CIA director Mike Pompeo is using the platform afforded him as a docile member of Donald Trump’s outer circle to attack and discredit whistle-blower Chelsea Manning. And Harvard University has now bent to his pressure.
Pompeo announced Thursday that he would not fulfill a commitment he had made to appear at Harvard, because of Chelsea Manning’s appointment as a visiting fellow at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. Pompeo condemned Manning—a former US Army intelligence analyst who leaked to WikiLeaks nearly 750,000 military and diplomatic documents that revealed details of what she has described as “death, destruction and mayhem” in Iraq—as “a traitor to the United States of America.”
“Ms. Manning betrayed her country and was found guilty of 17 serious crimes for leaking classified information to Wikileaks,” Pompeo wrote in a letter to Harvard officials. “Wikileaks is an enemy of the United States.”
The next day the Institute of Politics revoked Manning’s invitation and apologized for extending the offer. Manning tweeted that Harvard has decided to “chill marginalized voices under @cia pressure.” In another tweet, she wrote: “this is what a military/police/intel state looks like—the @cia determines what is and is not taught at @harvard.”
Manning was indeed jailed for her actions. But President Obama commuted her sentence in January—cutting decades off her 35-year sentence—and the 29-year-old was released from prison in May. Upon Manning’s release, Sarah Harrison, the acting director of the Courage Foundation and former WikiLeaks editor, said, “Chelsea deserves her freedom, and the world’s respect, for her courageous, inspiring actions in 2010. Chelsea’s releases through WikiLeaks helped bring an end to the US war on Iraq, galvanized Arab Spring protesters and inspired subsequent truth tellers.”
Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame, hailed her release from incarceration—which he said “offends a sense of justice”—and celebrated her commitment to giving the American people information about what was being done in their name but without their informed consent. Manning has, over the years, been honored as a whistle-blower by the German Section of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms and the Federation of German Scientists, and she has been awarded the Sean MacBride Peace Prize by the International Peace Bureau and the Sam Adams Award by Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence.
The debate about the Kennedy School’s decision to award the fellowship to Manning heated up immediately after the school announced the fellowship, and Pompeo certainly was not alone in objecting. Former CIA deputy director Michael Morell resigned as a senior fellow at the Kennedy School over the hiring of Manning. Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney, daughter of the former vice president who famously obtained five deferments to avoid serving in the military during the Vietnam War, labeled the former soldier a “spy/traitor” and called for cutting off federal funding for Harvard in protest of its association with someone who actually served in the Iraq War.
But Pompeo, as a key figure in the Trump administration, garnered the most headlines with his incendiary attacks on Manning. “Ms. Manning swore an oath to the United States Constitution, promised to protect her fellow soldiers, and signed a commitment to abide by the law,” he wrote in his letter. “She did none of that and yet Harvard has placed her in a position of honor.”
Anyone who knows Pompeo’s history—which I write about at length in my new book, Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America—knows that he stands on shaky ground when speaking of respecting oaths and serving honorably.
As a Republican member of Congress, Pompeo shamed himself and his office by placing his allegiance to the billionaire Koch brothers above his duty to serve his Kansas constituents or the national interest. Pompeo came out of the same Wichita, Kansas, business community where the Koch family’s oil-and-gas conglomerate is headquartered. Indeed, Pompeo built his own business with seed money from Koch Venture Capital.
More important from a political standpoint is the fact that Pompeo made the leap from business to government with a big boost from the Koch brothers and their employees. “I’m sure he would vigorously dispute this, but it’s hard not to characterize him as the congressman from Koch,” University of Kansas political science professor Burdett Loomis said of the politician who, the Center for Food Safety notes, “was the single largest recipient of campaign funds from the Koch brothers” in his first campaign.
Just as the Kochs were loyal to Pompeo, so Pompeo was loyal to the Kochs. He was a regular at their behind-closed-doors gatherings, and as a congressman he was outspoken in their defense, claiming that President Obama and “Nixonian” Democrats have unfairly “vilified” Charles and David Koch.
But, of course, the supposed vilification has simply involved a questioning of the influence wielded by billionaires in general and the Kochs in particular over American politics and governance. That’s hardly an unreasonable concern, considering that, as one of the most prominent Koch-backed politicians in the country, Pompeo was called out just weeks after taking office for proposing legislative initiatives that “could benefit many of [the Kochs’] business interests.”
“The measures include amendments approved in the House budget bill to eliminate funding for two major Obama administration programs: a database cataloguing consumer complaints about unsafe products and an Environmental Protection Agency registry of greenhouse-gas polluters,” reported The Washington Post in 2011. “Both have been listed as top legislative priorities for Koch Industries, which has spent more than $37 million on Washington lobbying since 2008, according to disclosure records.”
“It’s the same old story—a member of Congress carrying water for his biggest campaign contributor,” Common Cause’s Mary Boyle complained at the time.
That “same old story” propelled Pompeo into Trump’s orbit—where unquestioning loyalty to billionaires in highly valued—and now into a position where his public complaints about Chelsea Manning’s being offered a position of honor influence the decisions of great universities.
Manning blew the whistle on what would come to be understood as military and diplomatic scandals because she felt Americans had a right to know what was being done in their name but without their informed consent. Mike Pompeo, a secretive and conflicted politician, has no such instinct; he serves wealth and power without questioning whether the dictates of the privileged are right or honorable.