Chase Madar, en una imagen reciente.Cedida por el entrevistado
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On 5 April 2010, then-obscure website WikiLeaks published a U.S. military video showing the murder of a dozen people, including two Reutersreporters, in a Baghdad suburb. It later became apparent that the video had been leaked by a novice intelligence analyst then-named Bradley Manning, who exposed himself when he confided in a hacker-turned-government informant on an online chatroom. Manning, who later became transgender and now goes by Chelsea, went on to expose nearly 750,000 classified documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as U.S. State Department Cables. She spent eleven months in solitary confinement before her court-martial, in which she was given a 35-year sentence. What drove Manning to carry out the biggest information leak in U.S. history? What were the consequences of her leaks, both politically and to Manning herself? Civil rights attorney and writer Chase Madar, author of “The passion of [Chelsea] Manning” sat down with CTXT in his Brooklyn house to discuss Manning’s trajectory, the politics around it, and the latest turn in her story: the eleventh-hour decision by Barack Obama to commute her sentence, which will have her out of prison before May 17.
You argue that Chelsea Manning deserves a Presidential Medal of Freedom. That goes to counter most of the public debate around her. What’s the case for her being honored?
I think that her leak is a very good thing for the world and especially for the United States. The unthinking assumption for most journalists and politicians going into this has been that the leaks are, by definition, a security liability. That's a very faulty definition of security. Security has to be measured in terms of risk, blood, and money. The incredible foreign policy catastrophe that was the invasion of Iraq, where one of the primary causes was government secrecy and distortion and lies, shows that secrecy is not a national security benefit always. It can very easily be a huge liability. Too often, the framing of all national security discussions related to information has been balancing security and transparency. That supposes that the more transparency you have, the less security you have. That's absolutely false. You really have to weigh it as transparency versus secrecy. Right now, government policy is very, very far on the end of secrecy. Even though Manning’s was the biggest leak in U.S. history, is still less than 1% of what the federal government classifies in any given year.
Let’s step back and look at Manning and her motivations. You write that she was a most unlikely soldier. What drove her to enlist in the midst of two bloody wars?
I think lack of alternatives. This is someone who was adrift, someone who probably would have done very well in university studying science or physics or IT, but didn't really have the opportunity. She was expected to really fend for herself from age 17. Neither the state nor her father, who had money, felt any real obligation to help her with paying for tuition. After drifting for a couple of years, she enlisted, hoping to get experience, some travel, as well as financial support for a college education. It’s a common story.
Manning went through bullying and abuse from very early on in her military career. And yet, she managed to pull through until she was deployed to Iraq, a mission which you write she was very hopeful about. What made her hopeful about getting to Iraq?
Being five foot two, being pretty visibly gay, and being an independent thinker, she got all kinds of abuse in basic training. She got picked on by the drill sergeant, by other soldiers, and didn't do much better in the discharge unit. But she stuck with it. Many people really thought Operation Iraqi Freedom was going to be about Iraqi freedom. It also has to be said, the military, in spite of many things, stuck with Manning, because they desperately needed people with IT skills. This was at a very low point where it's already pretty clear that the Iraq War is a mess. As with anyone doing any kind of training, she was eager to get to the action.
You spend some time dissecting Manning’s confessions in an online chat room where she confided in notorious hacker Adrian Lamo who was working as an informant. You conclude her motives were political. How does she go from being hopeful about her deployment to Iraq to turning to WikiLeaks with the classified material about the war?
Much of the journalism about Manning has been looking at psychological motives, and can't even comprehend what a political motive is. That's a very common response to whistleblowers. “How can you say you're leaking out of principle? There must be something wrong with you mentally. You must be crazy.”
This is someone who sees that instead of this nice Peace Corps-like effort to rebuild Iraqi society, there's a bloody counterinsurgency war, and that American troops are helping while the Iraqi authorities commit acts of torture, round up political dissidents. That's the example she gives in the chat logs, that the turning point for her was when she found out that Iraqi authorities had arrested a group of everyday Iraqis who were handing out a pamphlet criticizing the Maliki government for corruption. Manning ran to her commanding officer saying, "Hey, we have to stop this." The commanding officer, according to Manning, tells the soldier, "Just shut up and get back to work. We've got to meet our goals and quotas.”
She had access to this larger picture partly because of her duties, being in IT. What sort of stuff was she exposed to there?
Working in Army intelligence, it was very easy to get access to all kinds of intelligence that the government thought it would be good to share and decompartmentalize after the 9/11 attacks, whether diplomatic or from the wars. People had war porn on in the background, in the SCIF, the room for all the Army intelligence people with security clearance at Forward Operating Base Hammer in Iraq. People were watching snuff films about the conflict, or scenes from Afghanistan. They're broadcast on a big screen in the background, or sometimes just on each individual computer monitor. Scenes like the most famous of the WikiLeaks --the gunsight view of that small crowd of people in July 2007 that gets gunned down by an Apache helicopter.
With so many people being exposed to these things, what made Manning special in that only she made them public?
Yeah, why aren't there more people doing this? It's ridiculously easy to exfiltrate the information. It's chilling, in a way, that more people didn't do this. As for why Manning, she’s a person of conscience who's willing to back that up and to act on it. I think that's one of the reasons why Manning deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Beyond that instance where she told her superiors about the rounding up of Iraqi dissidents, there's a lot of speculation every time there's a whistle-blower that there are internal channels that they can use rather than leaking to the press. What could she have done differently?
Absolutely nothing. The whistleblower protection laws are just an absolute nullity, a futile joke. They're hopeless, and for many reasons. There's a huge carve-out under existing laws for anything related to national security. Anything taking place in a live theater of war would fit in that easily. Second, it's possible for the government to interpret illegality, fraud, waste, wrongdoing, very narrowly. Many of the worst things that are done in a war are perfectly legal. To go back to that helicopter gunsight video, the most famous of the leaks, people look at that and think, "Wow, that must be a war crime." In fact, according to the laws of armed conflict, it is okay to do that. Neither Human Rights Watch nor Amnesty International issued any kind of complaint or criticism. I talked to people at these groups. They're like, "Well yeah, the law is vague on that. International law is at the disappearing end of law, and the laws of war are at the disappearing end of international law."
You mentioned the helicopter video, but she went through various batches of leaks, which included the Iraq War logs, the Afghan War logs, and the State Department tables. What did she reveal, and what were the consequences of her revelations?
The Iraq War logs and the Afghan War logs are mosaic portraits of the war, with snapshots. Individual field reports from military operations. It gives you a panoramic sense of what's going on in the war with the 1000 little pieces.They tell a very important truth about the war that's different from the heavily processed version that comes from press conferences. What you see is a lot of things going wrong, a lot of futility. In Afghanistan, you have night raids gone wrong, where U.S and coalition soldiers raid the wrong village, kill the wrong people. You have outposts that are laboriously built and then abandoned. The CIA apparently built the outpost that the military just dropped the MOAB, ‘Mother of all bombs,’ on. It's a very realistic, very unflattering portrait of a counterinsurgency war that is going very poorly. In Iraq, we learned about numerous checkpoint shootings, and also learned that the Iraqi authorities were still committing acts of torture under the noses of occupying troops. Then you have the State Department cables. Again, it’s hard trying to justify those under whistleblower law: everything they showed was legal. Much of it is absolutely horrible at the same time. There are just disgusting things, like the U.S. exerting political pressure on Haiti,the poorest country in the Americas to keep the minimum wage down, or pushing hard to get a patent law regime that favors Big Pharma in western Europe.
Manning was aware of the significance of a lot of this. She told Lamo she was hoping her revelations would bring about change. Did they? What was their impact politically?
She talks in the chatroom about how people are going to freak out when they see these things. That happened to a little degree, but they have not led to sweeping, lasting changes in U.S. foreign policy.
You point out the revelations did have a big impact in the Middle East, leading to a lot of the protests that helped spark the Arab Spring. The State Department cables led to outrage in places like Latin America. Why was there this divergent reception?
U.S. foreign policy is much more consequential outside the U.S. than inside. Americans were very insulated from the consequences. Even a war like the Iraq War, it kills 4500 Americans and injures many more, but we get a tax break at the same time. It's an all-volunteer military. For the middle and upper class, war is just something you see on TV.
Back to Manning, what happened after Lamo turned her in?
She gets treated horribly. I would call it torture. She spent eleven months in punitive solitary confinement before her court martial. That's designed to break people. The justification was that it would keep her from committing suicide. It's one of Obama's worst moments, when he was asked about this at a press conference, and said, "I know it may seem harsh, but it's really for the soldier's own good." We know now that the military doctor was saying, "No, this is not for the soldier's own good. This is immensely harmful. There's no medical need for it." It was punishment for its own sake, and very severe punishment. Obama got away with a lot prosecuting whistleblowers because he's a Democrat.
About that, Obama comes to power saying he's going to have a more open Presidency, and is not going to go after whistleblowers. Yet he prosecutes more than all presidents before him. Why was that?
It was just the default setting of his national security apparatus, something that was widely supported by the legislative and the judicial branch. There was a small price to pay: the significant minority of people who were upset about the harsh treatment of whistleblowers were not going to turn around and vote Republican anyway.
Beyond the heightened rhetoric about how she ought to be executed, the official response to Manning was that she broke the law and in particular her military oath. Didn't she?
Yes, absolutely. I think there's no question that Manning violated the law as it's come to be known. She was convicted of violating the Espionage Act of 1917, which was passed during the war fever of World War One, and was designed really not with domestic leakers in mind, but actual spies. It got repurposed by the Nixon administration to go after Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers. That's a prosecution that most people, even most nice liberals, think was very misguided.
There aren't that many differences in the alleged crimes Ellsberg had committed. Why is he a hero to liberals, while Manning suffered in silence for the most part?
First of all, the opinion class in the United States, people work at the nonprofits, the universities, the legal profession, the media, they were less insulated from the Vietnam War than they are today. Even though it was pretty easy to get a student deferment for their kids, there was still at least a theoretical chance that Junior could get sent to the rice paddies to die and to kill. There was a real, visceral reaction to that, whereas the Iraq War is, it's an all-volunteer army that came with a tax cut. Many liberals supported it. Also, you had a widely loathed Republican prosecuting Ellsberg. Nixon came out very criminal, compared to a very smooth Democrat, Obama, who was very disciplined, not corrupt, not breaking the law, just enforcing it in a very nasty, harsh way. The opinion class isn't going to go against a Democrat doing these horrible things. They just don't want to.
Some have described Manning’s treatment as un-american. Do you agree?
I don’t. Some people say, "Oh my God, this is the war on terror coming back home. The treatment that we inflicted on people at Abu Ghraib and Guántanamo and Bagram, now we're doing it to people here." That's a small part of it, but you could more accurately say, "No, the harsh way we American criminals in our prisons, we brought that to Abu Ghraib. We brought that to Bagram." We treat people at home is just horrible. We have between 70,000 and 100,000 people in American prisons doing long-term solitary, and it drives people crazy.
And yet, there was a turn: two days before the end of Obama’s Presidency, he commuted Manning’s sentence. Was that something you expected?
No, I was absolutely shocked. I think it's great that Obama did that. A full pardon would have been more appropriate. A pardon expunges the criminal record, whereas a commutation just means you maintain the criminal record, but you're let out early. I think the Medal of Freedom would be a good thing, as we discussed already. Obama did the right thing, and it took some political courage to do that. Why did he do it? Partly I think Obama doesn't want to be remembered as the harshest President on leaks and whistleblowers in U.S. history, and that got to him.
You've been describing how a lot was stacked against Manning, given the politics of the war on terror. Was there some kind of shift in the public perception of Manning's case that allowed Obama to commute her sentence?
Yeah, there's been a very slow shift. Even many people in the national security orthodoxy warmed up to Manning, saying, "She did it at a tough time in her life. She was confused," meaning the transgender thing... I still think that's a false way to think about her motive for leaking, but they were using it sympathetically, or to say, "She at least faced the consequences of her action. She was treated very badly, with unnecessary harshness.”
It's focused on her, not the politics around her motives.
Absolutely. This I find amazing. I would have thought six months ago that in order to get any kind of clemency, you're going to have to debate, not Manning herself, but the leaks and their national security benefit. That turned out not to be the case. The fact that Manning was transgender opened up this story to a whole new audience. Her first interview after her conviction was not with some left-wing source or author, but in Cosmopolitan magazine. I think this was brilliant. Did not talk about the leaks very much at all. It was all about, "Wow, it's so brave of you to come out as transgender in a prison and to face that." Instead of being a liability, it ended up being a net asset to the story. It became impossible to ignore.
What can she expect her life to be like now? What sorts of challenges and opportunities does she face?
I've read that she's going to live with her aunt, who seems like a very stable, good person. Poor Manning got born into a very rough family where both her parents are alcoholic wrecks. Going there in suburban Maryland, I think she's going to have some opportunities working in journalism or the nonprofit sector, where people will know she was prosecuted for all these things and convicted, but will see past that. It's very tough to adjust for anyone for life out of prison. She's been in for seven years. I wish her all the best.
Nacido en Pamplona en plenos Sanfermines, ha vivido en Barcelona, Londres, Misuri, Carolina del Norte, Macondo, Buenos Aires y, ahora, Nueva York. Dicen que estudió dos másteres, de Periodismo y Política, en Columbia, que trabajó en Al Jazeera, y que tiene los pies planos. Escribe sobre política, economía, cultura y movimientos sociales, pero en realidad, solo le importa el resultado de Osasuna el domingo.
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