not going to write some manifesto in blood. It`s also why I think Occupy is important, whether as a stepping stone or as the energy of giving birth to other things. If you look at the fact that it created a civic space in the United States that wasn’t a spectacle, I think that`s very important. Because at the heart of anything that matters in life is authenticity.
All of us can be fools or ignorant at times. That`s all part of life and the reality of life and how people actually engage in the political community and their own political education. Obama knows that a brand can motivate and catalyze. But fundamentally people are inspired and engaged by authenticity and what they care about. The great thing about Occupy is that there was something there that was authentic. I didn’t have to become a subscriber to an activist magazine to participate. It was made up of people who were also perhaps not previously not engaging in politics. Because who can engage in politics in this country if it leads to your being the target of private secuity contractors and the Government.
I`m not a radical by any stretch of the imagination. I mean, I am a radical in the United States because I`m actually a sort of true democratic republican, in the sense of Federalist 52. I believe in the principles of our republic, which is radical today in the United States of America. But I am not a radical in terms of being an activist. I don`t have a subscription to a radical magazine, so to speak. I don`t think to myself – what do I want to do for two years of my life, maybe I`ll spend every single hour of my available day researching the Bradley Manning case. But I believe it`s important that I do this work. You know where we started organizing originally? It was in working class and service sector states. Of course, Madison, WI started before Occupy. But, in terms of Occupy the creative class hubs – Madison, San Francisco, they were able to organize more effectively in terms of having their boots on the ground and the capacity to organize more quickly. But it was Idaho and Tennessee and places like that where people were really suffering. So I think that authentic sense of people, whether they were engaged with politics or not, that`s what Occupy and US Day of Rage inspired. And that`s how we`re going to get political reform in this country. It`s not a bunch of academics sitting around talking. They`re important too, for down the road. You always need the constitutional lawyer to figure out and seal the deal. But fundamentally if you are going to get reform in this country, you need to inspire people or give people a reasons to engage.
GREEN: What about the brouhaha around Chris Hedges and the Black Bloc? He`s someone who I considered to be a pivotal thinker in terms of getting people to act on some of these really fundamental problems. So when later down the road you had so many people within Occupy demonizing him for the things he said I was suprised. Then recently the last debate around this issue, it was shocking to me how there were elements within Occupy who participated in that debate who were disruptive and even making violent threats.
O’BRIEN: Yeah, I saw that. Who were they threatening?
GREEN: There was a reporter from the Independent who was trying to take pictures of some of the people disrupting the meeting, calling out names, and they were threatening him for doing that. It devolved into something that makes the work that you`re talking about impossible because it becomes infighting or chaos. What`s your take on that?
O`BRIEN: My take on that is that underneath a massive oak picture frame around the Constitution and all the principles we hold dear is a nail. And at under that nail is a tiny sticker that says, “If assholes had wings this place would be an airport.”
That`s just reality. I`m not going to worry about them. I think that basically they`re trouble makers and idiots and that they create problems. But everyone at one point has been an idiot and a troublemaker so that`s not some condemnation on people being ignorant or doing something I disagree with. Once again most of us are sitting around wondering whether or not other people are going to agree with us on this or that particular point or principle. Personally, I feel that non-violence is far more effective as a principle to gravitate around. And principles are important, because they are inspiring and self-enforcing.
I respect Chris Hedges as a human being. I`m not going to sit down and dissect him – did Chris Hedges say this and how. He had the courage to say it, and I think a lot of people wanted to say something. Did he say it how he should have said it? That`s none of my business. It`s already done. I heard what he said. Also with regards to Hedges, he showed up at that debate. He actually engaged in the conversation, which is actually an act of non-violence in some deeper sense.
I don`t want to character assassinate any of these other people. I`m just basing it off of your account. But, I don`t think it`s a solution. It`s certainly not one that I want to use, because I’m not inspired.
I listened to that debate and I`m interested in talking to people about it. I don`t know everything. One of the things I`ll say about Chris Hedges is that I always learn something from him. He has a lot of great insight into organization, reform, and revolution just because he`s covered so many. He`s phenomenally smart. But putting that aside, all of us have a responsibility to stop trying to win friends. We need to just do the work. This is a very important time in history especially in this country where all of us have a great responsibility to do the work that`s not being done in terms of covering trials, in terms of organizing certain actions. Rather than focusing on whether or not we can get the academy’s board to organize around a particular idea, people should just do the idea themselves. And you`ll find your affinity with certain people and it will happen. You might not get everybody in the world to support you, but you`ll get enough.
GREEN: The state of journalism now. You`re an independent journalist. You see the information that needs to get out there and you do the work of getting it out in whatever way you can. The appearance of Wikileaks is an indication of how the state of journalism is changing. People were so hungry for the information that Wikileaks brought out because the mainstream media has had problems for a long time. As a journalist doing this kind of work in an environment where there are fears about the repercussions it might have for you, being targeted by the Government, or the simpler problem of getting paid for this kind of work. It`s important work but it`s not work that people are able to make a living doing, so you have to be independently wealthy to do it otherwise you can`t feed and house yourself. Do you see a place for professional journalists anymore? How are we going to make sure that quality journalism survives and thrives? I`m not talking about the New York Times. I`m talking about the kind of work that people like Alex Cockburn pioneered.
O`BRIEN: I think we need to support Wikileaks, because Wikileaks is a disruptive innovator. If you look at social media and how people are getting their information there is definitely a market change and a sociological change happening in the way that we consume media. I`m not a techno-utopian. I`m just saying that the way people interact with the information is different. Now the quality of the information is also important.
In terms of where do we go from here, people can support Wikileaks. They can donate to both WikiLeaks and the Bradley Manning legal defense fund. But we also simply just have to do the work. When you strategize something, it`s not like you write the dissertation and then everything happens the way you plan it, and then you have success. That`s not how it works. It`s different. There are moments in time that we need to be prepared for. When you do the work, the moment happens, and you can accomplish something or change the playing field. Thats what`s happening right now. There are a slew of people reinventing journalism. And I`m not talking just about Wikileaks and ways to economically scale out valuable information – which is what Wikileaks does – because it scales it out to multiple media partners. It`s amazing. I think Julian Assange is a genius really for doing that. But the ordinary person or blogger – and I hate that term, blogger – but you know what I mean. Someone who`s not writing for the New York Times. There are other ways to scale certain things out.
It`s one of the things that I aimed to do with the Bradley Manning timeline for example. The case is massive. How do I get the information out in a way that another journalist can use to build off from in a way that the information is also able to be scaled in terms of narrative? I need to work on the usability issues of the timeline, but you can permalink each citation so that it can go out on Twitter or Facebook. If you`re dealing with a massive case like this one, plus the U.S. investigations – this is a whole of Government inter-agency investigation of Wikileaks. Every agency has investigated Wikileaks. It`s hundreds of thousands of pages of investigative files and grand jury testimony, FBI, and Department of State, and even international law enforcement.
I don`t have a disruptive innovation to present to you in this particular interview about how we can economically scale independent journalists. I think you are starting to see it with Flattr and things like that where people are being supported for their independent work. There are those kinds of tools.
But one of the things I do know is that more than anything else, this might not go in our favor. Take the Guantanamo detainees – innocent farmers and foot soldiers caught in the fog of war – for example. Things didn’t go so hot for them. Imagine if they were sitting in this chair wondering “how can we ensure that we won`t be jailed indefinitely.”
You cannot break the human spirit. The human spirit is fundamentally important. Any democratic or just society is not built simply on the legacy and traditions of constitutional principles or ideology. It`s built on the spirit of people and the virtue of people. So it becomes incumbent and important that that spirit be be supported and nurtured. Anything that gets somebody off their butt to actually do the work that needs to get done by every citizen right now is very important. So if it`s not being reported, you report it. Everyone should do whatever they can do.
James Green is a independent journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.