Ten Years After The US Military Verdict Against Chelsea Manning

Ten Years After The US Military Verdict Against Chelsea Manning
Military courtroom sketch of Pfc. Manning and military judge Col. Denise Lind by Sgt. Shawn Sales (Produced for the U.S. Army and in the public domain)

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It was ten years ago that a United States military judge found Pfc. Chelsea Manning guilty of violating the Espionage Act, along with several other related offenses. She was fortunately acquitted of the most alarming charge levied against her: “aiding the enemy.”

Manning provided over 700,000 documents to WikiLeaks, many of which contained evidence of torture, war crimes, human rights abuses, and corruption within the State Department.

Panicked U.S. military and national security officials scrambled to respond to the fallout from what was revealed, and the U.S. government immediately tightened restrictions on how soldiers, contractors, and lower-level agency personnel could access information databases. Officials even adopted an “insider threat” program that was a throwback to the McCarthyism of the 1940s and 1950s.

The prestige media barely showed an interest in proceedings prior to Manning’s trial. Consistent media coverage was dependent on the work of journalists, like Associated Press reporter David Dishneau, Manning Support Network advocate Nathan Fuller, Courthouse News reporter Adam Klasfeld, independent reporter Alexa O’Brien, courtroom sketch artist Clark Stoeckley, and me.

Freedom of the Press Foundation raised funds and hired court stenographers, who produced transcripts of the trial for the press and public.

On July 30, 2013, at Fort Meade in Maryland, Army Colonel Denise Lind presented the verdict. Lind found Manning guilty of five Espionage Act offenses. She was also found guilty of multiple stealing offenses as well as “exceeding authorized access” on a government computer under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which pushed for greater transparency in the court-martial, condemned the verdict. “The Espionage Act itself is a discredited relic of the WWI era, created as a tool to suppress political dissent and antiwar activism, and it is outrageous that the government chose to invoke it in the first place against Manning. Government employees who blow the whistle on war crimes, other abuses, and government incompetence should be protected under the First Amendment.”

I noted in my coverage of the verdict that Manning was convicted on National Whistleblower Appreciation Day, and that her conviction crystallized a sharp contradiction. While U.S. officials professed their support for whistleblowers, U.S. military prosecutors simultaneously secured a guilty verdict in one of the most harsh and vindictive cases ever brought against a U.S. soldier.

'The General Evil Intent Necessary To Aid the Enemy'

U.S. military prosecutors’ theory behind the “aiding the enemy” charge was incredibly alarming. They maintained that Manning “aided the enemy of the United States by knowingly giving intelligence through indirect means to al-Qaida and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.”

“Pfc. Manning had actual knowledge that these enemies, al-Qaida and al-Qaida [in the] Arabian Peninsula, used WikiLeaks to gather intelligence on the United States. And, therefore, by giving intelligence to WikiLeaks, he was giving intelligence to the enemy,” lead prosecutor Maj. Ashden Fein stated during closing argument.

Fein added, “Pfc. Manning had the general evil intent necessary to aid the enemy and evidence shows that [she] acted voluntarily and deliberately with [her] disclosures.”

According to Fein, the U.S. military had trained Manning to “always assume” that “adversaries” were “reading posted material on the internet.” The “enemy used the internet.” The “enemy” was skilled at “piecing together information on the internet to use against the United States.”

Military prosecutors even tried to convince the military judge that Osama bin Laden had requested copies of WikiLeaks documents when he learned of their publication, and that made Manning guilty of “aiding the enemy.”

Defense attorney David Coombs urged Lind to dismiss the “aiding the enemy” charge prior to the verdict. In order to claim Manning had “general evil intent,” Coombs maintained that the military needed proof that Manning had no way to directly transfer the documents to al-Qaida or al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. So she transferred the documents to WikiLeaks for the purpose of enabling terrorist groups to access the files. (No such proof existed.)

After Lind rejected the request, Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said the military judge had failed to consider the charge’s implications for the First Amendment. It was now “impossible to communicate to the public without communicating to the enemy.” Any Pentagon official could answer questions from the press, and when that information was broadcast, it could “aid the enemy.”

Yochai Benkler, who testified as a defense witness during the trial, wrote for The Guardian, “Even if [Lind] ultimately acquits Manning, the decision will cast a long shadow on national security journalists and their sources.”

“The decision establishes a chilling precedent: leaking classified documents to these newspapers can by itself be legally sufficient to constitute the offense of ‘aiding the enemy,’ if the leaker was sophisticated enough about intelligence and how the enemy uses the internet,” Benkler also asserted.

A 'Hacker,' An 'Anarchist,' And a 'Traitor'

Beyond the claim that Manning “aided” terrorists, U.S. military prosecutors were ruthless in assailing her character. Fein described Manning as a “hacker,” who viewed her “fellow soldiers as dykes, a bunch of hyper-masculine, trigger-happy, ignorant, rednecks, or gullible idiots.”

“[She] was not a troubled young soul. [She] was a determined soldier with a knowledge, ability, and desire to harm the United States in its war effort. And, Your Honor, [she] was not a whistleblower. [She] was a traitor. A traitor who understood the value of compromised information in the hands of the enemy and took deliberate steps to ensure they, along with the world, received all of it.”

Summoning the ghost of Senator Joseph McCarthy, Fein insisted that Manning “didn’t care about the flag” and had “compromised hundreds of thousands of documents in pursuit of [her] anarchist pathology.”

“Instead of the American flag, [Manning] placed [her] trust and allegiance in WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.”

Lind entertained this line of attack by permitting military prosecutors to call Jihrleah Showman, who was Manning’s “team leader” in 2009, to the witness stand. During a conversation about why Manning joined the military, Showman claimed that Manning had told her the U.S. flag “meant nothing” to her. She did not consider herself to have “allegiance to this country or any people.”

Manning’s defense strongly objected to the judge’s decision to allow Showman to take the stand because Showman never recorded the allegedly “disloyal” statement in a counseling form.

Coombs said Showman had fabricated this exchange to make Manning look bad. In fact, as Coombs re-contextualized the alleged statement, it was clear that Manning had expressed the view that one should not have “blind allegiance to the flag” or be an “automaton.”

Of course, the coldhearted prosecution could be viewed as an extension of the cruel and inhuman treatment that Manning survived. Manning was held for a number of days in conditions of solitary confinement at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia and Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. Medical officers who opposed this mistreatment were disregarded by commanders.

The abuse did not end until it developed into a scandal for President Barack Obama’s administration. Then she was transferred to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.

The US Security State's Quintessential Example Of An 'Insider Threat'

The verdict against Manning marked the height of Obama’s war on whistleblowers. National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden had just exposed the NSA’s global mass surveillance system to unprecedented scrutiny, and in July, the U.S. State Department stranded Snowden in a Moscow airport by revoking his passport.

Manning became the quintessential example of an “insider threat” for the U.S. national security state.

A 2014 file from the National Insider Threat Task Force, which is part of the Office of the Director for National Intelligence (ODNI), declared, “During Pvt. Manning’s service in the US Army, [she] struggled with [her] self image as a man, when [she] wanted to be an openly accepted female in the US Army. Pvt. Manning was also an advocate for homosexuals openly serving” in the Defense Department against the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

“Pvt. Manning was associated [with] a group of self- proclaimed ‘hackers’ who deemed all information (government in particular) should be public knowledge. [She] was accepted in this group and associated [herself] as a ‘hacker’ and subscribed to the group’s ideology.” (This is how security agencies describe WikiLeaks.)

“Behavior indicators” or “motives” were listed to help stop the next Manning. In March 2016, Manning wrote, “Agencies implementing the insider threat program could examine anyone who has motives of ‘greed,’ ‘financial difficulties,’ is “disgruntled,’ has ‘an ideology,’ a ‘divided loyalty,’ an ‘ego’ or ‘self-image,’ or ‘any family/personal issues’—the words used to describe my motives.”

“Such subjective labeling could easily be applied to virtually every single person currently holding a security clearance.”

The U.S. government has not stopped with Manning. A decade later, they are zealously pursuing the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange so he can be brought to the U.S. and put on trial for his role as an editor who published the documents from Manning.

The verdict against Manning lives on as an example to all current and former U.S. military personnel: share documents detailing the true nature of U.S. wars with the public, and military prosecutors will pursue you viciously, as if you stand with terrorists or dictatorial regimes.

And if Assange is convicted of nearly identical "crimes," perhaps the message will extend to journalists as well as sources and give the U.S. government even greater latitude to hide its actions.

*For further reading, read my book "Guilty of Journalism: The Political Case Against Julian Assange," which was published in March. Available for purchase here.