Chelsea Manning, formerly Bradley Manning,* was a soldier in the United States Army who leaked over 700,000 classified documents that revealed U.S. government violations of the Geneva Convention, indiscriminate slaughtering of civilians committed by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hundreds of classified U.S. diplomatic cables.
For this, she was sentenced to 35 years of prison, the longest sentenced ever imposed on a leaker of classified information, and longer than the sentence imposed on most convicted terrorists. It is worth noting that the prosecution pushed for a sentence of 60 years, even though it failed to show that the information leaked by Manning resulted in any harm; not a single life of anyone involved in the U.S military or intelligence was lost due to the leaks. The charge that would have exposed her to the death penalty, “aiding the enemy,” was rejected by the judge presiding over the case.
Manning herself understood that her actions were against the law and pleaded guilty to all charges, except aiding the enemy. In her letter to President Obama requesting a pardon she says:
I understand that my actions violated the law; I regret if my actions hurt anyone or harmed the United States. It was never my intent to hurt anyone. I only wanted to help people. When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.
If you deny my request for a pardon, I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society. I will gladly pay that price if it means we could have a country that is truly conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all women and men are created equal.
What makes Chelsea Manning's case so important is not only the unprecedented amount of information she revealed of government wrongdoing, but the implications that her treatment by the justice system will have for journalists, bloggers, whistleblowers, leakers, and citizens in general. Her case is the highest profile conviction under the Obama Administration's crackdown on leakers. Indeed, the Obama Administration has charged more leakers than any other administration for disclosing classified information to the public. Josh Stearns (@jcstearns), writing for Boing Boing, sees this case as just the latest one of a disturbing tendency to curb freedom of information:
We should see the Manning verdict in the context of a mounting press freedom crisis that impacts all of us. As Dan Gillmor wrote in the Guardian, “the public needs to awaken to the threat to its own freedoms from the Obama crackdown on leaks and, by extension, journalism and free speech itself.”
We live in a time when anyone may commit an act of journalism. The person who sets up a Facebook page to cover the hurricane hitting her community. The person who uses her smartphone to record police officers killing an unarmed teen on a train platform.The person who live-blogs a court case from start to finish. Each of these people is participating in journalism in ways we should protect and celebrate.
We should be glad that this military court did not equate Manning’s actions to aiding the enemy, but this case is part of a much bigger debate, and one the public has largely been left out of. That needs to change.
Trevor Timm (@trevortimm), in a post for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, is also worried about the zeal with which the Obama Administration is prosecuting leakers. He says that one of the laws used to convict Manning, the Espionage Act, is being used to equate leakers with traitors:
The Espionage Act, a draconian statute written in 1917 as a way to punish non-violent opponents of World War I, has unfortunately been used in recent years to equate leakers and whistleblowers with spies and traitors. Facilitating that warped view in Manning's trial, the judge ruled early on that the defense was not allowed to put forth evidence of Manning’s sole intent to inform the American public, or evidence showing that none of the information materially harmed national security.
In spite of the official narrative of the Obama Administration that labels Chelsea Manning as a traitor, people everywhere are expressing their support, as evidenced by the chatter currently on the web. Supporters of Chelsea Manning have rallied together to create awareness of how important and necessary her disclosures were. A joint petition by Amnesty International and the Bradley Manning Support Network to request that President Obama grant clemency to Manning is currently making the rounds on the Internet. Many have also expressed their support on Twitter:
The fact that Bradley Manning leaked the truth for free pretty much says that he is not a traitor/attention whore/etc.
— #TheEnemy (@Rugure89) August 24, 2013
— Paul Orlowski (@npdrifter) August 24, 2013
I've gotten into so many great discussions over Bradley/Chelsea Manning this week. American hero, nothing less than that. #FreeBrad
— Jerrad (@JerradWilliams) August 24, 2013
Journalst Norman Solomon (@normansolomon) expresses a deep admiration for Chelsea Manning's actions and integrity in an open letter to President Obama published in the independent digital news journal Nation of Change:
Imagine. After more than three years in prison, undergoing methodical abuse and then the ordeal of a long military trial followed by the pronouncement of a 35-year prison sentence, Bradley Manning has emerged with his solid humanistic voice not only intact, but actually stronger than ever!
On August 21, Manning publicly announced her true identity as a transgender woman, saying that from now on she prefers to be called Chelsea Manning and would like to begin hormone therapy as quickly as possible. Trans activists have praised her decision to come out, granting visibility and a legitimacy greatly needed for transgender people in the ongoing struggle for LGBTT rights. This raises a whole new set of issues for Manning, as she will be taken to a male prison and already the U.S. Army has refused to grant therapy beyond that given by a psychiatrist. The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement saying that the denial of hormone therapy to Manning raises worrying constitutional concerns:
[P]ublic statements by military officials that the Army does not provide hormone therapy to treat gender dysphoria raise serious constitutional concerns. Gender dysphoria is a serious medical condition in which a person's gender identity does not correspond to his or her assigned sex at birth, and hormone therapy is part of the accepted standards of care for this condition. Without the necessary treatment, gender dysphoria can cause severe psychological distress, including anxiety and suicide. When the government holds individuals in its custody, it must provide them with medically necessary care.
The events of the past few days will undoubtedly have an enduring and far-reaching effect on future whistleblowers and journalism in general —not to mention the trans community. Whether that will translate into a more open society with greater government transparency and accountability or a more secretive one in which citizens's rights to information will not be recognized remains to be seen.
*In this post we use feminine pronouns to refer to Manning, who explicitly and publicly asked to be referred to in this way.