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The Rule of Law, or the Law of Rulers?

One of the principal things that distinguishes a free nation from totalitarianism is that in a totalitarian nation, those in power can decide they don’t like what you are doing and can punish you at their whim. In a free nation, we have the rule of law, which means that you are innocent until found guilty by a jury of your peers.

That is why I found it so surprising that Obama, who as a former constitutional lawyer should understand the constitution and the rule of law, could say something like this: After a fundraiser in San Francisco — the one where protestors sang a song to Obama protesting the treatment of Bradley Manning — one of the protestors approached Obama and talked to him:

People can have philosophical views about…

[Questioner: unintelligible]

No, no, but look, I can’t conduct diplomacy on an open source. That’s not how…the world works. If you’re in the military, and…I have to abide by certain classified information. If I was to release stuff, information that I’m not authorized to release, I’m breaking the law…We’re a nation of laws. We don’t individually make our own decisions about how the laws operate…

He broke the law.

[Questioner: ‘You can make it harder to break the law.’]

Well, what he did was he dumped…

[Questioner: something about President Nixon’s prosecution of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg]

It wasn’t the same thing. What Ellsberg released wasn’t classified in the same way. So. Anyway. Alright.

If this video and transcript are accurate, then Obama saying “He broke the law” about Manning is so very very wrong on many levels. How could Manning possibly receive a fair trial after the president declares that he is already guilty?

Also, Obama is misleading when he claims that what Ellsberg released wasn’t classified in the same way. What Ellsberg released was classified “top secret”, everything that Manning is accused of leaking was at a lower classification level.

UPDATE: Good column on this by Glenn Greenwald. If we don’t individually make our own decisions about how the laws operate, then why did Obama let a good portion of the Bush administration off the hook for their war crimes?



  1. We are not a nation of laws; we are a nation of subordinates.

    Monday, April 25, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink
  2. PatriotSGT wrote:

    I have to agree the President, who is in every military members Chain of Command, should not comment on the guilt or innocence of the accused. This is aside from the matter of Mannings incarceration and subsequent treatment while in custody. The media has every right to question both of those matters.

    I just caution not to confuse his treatment with the charges leveled against him. If in fact he is found guilty, he must be punished and again there can and will be mitigating factors to consider on the nature of his punishment. Don’t let this become a “free willy” type of project, because his behavior (if true) cannot be tolerated within the military. If he committed the acts he is accused of, then he was fully aware he was breaking the law and decided to accept the possibility of being caught (more likely he never thought he’d get caught).

    Monday, April 25, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Permalink
  3. Dan wrote:

    and yet Ollie North is a hero.
    I took the “oath” 4 times, and it specifies “lawful orders.”

    Monday, April 25, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Permalink
  4. PatriotSGT wrote:

    I understand Dan, but no one ordered te PFC to do anything. He acted all on his own so we can’t even debate if it was a lawful order. You are absolutely correct in saying anyone who knowingly follows an unlawful order is as much responsible as the person who gave the order. Further, it is the duty of those that know to not carry out an unlawful order.

    Monday, April 25, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Permalink