The meaning of Chelsea Manning

The meaning of Chelsea Manning

Outgoing President Barack Obama required some nerve to commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning, the former U.S. military intelligence analyst who was responsible for a 2010 leak of classified materials to anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks. Manning, previously known as U.S. Army Private First Class Bradley Manning, was clearly guilty of violating the Espionage Act, the main charge against her. The 35-year sentence was designed not so much to punish Manning, as to warn others in the services against following her lead, with possibly disastrous consequences.

As Manning admitted while accepting guilt for 10 of the charges against her, uploading 250,000 diplomatic cables and many thousands of battlefield reports onto WikiLeaks, whose purpose – according to its creator, Julian Assange, is to destabilize governments – was not a good idea.

But in a democratic society, the day-to-day relationship between the state and the news media only partly depends on the law: it is also a series of bargains. This is especially true in the United States, which has probably the world’s greatest commitment to journalistic freedom. If a news organization discovers a secret, or receives a leak, it usually faces no state intervention – unlike the leakers, who under the Obama presidency, were pursued with greater zeal than previously, in part because leaking, aided by digital technology, was more common. 

So there’s a precedent for taking a view of a leak – even, by a stern president, of the leaker – which departs from the law’s severity. And much of the material which Manning put into the public domain was in the public interest. 

At Manning’s trial, Brig.-Gen. Robert Carr, by then retired, said no deaths could be attributed to the leaks. Other damage was more plausible, with foreign leaders angered by the revelations of U.S. diplomats’ view of them. 

She was a computer whiz who had, like Assange, retreated into the internet as a child. When examined by the army, she was found to have skill enough to be assigned to duty as an intelligence analyst. Deployed to Iraq, reading the war logs and other material, she became disillusioned about the U.S. presence there and in Afghanistan. Reading an army counter-intelligence report on WikiLeaks, she noted, as she said in a statement made at her pre-trial hearing, that it “seemed to be dedicated to exposing illegal activities and corruption.”
She was caught between two sharply differing worlds: that of the military, to which she had sworn loyalty, and that of WikiLeaks and its supporters, for whom the U.S. Army was at least a virtual enemy. The knowledge she was gaining, she wrote, “burdens me emotionally.” Leaking was to unburden herself: she describes a feeling relief after her first transmission of files.

The belief that she should “spark a domestic debate” was admirable: yet she could not know how the material would be used, and thus, if not redacted, could endanger her army comrades, or others serving the United States. 

What will the new commander-in-chief make of this? He’s said to be “troubled” by the commuting of the sentence. Constitutional scholars believe it would be hard, but not impossible, to repeal the decision – but Trump might take on the task to please the military.

This, for Trump, is a tangled web. He has expressed guarded approval of Assange for leaking the Democratic National Committee emails, which embarrassed Hillary Clinton.

But Trump spoke then, as always, from no understanding of U.S. policy or security. His comments are of the moment, usually designed to further or protect his own interests – his approval of Assange is part of his campaign against the intelligence services for sharing a report alleging sexual adventures in Moscow.

So lightly considered are his pronouncements that they can be reversed as easily as made. The Manning case is an early test of how far he can transform himself, and see the power of the office as about the United States and the world, not about him. 

*This abridged article is from Reuters.