Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning), has just been released from prison after serving a fifth of her 35 year sentence on charges that in publishing almost three quarters of a million classified documents and videos, she had violated the Espionage Act, and knowingly aided the ‘enemy’. Assange’s Wikileaks and affiliated outlets published the documents, taken from the Afghan War Diary and Iraq War Logs in 2009. After Manning told a friend what she’d done, she was reported to Counterintelligence, and court-marshalled. Manning has been attacked especially harshly, as she knew that releasing such a trove of documents, at a possible sentence of ten years per document – totalling a possible 7 million years in prison – was against her training.
After facing pre-trial conditions that could only be described as cruel and unusual, and which the UN described as torture, she pleaded guilty to some of her charges, and received a commutation of sentence from Obama himself, limiting her sentence to time served as one of his final acts in office. And, to quote Orwell, it’s doubleplus good. As we all should know, there is never a good time to keep your mouth shut on issues of morality, and Trump would have shown no leniency, having called her a traitor in the past.
Manning was a soldier for the intelligence branch of the US military, and indeed knowingly flew in the face of everything she’d been unequivocally taught about loyalty. Working in the capacity that she did, she was able to see that the acts of some of her comrades in the Middle East were acts of international war crime, and she proceeded to blow the largest whistle on record, with the help of Wikileaks. If you haven’t watched the footage of the 2007 Baghdad airstrikes (not for the faint of heart), it will give you some idea of the motivations behind the leaks. On that occasion, two Apache choppers targeted a group of Iraqi men, a nearby van, and finally flattened a building that they knew contained both armed and unarmed individuals, killing between ten and twenty people, including two Reuters war correspondents, and two children. During the video, pilots can be heard wrongly identifying journalists’ long lens cameras as weapons, calling the Iraqis ‘fuckin’ pricks’, laughing as they engage the men, and, after the first barrage is complete, remarking ‘oh yeah, look at those dead bastards’. All this is in the first third of the video.
‘AS WE ALL SHOULD KNOW, THERE IS NEVER A GOOD TIME TO KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT ON ISSUES OF MORALITY’
Honesty and transparency about a nation’s activity, though military activity especially, which deals by definition in life and death, should not lead to such widespread outrage when its true intentions and outcomes are revealed. Manning, who provided this transparency, will likely have a clear conscience, despite breaking the law. Yet to face justice are the war criminals spawned in the Afghan and Iraq war, and despite the positive outcomes of those conflicts, they also gave cause for bitterness and regret at the dishonesty of the allied governments, and the under-preparation of their militaries. Manning has served seven years, while Blair has a constant armed deployment on his porch, has made millions speaking in foreign (often despotic) houses of government, and recently stuck his oar into the murky waters of Brexit as if he had not been found guilty of war crimes by various distinct investigations.
‘Honesty and transparency about a nation’s activity, should not lead to such widespread outrage when its true intentions and outcomes are revealed’
During her seven years in custody, Manning was held in various all-male detention facilities in Kuwait, Iraq, and the USA. In that time, she has semi-successfully fought a legal battle for recognition of her status as a trans woman. Although she was diagnosed with gender dysphoria in 2013, and received hormone treatments, she was held to the standards of a male prisoner. Her legal representatives have reminded us that although she has been granted clemency, her charges still stand under the Espionage Act, and have described the commutation of sentence as a pyrrhic victory. David Coombs, Manning’s lawyer, has described the long initial sentence as a ‘failure of military justice’.
Assange has had an easier time of things than Manning, confined to the comparatively cushy Ecuadorian Embassy in London rather than a prison cell, but his plight is similar. Wikileaks and their contributors are working hard to prevent governments’ actions and intelligence from being kept out of reach of the citizen population.While this is not always a good thing, knowing that the threat of leaks is ever present for government bodies at least means that their decisions must entertain the possibility of being declassified in the future. Both Manning and Assange have been pursued by governments who wanted to behave as if no one would see what they did, and nobody has ever had reason to conceal actions taken at their moral best.