With two days left in his presidency, Barack Obama commuted Chelsea Manning’s 35-year sentence. Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst currently being held in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth as Inmate 89289, will now be released in May. This is most welcome news, as surely new torments, sponsored by the incoming Trump administration, would have awaited her. According to a recent report by The New York Times, she’s been punished by prison officials for possessing outdated toothpaste (deemed “medical misuse”) and put into solitary confinement as a penalty for the disruption her attempted suicide caused the prison.
In a better world—a world where liberals were willing to protest the militarism of a liberal president—Manning would be a hero, and the material she helped make public celebrated with the kind of enthusiasm that liberals today celebrate the Pentagon Papers. The Pentagon Papers gave us context, a step-by-step account of deepening US involvement in Vietnam. Manning’s leaks, as Chase Madar discusses below, are more episodic and fragmentary, but equally important: “a mosaic portrait of two flailing pacification campaigns” in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as insight into other doings of US foreign policy, including diplomatic pressure to keep wages low in Haiti.
Amnesty International hailed the administration’s announcement: “Chelsea Manning exposed serious abuses, and as a result her own human rights have been violated by the U.S. government for years,” said Executive Director Margaret Huang. “President Obama was right to commute her sentence, but it is long overdue. It is unconscionable that she languished in prison for years while those allegedly implicated by the information she revealed still haven’t been brought to justice.” As Madar notes, a unique coalition, including Infowars paranoiacs, came together behind Manning. Though traditional hawks, like Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, immediately objected. Manning, Cotton said, “should continue to serve” her sentence. We await Trump’s tweet.
Until then, Madar, author of The Passion of [Chelsea] Manning: The Story Behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower, gives his reaction to the commutation. (Note: the book was published while Manning was known as Bradley; Madar now uses Chelsea in brackets when referring to it.)
Clemency for Chelsea Manning is, for most of us, a real surprise. Did you see this coming?
A year ago this was unthinkable but the Obama administration started dropping heavy hints last week, when the usually tight-lipped Department of Justice leaked to NBC News that Manning was on the president’s “short list” for clemency, clearly a trial balloon to see how the public would respond. Last Friday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest laid the rhetorical groundwork for a Manning commutation, stressing to reporters that the Wikileaks source had faced up to her actions and been tried and convicted in a court of law and had apologized. I thought Manning’s courtroom apology was pretty pro-forma, but whatever—it gives the White House something to latch onto in justifying clemency. And Earnest compared Manning favorably to Snowden, setting up a Goofus and Gallant parable about leakers, which I think is unfortunate, because Snowden is also eminently deserving of clemency, but that’s what the White House is doing.
So Manning yes, Snowden no.
The fact is, there’s suddenly a lot of support for Manning, not just among Nation readers and the international left but even at the center-right Lawfare project run by the Brookings Institution, a pillar of national-security orthodoxy. And ever since Julian Assange became the darling of Fox News and Infowars, a lot of pro-Trump “deplorables” have taken on the cause of Chelsea Manning, which I think is great. Who would ever have dreamed that would happen?
What I find remarkable is that Manning being transgender has, on balance, earned her more support than hatred, something I never would have guessed would happen three and a half years ago when Bradley Manning announced her gender transition to Chelsea Manning. Manning’s courageous struggle for transgender dignity as a prisoner, with the expert legal help of ACLU attorney Chase Strangio, has kept her in the news and gotten her sympathetic write-ups in Cosmopolitan and Esquire, bringing her story to a great many people who might not otherwise pay close attention to national-security issues. It’s terrific. Now me, I think Manning deserves a full pardon and, for that matter, restitution and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but even a commutation would have been unthinkable a year or two ago, it’s a wonderful surprise.
What, exactly, did she reveal? What was the nature of her leaks, and have there been any consequences?
Manning’s leak is the biggest in US history, but first some perspective: It was under 1 percent of what Washington classifies in a year, and none of it, absolutely none of it, was classified as “top secret.” A great many things classified as top secret shouldn’t be secrets at all; other “top secret” documents are leaked on a weekly basis by “senior officials” to mainstream outlets like The Washington Post and The New York Times; and the whole designation of “top secret” is not particularly meaningful, given that 1.4 million people—1.4 million people, the population of metro Washington, DC—has attained “top secret” security clearance. But my main point is that nothing Manning leaked was “top secret.”
So what did Manning leak? Thousands of individual field reports form the Iraq and Afghan Wars, and they give us a mosaic portrait of two flailing pacification campaigns. They’re looking back at incidents that already happened—night raids gone wrong, checkpoint shootings of civilians, outposts built then abandoned—not planning documents for future military actions. These revelations are frequently referred to as “war crimes,” but technically they are mostly atrocities that happen to be permitted by the laws of armed conflict, which are much looser than most people imagine. The real function of the laws of war is to protect soldiers from legal liability, not to protect civilians in occupied countries. What really pushed Manning to leak was the awful things she witnessed as an Army intelligence officer deployed to Iraq. But, in fact, it was official US policy to condone torture and not interfere with it when practiced by local Iraqi authorities, as revealed by Fragmentary Order 242, leaked by Manning.
There are also about 250,000 diplomatic cables, and those are immensely informative about the goings on of US statecraft. We see Washington lobbying to keep the minimum wage down in Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas; trying to spread our Big Pharma–friendly intellectual property regime to Europe; suppressing a German criminal investigation into the American kidnapping and rendition for torture of a German national that turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. We should know about these things, they aren’t the kind of diplomacy that needs to be done in secret, though I can see why those involved would be ashamed of their actions.
There’s a great roundup of what the leaks reveal with expert commentary put out by Verso Books, I highly recommend it. In fact pretty much every book on contemporary American statecraft published in the past four years has drawn on Manning’s leaks, which are still routinely referred to in mainstream journalism. We understand US foreign policy much more clearly as a result of her leak, and I’m afraid I don’t see why that’s a bad thing. After the disastrous performance of US foreign-policy elites, they clearly need more public supervision, and that’s what Manning’s enlightening leaks provide. I hope this doesn’t offend any readers, but knowing what your government is doing is not such a bad thing.
What are the consequences? The leak of US diplomatic cables about the corrupt autocracy of Tunisia added fuel to the fire than launched the successful uprising there, but it would be too much to say that Wikileaks “caused” it. The main consequence is that those who want it now have a much clearer view of American statecraft—nothing more, nothing less.
How do you respond to people who say he violated her military oath?
There are a lot of wanna-be Spartans who think this is the one and only question: You violate a military law, you should rot in jail (or worse), simple as that. In fact, US soldiers take an oath to protect and uphold the Constitution and the freedoms it guarantees, that is a soldier’s highest duty and something quite different.
Now one argument I’ve come up against is this slippery-slope argument that if Manning is granted clemency for this one breach of discipline, the entire command structure in the military will quickly disintegrate. I’m afraid this is hysterical nonsense; military discipline is not the fragile child that these people like to imagine. It’s a fact that our military recently has failed to adequately prosecute service members for sexual assault and also for inflicting harm on foreign civilians, and yet these enormous breaches of military law have not resulted in the whole system crashing down and anarchy in the ranks.
Besides, clemency—pardons and commutations—are a normal, healthy part of any good legal system, they’re a recognition that laws are always in flux and sometimes run behind the requirements of justice and of a changing political realities.
Lastly, countries where military discipline is the highest value tend not to be the kind of places you want to visit, let alone inhabit. They’re certainly not a model for a free society. And let me note by the way that in spite of all our contemporary comic-book bullshit, historical Sparta was less militarily successful than Athens.
You argue in your book that leaks are actually good for statecraft, how so?
Manning’s story is a morality play full of high drama, and her heroic act is already the subject of several stage plays and a couple of operas. But at the heart of her story is one essential, borderline-boring cost-benefit proposition: her leaks are good for the world, especially the United States. That’s counterintuitive to many people, but what has been far more disastrous to the United States than any leak is excessive secrecy. Our Vietnam War and invasion of Iraq were not possible but for very high degrees of government secrecy, distortions, and lies. Extreme state secrecy wasn’t the only cause, but it was a necessary cause, without which these catastrophes probably never would have happened. If we measure security dispassionately in blood, money, and risk rather than in, I don’t know, the stormy emotional weather of Bill O’Reilly or Senator Lindsey Graham as we seem to today, it is plain that Washington’s dystopian level of secrecy has come at a very high cost in human life.
What the “quality” media has really gotten wrong in this story is the cost-benefit analysis between secrecy and transparency, specifically the status quo of dystopian secrecy and partial levels of transparency, represented by Manning. Very often the trade-off is presented as transparency versus security, and that’s a false trade-off. It’s loaded dice. The real trade-off is secrecy and transparency, and even after Manning’s leaks the needle continues to be so far to the side of secrecy, with disastrous results.
But instead of acknowledging the horrific costs in corpses, not to mention money, writers at places like The New Yorker, The New York Times and elsewhere have pursed up their lips and worried about a slippery slope to “total transparency,” at which hypothetical point government would cease to function. Several years after Manning’s leaks have been diffused and absorbed by media and foreign-policy scholars, we see of course that this has not happened, government continues to function with almost as much overclassification, despite some mild reform efforts by Obama, as before.
And we see that dystopian levels of secrecy continue to strangle American statecraft. Look at the doltish FBI persecution of US diplomat Robin Raphel written up in The Wall Street Journal. I think part of the reason the The New Yorker and The New York Times have been incapable of seeing this is that they supported the Iraq invasion to begin with, and for them to see Manning’s case clearly would in some ways require them to face up to their own shoddy role in enabling that disaster.
As long as our country continues to makes consequential decisions—like whether or not to invade Iraq, to escalate in Afghanistan, to make war in Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and Syria—without a well-informed debate, we can of course expect disaster. Think about it, any time you make an important choice whether to rent an apartment or buy a car or what have you, you want as much information as possible. Not surprisingly, the same goes for the decision to invade or wage war on foreign nations.
Does this redeem Obama’s awful record on prosecuting whistle-blowers?
A little bit, yes, maybe more than a little. The Obama administration has prosecuted more leaks under the Espionage Act of 1917 than all previous presidents combined, and some of these cases—Tom Drake of the NSA for instance or John Kiriakou of the CIA—he could easily have just let drop without any heavy political price. But in the current political climate, the military would have prosecuted Manning under any president, the leak was so big and so sensational. And I do give credit to Obama here where it’s due. This is an encouraging shot in the arm for truth-tellers everywhere. Under President Trump, we’re going to need more whistle-blowers than ever before.
Obama also commuted the sentence of Oscar López Rivera, a Puerto Rican independence leader who has been in federal prison for over 35 years, much of the time, as with Manning, in solitary confinement. López, along with scores of other activists, had been convicted of being members of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional, “a militant, clandestine pro-independence group that between 1974 and 1980 claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings, mainly in Chicago and New York, aimed at corporate, military, and government targets.” No word yet, though, of the fate of Leonard Peltier. How many political prisoners are there in the United States?
That it is so difficult to answer that question says much about how we define “politics” in the United States, the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Now we just have to overthrow homophobia, sexism, and transgender discrimination, free Puerto Rico, end neocolonialism, redistribute wealth, and stop war…