This post originally appeared at Jacobin.
Freedom is suddenly in sight for Chelsea Manning. There is a real chance the Iraq War veteran and Wikileaks whistleblower could be home by Groundhog’s Day.
Even a year ago it was unthinkable; now, it could be a partial redemption of the Obama administration’s shoddy record of persecuting leaks and whistleblowers.
Chelsea Manning served Army intelligence, the position from which she leaked thousands of field reports from the Afghan and Iraq Wars, as well as thousands of State Department documents, to Wikileaks. Thanks to Manning, we have a mosaic portrait of the flailing Afghan counterinsurgency war: night raids gone wrong, checkpoint shootings of civilians, outposts built and abandoned. We know that it was official U.S. policy, in spite of the highest official denials, for occupying U.S. troops to not intervene in the torture by Iraqi authorities of local suspects. We know that the State Department pushed hard to keep the minimum wage down in Haiti, the poorest nation in the Americas, and worked to extend Big Pharma’s intellectual property régime to Western Europe, where prescription drugs costs a small fraction of what they do here.
Not much of this raw self-knowledge in Manning’s leaks is flattering to our national vanity — which makes it all the more essential we face it. The leaks are routinely cited in mainstream media and in scholarly studies of foreign policy. In a domain where overclassification is extreme beyond belief — not until 2010 did the government declassify one document dating from the James Madison administration, a wait period of two centuries — these leaks were a badly needed beam of light.
Such knowledge is usually unwelcome by those in power, who then attempt to shoot the messenger: Whistleblowers get routinely blamed for the problems they uncover. Manning’s shoddy treatment is no exception. But there are three things you should know about her revelations.
First, although officials and media commentators responded to these leaks with varying degrees of panic, prosecutors at Manning’s long court-martial failed to demonstrate any concrete harm from the disclosures to actual soldiers or civilians.
Second, although this is by volume the largest leak in U.S. history, it is still well under 1 percent of what the federal government typically classifies in a year, and the “slippery slope” arguments that this would lead to total transparency in the machinations of American government have proved to be nonsense. Overclassification continues to choke American statecraft and public discourse, hiding crucial information about our government’s actions at home and abroad from the American people.
Third, not a single document released by Manning was classified as “Top Secret,” and many — including the gunsight video of a massacre by U.S. helicopters over a Baghdad suburb in July 2007 — were not classified at all. (Top Secret classification itself means much less than it might seem: a whopping 1.4 million people, not all of them American citizens, hold Top Secret security clearance.)
Defending Manning and her leaks are not just a matter of goody-two-shoes principle but immense real-life consequences. The U.S. invasion of Iraq was simply not possible but for government secrecy, distortion and lies. The architects of that dishonest war have escaped the slightest punishment, yet an on-the-ground private who tried to share her knowledge of that bloodbath is the one being severely punished.
If you’re the kind of person who thinks it is sinful and wicked to know what your government is doing, by all means, take a pass on this plea for clemency. But if you can see the dystopian levels of Washington’s state secrecy have done too much damage to the world, now is the time to take five minutes to raise a voice for Chelsea Manning.
This is a rare instance when a massive public response will make a very real difference. The Department of Justice is incredibly tight-lipped about its clemency process, and their surprise leak to NBC News yesterday that Manning is on a “short list” for clemency was almost certainly a trial balloon to gauge public reaction to a case that until recently was too hot for the White House to touch.
Not anymore. Support for Chelsea Manning has been building steadily, and in some truly unlikely places.
Start with the orthodox hawks who edit the Brookings Institutions’ influential Lawfare blog. Last October they called for Manning’s sentence to be commuted, a plea reiterated this past week.
On the populist right there is surging support for Manning as well. One strange side-effect of Julian Assange becoming the darling of InfoWars and Fox News is that all of a sudden many Trump-loving “deplorables” have taken on the cause of this transgender Iraq War vet. (It’s hard to imagine Trump granting clemency to Manning, but not quite unimaginable — after all, it was conservative Republican Warren Harding who pardoned socialist Eugene Debs as part of a blanket amnesty on Christmas Day in 1921.)
And it would be remiss not to mention the sympathetic coverage of Manning that has appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine, focusing on Manning’s gender transition, announced the day after her sentencing of a brutal 35 years in prison. Manning’s struggle for the dignity of transgender military prisoners, accomplished with the expert advocacy of the ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio, has brought in LGBT support for this national security whistleblower as well.
True, there will be some upset stomachs from neocon law-and-order types, but the currency of their fear-mongering is worth a lot less in 2017. As for the liberal hawks who have often been Manning’s nastiest persecutors, they are at present too occupied with finding Putin puppets under every sofa cushion to raise much of a fuss. They’ll deal.
Although Manning’s offense is unique, by American standards, the brutal punishment she has received — nearly a year of pretrial isolation confinement against the express medical advice of military prison authorities and an extreme 35-year sentence — is not. There are between 70,000 and 100,000 American prisoners doing some form of long-term solitary, a practice that is rightly seen as torture. Long-term solitary is a routine feature of the American penal landscape and it needs to be abolished.
Nor of course is Manning the only prisoner deserving clemency. Two federal prisoners I’ve had the pleasure of talking with, Alice Marie Johnson and Euka Wadlington, both doing life without parole for nonviolent drug offenses—life without parole for nonviolent drug offenses! — just had their petitions denied, probably because the DOJ decided to let their prosecutors weigh in on the decision. The Obama DOJ has granted a record number of commutations as well as denied a record number of clemency petitions, as P. S. Ruckman’s excellent “Pardon Power” blog has pointed out.
Clemency at the federal level and in most states remains miserly, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch did not distinguish herself when she recently and erroneously claimed that it is beyond the federal government’s power to issue blanket amnesties. In fact, presidents from Lincoln to Wilson to Carter have all granted clemency to entire categories of people, and it is time that our governors and presidents reacquired this habit.
But the postmodern medievalism of U.S. criminal justice is not any kind of reason to deny Chelsea Manning or anyone else clemency. And as disoriented as this country is with the waking-nightmare prospect of “President Trump,” it is now time to demand clemency for this courageous whistleblower. All it takes is shedding off a little apathy on our part. “Apathy,” Manning once wrote in an online conversation with the federal informant who then turned her in, “is far worse than the active participation [in the Iraq War] … apathy is its own 3rd dimension.” (These chatlogs by the way are the most gripping and profound work of nonfiction theater that our century has yet produced.)
Freedom is what she deserves. Our dystopian levels of state secrecy have directly led to the carnage in the Middle East whose consequences are still unwinding. Whistleblowers like her should be welcomed, not brutalized. So free her, President Obama, while you still can. Free Chelsea Manning.
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