Chelsea Manning: Hero or Traitor? It’s Complicated.

Hailed by some as a self-sacrificing hero and others including President Trump himself as an ‘ungrateful TRAITOR’, Chelsea Manning in her various roles as soldier, whistleblower, and activist has created a legacy which is as complex as it is astonishing. However, whether despised or revered, few can cast doubt on the impact of her resistance.

Manning emerged into the public consciousness in 2010 when, using her position as a US army intelligence analyst, she leaked around 250,000 American diplomatic cables and roughly 480,000 Army reports from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. She also released raw material of air strikes, the most famous of which was the ‘Collateral Murder’ tape depicting soldiers opening fire on unarmed Iraqi civilians including a journalist and his driver. For this, she was sentenced to 35 years imprisonment. This was then commuted by Barack Obama partly due to public demands for her release. With this, she became famous to all, infamous to many, and for some on the left, an enduring symbol of anti-corruption and democratic freedom.

That being said, Manning’s actions were far from faultless. With any sensitive or classified military information, the natural concern is that of national security. When whistleblowers release their material to the press, the publisher can work with authorities to redact any information which may endanger lives. However, after being dismissed by newspapers like The Washington Post, Manning indiscriminately released a vast trove of documents to WikiLeaks, without having read all of them herself.

Naturally, this raised legitimate security concerns, especially as the partial redactions made on WikiLeaks left exposed the names of those involved such as Afghan collaborators. This potential endangerment to life was pursued in court, where her prosecutors accused her of aiding the enemy. However, witnesses could provide no evidence that her action had led to direct deaths. So, whilst there is little doubt that her actions were reckless, the potential danger she placed Afghan and US forces in that never materialized into anything should not distract from the seemingly endless, futile slaughter (some of which, as the leaked material demonstrates, involved innocent civilians) at the hands of a government she has now spent so much of her life resisting. 

For her actions, she was given the longest sentence ever given for leaking classified information to the press. Put into a men’s prison after publicly declaring herself a transgender woman, she faced brutal treatment including long spells of solitary confinement. As John Cassidy noted at the time of her 2013 sentencing, she was punished far worse than those she exposed as war criminals, showing the failure of the judicial system in its protection of the powerful. Her harsh punishment was deeply embedded in a political system which she had bravely dug herself out of – one which punishes dissidence more than those acts of wrongdoing protected by government interests. 

Though she made her impact by speaking up, Manning’s recent protests have taken the opposite form, silence. Refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks, Manning was jailed for contempt of court on March 8th. Upon her arrest, she stated that ‘All of the substantive questions pertained to my disclosures of information to the public in 2010’. As she has already provided testimony, the subpoena appeared to her supporters as a coercive tactic to force Manning to testify against WikiLeaks. After being taken into custody, Manning stated that she would continue to resist a secret court that can and historically has been used to “entrap and prosecute activists for protected political speech.” According to her attorney Moira Meltzer-Cohen, these work to ‘gather intelligence to which they are not entitled, for example about lawful and constitutionally protected political activity.” 

The investigation into WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange was initially launched during Obama’s tenure. However, prosecutors failed to charge Assange without prosecuting the newspapers which had published leaked material. This would restrict the rights of journalists so the investigation was halted in the name of free speech. In other words, to charge Assange (who like Manning is a similar complicated figure) was deemed too great a threat to the free press. The fact then that it was reopened under Trump’s leadership captures the danger the current administration poses to press freedom. Trump’s threat to independent journalism reaches far beyond his bizarre tweets and those worried about this should also be concerned by Manning’s current incarceration. 

The current administration like those before it exploit a system of blanket classification to protect the powerful from scrutiny and create a landscape where accountability is seemingly rare for the most powerful. With this, whistleblowers like Manning in creating fractures in this system are vital to the protection of freedom and democracy. Therefore, despite her conflicting public perceptions, the unflinching moral integrity involved in her actions is a rare, yet incredibly important, thing to witness. 

Image Credit: Jack Taylor, Getty Images.