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On Chelsea Manning’s Freedom

A grassroots effort led by committed activists, which was bolstered by human rights campaigners and prominent individuals, pushed President Barack Obama’s administration to free Chelsea Manning.

The United States Army whistleblower was sentenced to military prison for 35 years. She was convicted of offenses stemming from her decision to provide WikiLeaks with over a half million U.S. government documents, which exposed war crimes, diplomatic misconduct, and other instances of wrongdoing and questionable acts by U.S. officials.

But now, on May 17, Manning will be released from Leavenworth prison in Kansas. She will get what she requested from Obama: a “first chance at life,” as a “proud woman who is transgender” that has matured greatly during an arduous and difficult journey from all-source intelligence analyst to someone inspiring to millions.

“Today’s fantastic news goes a long way to making amends for the brutal treatment Chelsea was illegally subjected to while awaiting trial at the Quantico Marine Brig. It’s tragic that Chelsea had to spend 7-years imprisoned for releasing documents that should never have been classified in the first place, and were clearly in the public interest,” stated Chelsea Manning Support Network co-founder Jeff Paterson. “All of us who worked on Chelsea’s behalf are overjoyed.”

Manning’s case was not always well known to the public. The establishment press in the U.S. barely showed interest in her court-martial at Fort Meade until her case reached trial. On the other hand, there were a handful of people, including myself, who were present at nearly every stage—including critical phases where she challenged her unlawful pretrial punishment at the Marine brig at Quantico.

Independent journalist Alexa O’Brien, Courthouse News journalist Adam Klasfeld, Associated Press reporter David Dishneau, and courtroom sketch artist Clark Stoeckley shared many moments with me observing what unfolded.

Some journalists like Ed Pilkington of The Guardian and Julie Tate, a researcher for The Washington Post, were there most of the trial. CNN had a producer, who tended to fall asleep in the back of the media center. The New York Times sometimes found it worthwhile to send a journalist, like Charlie Savage. There were advocates, who penned eloquent commentaries every so often. However, it was up to AP and alternative journalists to get the story of what was happening with Manning day-to-day out to the public.

Freedom Of The Press Foundation helped ensure there were transcripts made available to the public by crowdfunding a stenographer, since the Army refused to publish their own transcripts of proceedings. This made our job much easier.

Another organization that deserves recognition is the Center For Constitutional Rights. Their efforts in military court on behalf of journalists challenged the Army’s lack of transparency. Because of their work, we forced the Army’s hand, and they granted us access to court documents, including decisions issued by military judge, Col. Denise Lind.

Before Shadowproof, I worked for Firedoglake editor-in-chief Jane Hamsher, who hosted me at her house in Washington, D.C., for many weeks. That includes a nearly three-month span during her trial. It made it possible for me to devote my journalism career to covering Manning, and during the court-martial, I collaborated with journalist Greg Mitchell on a book about her case.

In fact, thanks to Chelsea Manning, I met Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and had the privilege of driving him home from Fort Meade one night.


As Manning’s attorneys previously pointed out, she received the same sentence as a “service member who wished to sell classified information for money.” She received a much harsher sentence than General David Petraeus, who pled guilty to disclosing classified information to a former mistress and biographer. Petraeus also lied to the FBI when he was questioned about his crime.

“In the pantheon of cases involving disclosures motivated by whistleblowing, Pfc. Manning’s is far and away the most severe sentence ever adjudged. In the last five years alone, federal prosecutors have prosecuted more whistleblowers than at any time,” her attorneys argued.

Manning took responsibility for her actions. She did not have to describe to the public in a military court why she released the “Collateral Murder” video, military incident reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, diplomatic cables, and files on Guantanamo Bay detainees. However, she felt she owed it to not only herself but all of us.

On the “Collateral Murder” video, Manning shared, “The most alarming aspect of the video to me, however, was the seemingly delightful bloodlust they appeared to have. They dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life by referring to them as “dead bastards” and congratulating each other on the ability to kill in large numbers.”

Manning recognized the United States entered a state of permanent war. She felt it important to give citizens information on counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan so we could scrutinize the government’s obsession with “capturing and killing human targets on lists.” She deliberately intended to spark a debate on the role of the U.S. military and our foreign policy.

The cables were released because, as Manning said, she believed the world might be a better place if it embraced “open diplomacy” and avoided making “secret pacts and deals with and against” countries.

Files on Guantanamo detainees were disclosed because she recognized the vast majority of individuals in detention were innocent. They were “low level foot soldiers that did not have useful intelligence and would be released if they were still held” in theaters of war.

Very few people supported Manning when it became known that she was the person responsible for making disclosures to WikiLeaks. With President Obama’s action, millions celebrate her release.

Her commutation comes at the end of a two-term presidency, which made aggressive actions against whistleblowers a cornerstone of the administration’s policy. More individuals were prosecuted for leaks under the Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined.

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden remains isolated in Russia with the Obama administration ever committed to the notion that he must come back home and face justice in a federal courtroom, despite the fact that the Justice Department has ensured people like Snowden cannot make whistleblowing arguments as part of their defense.

CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling is in prison in Littleton, Colorado.

Plus, on the same day Obama commuted Manning’s sentence, he pardoned General James Cartwright, who leaked information on the Stuxnet virus. He is a high-ranking official, but unlike Manning, he will not spend a single day in prison.

Mercy is all that Manning asked of President Barack Obama. Mercy is all that Obama needed to show Manning. President Obama showed Manning mercy because millions spoke up for Manning and made a difference.

The last year was particularly devastating for Manning. She attempted to commit suicide at least two times. She was punished by the Army for her suicide attempt, even though what she really needed was access to mental health treatment. So, there is a compelling argument behind the idea that those involved in the grassroots campaign, which convinced Obama to free her, saved her life.

While Manning and the public wait for her release in May, there will be vitriol from politicians and journalists, who lack a basic level of human decency. They will attempt to “educate” the public about why Obama made the wrong decision. But the truth is and has always been on Manning’s side.

History will, if it has not already, vindicate Chelsea Manning. It will never vindicate the actions of President George W. Bush, who lied America into a war in Iraq. It will never vindicate generals or CIA officers responsible for torture and crimes against humanity. It will never vindicate the political elites, who conspire to conceal corruption and wrongdoing and do not face any accountability for their actions.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."