Chelsea Manning has now walked free from Fort Leavenworth military prison in Kansas. Seven years ago, the army private was arrested for passing on a large number of highly classified documents to WikiLeaks.
Manning was sentenced to a record-breaking 35-years in military prison, but President Obama commuted this sentence as one of his final acts in office:
“Given that she faced trial, that due process was carried out, that she took responsibility for her crime, that the sentence that she received was very disproportionate relative to what other leakers had received, and that she had served a significant amount of time, it made sense to commute — and not pardon — her sentence.”
Speaking just days before her release, Manning expressed her joy at this outcome:
“I’m looking forward to breathing the warm spring air again,” she said from her prison cell as she prepared for release. “I want that indescribable feeling of connection with people and nature again, without razor wire or a visitation booth. I want to be able to hug my family and friends again. And swimming – I want to go swimming!”
Few people dispute that Manning broke the law when in 2010 she uploaded nearly three-quarters of a million classified and sensitive military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks.
The most damaging of these was video footage of the now infamous 2007 “Collateral Murder” airstrike. In it, an Apache helicopter launched an unprovoked attack on Reuters journalists. Two other civilians were also killed in the incident.
Manning worked as an army intelligence analyst, and became increasingly distressed by the reports she was reading. As a matter of conscience, she felt that ordinary Americans needed to understand “the true nature of twenty-first century asymmetric warfare,” and the litany of horrific acts performed by the US military in America’s name.
In a personal statement at her court martial, Manning said,
“I felt I had accomplished something that allowed me to have a clear conscience based upon what I had seen and read about and knew were happening in both Iraq and Afghanistan everyday.”
Despite the embarrassing nature of the leaks to the US government, their threat to national security was probably minimal. Many nevertheless called for Manning’s execution. Among these was K.T. McFarland, who is now President Trump’s National Security Advisor.
A “Tough” Sentence
When commuting her sentence, Obama opened with the following line:
“Let’s be clear, Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence.”
Manning served seven years in military prisons in Iraq, Kuwait and the US. This was an ordeal compounded by the fact that that she is a transgender woman who once went by the name Bradley.
Throughout her time in prison, Ms Manning fought to be recognised as a woman. She has expressed joy at the thought that, following her release from prison, she will be able to live her life as one:
“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.”
The release of Chelsea Manning throws the plight of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden into sharp relief. Far more than Manning’s leaked documents, Snowden’s revelations were clearly in the interests of the American public.
Snowden exposed mass government surveillance that breached constitutional protections enjoyed by US citizens, and went far beyond the remit most people expected of their democratically elected government.
His revelations sparked a national debate on what the limits of government powers should be. They also brought about some major reforms in how surveillance is carried out (although it largely continues unabated).
It is highly unlikely, however, that Snowden will ever receive a pardon for his actions. The reason for this is usually cited as his seeking asylum in Russia.
It should be noted, however, that Snowden has repeatedly expressed willingness to return to the US to face trial, as long as the trial does not happen behind closed doors, and “public interest” can be used as a defense. The US government has refused to accept these conditions.
A Matter of Conscience
The stories of both Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden beg the following question: If a government acts against the best interest of its own citizens, should a moral individual’s loyalty be to their government or their people?
If the latter, Manning and Snowden are both patriots and heroes. If a government hides its actions from the people, then it cannot be accountable to them. And a government that is not accountable is not democratic.
Rather than being demonized, jailed, and threatened with execution, whistleblowers who expose the wrongdoing of their governments should be celebrated and honored.
The alternative is governments having impunity to behave like gangsters who can treat principled whistleblowers as mere “snitches.”