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Sunday, April 24, 2011


My old Winthrop House fellow tutor and friend, the distinguished foreign policy expert William Polk, copied me in on this email, and I secured his permission to post it on my blog. I think it speaks for itself.

Dear Michael,

In this morning's emails was the item attached below. It struck me particularly because of the talk we had during our meeting on "Affordable World Security" in St-Paul about our late friend, Eqbal Ahmad.

While he was a fellow of the Adlai Stevenson Institute when I was the president, Eqbal was arrested along with the Catholic priests, the Berrigans, for allegedly trying to kidnap Henry Kissinger. I was then out of town, so when I heard the news, I rushed back to Chicago. Right into an emergency meeting of the Board of Directors of the Institute.

The Board, I should point out, was made up of the elite of Liberal America, the closest colleagues of Adlai Stevenson. And I was in a curious position since Kissinger and I had been friends as well as colleagues (at Harvard). Indeed, when he was working for Nelson Rockefeller, Kissinger had asked me (on behalf of Governor Rockefeller) to become Under Secretary of State if Rockefeller were elected president. Kissinger and I had parted company (over Nixon), drew further apart and were no longer speaking (over a number of other issues), but our previous friendship was known and was then widely publicized in the press.

So when the Board asked me how I proposed to fire Eqbal, with the least possible damage to the public image of the Institute, I was in a curious position. I replied that I did not intend to fire him, saying that if the board wanted to fire Eqbal, they would have to get a new Institute president, because I would not do it. The Board was shocked. To explain my position, I pointed out that he had not even been charged, much less convicted. When they pressed the point, I offered my resignation. They were dismayed but simply withdrew from the issue and from me. In fact, I insisted that we continued to pay Eqbal's salary while he was in prison awaiting trial.

Of course, I am not a lawyer or a constitutional scholar (which President Obama claims to be), but I do care about our system of laws. As I understand it, a person is innocent unless or until proven guilty although he may be restrained if considered dangerous or likely to flee. So Eqbal was rightfully in prison but was still in that shadow zone between innocence and guilt. I believe lawyers call this "unproven." To me as a lay historian, that means "still innocent."

I paid a big price for my refusal. I lost my board's support and confidence. I had behaved "irresponsibly." Indeed, that meeting was the beginning of the end of the Institute. But, of course, I would do the same again today.

That I thought that Eqbal had behaved like an ass -- claiming that he intended only a "citizen's arrest" rather than kidnap -- as I told him when he got out of prison and returned to the Institute, was irrelevant to the issue; so was our relationship. I was not defending him (for which he had tried to thank me). What mattered was the fundamental principle. That was what I was standing for. To violate that principle, I felt and feel, was truly subversive, even treasonable.

It was almost ironic that the charge (when it was finally made) against Eqbal was dropped and he was never brought to trial. (I cannot resist saying that my Board never mentioned the case again and certainly did not credit my stand. Liberalism goes only so far!)

So I am shocked by what the President is alleged to have said regarding Bradley Manning. Manning may well be guilty, and if he is, he should go to jail. One can argue whether a higher purpose might vindicate his action, but if one feels impelled to violate the law, he should be prepared to pay for his action. His action may be vindicated by history but his motivation may be irrelevant in a court of law. Although I presume, it could be a mitigating factor in the punishment if he is indeed guilty of violating the law on release of confidential documents.

Had I felt impelled to leak the documents I had access to during my time on the Policy Planning Council, say over the Vietnam issue, i would have expected to pay the price for my action. I thoroughly disagreed with our policy on Vietnam, and I argued strenuously against it inside the government in every forum I could reach. When I failed, I resigned. Admittedly, that was not enough. I did not sway the decisions. What Dan Ellsberg did was more decisive and braver although certainly illegal. He got away with it for number of reasons of which the main one was that the political climate was right for his action. The climate is not for a similar action today. Moreover, what I have seen of the leaked documents (published by the press from Wikileaks) suggests that they are, in any case, not so germane to America's safety or morality as the Pentagon Papers; some are important, but many are just good gossip. However, this may or may not be germane.

What is germane is that Manning's guilt or innocence is for a court to decide, not for the president to declare before he is even tried, much less convicted. And Mr. Obama's act is particularly opprobrious, in my view, because Manning is slated to be tried in a military court by officers whose commander-in-chief has already pronounced his guilt. Were this a civil court and the presiding judge pronounced the verdict even before the jury had met, I think (and certainly would hope) that the case would be thrown out.

I would be curious to learn how your students judge this issue. It is, I believe, fundamental to our political and legal system.

Best regards, Bill

William R. Polk


Andrew Lionel Blais said...

With all due respect to both William Polk and Eqbal Ahmad, given the context of the conversation, it is not obvious to me that Obama unequivocally said that Manning broke the law. Some of his words do suggest that he did, but given that the issue that he was discussing was a possibly important analogy between Ellsberg and Manning, namely, the issue of whether there is a principle that justifies the actions of both, it seems more likely that Obama was saying that as President, he can only consider the law. It makes little sense to interpret him as saying that this is a nation of laws and then going on to flagrantly disregard the presumption of innocence, which is one of the nation's most fundamental laws. It is possible, of course, but not likely. Eqbal Ahmad may have said things that suggested that he wanted to "kidnap" Kissinger, but the fuller context, which I admit that I do not know, may have made it clearer that he and the Berrigans only wanted to perform a "citizen's arrest." Oughtn't we to extend the same interpretive courtesy to Obama?

English Jerk said...


Obama has consistently sustained the Patriot Act, which directly violates the Constitution--which is the ultimate law of the land in the US, is it not? And he's repeatedly violated the Geneva Conventions, which, like all treaties and agreements into which the US enters, is automatically incorporated into Federal law. And he insists on invading (in the total absence of any credible military threat whatsoever) or continuing to occupy sovereign nations, which is clearly a violation of international law (the UN Charter says, after all, that waging an aggressive war is "the supreme war crime that contains all other war crimes within itself"). In fact, the Wikileaks documents, far from being mere "gossip," demonstrate clearly that (1) US soldiers were specifically ordered by their commanders to knowingly collaborate in the torture of Iraqi civilians, and that (2) 60% of the people US soldiers have murdered during the period covered by those documents were innocent civilians (and anyone who bothers to read the actual documents rather that the sanitized summaries in the NYT will find countless instances of soldiers shooting to death pregnant women, children, old people, etc.). Surely that's a sufficient track record to assume that he (like all other US presidents) has no respect for the law?

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Sure, there is more than one way to skin a cat, and also Obama may well have a whole list of them, but the case at hand does not seem to be on the list. That is all that I addressed.