Since the day in 2010 that anti-corruption activist Julian Assange and his then-nascent publishing website WikiLeaks revealed to the world gruesome cockpit footage of a U.S. Apache gunship mowing down civilians and journalists in Iraq—aptly dubbed “Collateral Murder”—there’s been a coordinated effort to obscure, disparage, and utterly discredit the source of those disclosures: former U.S. Army Private First Class Chelsea Manning, then known as Bradley.
Top officials immediately took to the airwaves to claim, without evidence, that Manning’s disclosures not only harmed national security, but endangered the lives of American service members and local Iraqis and Afghans.
Hillary Clinton, serving as U.S. Secretary of State, characterized the disclosures as an attack “on the international community.”
Admiral Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went a step further: WikiLeaks and those who contributed to the release of these secrets, he insisted, “might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier.”
Uncle Sam’s fervent desire to control the message was on full display during Manning’s court martial at Ft. Meade, Maryland in the summer of 2013, where she was being tried on charges under the Espionage Act and for Aiding the Enemy, the most serious of the counts against her. Among the many challenges journalists faced to simply cover the trial: They were not provided access to transcripts of the proceedings and were prohibited from distributing information through social media, despite working out of a building away from the courtroom where the actual hearing was taking place. Since Ft. Meade is a U.S. Army base and also happens to be the home of the National Security Agency (NSA), their vehicles and persons were subjected to stringent inspection and the grounds, media center and courtroom constantly patrolled by armed guards and soldiers. Sometimes, there were added technical issues, such as the audio feed to the proceedings abruptly cutting out.
Seven years later, this obfuscation campaign continues. Hours before Donald Trump’s inauguration in January, then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence referred to Manning as a traitor who “compromised” national security. The president has echoed that sentiment in his signature tweets.
The government, it seems, is forever tethered to this notion that Manning’s actions were perilous to the point of actually contributing directly to the death of people abroad. At the same time, the government has yet to produce evidence to merit such concerns.
Meanwhile, Manning was held in solitary confinement prior to her court martial—treatment so abusive that it prompted a rebuke from the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture. She was handed down the longest sentence for a whistleblower in U.S. history (35 years), and twice attempted suicide while imprisoned in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, before then-President Obama commuted her sentence before leaving office.
This campaign has so effectively manufactured a mosaic of Manning the “traitor” that Harvard University, amid criticism of current and former national security officials, just this September rescinded an invitation to have Manning join the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School as a visiting fellow. Among other high-profile figures to be offered and accept the title of visiting fellow was Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary, who lied to the American people about the number of attendees at Trump’s inauguration the very day after his swearing in—marking the beginning of a contentious relationship with the truth.
Manning is perhaps the most important whistleblower in history, responsible for what stands as the largest leak of U.S. state secrets, ever—consisting of hundreds of thousands of internal documents and diplomatic cables revealing sinister, lethal truths about our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how America covertly really felt about some of its partners abroad. Among these disclosures: cockpit audio and video footage of U.S. Apache gunships mowing down unarmed civilians and journalists with a callous bloodlust. Her revelations are even credited with sparking the Arab Spring revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa.
Yet she, and these truths, remain largely distorted, misunderstood and covered up, obscured by U.S. government-manufactured hysteria about her patriotism and gender dysphoria—then devoured, regurgitated and perpetuated by an unquestioning, gossip-rabid and subservient mainstream media.
That much of the American population is ignorant to Manning’s leaks is of little surprise. Often discussions related to Manning on cable news inevitably devolve into fabricated debates about whether Manning is a “traitor” or “hero.” What Manning revealed and how some of those disclosures are still relevant even today are mostly ignored or glossed over. Manning’s own struggle with gender dysphoria and her transition from Bradley to Chelsea have also been used to dim the conversation around Manning’s actions.
“I think there was conscious effort among the mainstream media and the Obama administration, and certainly even Republicans, to obscure the fact that Chelsea Manning had revealed evidence of a crime and to focus on Manning’s own gender dysphoria and on this issue of treason,” John Kiriakou, a former CIA analyst who blew the whistle on the CIA’s illegal, Bush-era torture program and was subsequently convicted under the Espionage Act, told News Beat Podcast.
“You know, this is a pet peeve of mine. And you see it a lot on Fox News, you see it on Facebook: People throwing around the words ‘traitor’ and ‘treason,’” he added. “They don’t know what they’re talking about. You can’t even be a traitor unless you provide aid and comfort to the enemy during a time of war. And there has been no declaration of war. And not only that, nobody ever proved that Manning in any way aided the enemy. So this loose talk about treason, I think, is dangerous. It’s dangerous to whistleblowers, but it’s dangerous to our democracy as well.”
‘LIGHT ‘EM ALL UP’
No matter how many times you watch the “Collateral Murder” video that WikiLeaks released on April 5, 2010 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., it still evokes raw, blood-curdling emotions.
“What was revealed is that there were two employees who were working for Reuters who were gunned down by this Apache helicopter,” said Kevin Gosztola, managing editor of Shadow Proof and co-host of the Unauthorized Disclosure podcast. “And also, at that time, there was what they referred to as a ‘Good Samaritan,’ someone who pulls up with a van and has two children in the van trying to help people who were wounded, is shot up.”
“Well it’s their fault for bringing kids into battle,” says the gunner in the video.
In total, a dozen civilians were slaughtered in the attack, which the military investigated and later insisted “there was never any attempt to cover up any aspect of this engagement.”
When Manning was afforded the opportunity to speak at her court martial, she referred specifically to the Apache helicopter carnage.
“They dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed not to value human life, and referred to them as quote-unquote ‘dead bastards,’ and congratulated each other on their ability to kill in large numbers,” Manning testified, according to audio leaked from the courtroom. “At one point in the video there is an individual on the ground attempting to crawl to safety. The individual is seriously wounded. Instead of calling for medical attention to the location, one of the aerial weapons team crew members verbally asks for the wounded person to pick up a weapon so that he can have a reason to engage…For me, this seemed similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass.”
The “Collateral Murder” massacre is perhaps the most widely cited of her disclosures. She also released hundreds of thousands of State Department cables and secret documents, many marked “confidential” as opposed to “secret” or “top secret”—the highest level of classification. The two biggest sets of document dumps are referred to as the “Iraq War Logs” and “Afghan War Diary.”
Among the other revelations to emerge was a diplomatic cable that disclosed the killing of innocent civilians in Iraq, including children, by U.S. forces, and a subsequent attempt to cover it up.
According to McClatchy: “U.S. diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks provides evidence that U.S. troops executed at least 10 Iraqi civilians, including a woman in her 70s and a 5-month-old infant, then called in an airstrike to destroy the evidence, during a controversial 2006 incident in the central Iraqi town of Ishaqi.”
The list goes on.
“Since the disclosures happened in 2010, they have been cited literally thousands of times, almost countless times, in newspapers around the world, and are still being cited today in papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post to better give context to world events, Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, told News Beat.
“These disclosures, among other things, were credited with sparking the Arab Spring in 2011, and even the end of, at least the initial end, of the Iraq War in 2011,” he continued. “Obviously we’re back in Iraq now, and it seems like a never-ending war, but the impact of Chelsea Manning’s disclosures on showing the world war crimes that had been committed around the world by other countries, and also war crimes that the U.S. turned a blind eye to, has been revelatory. And she deserves to be talked about with the most significant whistleblowers in the 20th and 21st century.”
Instead, the conversation surrounding Manning’s disclosures have mostly taken on a life of their own.
Kiriakou, the former CIA analyst, said he noticed the same tactics used in how NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s own disclosures on covert U.S. government-sanctioned mass surveillance were covered.
“One of the things that Chelsea Manning’s enemies and detractors have done, and it’s been actually quite successful, is to focus on homophobic attacks or transphobic attacks in order to try and somehow discredit Chelsea Manning as a person,” Kiriakou told News Beat Podcast. “I fear that that’s the kind of society that we’re in now. I wrote an op-ed several years ago from prison that ran in the Guardian and it was right after Ed Snowden had made his revelations. I had read an article in The New York Times that briefly discussed the brand of eyeglasses that he wore. And I said is this what this is coming to?
“This man has just revealed vast crimes against the American people, and we’re going to talk about what kind of eyeglasses he wears?” he continued. “This is something that the mainstream media is always guilty of. They focus on the messenger rather than on the message. We need to refocus that on the message. I don’t care if Chelsea Manning is a man, a woman, or something in between. It makes absolutely no difference. The only thing that matters is that Chelsea Manning blew the whistle on a criminal act. That’s what we should focus on.”
Kiriakou and Manning are among a small, but ever-growing group of ex-government employees who witnessed seemingly illegal, or at the very least, morally questionable behavior, that they believed the U.S. public had the right to know about and question. For that, they were both charged and sentenced under the Espionage Act, a World War 1-era law meant to prosecute spies, and are forced to live with such labels. Yet he insists that the public, and the media, should focus on the content of the disclosures, and not the controversy, real or manufactured, surrounding the people behind the disclosures.
“What’s important was that Chelsea Manning released to the press video evidence of U.S. helicopter gunships killing civilians in Iraq,” Kiriakou told News Beat. “That’s a violation of international law, it’s a violation of U.S. law, and it is legally considered to be a war crime. Now it ought to be illegal to prosecute someone who has exposed a war crime. But we have such a backward system in this country that what the government does in most cases, is it goes after the messenger rather than to consider the message that the messenger has revealed.”
Gosztola, the managing editor of Shadow Proof, noted that Manning’s revelations possibly provoked a more fierce backlash by the government “where it actually doubled down on what it was doing, it doubled down on—it manufactured and perpetuated war, or it doubled down on the secrecy of diplomats, so that we would know even less than we already did about what people do when they’re selling corporate influence to other countries or apologizing and justifying human rights abuses in order to maintain relationships with the Saudi regime or whatever.”
“It’s not something that I think Chelsea Manning did herself,” he said of distracting debate surrounding the hero-or-traitor debate. “I believe it’s something the media decided to do in order to approach it in a way that they thought was objective, and I think that there’s this feeling among journalists, especially those who are in establishment media, that if they start to talk favorably about her disclosures then they themselves have moved to being supporting of Chelsea Manning, and they want to try to stay neutral.”
The years since the disclosures have not been kind to the government’s claims of Manning endangering national security. In a secret, 107-page report obtained by one of the premier investigative reporters of our time, Buzz Feed’s Jason Leopold, the Department of Defense surmises that the disclosures would not have “significant impact” on U.S. operations.
“[The report] says the disclosures were largely insignificant and did not cause any real harm to U.S. interests,” Leopold writes, though adding: “It did, however, have the potential to cause ‘serious damage’ to ‘intelligence sources, informants and the Afghan population,’ and U.S. and NATO intelligence collection efforts.”
Manning stepped out of prison for the first time on May 17, 2017. That same day, she took to social media and basked in her freedom. Her first post was a shot of feet on hardwood floor, with the caption: “First steps of freedom!!”
Manning has been in high demand, but she’s been judicious about which media outlets she does interviews with, and where she makes public appearances. In her first televised interview on ABC News, she was asked “Who is Chelsea Manning?”
“I’m just me,” she responded. “It’s as simple as that.”
Seven years after the leaks first hit the web, and four years since Manning was convicted under the Espionage Act, she’s in the process of trying to shape her own future. She’s become an advocate for LGBT and transgender issues, and participated in the annual NYC Pride parade in Manhattan earlier this year.
Yet she can’t entirely escape her past, as evidenced by the national security state’s aforementioned reaction to her potential role as a visiting fellow at Harvard, and most recently, the Canadian government denying her entry at the U.S.-Canada border because of her criminal record.
Manning and Kiriakou haven’t been the only whistleblowers crushed by the U.S. government for attempting to give its operations some much-needed sunlight. Six other whistleblowers were charged under the Espionage Act by the Obama administration, the most of all previous administrations combined. The Trump administration has picked up where Obama’s team left off, charging NSA contractor Reality Winner under the same archaic law for allegedly disclosing classified information to the investigative outlet The Intercept.
“The treatment and the punishment that Chelsea Manning received, certainly the U.S. government was trying to send a message to future leakers and whistleblowers,” said Timm of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “Not only did she receive a 35-year sentence, which was by far almost 10-times the amount of a sentence that any other leaker had gotten in US history, but she was, according to a lot of neutral observers, literally tortured in prison. Held in solitary confinement, forced to be stripped of all her clothes, and paraded around—forced to come out of her cell with no clothes on, treated incredibly harshly. The type of behavior we criticize other nations for doing.”
“She ended up serving seven years in jail, which was still the longest, the longest sentence served by any whistleblower in history,” he added. “But it is certainly good to see that she’s out and able to have her voice heard now then for the seven years that she was in prison, she was basically silenced.”