Chelsea Manning left Ft. Leavenworth prison today at 2 a.m. Central Time. She had served seven years of an extreme 35-year sentence for whistleblowing, a sentence President Obama commuted just before leaving office.
In prison, the Army private, formerly known as Bradley Manning, struggled for transgender rights and wrote about her upcoming release, “For the first time, I can see a future for myself as Chelsea, I can imagine surviving and living as the person who I am and can finally be in the outside world.” Upon release, she expressed appreciation for “the wonderful support that I have received from so many people across the world over these past years.”
A military court handed Bradley Manning, as she was then known, an unprecedented sentence, ostensibly for disclosing to WikiLeaks a large trove of documents including some marked “Secret.” In truth, political elites are virulently hostile toward any disclosure of government wrongdoing, whether or not classified material is exposed. The Espionage Act, a draconian law misapplied to whistleblower cases, accommodates the establishment’s manifest hostility toward unauthorized truth telling by subordinates.
Outside of government, many people take a nuanced approach to Manning’s disclosure. Some think the disclosures should have been limited to few documents targeting the most serious abuses. Others support the entirety of Manning’s disclosures. But, the US government shows no interest in balancing the public interest in accountable government with national security needs. It denies any justification for unauthorized release of classified information, despite an acknowledged problem with excessive and potentially illegal classification. This gag on federal workers leaves the nation vulnerable to grievous abuses of power, waste and corruption.
Still, the official oath required of government employees imposes a duty to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” That implies a responsibility to expose abuses such as depriving persons of life or liberty without due process. Notably, Manning disclosed evidence that US forces killed civilians in Baghdad plus information about individuals detained at Guantanamo for years without trial. Manning told the court she gave the material to Wikileaks to publish for the public good, “to help people.”
Alexa O’Brien, who meticulously documented Manning’s trial, wrote in The Cairo Review that secrecy imposed on the proceedings “caused irrevocable harm to the public’s right to understand” Manning’s case and “raises serious questions about the justice of her conviction.”
The fact that most of the charged documents were legally classified, despite a defense request to declassify them for trial, prevented Manning’s lawyers from citing them openly in court. It also limited the defense’s ability to call witnesses, since any potential witnesses were required to have security clearances to handle the classified but publicly available material.
The government’s handling of Manning contrasts starkly with its velvet-glove treatment of high-ranking officials like David Petraeus and Hillary Clinton who mishandled classified information, including more highly classified information (here and here) for personal advantage. Whereas authorities harshly imprisoned Manning for months before trial, Petraeus and Clinton remained free. Petraeus continued to consult with the White House on national security and Clinton was permitted to schedule questioning at her convenience. The US government’s treatment of Manning and other whistleblowers is unquestionably discriminatory although political elites routinely deny it.
Manning remains in active military service but on leave until the Army completes its review of her appeal. Since her ordeal began, many people around the world have expressed support for her and worked for her release. Her supporters include members and associate members of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), who provided the following comments for publication. (Disclosure: The author is an associate member of VIPS.)
“Chelsea, your freedom has lit a candle of joy and renewed hope in these dark days. May your example of compassion and principled truth-telling prevail the world over. We celebrate who you are!” — Elizabeth Murray: former Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Middle East, CIA (ret.)
“Chelsea – God Bless you for being a staunch defender of truth and justice! You are a true inspiration for others”. — Kirk Wiebe, former Senior Analyst, SIGINT Automation Research Center, NSA (ret.)former Senior Analyst, SIGINT Automation Research Center, NSA (ret.)
“We are all today glad to see Chelsea free. But that is tempered by our knowledge that our government continues to punish whistleblowers for upholding the highest ideals of patriotism. Welcome home, Chelsea.” — Peter Van Buren, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Service Officer (ret.)
“Chelsea, it is wonderful to have something to be happy about today! Thank you for your strength and courage.” — Ann Wright, U.S. Army Reserve Colonel (ret)
“Chelsea, it is wonderful to have something to be happy about today! Thank you for your strength and courage.” — Marshall Carter-Tripp, Foreign Service Officer (ret) and former Division Director in the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research
“Chelsea, you have done the world wonderful service and the people of the world know it. Thank you and may your freedom be full.” — Robert Wing, former Foreign Service Officer (associate VIPS)
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