By Emma Clark
The release of Chelsea Manning seven years into a thirty-five year sentence raises a number of debate-worthy questions. For someone like myself who views her as a sort of modern-day heroine, it is invaluable to speak of the courageous spirit she embodies, the necessity of her actions as part of the larger debate regarding whistle-blowers and the law, and the disparity between the spoken nature of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis how it is conducted.
Convicted of twenty charges regarding the leak of 720,000 confidential diplomatic and military documents, Manning served as the poster child for the draconian nature of the Espionage Act of 1917. Her conviction under it plays ignorant to the fact its intention is to prosecute those suspected of leaking information to foreign governments, not the media. Using this law is also advantageous for the prosecutor, who does not need to show how national security was harmed as part of the release (it was not), nor that the harm it caused overshadowed the benefits brought by bringing it to public knowledge. More importantly, because of this, it is not possible for those charged under this law to argue they were motivated by public interest. Therefore, it can be concluded that prosecuting Chelsea Manning using this law was unjust.
Though her actions were criminal in nature and worthy of punishment, according to the law, such views are mistaken when the nature of what was released is considered. The U.S. government believed that those who leaked the information put lives in danger and had ‘blood on their hands.’ This is a fundamental over-exaggeration. Instead, the documents demonstrated the illegality by which the U.S. was conducting its wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Most memorable is a video of two Apache helicopters in Baghdad using cannon fire to kill twelve civilians, later described as insurgents. The video demonstrated the relative ease of using such dangerous weapons without proper assurance of who they are targeting, not to mention the demeaning language used when speaking about those considered the ‘enemy’. Such footage shows how necessary it is to have whistle-blowers like Manning, bring such evidence to the general public and spark debate.
Leaking information about such war-time brutalities is only the tip of the iceberg regarding the courageous nature of Chelsea Manning. Her actions have triggered numerous debates which serve to highlight the polarizing figure she is. Whether you believe she was unjustly punished or not, it is doubtful that anyone would argue her actions, at minimum, did not raise suspicion of U.S. foreign policy. Ultimately, she sacrificed her liberty, knowing she would likely be prosecuted, to disclose the illegality of actions committed under the illusion of just and necessary wars. Her actions were purely for the benefit of her fellow citizens; to foster debate on state conduct that should already be available to the public. The subsequent cover up of the attack mentioned above shows the government’s true intentions. This is without considering the failure to take responsibility for such an unjustified and ill-considered attack. This poses more questions not only about the just conduct of war, but whether a war can ever be just in itself.
Providing protection for those who seek to publicise crimes committed by states, in the intelligence community and beyond, is invaluable to a functioning democracy. Failure to do so only works against the idea that democracy is a representation of people power.
At the heart of the debate regarding Chelsea Manning and her punishment, there is a much greater issue at stake: how such individuals are treated and how they are protected under the law. The harsh treatment she experienced in prison, from coming out as a transgender women, to rumours of torture and prolonged periods in solitary confinement, only proves how heroic she is to even survive such an experience. Such punishment is entirely unjust when one compares her actions to the crimes she helped to uncover.
Chelsea’s release will only raise more questions. Although Obama chose to commute her sentence, this is only one small victory for whistle-blowers. Regardless, I for one look forward to seeing what such a brave individual does next.