Op-ed: No Justice for Chelsea Manning

A review of the trial and sentencing of Chelsea Manning.

BY Victoria A. Brownworth

August 23 2013 4:00 AM ET

It’s finally over. The two-month court-martial trial and nearly three-week sentencing hearing for Chelsea Manning, the transgender former Army intelligence specialist convicted of releasing 750,000 documents to WikiLeaks, the international information service, ended Wednesday with a decision from the military judge in the case, Col. Denise Lind.

The Obama administration called the document leak the largest in U.S. history. Manning was convicted last month of releasing the documents. The prosecution had initially called for her to be tried for treason, but Lind did not find Manning guilty of aiding the enemy, as the prosecution claimed she was. Still, Manning was convicted of myriad charges, including violations of the Espionage Act for copying and disseminating the documents while serving as an intelligence analyst at a forward operating base in Baghdad, Iraq. She faced up to 90 years in prison, plus more for other variables.

Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison with the possibility of parole after she has served a third of that time. Her attorney, Col. David Coombs, said she would likely be eligible for parole in about seven years. She is, however, appealing the sentence.

Additionally, Lind reduced Manning’s sentence by the 42 months she has already served as well as by several months for the egregious treatment she received (Amnesty International referred to it as torture) while in solitary confinement, which contravened the Geneva Convention.

Lind stripped Manning of her rank (she had already been demoted just prior to her arrest from Army intelligence specialist to private first class), reducing her to private, the lowest rank in the Army. Lind also stripped her of pay but did not impose a fine. The amount she will have taken away was not immediately determined. She will also be dishonorably discharged.

Coombs told reporters that he intends to file an application for a presidential pardon for Manning next week. Coombs also told reporters that he "wept" at the verdict, but that Manning reached over and comforted him.

Supporters of Manning who had attended the trial had said Coombs had expressed the hope that Manning would receive a sentence of time served. In court, Coombs had argued for the lowest possible sentence, 25 years. The prosecution had argued for the highest sentence — 90 years plus, without parole.

The sentence is the stiffest in American history for someone charged with leaking U.S. government materials without selling them to a foreign government. Manning said repeatedly that she felt the American people had the right to know what was happening in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a statement she released during her preliminary hearing in February, Manning spoke extensively and eloquently about her reasons for releasing the documents to the public.

Manning is considered heroic in many nongovernmental quarters for revealing the layers of secrecy related to both wars as well as myriad covert U.S. military operations in other countries, including Yemen and Somalia. Other documents she released illuminated the extent of U.S. involvement in other nations’ political and military activities.

Most damning, however, was a 2007 video taken during a U.S. forces attack in Baghdad in which Iraqi civilians were gunned down and two journalists killed. The video clearly shows intent in the assault. Also among the documents were approximately 250,000 diplomatic cables, which at trial the prosecution said had damaged American credibility worldwide.

WikiLeaks also obtained some of the dossiers of detainees being imprisoned without trial at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, which has also been considered a gross human rights abuse globally. (Obama had promised to close Guantanamo in 2009, as one of his first acts as president.)

Finally, hundreds of thousands of incident reports from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan revealed the extent of problems between civilians and the military.

Document after document was reprinted in the most well-respected newspapers in the country, and this always raised the question of how Manning could be guilty of espionage if none of the various newspapers who published the documents he leaked were immune from prosecution.

In 1971, President Richard Nixon’s Department of Justice had Daniel Ellsberg arrested and filed injunctions against The New York Times and The Washington Post in an effort to quash the release of the documents Ellsberg leaked, the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg was charged with all the same crimes as Manning but was eventually released. The U.S. Supreme Court vitiated the injunctions against the newspapers, citing the American people’s right to know.

Forty years later, Manning has just received the harshest penalty on record for the very same actions that turned Ellsberg into a national hero and helped wind down the Vietnam War. Ellsberg has told me in previous interviews for The Advocate that there is no question Manning’s actions helped end the war in Iraq and that her conviction is a dark day for transparency and democracy.

Manning was a nominee for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize and winner of the Person of the Year Award from the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper, which has reported her case from the outset as part of an attack on whistleblowers by the Obama administration. She is currently being short-listed for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.

This laudatory response to Manning has not been echoed by the government, obviously, and this harsh sentencing just underscores the continuing battle between the Obama administration and transparency, and most importantly, against whistleblowers.

Not only has Manning not been released after time served, but throughout her trial there has been a virtual conspiracy of silence from the mainstream media in reporting on either Manning or the egregious efforts to put her away for life. Yet newspapers of record like The New York Times and The Washington Post published material Manning leaked without incident or regret, but failed to cover her trial, reporting only on key incidents, including the verdict and the sentencing.

Throughout her sentencing hearing Manning was portrayed alternately as a scheming, viperous traitor by the prosecution and a completely messed-up am-I-gay-or-am-I-transgender soldier with depression by her own defense. The defense was repeatedly forced to present Manning as naive and unclear about the impact of her actions, even though Manning’s own incredibly articulate statement of why she released the documents argues that she was very sure of herself and that her rationale was one of altruism and patriotism: She thought Americans deserved the truth and the transparency President Obama had promised.

Now that "don't ask, don't tell" has been repealed, the perception is that LGBT members of the military have not suffered. But the presentation of Manning’s torturous experience within the military is clarifying: Had Manning had supports rather than threats while a soldier, perhaps he might have chosen a different path and, as President Obama noted in an oblique comment on Jay Leno a few weeks ago, "gone through proper channels" to reveal what he did.

The White House did not comment on Manning’s sentence by press time.

After the sentence was delivered, journalist Glenn Greenwald, who first wrote about Manning for the mainstream press, noted the following on Twitter: "Obama admin: we aggressively prosecute those who expose war crimes, and diligently protect those who commit them."

Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was detained at London's Heathrow Airport Sunday for nine hours under an antiterrorism act and forced to turn over documents related to the case of Edward Snowden, another whistleblower.

The Obama administration acknowledged knowing the detention would happen but did not comment further.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which has been a staunch supporter of Manning and has decried the Obama administration’s war on whistleblowers, released a statement after the sentencing.

Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project said, "When a soldier who shared information with the press and public is punished far more harshly than others who tortured prisoners and killed civilians, something is seriously wrong with our justice system. A legal system that doesn’t distinguish between leaks to the press in the public interest and treason against the nation will not only produce unjust results, but will deprive the public of critical information that is necessary for democratic accountability. This is a sad day for Bradley Manning, but it’s also a sad day for all Americans who depend on brave whistleblowers and a free press for a fully informed public debate."

It’s important to note how hard the Obama administration pushed to sentence Manning as harshly as possible. The prosecution could have ended in February when Manning pleaded guilty to 10 of the charges. At that time she faced about 20 years — harsh enough.

But the government wanted to prosecute Manning for treason, for aiding and abetting the enemy, and sought the initial egregious sentence of 136 years. The prosecution urged the judge in closing arguments to sentence her to putative life. As the prosecution noted, "Manning deserves to spend the majority of his remaining life in a military prison."

Protests were held Wednesday evening throughout the country, including a major one in San Francisco, which was involved in an ugly debacle when some members of the San Francisco Pride Committee chose Manning to be grand marshal in absentia and the head of the organization refused to allow it. Other protests are scheduled for the weekend.  

VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist who has also won the Society of Professional Journalists Award and the NLGJA Award for her reporting. She is the author of the award-winning books Too Queer: Essays From a Radical Life and Coming Out of Cancer: Writings From the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic, among others. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Baltimore Sun as well as Curve, Out, and The Advocate. She is a blogger for The Huffington Post. She lives in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter @VABVOX.

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