Whistleblower, Traitor, Soldier, Queer?

The truth of Chelsea Manning

Lida Maxwell
A weathered poster of Chelsea Manning
Francesco Mariani / Creative Commons

As the inauguration of Donald Trump loomed in January 2017, President Barack Obama made the decision, against the advice of his defense secretary, Ashton Carter, to commute Chelsea Manning’s sentence. Offering little information about the reasoning behind his decision aside from a statement in a press conference that “justice has been served,” Obama moved Chelsea Manning’s release date from 2045 to May 2017, reducing her sentence by approximately twenty-seven years. Since her release, Manning has been increasingly in the public eye. She has been profiled in Vogue and The New York Times Magazine. She was also invited (and disinvited) to be a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics.

Manning’s rise in public visibility has been accompanied by a heightened confusion about how journalists, political figures, and the public depict her actions and example. Manning has been lauded (for example, in the Kennedy School invitation) as an advocate for transgender rights. At the same time, her unauthorized leaking of documents continues to meet with a far more mixed reception. Many conservatives call her a traitor. Mainstream liberal public figures like Barack Obama tend to avoid discussion of the topic. On the left, writers like Glenn Greenwald and Chase Madar, and organizations like Code Pink, defend Manning as a whistleblower and hero.

In the context of the contemporary movement for trans rights and justice, Chelsea Manning seems to offer a needed exemplarity. She struggled for appropriate treatment as a trans woman in and after prison. She was courageous in risking visibility and demanding justice both in prison and out.

Yet Manning’s struggle for justice as a trans woman is actually connected to her leaking of documents. In the era of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” Manning released secret documents and film footage describing American abuses of power in wartime. Her leaking had two sides: she resisted what she saw as unwarranted government secrecy and she resisted military and government demands that she keep her sexual and gender nonconformity secret.

Connecting these two sides of Manning’s story is important right now, when a substantial minority of American voters favor conviction over fact. Manning stands out as a truth-teller in a time of pervasive political deception. It is vital that we understand what her example offers to the political conversation.

The Story
Raised as a boy in a small suburb near Oklahoma City, Chelsea Manning often felt like an outsider. She was not interested in sports or chasing girls, and spent most of her adolescence playing computer and video games. When she was thirteen, she came out to friends as gay. Manning described her childhood to the hacker Adrian Lamo in 2010, in a set of chats later published in Wired:

i was born in central Oklahoma, grew up in a small town called crescent, just north of oklahoma city … i was … short (still am), very intelligent (could read at 3 and multiply/divide by 4), very effeminate, and glued to a computer screen at these young ages [MSDOS/Windows 3.1 timeframe] … i played SimCity [the original] obsessively … an easy target by kindergarten … grew up in a highly evangelical town with more church pews than people … so, i got pretty messed up at school … “girly boy” “teacher’s pet,” etc.

During her teenage years, Manning moved back and forth between Wales (where her Welsh mother moved after her parents divorced) and Oklahoma. Comfortable in the home neither of her depressed mother nor of her alcoholic father, Manning ultimately found a stable home with her aunt in a suburb of Washington, D.C. There, Manning attended junior college, cultivated a group of gay male friends, and began her first real romantic relationship. At the same time she began to make connections within the hacker culture through her best friend, Danny Clark, who attended MIT.

When Manning decided to join the army in 2007 (partly on the advice of her father), her decision stood in obvious tension with these other parts of her life. In contrast to her affirmation of queer equality, the army at the time was still governed by “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Similarly, Manning’s identification with hackers’ anti-authority, anti-ownership outlook stood in sharp contrast to the army’s chain of command.

Manning’s time in the army reflected these tensions. Manning was designated as an intelligence analyst and liked her job, but she continually found herself in ongoing clashes with her supervisors in training and later in Iraq. She was also very lonely. While Manning did not come out to her fellow soldiers as queer, she was not closeted. She posted criticisms of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” on Facebook and kept a fairy wand on her desk. For this Manning’s fellow soldiers ignored or harassed her.

In early 2010, Manning began leaking documents and video footage to Wikileaks while on leave in the United States (after first attempting to give this information to The Washington Post and The New York Times). The leaked information came to be known as the Iraq War logs, the Afghan War logs, and Cablegate. Manning also leaked raw video and audio footage of American soldiers in a helicopter shooting down an unarmed Reuters employee, along with others–footage that Julian Assange edited and released in more polished form as “Collateral Murder.” In contrast to Edward Snowden’s leaking, which happened two years later, Manning was not primarily interested in revealing governmental intrusions on privacy. Rather, Manning’s focus was on American abuses abroad: on unreported killings of civilians, the failure to adequately investigate accusations of torture, increased use of drones, and the use of special units to track down and kill individuals without trial, among other things. Manning’s leaks, in other words, were primarily antiwar leaks. Manning believed that the diplomatic cables she leaked revealed how the “first world oppressed the third.” The information Manning leaked became the subject of ongoing front-page articles in major American newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Portraying Manning as a whistleblower does a different kind of injustice to the public realm that receives her truth, insofar as it obscures what is important in her act: namely, that it was an attempt to transform the world and its rules, rather than (as with the whistleblower) to restore the status quo to its proper functioning.

After sending all of this information, but before most of it was released, Manning reached out to a well-known hacker, Adrian Lamo. Feeling increasingly emotionally brittle, and having just been demoted in rank following an incident where she punched her commanding officer, Manning initiated an online chat with Lamo in May 2010. Lamo told Manning early on in the chats: “I’m a journalist and a minister. You can pick either, and treat this as a confession or an interview (never to be published) & enjoy a modicum of legal protection.” Manning discussed her situation in deep detail with Lamo. Almost immediately, Lamo turned Manning in to the FBI, and Manning was soon arrested and jailed. During the more than 1,000 days that Manning remained in jail before her trial, she was subjected to conditions that could arguably be described as torture: she was sometimes forced to sleep naked and kept in solitary confinement for extended periods of time. (As reported in The Huffington Post by David Dishneau, in her decision to reduce Manning’s ultimate sentence by 112 days because of the treatment she received while in military prison, the trial judge, Denise Lind, said that “Manning’s confinement was ‘more rigorous than necessary.’ She added that the conditions ‘became excessive in relation to legitimate government interests.’”) At the end of her trial, Manning was convicted of violating the 1917 Espionage Act. The resulting sentence of thirty-five years in prison was, as the New York Times reporter Charlie Savage notes, “the longest ever handed down in a case involving a leak of United States government information for the purpose of having the information reported to the public.”

After her conviction, Manning came out as trans and formally took the name “Chelsea.” During Manning’s time in prison, Manning and her lawyers fought for her right to live as a trans woman–for example, to wear female undergarments and grow long hair–and to receive appropriate medical treatment, such as hormones. Manning and her legal team won several victories. While the army refused to let her grow her hair long, it was compelled by a court to refer to Manning by her preferred pronouns, “she” and “her.” The army also agreed in 2015 to administer hormone treatment, and in September 2016 it agreed to allow her to have gender transition surgery (although this was not performed before her release). While in prison, Manning also wrote a semi-regular column for The Guardian newspaper in which she often discussed trans issues and argued on behalf of trans justice.

Manning’s struggle for justice as a trans woman in prison occurred in the context of the increased visibility of transgender individuals more generally. From the transgender actress Laverne Cox’s role on the Netflix television show Orange Is the New Black to the critically acclaimed depiction of a trans woman in the Amazon television show Transparent and Caitlin Jenner’s documenting of her transition on reality television, public consciousness of trans issues in the United States was reaching new heights. The Obama administration was similarly giving more attention to trans rights. For example, Loretta Lynch, Obama’s attorney general, delivered an important speech in response to North Carolina’s law discriminating against trans people (the “bathroom bill”). Placing the struggle for trans justice in the context of the drive to defeat Jim Crow laws and the gay marriage movement, Lynch framed the struggle for trans justice as the next important American civil rights struggle. Speaking directly to transgender people, Lynch said, “The Department of Justice and the entire Obama Administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.”

In the context of this greater visibility of trans individuals in mainstream media and culture, and the rising prominence of the struggle for trans justice, Manning’s fight for her rights as a trans woman in prison began to appear as an important battle in this broader struggle, and she began to appear as a hero in it. When President Obama commuted Manning’s sentence in January 2017, Manning was thus implicated and an important figure in two different public debates: the debate over trans justice and rights, and the debate over leaking and government secrecy.

Transformative Truth-Telling
When Manning was arrested in 2010, she was portrayed in the press as a confused, angry, and even mentally unhinged person who was bullied for being sexually and gender nonconforming in the army. In the first major profile of Manning in The New York Times, Ginger Thompson characterized Manning’s actions primarily as outgrowths of her personal struggles, and suggested that she might have been motivated by “delusions of grandeur.” In a similar vein, Thompson and John Broder wrote in a later article published during Manning’s trial that “the roots of Private Manning’s behavior may spring as much from [her] troubled youth as from [her] political views.” Some writers, like Greenwald and Madar, tried to defend Manning as a whistleblower who leaked documents out of concern with the public good, but this label did not really fit her.

The term “whistleblower” was coined in the 1970s by Ralph Nader, and it referenced the referee in a game who blows the whistle on a foul. The whistleblower, as Nader and others have argued, is someone who puts aside his or her private interests and desires on behalf of policing the public good. In particular, the whistleblower reveals wrongdoing (the foul) in order to make participants play by the rules. The whistleblower bears similarities to the paradigmatic truth-teller Hannah Arendt describes in her seminal essay “Truth and Politics.” For Arendt, the truth-teller states how things are and restores the status quo, and thus is not really a political actor, who engages in changing the world. The truth-teller, Arendt says, becomes a political actor only when lies or deception saturate the world to such a degree that telling the truth inevitably effects a change in the status quo. For her this is a good description of Daniel Ellsberg’s whistleblowing; his release of the Pentagon Papers attempted to recall a fundamentally deceptive executive branch to reality and restore accountability.

While whistleblowers like Ellsberg perform important public functions, the label “whistleblower” fails to adequately describe Manning’s actions for two reasons. First, in her public statements as well as in a set of chat logs released by Wired magazine, Manning consistently links personal and public concerns in her descriptions of why she leaked documents. For example, in the chat logs between Manning and Lamo, Manning introduces herself to Lamo as someone struggling with both personal and public secrecy: “hi … how are you? . . . im an army intelligence analyst, deployed to eastern Baghdad, pending discharge for ‘adjustment disorder’ in lieu of ‘gender identity disorder’ … im sure you’re pretty busy … if you had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months, what would you do?” In the army, Manning could not be seen and heard as who she was, and she could not speak about the wartime abuses of power that she saw as urgent and pressing matters of public concern.

Throughout the logs, she ties together the problem of having to hide her sexual and gender nonconformity with the problem of the government concealing data that revealed the abuses of war: both forms of secrecy constituted, for Manning, forms of oppression. As she says to Lamo, “living such an opaque life, has forced me never to take transparency, openness, and honesty for granted.” While Manning emphasizes that she leaks documents out of her commitment to the public good (a whistleblower trait), she also emphasizes that this commitment was forged in part through her personal experience with the oppressive character of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Second, and in contrast to Edward Snowden, Manning’s leaks do not appear to be aimed at remedying a particular wrong (such as invasion of privacy) and restoring adherence to the rules. Rather, her leaks about the Afghan and Iraq wars detailed the abuses of power, violence against civilians, and brutal treatment of detainees characteristic of American militarism on a broad scale. These leaks, in other words, do not suggest that there is a single wrong that must be remedied but rather that war and militarism as such may be corrupt. They do not call for restoration of existing rules, but rather for transforming them.

How might public discourse about truth-telling in our current moment be different if we had a vibrant model of transformative truth-telling on which to draw and which we might emulate?

Attempting to fit Manning into the category of the whistleblower does an injustice to Manning insofar as it portrays her concerns with the secrecy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” as “private” matters that must be put aside if she is to be a credible whistleblower. Put differently, portraying Manning as a whistleblower obscures how she had to contest the ascription of her gender and sexuality as “private” matters that must be hidden if she was to be heard at all. Manning’s truth-telling not only revealed abuses of power that she believed were important for the public to discuss; it was also an attempt to be heard and seen as significant, as a gender nonconforming person.

Portraying Manning as a whistleblower does a different kind of injustice to the public realm that receives her truth, insofar as it obscures what is important in her act: namely, that it was an attempt to transform the world and its rules, rather than (as with the whistleblower) to restore the status quo to its proper functioning. She was what I call a transformative truth-teller: someone whose truth-telling does not just reveal facts but works to change the world so that the person can be seen as a proper truth-teller in it, and the truth-teller’s truth and person can be seen as significant. Viewed in this way, Manning’s act is something to be neither condemned nor easily lauded. Rather, it presses us to ask, What kind of world would we have to live in for Manning to be seen as a significant truth-teller and for her truths about the abuses of war to be seen as meaningful?

The Commutation
President Obama’s commutation of Manning reignited the debate over her actions without offering a narrative that justified in expansive–or, really, any–terms why he made his decision. While Obama stated that “justice has been served,” he gave no indication of what kind of justice he believed the commutation performed.

One narrative that emerged in the press, and was stated explicitly by the White House spokesperson Josh Earnest in comments to The New York Times, is that justice had been done insofar as Manning had served sufficient prison time for her crimes. Earnest said that in contrast to Edward Snowden, who “fled into the arms of an adversary and has sought refuge in a country that most recently made a concerted effort to undermine confidence in our democracy,” “Chelsea Manning is somebody who went through the military criminal justice process, was exposed to due process, was found guilty, was sentenced for her crimes, and … acknowledged wrongdoing.” Here, justice consists in proportionality: in assessing and exacting the correct punishment for a particular crime. Obama’s commutation served justice in this narrative insofar as it corrected for an overzealous prosecutor and court, and perhaps subtly acknowledged that Manning’s treatment in her early detention had been extreme, amounting on some accounts to torture.

Yet alongside this narrative ran a subtler one about the need to do a different kind of justice to Manning, a transgender woman in a male military prison. In a CNN article on the commutation, a source with “knowledge of the White House’s thinking” said that “another factor is the personal and emotional side of the Manning story: she is transgender, in a male prison, ‘facing an uncertain fate behind bars.’” This is also the narrative offered by Manning’s ACLU attorney, Chase Strangio, who said that the commutation was prompted by a worry about hypocrisy on the issue of transgender rights. In a 9 May 2017 ACLU panel on Chelsea Manning, streamed live on YouTube, Strangio said that if Obama cared about his “legacy on trans rights, then this is an action you have to take.”

President Obama’s statement that “justice has been served” in Manning’s case draws ambiguously on both of these narratives without naming them. Justice could have been served either because Manning’s righteous struggle for justice as a transgender woman in prison has now been rewarded by a release; here, the commutation represents a victory for transgender justice and places Manning as an exemplary figure of that struggle. On the other hand, justice could have been served because Manning has served a sentence commensurate with her crime. In contrast to Snowden, who fled to Moscow, Manning appears here as someone who, while she committed a crime, has done the time. In this narrative, Manning is not the protagonist of justice but the criminal who has been rightly subject to the demands of justice and to a punishment equitably meted out.

The costs of Obama’s–and the public’s–failure to give an account of his decision to commute Manning’s sentence became obvious in the debacle surrounding the decision of the dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School to disinvite Manning as a fellow at the Institute of Politics. Manning was billed as the “first transgender fellow” and an advocate for queer and transgender rights, and her leaking of documents was mentioned (as a New York Times article put it) “almost parenthetically” in the announcement. As soon as criticisms arose, and former and current CIA directors resigned from the institute over the invitation of a “felon” and a “traitor,” there was no narrative on which to rely to defend the invitation. It turns out that being an advocate for transgender rights is not incompatible with being a traitor.

By any measure, Manning is not a traitor (she offered no “aid to the enemy,” and was not convicted on this charge), and it is a mark of what Arendt would call our alienation from reality that this term is so frequently used to describe her. Yet the critique of Manning as a “felon” and “criminal” also reveals the impoverished, narrow character of how we imagine political action, truth-telling, and nonconformity. Many participants in important resistance struggles have been “criminals,” since they broke laws that sanctioned the continued oppression of marginalized groups like women, African Americans, and queers. While the category of civil disobedience offers one way to make a positive judgment of such law-breaking, it relies (like the whistleblower category) on the integrity or purity of the individual’s intention–his or her concern with the public or moral good, rather than private interest–to justify the actions.

By contrast, transformative truth-telling does something else: here, telling the truth may be a way of working to change a world where we must be either criminals or heroes, and to transform and expand our public imagination to include diverse, new forms of public resisters and speakers who challenge our preconceptions of what normative heroes look like and do. Failing to address or challenge pernicious and narrow national scripts about who counts as a heroic truth-teller, Obama’s commutation-without-narrative leaves Manning, and the productive example of truth-telling she offers, adrift in the public conversation–an exemplar without a story or justification to illuminate her exemplarity.

This lack of narrative not only enables conservative condemnation of Manning and intimidation of other would-be transformative truth-tellers; it also haunts Manning’s defenders. In his New York Times profile of Manning, Matthew Shaer notes that Manning is aware of the dangerous ambiguity in how she is publicly seen and portrayed: “Manning told me that she understood that her identity and the actions that led to her arrest have long been tangled up in the public imagination, sometimes in uncomfortable ways: An appellate brief filed last year by Manning’s legal team implied that the Army’s inability to treat Manning’s gender dysphoria was a contributing factor in the leaks.” Lacking a language through which to describe the political promise of linking the oppressive forms of personal and government secrecy that she contested, Manning and other marginalized truth-tellers will always be vulnerable to well-meaning “defenses” of their actions that blame those actions on a mental instability produced precisely by the secrecy and oppression they are contesting.

Things could have been otherwise. If President Obama or his surrogates had articulated a narrative of the commutation that had linked Manning’s struggle for transgender justice to her leaking of documents–or if political groups or associations had articulated and demanded such a narrative from them–we might be in possession of a public discourse or script through which to understand the significance of Manning’s act, and which might nurture a public imaginary more hospitable to other such acts in the future. How might public discourse about truth-telling in our current moment be different if we had a vibrant model of transformative truth-telling on which to draw and which we might emulate?

Yet Manning’s example also suggests that we should be wary of looking to figures in authority to offer meaningful discourses about truth-telling and political resistance. Given the narrative vacuum left to us by Obama, we might do better to take the task on ourselves as citizens to disseminate and cultivate a more expansive, vibrant understanding of political resistance, truth-telling, and justice. We should ask, How might we begin to change the world so that marginalized individuals start to appear as credible speakers in it and we can hear and respond to the truths they tell? If we continue to avoid offering a coherent narrative of Manning’s unauthorized disclosures as a valuable form of truth-telling, we run the risk of demeaning and discouraging other nonconforming truth-tellers and we lose a valuable model of what truth-telling from the margins looks like.

Lida Maxwell is an associate professor of political science at Boston University. She is the author of Public Trials: Burke, Zola, Arendt, and the Politics of Lost Causes.
Originally published:
November 1, 2017


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