Why President Obama Must Grant Clemency to Chelsea Manning

The administration is considering whether to free the imprisoned whistleblower. She needs our support now more than ever.

Chase Madar

(Daily Chalkupy / Flickr)

This post orig­i­nal­ly appeared at Jacobin.

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.

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.

You can con­tact the White House about Chelsea Man­ning through the phone num­bers and email address­es found here, and the Depart­ment of Jus­tice here.

In These Times is proud to fea­ture con­tent from Jacobin, a print quar­ter­ly that offers social­ist per­spec­tives on pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics. Sup­port Jacobin and buy a four issue sub­scrip­tion for just $19.95.

Chase Madar writes wide­ly for The Nation, TomDis­patch, The Amer­i­can Con­ser­v­a­tive, and oth­er such venues, and is the author of The Pas­sion of Bradley Man­ning: The Sto­ry Behind the Wik­ileaks Whistle­blow­er.
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