Chelsea Manning is a Prisoner of Conscience

Note: This article has been updated since its original publication to accurately reflect Chelsea Manning’s gender identity. 

One of the most disgraceful elements of the corporate media’s campaign against whistleblower Chelsea Manning has been the constant attempts at character assassination. The corporate media, when they cover Manning, constantly need to obsesses over gossipy details of Manning’s personal life. While that may be the grade of material tabloids thrive on it has nothing to do with Manning’s extraordinary act of conscience that will land her in prison for possibly the rest of her life.

PBS’s Frontline* despicable episode on Chelsea Manning is an excellent example of this. It gives extensive coverage of Manning’s personal life, which very well may have been slightly troubled (I imagine most of the readers of this have experienced troubled times during their life) and gives almost no consideration of possible political, moral, or ethical reasons for why Manning did what she did. The point of this media narrative is to diminish the rational behind Manning’s act. Manning leaked classified information, because she was a mentally unstable individual, a misfit, and a malcontent. Exposing war crimes at risk to one’s personal liberty is not a profound moral act exhibiting the best in human behavior, it is an anti-social act carried out by a disturbed individual looking for attention or an artificial sense of belonging.

However, we know from Manning’s own words, both from the chat logs that led to her persecution and her statement in court what motivated him. She makes it very clear that her political consciousness developed through routinely watching the dehumanization of the Iraqi people and the senseless violence against them it allowed.

Manning told Adrian Lamo, who assured Manning that as a “journalist and minister” Manning’s “confession or interview” would “enjoy a modicum of legal protection,” that “the thing that got me the most… that made me rethink the world more than anything” was

watching 15 detainees taken by the Iraqi Federal Police… for printing “anti-Iraqi literature”… the iraqi federal police wouldn’t cooperate with US forces, so i was instructed to investigate the matter, find out who the “bad guys” were, and how significant this was for the FPs… it turned out, they had printed a scholarly critique against PM Maliki… i had an interpreter read it for me… and when i found out that it was a benign political critique titled “Where did the money go?” and following the corruption trail within the PM’s cabinet… i immediately took that information and *ran* to the officer to explain what was going on… he didn’t want to hear any of it… he told me to shut up and explain how we could assist the FPs in finding *MORE* detainees…

During his opening statement at Manning’s court martial her defense attorney David Coombs  recalled a story that illustrates Manning’s deep moral convictions. On Christmas Eve a roadside bomb went off. It was meant to target a US convey, but missed. Instead it killed an Iraqi civilian. Manning’s fellow troops went onto celebrate the escape, but according to Coombs Manning “couldn’t celebrate…[She] couldn’t forget about the life that was lost on that day. [She] couldn’t forget about the family lost on that Christmas Eve.”

Manning suffered from the problem that she believed Iraqi lives were equal to American ones and that the loss of Iraqi life, the torture of the Iraqi people were grave moral wrongs. Moral wrongs that she wanted to right. This is what motivated Manning to become a whistleblower. As her lawyer explained, “When [she] decided to release this information, [she] believed this information showed how we value human life. [She] was troubled by it and he believed if the American public saw it they too would be troubled by it and maybe things might change”

Or as Manning said in her own words at her trial

“I believe that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information contained within the CIDNE-I [Iraq War Diaries] and CIDNE-A [Afghanistan War Diaries] tables this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general as [missed word] as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan”

She stated that she believed by her actions she was “removing the fog of war and revealing the true nature of twenty-first century asymmetric warfare.” Daniel Ellsberg, possibly America’s most famous whistleblower, said at a Free Chelsea Manning rally that asymmetric wars are wars that are

“the strong against the weak. What used to be called colonial wars. Wars asymmetric because one side has planes, helicopters, drones, napalm, artillery, tanks, and the other side has none of that–only suicide bombers if they’re fighting and IEDs–improvised explosive devices–so it’s asymmetric. And the result of that is the great slaughter of innocence which a war crime..”

Mannning’s detractors have often pointed out that she not only leaked information detailing rampant violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, but diplomatic cables–thus proving that Manning is not a whistleblower, but an irresponsible attention seeker who dumped a large amount of information without forethought. However, Manning explained these actions to Lamo very lucidly as well. She stated that she had access to “crazy, almost criminal political backdealings … the non-PR-versions of world events and crises” and that he believed the  diplomatic cables demonstrated “how first-world countries exploited third-world countries.” While much brouhaha has made over the sanctity of diplomacy and the importance of secrecy in carrying it out when one sees that the cables reveal things such  as how the most powerful country on Earth used its diplomats to try to bully one of the poorest countries in the world (Haiti) into not raising its minimum wage at the bequest of a private corporation it becomes very clear how the “first world” exploits the “third world.”

What emerges here is a clear pattern. Manning’s actions and motivations are not that of a troubled individual, a misfit, or a malcontent, but someone who saw great crimes being committed, crimes that shocked her conscience. She believed that if the American public saw these crimes they too would be shocked, that they would make sure that they did not continue in their name.

Sadly, this was not the case. The corporate media with its self-appointed role as gatekeepers of information has always censored and kept from the public at large the senseless violence implicit in US wars. It has also now marginalized Manning for failing to be what Prof. Cornel West has for years refereed to as “well adjusted to injustice.”  It is because Manning refused to be “well adjusted to injustice,” that she saw slaughter and corruption and decided to follow her conscience to stop it that she is now imprisoned most likely for the rest of  her life.

Chelsea Manning is a prisoner of conscience. But we must not rest. We must not only continue to demand her freedom, to demand that those who commit war crimes be prosecuted, not those who blow the whistle on them, but we must also demand an end the senseless dehumanization of foreign people that allows our government to murder and exploit them.


*Certainly not the “corporate media” in a technical sense but this particular piece is most illustrative of a wider trend.

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