Chelsea Manning: Free at Last but Not the Radical Act America Needed

Madeleine Stone reflects on the real meaning of Chelsea Manning’s commutation and why it may not be the progressive act it was initially celebrated as.

It is telling that in her first article since the announcement of her commutation, Chelsea Manning chose to sum up Obama’s presidency as one that was characterised by compromise and left a “vulnerable legacy.” Manning, sentenced to a 35-year prison sentence in 2013 for leaking thousands of documents to WikiLeaks, had her sentence commuted several weeks ago in one of Barack Obama’s last acts as President. This commutation doubtlessly saved her life. A trans woman in a male prison and kept in solitary confinement, Manning had attempted suicide several times. A social media campaign on behalf of Manning, #FreeChelsea, even saw WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange weighing in: pledging he’d leave the Ecuadorian Embassy if Manning was released, a promise on which Assange has rapidly backpedalled. Obama announced on January 17 that Manning would be released on May 17.

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Petitioning for Chelsea Manning’s release in 2015

Despite outcry from Republicans (Speaker Paul Ryan called Manning’s release “just outrageous” and Senator John McCain called it “a sad, yet perhaps fitting commentary on President Obama’s failed national security policies”), Obama’s commutation Manning’s sentence was not a rejection of Manning’s guilt or a bold stand for governmental transparency. It was instead a reassessment of an incredibly harsh sentence, one that Obama described as “very disproportionate relative to what other leakers have received.” In a press conference the day after the announcement of Manning’s commutation, Obama made it clear this was not a reconsideration of the morality of Manning’s actions:

“I feel very comfortable that justice has been served and that a message has still been sent that when it comes to our national security, that wherever possible, we need folks who have legitimate concerns […] to work through the established channels and avail themselves of the whistleblower protections that have been put in place.”

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Obama at his final presidential press conference on January 18, 2017

Obama emphasised that it was not a pardon, it was commutation won through an admission of guilt. Manning’s commutation came conditions. Unlike Edward Snowden, another high-profile whistleblower, Manning apologised and “took responsibility for her crime.” Snowden remains unrepentant for his work in exposing illegal surveillance and therefore was castigated, rather than given freedom.

UN Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order, Alfred de Zayas welcomed the release of Manning but reiterated the important of whistleblowers to democracy:

“Whistleblowers are human rights defenders whose contribution to democracy and the rule of law cannot be overestimated. They serve democracy and human rights by revealing information that all persons are entitled to receive.”

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Chelsea Manning’s official Twitter

Whistleblowers should not be granted reluctant releases, but be celebrated for the vital work they do in the name of all of us. A pardon would have sent a bold message to new President: that you are accountable to your citizens.

It is easy to romanticise Obama’s legacy, especially in the age of President Trump. But the precedent set by his administration’s increased surveillance, coupled with a crackdown on whistleblowers, has laid the groundwork for the new administration to threaten American and global civil liberties. And with Trump’s notorious preference for alternative facts, we will need whistleblowers more than ever in the next four years.

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