You Can’t Talk About Chelsea Manning Without Talking About Julian Assange
She’s inextricably linked to WikiLeaks’ global influence
by KEVIN KNODELL
Chelsea Manning will walk out of prison in May 2017. In one of his final acts as president, Barack Obama commuted the sentence of the controversial leaker, whose actions played a key role in Wikileaks’ growth into a globally prominent organization that is widely feared, loathed and admired.
In 2010, Manning, a U.S. Army soldier, gave thousands of purloined U.S. diplomatic cables and military documents to WikiLeaks. However, Obama didn’t exonerate her.
When she goes free, she will be an ex-convict, still guilty of espionage for illegally passing on secret files, including the names of confidential informants. Outside of prison, whether you agree with the decision or not, Manning will continue to carry the many burdens of that conviction.
Needless to say, reaction to the decision was mixed. While many greeted the news of the commuted sentence with cheers, a number of people were outraged. And one of the biggest reasons for this disparity is that you can’t talk about Manning without also talking about WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange.
Human rights activists have campaigned on Manning’s behalf for years, in no small part because of widespread allegations that officials abused her in the military detention center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. During her imprisonment, she became an icon for transgender rights advocates and others.
But she will likely be able to live the rest of her life without fear of assassination. The same can’t be said of hundreds of Afghans named in the “Afghan War Diary,” a series of documents WikiLeaks released from Manning’s leaks.
And herein lies the issue.
Among the wide-ranging documents Manning sent to WikiLeaks were deeply sensitive files about Afghans working with U.S. military forces and intelligence agencies. The names included Taliban members who’d been willing to talk to the Americans, tribal elders whom U.S. officials considered reliable and several villagers who’d shared information with coalition troops.
“We are studying the report,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Britain’s Channel 4 shortly after WikiLeaks began releasing the files to the public in summer 2010. “We knew about the spies and people who collaborate with U.S. forces.”
“We will investigate through our own secret service whether the people mentioned are really spies working for the U.S.,” Zabihullah continued. “If they are U.S. spies, then we know how to punish them.”
While many Afghans panicked, Assange and his fans celebrated. It was one of the largest leaks in U.S. military history. The Australian-born hacker seemed to be at the top of his game. He had outwitted the greatest superpower on earth.
Part of a movement made up of hacktivists and transparency advocates, WikiLeaks was changing the media landscape and Assange was basking in the spotlight. He portrayed himself as a champion of transparency and human rights — taking on the powers that be and sticking up for the little guy.
In April 2010, the online collective had already made waves with the release of military footage of a July 12, 2007 air strike in Iraq that killed Reuters reporters Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen as they were covering skirmishes between U.S. forces and insurgents in Baghdad. WikiLeaks released the video under the title “Collateral Murder.”
Before then, Reuters had unsuccessfully tried to get the footage through the Freedom of Information Act. Assange’s group was able to get it through alternate channels — which many suspect to be Manning.
This leak preceded the bevy of diplomatic cables from Manning detailing interactions between diplomatic and military officials around the world. It was goldmine of intrigue, backroom dealing and confirmed long-held suspicions about several covert operations.
With these leaks, many journalists quickly came to regard WikiLeaks as an ally in the search for truth. Journalism is supposed to expose corruption, hypocrisy … and sometimes secrets.
But it didn’t take long before other members of the press began to see a darker side to WikiLeaks and Assange. WikiLeaks initially released the Afghan war files to several media organizations to comb through before releasing them in bulk to the public. The files contained information about the deaths of civilians, corrupt Afghan officials and others. Much of the information was top secret.
In WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, David Leigh and Luke Harding, reporters for The Guardian, described what allegedly happened when a group of journalists took Assange to Moro’s, a Spanish restaurant in central London. When they discussed the contents of the Afghan war files, one reporter told Assange he was concerned about what could happen to Afghans who worked with the coalition were the documents to release without proper redactions.
“Well, they’re informants,” Assange replied. “So, if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them.”
“They deserve it.”
The Taliban and other terrorist groups still have this list of names. Thanks to Manning’s decision to trust in Assange, the leak put a potential target on all of their backs, one they will likely carry for the rest of their lives unless the Taliban ever agrees to lay down arms.
Taliban operatives have a reputation for extending reprisal campaigns to friends and relatives. After U.S. officials warned them of the list, whole families fled Afghanistan.
Of course, Assange was vehement in his opposition to the U.S. military’s presence in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010. When WikiLeaks released the Afghan War Diary, he said it was about “ending the war.”
Reporters Without Borders released a scathing open letter to Assange and WikiLeaks after the release of the records. “Indiscriminately publishing 92,000 classified reports reflects a real problem of methodology and, therefore, of credibility,” the press advocacy group stated.
“Journalistic work involves the selection of information,” it continued. “The argument with which you defend yourself, namely that WikiLeaks is not made up of journalists, is not convincing.”
“WikiLeaks is an information outlet and, as such, is subject to the same rules of publishing responsibility as any other media.”
The letter touched on the complicated relationship between Manning and WikiLeaks. While taking Assange and his group to task, Reporters Without Borders also condemned Manning’s imprisonment.
There is significant evidence that the Army long knew Manning was a troubled soldier struggling with her mental health. She joined the Army at a time when the service was desperate for recruits, and the military regularly gave out waivers for those who, ordinarily, would have never been eligible to join.
In a blog post published shortly after Obama commuted Manning’s sentence, Jay Huwieler — a soldier who attended basic training with Manning — painted a portrait of a recruit who didn’t seem to quite know what she was doing in the Army.
Huwieler described a young soldier who seemed to have her head in the clouds, with little interest in group endeavors — a serious problem in the team oriented world of the military.
“Likely few-to-none would have predicted such an unassuming person would be at the center of so much controversy,” Huwieler wrote. “That is, unless you met her when she first joined the Army and she started down a trajectory toward infamy.”
“In hindsight, maybe it was obvious.”
When Manning arrived at her unit, she didn’t get along well with fellow soldiers and at times would lash out violently. Her superiors knew all of this before the leak.
She apparently bragged on internet chatrooms about having access to top secret documents and talked about leaking them. One of the people she told was a hacker named Adrian Lamo, who ultimately turned her in to Army officials.
Not convinced by the assertion that the leaks were in the public interest, a military court convicted Manning on 17 different charges, including espionage. She received a sentence of 35 years in prison and a dishonorable discharge.
Manning’s fate and how her connection to WikiLeaks had played into the government’s arguments became a major topic of discussion in the media and among activists. Though U.S. officials and pundits talked up the possibility of deaths WikiLeaks may have caused, they were increasingly frustrated with the organization even when nobody actually died.
WikiLeaks associate Israel Shamir sent files about democracy activists to Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko. On Dec. 19, 2010, Belarussian state newspaper Belarus-Telegraf reported that WikiLeaks had helped authorities identify “organizers, instigators and rioters, including foreign ones” who had protested against rigged elections.
Ethiopian journalist Argaw Ashine was named in a cable because he spoke with U.S. officials about Ethiopian officials’ efforts to silence the private Amharic language newspaper Addis Neger. The publication eventually closed its doors and its editors fled. Argaw also fled the country after government officials questioned him.
“A contact within [Government Communication Affairs Office] told the Addis Ababa-based Daily Nation reporter Argaw Ashene [sic: Ashine] that the GCAO had drawn up a list of the six top Addis Neger officials… who they plan to target in order to silence the newspaper’s analysis,” the cable stated.
Argaw had learned from a source in the government about a plan to charge the journalists under anti-terrorism laws. “We had a discussion to support and to help those friends at the Addis Neger newspaper… and the embassy representative was part of the discussion,” he told the BBC in 2011.
As the campaign demanding Obama set Manning free because of her service to the public began to draw more attention, WikiLeaks, which had promised to deliver transparency and be a tool for journalists and activists, was becoming an excellent source for authoritarian governments to target watchdogs and reformers.
In particular, the 2016 U.S. presidential election put WikiLeaks’ long-argued potential ties to Russia’s illiberal government in the spotlight.
Any discussion of Manning and her future could not escape a discussion of WikiLeaks and how the organization had transformed since the 2010 leaks. In January 2017, former War Is Boring contributor Joshua Foust, a one-time intelligence professional turned writer, took to social media defending the Manning decision.
But only to a point.
“A commutation is not the same as a pardon,” he wrote on Facebook. “Chelsea still must face down a bevy of extremely serious felony charges that will haunt her for life.”
Foust contrasted Manning’s case with that of Edward Snowden, who he argued made a much more calculated decision to steal and leak classified files related to American spying. “While Snowden seemed intent to destroy America, Manning seemed more seduced by Assange, and that distinction has meaning.”
“With Chelsea, I see the far more salient aspect of her case to be one of failed command and a broken mental healthcare system than anything else,” he wrote. “Chelsea, when living in uniform as Bradley, assaulted several superiors yet was promoted.”
“She was never given counseling.”
Foust also cited the abuse Manning received in prison.
“Let us be blunt: Chelsea Manning was tortured in prison,” he added. “She was treated abominably, she was consistently humiliated and dehumanized while in confinement.”
“Her deplorable treatment has had magnifying effects in the broader community that are simply not necessary,” he continued. “In other contexts, abuse in prison leads to sentence reductions, and it should apply here too.”
But the continued danger of her leaks remain. Admittedly, in 2013, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Robert Carr testified at Manning’s sentencing hearing that he couldn’t definitively link the deaths of any individual Afghans named in the leaks by that time. On top of that, the files contained the names of some people who were already dead when WikiLeaks released the documents.
However, even after the announcement that the U.S. government would free Manning, attention turned back to Assange. On Twitter, the WikiLeaks leader had pledged to comply with a U.S. extradition request if Obama granted the former soldier clemency.
If Obama grants Manning clemency Assange will agree to US extradition despite clear unconstitutionality of DoJ case https://t.co/MZU30SlfGK
On Jan. 18, 2017, one of Assange’s lawyers said the offer was only in exchange for Obama granting Manning a full pardon. Whatever the case, the WikiLeaks chief, currently living inside Ecuador’s embassy in London, appeared to have no intention of finally surrendering to authorities for questioning over allegations of rape in Sweden.
It remains to be seen whether Donald Trump will have any impact on Manning’s legacy, too. The incoming president credited Assange and WikiLeaks with helping him win the 2016 election and implied that he trusted him more than the American intelligence community.
Many of Trump’s most ardent supporters, such as Fox News’ Sean Hannity, once called for Assange’s arrest, but have come to praise him as a hero for leaking e-mails from the Hillary Clinton campaign. Before, during and after an exclusive interview with Assange, Hannity seemed to excuse previous leaks — including those from Manning.
So far, Hannity and others haven’t extended the same sort of character rehabilitation to the soon to be free leaker.
“Private Manning is a traitor and should not have been turned into a martyr,” vice president elect Mike Pence told Fox News. “Private Manning’s actions compromised our national security, endangered American personnel downrange, compromised individuals in Afghanistan who were cooperating with our forces by leaking 750,000 documents to WikiLeaks.”
The war in Afghanistan has turned countless people into refugees. Millions of Afghans are now living in neighboring Pakistan and Iran.
Others have gone to Turkey and many have made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to try to start new lives in Europe. A handful of them had to leave because of Manning’s actions.
Only time will tell whether Manning becomes a different kind of political refugee in her own homeland.