A case for Executive mercy for Chelsea Manning

Manning was a humanist soldier trapped between the cynical realities of warfare, her youth, and her characteristic earnestness – clinging onto the exigent hope that sanity and common sense would triumph if buttressed by knowledge and deliberation. Whether or not such an ideal is real or a fairytale remains to be seen. An act of mercy by the Executive, might evidence its display in our own imperfect experiment in self government. Manning isn’t perfect; neither is the U.S. Government. Can we all learn from these events and move on now?

In February 2010, during a mid-tour leave, a 22-year-old United States Army private walked into a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Rockville, Maryland.

Home from eastern Baghdad, Iraq, where she was stationed as a junior military intelligence analyst, she began uploading hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. government documents to the WikiLeaks organization website.

Chelsea Manning had unsuccessfully attempted to disclose the battlefield reports to her hometown paper, The Washington Post; and even The New York Times. In a last-ditch effort with time running out, she decided to use the WikiLeaks online submission system.

While WikiLeaks has been clouded in recent controversy over its alleged role as a “willing participant” in Russian propaganda; for pushing Internet conspiracy theories; and threatening a journalist – in 2010, however, the organization professed to practice “scientific journalism” and was respectable enough to collaborate with The New York Times, Guardian (UK) and Der Spiegel, which later published extensive reports based on the documents Manning uploaded.

Manning’s illegal treatment (per a military judge) while detained in a Marine Corps brig during a portion of her pretrial confinement; her disproportionate sentence – more time than any individual in U.S. history for disclosing national defense information to the public; and her recent punitive placement in solitary confinement for a suicide attempt at an army brig where she is currently incarcerated, have been used to justify Edward Snowden not returning to the U.S. to stand trial.

Manning, we have been told, is Snowden’s excuse.

Manning is not like Snowden, we are also told (even by Snowden himself).

It is true.

Manning is not like Snowden.

Manning doesn’t make excuses.

She not only went to trial; she also pled guilty without the protection of a plea agreement, because she believed the military justice system would understand her motivations and sentence her fairly.

Because she went to trial, the public knows what legally happened in her case.

Branded a traitor, Manning was acquitted of aiding the enemy.

Prosecutors even stated at her court-martial that they did not charge Manning under the Espionage Act for “espionage”, but for “transmitting national defense information.” Manning is not a spy.

The court even acquit Manning of the prosecution’s theory that she was involved in a criminal conspiracy with WikiLeaks.

Manning’s civil disobedience breached the US Army’s good order and discipline. She stated that she knew she would have to pay a price. She has been imprisoned for almost seven years.

To her credit, in my personal opinion, Manning is not a very good propagandist. She forbade her defense attorney from speaking directly to the media during her court-martial, advising him instead to publish only factual, text-based material presented in a neutral tone on his website. Whether she faced life, 136 years, or her sentenced to 35 years in prison, her candor and respectful demeanor to the court about her acts are ethically consistent with the spirit of her original leaks.

In an era where unilateralism and even extra-judicial acts by the Executive branch or modern day information Mafioso are righteously and indignantly lionized, Manning’s commitment to due process, our laws, and our institutions is misguidedly depicted as the way of victimhood and weakness.

Even in her dissent, she has defended due process, the rule of law, and the idea that public deliberation and consent are paramount to liberal democracy, regardless of the risk or outcome.

Manning’s unjustly disproportionate sentence to 35 years in prison for her crimes, and her treatment by the U.S. Army only reinforce that rising artifact of hacker subculture, which has taken root now in our civil and political society, namely “moral fags” get “pwned.”

Manning’s disclosures have been characterized as irresponsible (even by the likes of Snowden.)

Manning, however, was charged with leaking Secret portions of only 227 documents under the Espionage Act.

Her disclosures were widely distributed among government employees, military personnel, and federal contractors.

“Nearly half a million government employees and contractors,” had access to the State Department cables that Manning leaked, according to a report in The Washington Post.

Thousands of military personnel, government employees and contractors also had access to the battlefield reporting that Manning leaked.

Much of the information the military presents to the White House and Congress about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan originates from those battlefield reports.

The State Department even declassified portions of 44 of the 116 charged diplomatic cables after Manning’s arrest.

An official review conducted by the Defense Intelligence Agency of all the documents that Manning disclosed (totaling approximately 725,647) reportedly placed the overall risk to U.S. national security at moderate to low.

Brig. Gen. Robert Carr, the counterintelligence expert, who directed the DIA review, testified at her court-martial that her disclosures did not contain direct references to human intelligence or sources.

Although the Afghanistan battlefield reports contained around 900 names, Carr testified that “[m]any of those names were of people who were already dead, had died at some point in the battlefield.”

The State Department completed its own comprehensive review of all the cables that she disclosed six months before they were published online.

While between 20 to 30 individuals were reportedly relocated, the rational for their relocation was never impeached in the courtroom.

The group set up to handle persons allegedly at risk was only fully operational for six months. An unofficial review of the State Department cables conducted by the Associated Press in 2011 found that no one named in the cables was threatened.

Reuters also reported that internal reviews said that the release of diplomatic cables and “tens of thousands of military field reports from Iraq and Afghanistan” had “caused only limited damage to U.S. interests abroad, despite the Obama administration’s public statements to the contrary.”

Three of the five Guantanamo detainee profiles Manning was convicted of disclosing under the Espionage Act were of the Tipton Three: three British citizens from Tipton, England, who were held at Guantanamo for two years and then released without charges or trial. They were awarded millions of dollars to settle their law suit against the U.K., for its complicity in their illegal detention by the U.S.

Battlefield Reports

Greenwald states that unlike Manning, Snowden meticulously went thru the documents he stole and disclosed. I’ll let Snowden speak for himself, but Greenwald is incorrect. Manning was ordered to research, learn from, or worked with the majority of the material that she eventually disclosed, as I will explain below.

Before deploying to Iraq, for example, Manning had worked on worldwide intelligence briefs for the commander of the Second Brigade Combat Team at Fort Drum in Upstate New York, home of the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army. The 2nd Brigade formed part of the army’s global response force, on call in case troop surges were needed anywhere in the world. In the garrisons intelligence shop, Manning’s commanding officer tasked her with rebuilding the incident tracker.

This required Manning to back up hundreds of thousands of military field reports called Significant Activities, or SIGACTS, from the war in Afghanistan, where the 2nd Brigade was expected to deploy. After Manning’s unit was reassigned to Forward Operating Base Hammer, a few miles east of Baghdad, she followed suit and created another backup of SIGACTS from the war in Iraq.

The backups were made on read-writable CDs and stored in the intelligence shops shared conference room at FOB Hammer. Analysts could access the backups during periodic interruptions to network connectivity that occurred during deployment.

Manning regularly research and review the ground-level accounts of events in Iraq and Afghanistan to produce work products during her long shifts at FOB. At her trial, Manning said she released the battlefield reports because she believed “that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information contained within the CIDNE-I [Iraq] and CIDNE-A [Afghanistan] tables this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan.”

She also testified that she wanted the public to have access to the metrics for U.S. CT and COIN operations. She said in her statement:

“In attempting to conduct counter-terrorism or CT and counter-insurgency COIN operations, we became obsessed with capturing and killing human targets on lists and not being suspicious of and avoiding cooperation with our host nation partners, and ignoring the second and third order effects of accomplishing short-term goals and missions.”

CIA Red Cell Memos

Cynicism and a lack of critical thought defined the ethos of the intelligence shop at FOB Hammer where Manning worked. A sign hung over the desks of the targeting analysts there: “The individuals that own this office are in the business of catching shit bags. If you think for one second you can come in here and bug us with sissy shit you might want to rethink your pathetic life.”

Manning found a Central Intelligence Agency Red Cell memo that was unapologetically entitled, “Afghanistan: Sustaining West European Support for the NATO-led Mission: Why Counting on Apathy Might Not Be Enough.” Manning told the presiding military judge that after discovering the CIA memo, she “had difficulty believing what this section was doing.”

Manning was also alarmed by the “seemingly delightful bloodlust” of the aerial weapons team that she viewed in the video of the 2007 U.S. airstrike in Baghdad. Manning uploaded the video to WikiLeaks in February 2010, along with information on the rules of engagement in Iraq for the years 2006 and 2007.

Manning stated in court that the helicopter pilots in the video “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.” She compared the pilots’ behavior “to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass.”

Trial defense counsel David Coombs said in his closing arguments that Manning realized she could “no longer just ignore the fact that these are real lives being lost and real people dying.”

In a letter to the Guardian published on October 9, 2013, Manning wrote “I feel that the public cannot decide what actions and policies are or are not justified if they don’t even know the most rudimentary details about them and their effects.”

Diplomatic Cables and Guantanamo Profiles

Manning’s brigade’s mission in Iraq was to train the Iraqi Federal Police. The partnership included intelligence sharing. The brigade also shared intelligence with the Iraqi presidential brigade and the National Iraqi Intelligence Agency. Classified computers in the brigades intelligence shop, where Manning worked, were equipped with CD burners to distribute intelligence to their Iraqi partners.

Iraqs intelligence and law enforcement agencies were divided along sectarian and political lines since the restructuring of the Iraqi state after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.

When Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki of the Shiite Islamic Dawa party came to power in 2006, he mistrusted the CIA-funded INIS, which was headed by a Sunni who led a failed CIA-backed coup against Hussein in 1996.

A decade later, four INIS agents were suspected of being involved in the kidnapping of an Iranian diplomat suspected of ties to Shiite insurgents. The diplomat later alleged that the CIA had tortured him. Al-Maliki subsequently established his own intelligence agency headed by a Shiite under the Ministry of State for National Security Affairs (MSNS).

Fueled by the competing spheres of influence between the U.S. and Iran, Sunni and Shiite factions within both the INIS and the MSNS conducted systematic campaigns to eliminate rivals in an escalating battle for influence and control over the intelligence and security apparatus in Iraq.

Three weeks after her trip to Barnes & Noble, now back in Iraq, Manning was ordered to investigate the arrest of fifteen individuals at a printing press in the Karada district of Baghdad. The detentions had been a joint operation between subordinate commands of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team and the Iraqi Federal Police (IFP). The IFP accused the detainees of publishing anti-Iraqi literature; she was told to find out who the bad guys were.

Manning established that none of the detainees had any ties to suspected terrorists or militia groups; nor were they carrying out anti-Iraqi activities. Pictures from the scene of the arrest included images of the fifteen suspects, pallets of unprinted paper, and high-resolution copies of the printed material they had supposedly sought to publish.

When Manning had the “anti-Iraqi” literature translated, it turned out to be a benign treatise on public corruption in Al-Maliki’s government entitled, “Where Did the Money Go?” Upon discovering the discrepancy, Manning informed her command that the detainees were dissidents, not militants.

Manning said her superiors “told me to quote ‘drop it’ unquote and to just assist them and the Federal Police in finding out where more of these print shops creating quote ‘anti-Iraqi literature’ unquote were.

When Manning spoke about the fifteen detainees to other analysts in the intelligence shop as well as to her non-commissioned officer in charge, “some were sympathetic,” she said in court, “but no one wanted to do anything about it.”

Manning’s co-worker, Sergeant David Sadtler, said in a sworn statement for the Secretary of the Army’s investigation that Manning thought, “no one cared about the mission.”

In court, Manning told the presiding military judge, “I knew that if I continued to assist the Baghdad Federal Police in identifying the political opponents of Prime Minister Al-Maliki, those people would be arrested and in the custody of the Special Unit of the Baghdad Federal Police and very likely tortured and not seen again for a very long time if ever.”

Manning also said in court that she decided to give the information to WikiLeaks in hopes of generating media attention preventing further IFP crackdowns on Al-Maliki’s political opponents in the run-up to the Iraqi elections.

After uploading the information via secure transfer protocol, Manning said that someone from the organization requested more information to verify the story. WikiLeaks has never published any information about the arrest of the fifteen detainees.
Around the same time that Manning was tasked to investigate the detainment of the fifteen Iraqis, brigade commanders began feeling that their soldiers were too “focused on the ground” and “they needed a bigger picture,” per the highest-ranking intelligence officer in the brigade, Captain Steven Lim.

Headquarters directed Lim to send his intelligence analysts a link to the State Department’s Net-Centric Diplomacy database, which housed diplomatic cables from across the world. Most of the cables were unclassified or confidential. Lim emailed the analysts a link to the NCD, no password required, and encouraged them to incorporate the cables into their work product.

The day after the arrest of the fifteen detainees, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad sent a diplomatic cable to the CIA, National Security Council, and other U.S. agencies reporting that Al-Maliki had fired 376 officers from the Iraqi security and intelligence services and replaced them with inexperienced political officers loyal to his Shiite Dawa party.

The embassy said that Al-Maliki was positioning “his own people within the intelligence agencies to eliminate internal opposition in the run-up to the elections.” Iraqi and American observers, said the cable, found the development “troubling.”

Even so, to Manning’s credit, she is capable of nuance and engaged with the court, stating on reflection, “[T]he cables were the only one I was not absolutely certain couldn’t harm the United States.” She also stated that the incident with the Iraqi detainees informed her decision to release information about detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

Farah Documents

The documents that Manning disclosed were briefings concerning mass civilian casualties that resulted from U.S. cluster bombing in the Farah Province of Afghanistan. They were never published.

“Words cannot describe how terrible it was,”said a health worker who had witnessed the May 4, 2009 U.S. bombing that killed at least 147 women and children in the Farah Province of Afghanistan.

“There is indeed video from a B-1 bomber,”said then commander of CENTCOM, General David Petraeus to National Public Radio, “[w]hat it will prove is that the targets of these different strikes were the Taliban.” The Pentagon said it would release the video of the May 2009 bombing to the public, but never has.

An agent at the pretrial found “hundreds” of files related to the Garani airstrike, including deleted. pdfs and jpg’s on Manning’s computer.

Manning said in court, “the investigation and its conclusions helped explain how this incident occurred, and were what those involved should have done, and how to avoid an event like this from occurring again.”


Manning was born and grew up in an age of information. Her leaks are proportional to it, even if they understandably shocked the institutions of our society with their advent.

She was a humanist soldier trapped between the cynical realities of warfare, her youth, and her characteristic earnestness – clinging onto the exigent hope that sanity and common sense would triumph if buttressed by knowledge and deliberation. Whether or not such an ideal is real or a fairytale remains to be seen. An act of mercy by the Executive, might evidence its display in our own imperfect experiment in self government. Manning isn’t perfect; neither is the U.S. Government. Can we all learn from these events and move on now?

Citation: See Glenn Greenwald: “[I]f you ask [Snowden] what the difference is [between Manning and himself], he will say that he spent months meticulously studying every document. When he handed us those documents they were all in very detailed files by topic. He had read over every single one and used his expertise to make judgments about what he thought should be public and then didn’t just upload them to the internet the gave them to journalists who he knew, and wanted to go through them each one by one and make journalistic judgments about what should be public and what wasn’t, so that harm wouldn’t come gratuitously, but that the public would be informed, and that he was very careful and meticulous about doing that” from in “Good Whistleblower/Bad Whistleblower” The Rancid Honeytrap, December 10, 2013, citing Glenn Greenwald on Morning Joe on MSNBC June 10, 2013, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TFeNcOjENYE&feature=youtu.be&t=15m40s; See also “Code name ‘Verax’: Snowden, in exchanges with Post reporter, made clear he knew risks” by Barton Gellman, The Washington Post, June 9, 2016.