For all of the love of freedom and fear of oppressive government, America demands unequivocal compliance over honesty and courage when it comes to our irrepressible national security state. Certain Democrats and neoconservative Republicans share an almost visceral hatred of whistleblowers while giving deference to incompetents and war criminals like David Petraeus and Henry Kissinger. And as we learned this past week, due to a cowardly decision by Harvard to rescind a fellowship given to Chelsea Manning in the face of pressure from current and former heads of the Central Intelligence Agency, it appears that there is no whistleblower they hate more than Manning.
Manning, whose 35-year prison sentence was commuted by former President Barack Obama earlier this year, revealed the absurdity and depravity of the War on Terror in the hundreds of thousands of documents she leaked to Wikileaks in 2010. One was a video, which Reuters had unsuccessfully tried to access through the Freedom of Information Act for nearly three years, of a 2007 airstrike in Baghdad that killed at least a dozen people, including two of their photographers. Another leak revealed that the United States had knowingly imprisoned more than 150 innocent people in Guantanamo Bay.
Despite later allegations that her actions put American soldiers and assets in harm’s way, the chief investigator for the Pentagon in the Manning case admitted at her sentencing hearing in 2013 that the agency found that there was no evidence of anyone having ever been killed as a result of being named in the documents that she leaked. And a classified 2011 report obtained by BuzzFeed in June through a FOIA request said “with high confidence” that Manning’s leak would have “no direct personal impact on current and former U.S. leadership in Iraq.”
Obama was blasted for his decision to commute Manning’s sentence, not only by the usual gang of apoplectic Republicans but by finger-wagging centrist Democrats as well. “I have serious concerns about equivocating sentences when national security is at stake,” said New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat who is currently in the middle of a federal corruption trial, while his Virginia colleague Mark Warner (another Democrat) said it sent the “wrong signal.”
There is no whistleblower more hated than Manning.
In spite of this, Manning has been a forceful voice for civil liberties and transparency since her release. And her Harvard appointment, which was also bestowed upon former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and recently departed White House press secretary Sean Spicer, was notable in that she was a departure from the litany of powerful stooges who have historically populated the halls of Harvard, such as triple-degree holder Henry Kissinger, who some historians say is responsible for three to four million deaths worldwide, former President George W. Bush, who is chiefly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Iraq and thousands of American soldiers, and Larry Summers, the former Harvard president who played an instrumental role in dismantling financial regulations (paving the way for the financial collapse of 2007-2008) and who championed the pillaging of Russia by private interests following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Despite boasting a Murderers’ Row of, well, murderers, Manning isn’t the only person who Harvard has recently deemed unworthy to walk its halls. Michelle Jones, a woman who became an accomplished historian while serving over twenty years in prison for the death of her four-year old son, was recommended for acceptance to Harvard’s history department as a Ph.D student. Although the university’s leadership usually “rubber stamps” these decisions, they overturned the history department’s recommendation and rejected Jones. (John Stauffer, a white professor of African-American studies who “flagged” Jones’s file for the dean of admission, implied in an interview with the Marshall Project that he was motivated by a fear of Fox News to stop Jones’s admission.)
Jones served two decades for her crime and is a model of rehabilitation. But it seems that crimes such as Kissinger’s — which he will never, ever face time in prison for — can be forgiven or even applauded if they are committed in the name of America, while Jones can never be fully rehabilitated and Manning can never recover from the greatest sin: going against the interests of the state. Indeed, Manning was charged under the same law — the Espionage Act — as Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames, both of whom sold secrets to the Soviet Union and Russia.
But if what Manning did was so “treasonous,” Kissinger and his ilk ought to be on the hook for much worse. As Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley noted, Kissinger “leaked nonpublic information about President Lyndon Johnson's 1968 Vietnam peace talks” to Richard Nixon while he was serving as a mediator for the Johnson administration in the peace talks. Nixon subsequently sabotaged peace talks to help his election chances; U.S. forces wouldn’t officially withdraw until after his resignation six years later, during which time more than 21,000 soldiers died.
A more contemporary hero of the security state, former Obama CIA director David Petraeus — a retired four-star general whose name was floated by op-ed columnists all over as a potential presidential candidate last year — gave classified information in the form of “eight personal notebooks” to biographer and mistress Paula Broadwell. “The Justice Department said the information, if disclosed, could have caused ‘exceptionally grave damage,’” Adam Goldman reported for the Washington Post in 2014. “Officials said the notebooks contained code words for secret intelligence programs, the identities of covert officers, and information about war strategy and deliberative discussions with the National Security Council.”
Although, as Goldman noted, the Justice Department considered bringing Petraeus and Broadwell up on charges of violating the Espionage Act — as they did to Manning — they decided against it, and Petraeus took a plea on a misdemeanor charge of “mishandling” classified information and never served a day in prison; he wasn’t even demoted by the Pentagon for his leak. Broadwell was never charged.
That Manning is a proud trans woman can’t be ignored, either. Some conservatives are giddy to hold her up as proof that trans soldiers aren’t fit to carry out the mission of American imperialism; former acting director of the C.I.A. Michael Morell, who resigned his post at the Kennedy school upon Manning’s appointment, was quick to point out that he respected her identity while damning her actions. “It is important to note that I fully respect Ms. Manning’s rights as a transgender American, including the right to serve our country in the U.S. military,” Morrell stressed in his letter. “But it is my right, indeed my duty… to make the fundamental point that leaking classified information is disgraceful and damaging to our nation.”
That Manning is a proud trans woman can’t be ignored, either.
Manning did what she did not because she lusted for political power like Kissinger, nor because she was having an affair with her biographer, like Petraeus. She did what she did at great personal risk because the guilt of being a cog in an immoral and unrelenting machine was simply too much to bear anymore. This kind of selflessness confounds those in power, regardless of whether they’re registered as Democrats or Republicans. More, it frightens them; the more Mannings there are to expose the sheer absurdity of our security culture and the military industrial complex, the more public attention is drawn to it, and the less room that the intelligence apparatus has to operate outside of the American public’s peripheral vision. And so for an unrepentant whistleblowing trans woman to march into the halls of Harvard, arguably the institution of choice for American power and one that has never shied away from its embrace of war criminals, is simply unacceptable.
Manning’s biggest crime was not leaking classified information, but that she dared to tell America a fundamental truth about itself and to expose the willingness of its leaders to lie to them. If there’s any justice in the world, her monumental sacrifice will be remembered, and decades from now she’ll be considered a hero by the broader American public in a way similar to how civil libertarians on the left see her today.