Chelsea Manning: Still dividing opinion

30th January 2017

One of Barrack Obama’s last acts as President of the United States was to commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning, meaning the former Army intelligence analyst will be released in May after nearly seven years behind bars.

In 2010 Manning passed hundreds of thousands of documents to Wikileaks. The huge trove of files contained videos of US air strikes, files on Guantanamo Bay and diplomatic cables revealing US foreign policy dictums from embassies across the world.

People who expose wrongdoing or illegal activity by military and security agencies are extremely contentious and Manning, like Snowden after her, has been both lauded as a hero and lambasted as a traitor. This is partly rooted in the nature of such organisations. Secrecy is seen as a vital component of the military so publication of any information can be construed as causing harm, in a way that would never be true of other organisations run by government. Whether to view Manning as a traitor who put US lives and sources in danger, or as a whistleblower against government corruption, is a debate that started after her arrest, continued through her trial and has raged ever since.

Manning suffered greatly for her actions. She was imprisoned in solitary confinement for 10 months before her trial, in conditions United Nations experts called “cruel, inhumane and degrading.

Manning received the largest ever sentence – 35 years - for leaking classified information and had no hope of mounting a public interest defence. While detained in Fort Leavenworth Disciplinary Barracks, a facility for male servicemen, she publicly announced she had long identified as a woman, an act displaying great courage whether or not you agree with her previous actions. During her incarceration the US military refused her access to medical assistance to aid her transition and even initiated disciplinary action against her for two suicide attempts.

Supporters of Manning rejoiced at the end of her ordeal, while those who felt she damaged US national security lamented the message her release may send to others. Obama himself was keen to clarify that her release was not a pardon, but a commutation of her sentence, and that her example hardly suggests that leaking of classified information goes unpunished. Obama himself has been accused of launching an unprecedented war on whistleblowers and investigative journalists, having pursued more convictions under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined.

After a politically tumultuous 2016 Manning’s release is typical of how many media stories evoke extremely polarised opinions among the public, generally based on people’s political leanings. After Assange and Wikileaks published the Democratic National Convention emails Donald Trump proclaimed “I love Wikileaks;” Hilary Clinton had previously asked ‘can we just drone this guy?’ Should Wikileaks get their hands on Trump’s elusive tax returns the tide of public opinion may turn yet again.

But it must be said that hacking is not the same as whistleblowing. Hackers act from outside of an organisation, whistleblowers from within. There may be occasions where hackers and whistleblowers both act to expose wrongdoing but whistleblowers do so to challenge the wrongdoing itself; hackers may have any number of other motivations, including the public interest, criminal purposes or for political consequence.

Political connotations are often not the driver of people who speak out when they witness wrongdoing. Whistleblowers act for the benefit of the public as a whole and not to embarrass one political group. While hackers may try to access information for partisan political purposes whistleblowers threaten their livelihoods by challenging issues of public importance. It would be a tragedy if the perception of a whistleblower is simply based on what side of the political spectrum one finds oneself and on the highly sensitive information leaked in the high profile cases mentioned here.

At PCaW we ask whether the public interest has been served by the act of whistleblowing and there can be no doubt that Chelsea Manning disclosed information of high public interest. She has in the past spoken of her motivations, saying she was dismayed by US counter terrorism policies and was simply seeking to “make the world a better place.” The decision to leak to the media shouldn’t be made lightly, it is only fair to give an organisation the chance to correct problems first – though US intelligence agencies have a grim record in responding to whistleblowers. On the other hand, good motives alone are not sufficient to absolve those whose leaks cause substantive harm. It is always a question of balancing competing interests in these cases and the public interest should be the vital balancing factor.

Whatever one’s feelings about Manning, polarised emotions add little to what is already a febrile debate. It is not the fault of a whistleblower that the information they expose can embarrass an organisation. Both individuals and organisations make mistakes, challenging them enables people to learn and improve. When a whistleblower exposes a problem in an organisation one holds dear people should respond to the problem itself and not chastise the whistleblower as a lackey for one’s political opponents.

Tom Casey