The commutation of Chelsea Manning’s sentence by President Barack Obama is bad politics – and, from my vantage point, the only moral act on his part that I can recall. It took balls to do this, and for that I have to give him credit.
One has to also note that the timing here is significant: with his party currently in the midst of a campaign to smear WikiLeaks – and the President-elect — as a Russian tool, Obama’s merciful act undercuts the entire basis of the charge that both Julian Assange and Donald Trump are agents of a foreign power. After all, Manning’s revelations were published by WikiLeaks, this supposedly perfidious agent of Russian intelligence. If the administration really believes that characterization of Assange’s outfit, then doesn’t freeing Chelsea – the Natasha of Boris and Natasha – encourage more acts of “espionage”?
Which brings us to the central issue in this case: is Chelsea Manning a “traitor,” as outraged neocons are now claiming? Is she guilty of “treason,” as the Fox News crowd – yes, even the usually sensible Tucker Carlson – would have it?
The answer is an emphatic “No!”
To begin with, she was never charged with treason. No doubt the government thought it could never get a conviction for treason, or else they would’ve done so. Part of the reason for that is that not a single document revealed by Chelsea’s actions was labeled “Top Secret,” which is in itself not a top-level category in our national security lexicon. Secondly, in spite of testimony at Manning’s trial that Osama bin Laden requested to see the Afghan war logs published by WikiLeaks, not a single person was killed or even injured as a result of this particular revelation.
The alleged harm to US national security was minimal to nonexistent – but the benefits to the people of the Unite States, and the world, by the publication of these documents is incalculable. Among the revelations made possible by Manning’s brave action were:
The exposure of US war crimes, including a video of US pilots murdering innocent Iraqi civilians: two children were among the casualties. The pilots were laughing and joking the whole time.
US diplomatic cables that clearly showed how the British government pledged to cover Washington’s ass in the Chilcott probe into how the UK was lied into the Iraq war.
A cable that detailed the massive corruption of the Tunisian government and Washington’s complicity in said corruption.
A cable that clearly demonstrated how our own diplomats misled the federal government and the media when Georgia attacked South Ossetia and initiated a showdown with Russia.
How the US and Britain broke a treaty outlawing cluster bombs.
How a “vice president” of Afghanistan skipped town with $52 million “in cash” – our cash.
How the government of Pakistan misused and outright stole millions of US taxpayer dollars meant to “fight terrorism.”
Cables detailing flimsy security at Pakistan’s nuclear facilities, which could cause them to fall into the hands of terrorists.
How the US spied on the United Nations, using its diplomats as intelligence agents.
A cable by US ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie in 1990 giving Saddam the green light to invade Kuwait, published by WikiLeaks in full for the first time.
Cables showing that the US military covered up – and condoned – the disgusting torture by the Iraqi government of detainees, some of whom were murdered while bound.
This is a very incomplete list. For more, see here.
Yes, Chelsea Manning broke the law – in observance of a higher law, one that compels those of good conscience to expose criminal and unethical behavior by those who hold power. For that, she should be honored, not jailed or demonized.
That all too many conservatives don’t understand this isn’t surprising – ever since William F. Buckley, Jr., abjured the libertarian origins of the Old Right to crusade for “a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores,” conservatives of the National Review sort have been the enemies of the good.
Nor is it shocking that leading Democrats, such as Sen. Bob Menendez, are denouncing the commutation: “You cannot ultimately put the United States at risk because of your individual actions by making public critical documents that are classified and secret.” Recently indicted for corruption, Sen. Menendez is here adding moral corruption to his record as a public servant: for the idea that the State and its alleged “security” must trump matters of morality and individual conscience is the essence of the authoritarian – and profoundly anti-American — mindset.
Although as of this writing President-elect Trump has not made any public statement on the Manning case, his spokesman, Sean Spicer, claims the PEOTUS is “troubled” by the commutation of what had been a 35-year sentence:
”You have an individual who’s convicted of espionage sentenced to 35 years in jail and … to see someone who has given away this country’s secrets and been convicted of it through military court, it’s disappointing. And it sends a very troubling message when it comes to the handling of classified information and … consequences to those who leak information that threatens the safety of our nation.”
It’s hard to know what else any US government spokesman could say: it is the nature of governments, all governments, to guard their secrets. And it is hard to see how any secrets can be kept if they are allowed to “leak” promiscuously – and yet this is precisely what government officials do all the time, most recently (and outrageously) those intelligence officials who are leaking evidence-free allegations against the incoming President.
Which is why I continue to be astonished at President Obama’s act: it runs contrary to everything we libertarians know about the nature of government. But there you have it. One can only thank him, and hope that Chelsea will get over the trauma she’s endured while continuing to crusade on behalf of justice and transparency.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.