Just three days before leaving the white house, President Obama’s decision to commutate 1715 offenders, one of which is Chelsea Manning, fueled a myriad of emotions worldwide.
The controversial 29-year-old is a former intelligence analyst in Iraq and is responsible for perhaps the largest national security leak in history by exposing more than 700,000 military documents to whistleblower site WikiLeaks seven years ago. The transgender female was convicted with a 35-year prison sentence for violating the Espionage Act, which is a United States federal law that punishes anyone who obtains and exposes confidential information without the permission of the person who owns the information in the first place.
Examples of the sensitive documents that Manning released ranged from the Baghdad Airstrike, Afghan war logs, Guantanamo bay files, to the Granai Airstrike, with some of the leakages showing information such as a number of violent deaths recorded in Iraq — information that has been hidden from the public for years.
Is Chelsea Manning a hero or traitor to America?
Depending on which stakeholder you are and how the leakage of Manning’s information has benefited or harmed you, it is unclear to show whether Manning was a hero, traitor, or neither. While releasing sensitive information to the public allows American citizens to know what the government has been hiding from them for years, we cannot ignore the fact that Manning’s decisions were a threat to national security, and put many lives at risk.
By looking at people who were affiliated with Chelsea Manning through the military, the leak essentially endangered the lives of many troops, diplomats, soldiers, and even allies. When Manning was an intelligence analyst in Iraq as well as a soldier for the United States military, part of her job was having the ability to have a security clearance, which allowed her to gain access to classified government information that nobody else would have access to. The government trusted her to keep this information confidential because exposure to the public may entice enemies to the state to plan harmful things, and this would be extremely unsafe to the American population. Moreover, soldiers’ lives in the military would be jeopardized as well, since allies and enemies now have information that the government did not want them to see.
“I don’t understand why the president would feel special compassion for someone who endangered the lives of our troops, diplomats, intelligence officers, and allies. We ought not to treat a traitor like a martyr.” – Sen. Tom Cotton
If we look through the lens of an American citizen, there is a higher possibility that Manning’s actions were those of a ‘hero,’ and not necessarily a traitor. Before I explain why, let’s look at what knowledge people gained from the exposure. Without these leaks, US citizens would not know about the US army helicopters gunning down innocent civilians during the Baghdad airstrike, US authorities failing to look into reports of abuse and torture of Iraqi citizens, nor initiating a spying campaign which sought out to gather private information and other biometric data from the United Nations. Although the government may have very well had their own reasons for doing these acts and not disclosing this information to the public, I imagine many American citizens who abide by the preamble of the American constitution, “We the People,” feel as if they should have the right to know about any unethical behaviour being done.
“If Bradley [Chelsea] Manning is the world’s pre-eminent prisoner of conscience, having remained true to the Nuremberg principle that every soldier has the right to a ‘moral choice.’ His suffering mocks the notion of the land of the free.” – John Pilger
Was Chelsea Manning’s prison sentence justified?
It is true that Chelsea Manning’s committed espionage and took a gamble in exposing thousands of classified documents by putting National Security at risk. However, was her punishment in having to serve 35 years in prison justified?
Chelsea Manning was exposed to countless acts of ‘cruel and unjust’ punishment while she served her prison sentence, and this was a violation of the Eighth Amendment. She suffered physical and psychological damage in prison to the extent to which she attempted to commit suicide twice. As a transgender female, she was repeatedly denied treatment that she required according to her doctors. Looking at the length of the prison sentence, Manning was going to serve far more years than any other whistleblower, if you consider her one, who commits a similar act. For comparison, the average prison sentence for someone who leaks classified information to the public is no greater than three years, so it is difficult to justify why the justice system gave her more than eleven times the amount.
In a petition, she said that she “did not intend to harm the interests of the United States or harm any service members.” Like Edward Snowden, she wanted to side with the many, although she may not have realized the negative implications of her actions at the moment. It is unclear whether Chelsea Manning is a hero, traitor, or neither, but if she indeed feels remorse, it may be justifiable for Obama to give her a second chance.