President Barack Obama has commuted the 35-year sentence of Chelsea Manning, who had been convicted of stealing and disseminating 700,000 files to WikiLeaks in 2009-10. The leaks included the “Collateral Murder” video, showing a massacre of civilians and journalists by a US helicopter, the Guantanamo Bay logs, the Afghan and Iraq war logs, and the Cablegate logs. These releases were a crucial historical event of the 21st century, and of the post-WW II order. Their particular effect was to expose the Afghan war as a bogged-down, directionless mess in which both Afghans and Allied soldiers were dying to no purpose, and to confirm the arrogance, hubris, deceit and mendacity that turned Iraq into a slaughterhouse and created the conditions for Islamic State to emerge.
Perhaps most significantly, the Cablegate logs made visible the archaic process of diplomatic and foreign policy management, the mix of prejudice, assumption, interests disguised as principle, and sheer incompetence that went into the negotiation between state and state. Contrary to those who constructed the logs’ release, and WikiLeaks itself, as anti-American, much of the impact was on US client states, allies and enemies: Cablegate exposed Russian state support for Berlusconi in Italian elections, the decadence of the Saudi elite, who imposed Wahhabism on their people, the continued corruption and anti-democratic impulse of the Latin American right, and much more. Above all, it simply made us question why all this stuff should be secret: why should relations between states be conducted by “cables” between smirking Oxbridge graduates spread throughout the world?
Manning, a young recruit with some computer knowledge, had been inducted into US intelligence almost immediately upon joining the Army in 2007. In the wake of 9/11, the US had vastly expanded both the size and personnel of its dozens of intelligence agencies — a flawed response to the 9/11 intelligence failure, driven by the self-interest of the agencies themselves. The move expanded access to classified information to more than 2 million people. One of them was Manning, who had joined the army, as many young Americans do, out of directionlessness and poverty, and lack of access to higher education. Manning was genuinely shocked at what the record showed about US intent and action in the world, after 9/11.
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In parallel with Army life, Manning had encountered the hacking community of Boston, with roots going back to “cypherpunk” days, which linked the private with the ideas and actions of WikiLeaks, which was then little known. Manning spirited the files out of a closed facility in Iraq by copying them onto a Lady Gaga CD. The leak would have been pretty much untraceable, but the emotions sometimes work off poor intelligence: Manning confided in a hacker who had had convictions and run-ins with the FBI and the prospect of serious jail time for further infractions. Out of weakness and fear, the hacker shopped Manning, who was arrested.
The Afghan, Iraq and Cablegate releases rolled on, in the middle of which Assange was accused, de-accused and then re-accused of sex crimes arising from a consensual sexual encounter, in Sweden — a case in which his accused were soon legally represented by a former senior minister of state. Following the threat of extradition to Sweden, and onto the US, he took asylum from Ecuador. The UK government has now spent upwards of 20 million pounds ensuring that he cannot get from the embassy to Ecuador itself. Manning, treated punitively to the point of torture through pre-trial remand, took the name “Chelsea” and redefined self as a woman during the process. Before the commutation, prospects for surviving the 35-year sentence looked slight.
Now Chelsea Manning is to be freed, in May, after having served seven years even. To be honest, one would feel more assured of this if she were leaving prison now, before Obama leaves the White House. Four months is a long time, the Republican Congress is pissed off, the new President is unpredictable, and prisons are lawless places. It is to her advantage perhaps, that the US right is so wilfully confused about WikiLeaks that no clear “national security” line can be uncritically enunciated.
Critics of Manning have attempted to pin motives of resentment and revenge upon her: that before and during the harvest of the “logs” material, she was going through a painful crisis of gender identity, hating the army and her posting in it. Defenders have rejected any notion that any of that played a role. It seems straightforward to acknowledge its role without accepting the motives pinned to it. Bitter experience from the 20th century shows that very few people will make a stand against evil and corruption around them if that evil and corruption is part of a smooth and orderly process. The sheer number of people who had access to such material and the paltry number — Manning and Edward Snowden most recently, the NSA dissidents such as William Binney after 9/11 — who stand up against it shows how rare such actions are. It is often that the case that there has to be the occurrence of an interruption in self, a crisis of assigned identity, before a full recognition of the anti-human nature of such systems can occur — and a realisation that one cannot not act against them. Such would appear to be Manning’s story.
Indeed, a reverse process of sorts has taken over. For many, Manning is now the innocent hero, having exposed, as did Snowden, the illegal and unconstitutional activity of US security apparatuses. The villain has become Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, portrayed as an intercontinental espionage Svengali, sitting in the Knightsbridge embassy stroking a cat the colour of his hair. But that is simply an attempt to square off contradictory feelings: the deep acknowledgement that Manning did something necessary for the health of a democracy (or return to democracy), with a half-felt fear of what would happen if we undertook such a wide-ranging questioning of state power.
Part of the despite directed towards WikiLeaks and Assange is because it exposes the myth of simple, virtuous whistleblowing, beloved of innumerable movies where someone turns up at a newspaper office with a sheaf of documents and crusading journalist X cuts no corners and yells about “the truth” until the government falls, as the credits roll. Many are unwilling to accept that challenging states takes as much guile, strategy, alliance-making, misdirection and improvisation as states perform themselves. People want the revelations that WikiLeaks makes, without wanting WikiLeaks or its methods overmuch.
But that’s a false and self-serving dichotomy. More than anything, the logs’ release from material supplied by Manning vindicated Assange’s (and others’) design and revision of WikiLeaks across the years 2006-10 — the argument that shocking information, in dribs and drabs, a la standard investigative journalism, was not enough to change power relations. Release had to be quantitative as well as qualitative — massive in scope, and thus changing the knowledge/power relationship between elites and outsiders. Such releases would be gained, Assange argued, as intelligence agencies increased in size, the better to increase their own power over social life. Sooner or later, the sheer size would throw up someone who was not willing to consent to the secrecy — at which point the conspiracy would be ruptured and weakened. Making leaking a genuinely anonymous process would maximise the chances of this occurring.
That is all pretty much exactly what happened, as it happened. Only Manning’s very human need to confess to a friend threw a spanner in the works. Had Manning confessed it all to a drunk in a Boston bar, someone who would neither understand or remember it, history would come out differently. What is interesting, among many interesting things, about the calumny directed at Manning, Assange and Snowden, in varying amounts, by those who say they have weakened US and Western security, “democracies” up against autocracies, is how little faith such people have in the virtues of openness, transparency, legitimacy and democracy itself. WikiLeaks’ theory, after all, is not so different to Karl Popper’s argument in The Open Society — that open societies with clear flows of true information succeed against autocracies that have obscured flows of non-true information, supplied out of fear, ambition, etc.
The argument was a touchstone of the anti-communist movement in the post-war years, and it was true enough — the USSR had to change, not because of Afghanistan or Reagan, but because by the time Western capitalism was being computer networked in the ’80s, a Soviet office worker needed signed permission to use a Xerox machine. In subsequent years, histories of the CIA and other agencies, such as Timothy Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes, have shown how ineffectual, counter-productive, literally traitorous and sometimes clinically insane they were as organisations. Those who damn Manning and WikiLeaks on behalf of the “embattled West” are those who have least faith in its positive traditions.
As for Chelsea Manning and how she will be seen, well, the final point to be made is that courage takes many guises. It does not have to be clear-eyed, self-knowing, uncomplicated, solely motivated. It can be hesitant, second-guessing, unsure, impassioned by other concerns, embarrassed and full of doubt. Courage does not need to be courageous. It simply has to be. What Manning contributed to, changed the world, much for the better. Whatever else she does, she has made her contribution. Ideally, she would be released now, today, to serve the last four months on licensed release. Release seems unlikely to occur soon, and I wouldn’t be popping any spumante corks until it does.