Whether in an imperfect or hostile setting, Chelsea Manning’s persevering spirit and humanity never fails to shine. That was certainly the case in her exclusive interview for “Nightline” on ABC.
The United States Army whistleblower describes her military prison life at Fort Leavenworth as a daily fight for survival. She shares how it was profound and moving when she finally was able to hug her attorneys because her sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama.
“It made it real. It was a tactile feeling of reality,” Manning says. And she adds, “So the next day, I was surrounded by nature and beauty. People were beautiful because they weren’t wearing the same uniform as everyone else.”
Asked about attempting suicide at Leavenworth, Manning confronts the bleakness she endured as a transgender woman trying to be herself.
“It’s a very dark place. You’re like if I can’t be me, then who am I? You just want the pain to stop, the pain of not knowing who you are or why you are this way. You just want it to go away.”
It almost does not matter that the news program applies the same tired approach that most outlets have applied to her story throughout her case. Her conscientiousness transcends the format, which includes being pit against a former NSA deputy director, in order to make the segment “fair” and “objective,” even though this person has no connection to her case whatsoever.
During the section of the interview about the information she released, Manning maintains her resolve. She mentions her superior officers saw the Apache helicopter attack that killed two Reuters journalists and a father of two children. They saw it as “just another incident.”
“We need more means of being able to safely and securely reveal government wrongdoing,” Manning declares.
This is when “Nightline” brings in former NSA deputy director Rick Ledgett. He argues Manning “didn’t go through any of the whistleblowing channels at the time, that she could have gone to the Judge Advocate General. She could have gone to her congressional representatives. They would have welcomed that.”
But had she gone through any “channels,” the information would have never been released to the public. She may have never been authorized to talk about her concerns about counterinsurgency warfare and diplomacy with concerned citizens, as she has done.
Almost certainly, going through channels would have raised red flags. A soldier who tells their superior officers this is information the public needs to know would be put under a microscope to ensure there were no security clearance violations. She might lost her clearance over some petty offense.
She was struggling with mental health problems and did lose access to information prior to her arrest, so how could she have the confidence to go to a superior with any of this when they would not even let her serve as an openly gay intelligence analyst, let alone a transgender woman?
Anchor Juju Chang asks Ledgett if there is anything to the idea that Manning honorably put her own liberty and military career on the line to expose this information.
“Does that sound extraordinarily arrogant to you? It does to me,” Ledgett replied.
The former NSA deputy director continued, “It’s to say that my judgment is better than that of everybody else, so I’m going to take this upon myself to make this decision with consequences that I couldn’t possibly understand, and I’m going to do it because it makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing. That’s the definition of arrogance.”
Such a statement exemplifies the institutional hostility to whistleblowers within most U.S. intelligence agencies.
Furthermore, what Ledgett articulates applies more to the very people who run U.S. intelligence agencies and military branches. They make decisions on matters of life and death on a daily basis in the shadows and resist efforts for accountability and transparency. They definitely think their judgment is better than those who are able to provide oversight or expose their misconduct to the world. They have nothing but hubris when it comes to their actions.
Later in the exclusive, Chang mentions that files Manning disclosed were found on storage devices at Osama bin Laden’s compound. The inclusion of this detail amounts to pushing propaganda.
Military prosecutors introduced this as “evidence” to convict Manning of “aiding the enemy” or treason. It ultimately did not persuade the military judge, as Manning was acquitted of the charge. Bin Laden possessing the information is no different from saying bin Laden had New York Times articles with classified information related to the Afghanistan War. That would not make the Times guilty of a crime.
At least, Ledgett has the decency to state for the camera, “I think [Manning’s] paid her debt and needs a chance to start over again with a clean slate with a felony on her record.” However, as attorneys for her appeal make clear, allowing her convictions under the Espionage Act to stand has implications.
“This case is really about what are the scope of the whistleblower protections for people who possess national security information,” attorney Vincent Ward states.
Attorney Nancy Hollander adds, “This is a fundamental issue of free speech in this country. If we don’t have free speech, we don’t have a democracy, and this gets right to the core of that.”
It is deeply moving to hear Manning talk about the letters from young transgender people. They recognized she needed “unconditional love.” They were “seeing in me what I was looking for when I was their age.”
She reads from one letter. “You are loved. You are an inspiration to so many of us. Witnessing your courage has given me the strength to come out as trans too.”
The tears well up in her eyes. Her vulnerability comes through, as she wrestles with what responsibility she has to these people who see her as an inspirational figure. She knows they are watching and tells them to be who they are. “Don’t do what I did and run away from it. Things are better.”
In the final moments of the interview, the lazy frame of understanding Manning as a hero or traitor surfaces once more. Chang says to Manning that she is willing to accept that some people see her as a traitor. Manning sounds a bit exasperated. “And you know, okay, you know, like I disagree.” It’s hard to believe she accepts that people hold this perception.
Overall, it is both heartening to hear Manning speak and bothersome because corporate media outlets like ABC News bear some of the most responsibility for a public perception that Manning is a traitor.
This is the first time that any corporate broadcast news outlet took a moment to factor in Manning’s side. It has always been that the U.S. government and politicians have these opinions of her case and so what do people who represent her or support her have to say. But now that she is out of prison that needle will slowly move in a direction, where more and more citizens each year come to understand her whistleblowing acts.
It may take a few decades, but like Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, she will eventually find wide support among the population.