The Silencing of Chelsea Manning

By Jillian SteinhauerAugust 22, 2014

The United States vs. Private Chelsea Manning by Clark Stoeckley

THIS PAST MAY, OR Books published The United States vs. Private Chelsea Manning, a book devoted to the US military trial of Private First Class (Pfc) Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning. It’s now August, and if you look for media mentions of the book, you will find some: excerpts published in The Nation, Feministing, Newsweek; a review on Vice’s Motherboard blog, and one in the Utne Reader. That’s pretty much it. The book — a graphic account that combines courtroom sketches by Clark Stoeckley with trial transcripts (and informational asides by Stoeckley) — seems to have excited the media far more when it was a proposition rather than a reality. And why not? It sounds so curiously novel — a graphic novel, except nonfiction, about a politically inflammatory subject and complete with the revelation of a sex change. This is the stuff of which blog posts are made.

The silence is not entirely surprising. I can think of at least six factors that might account for or contribute to it: the present precariousness of book criticism; the short attention spans that the internet breeds; the fact that OR Books is not a major, big-name publisher; the extreme secrecy and silence surrounding the Manning trial itself; the mainstream media’s vague disinterest in Manning (The New York Times did not even send a reporter to cover her trial); and the fact that the book’s text is mainly trial transcripts, rather than a narrative account and analysis.

Still, I find the silence disquieting. There are, it’s generally agreed, three “leakers” (or “heroes” or “dissidents,” depending on your disposition) who’ve given us an increasingly clear view of the workings of the modern US military state: Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden. The revelations of these leakers have dominated the news since 2010. Only one of the three has thus far stood trial: Manning. Anyone hoping to overturn another piece of the shrouded national puzzle should be interested in those proceedings.

Admittedly, that is an endeavor. Parsing the timeline and details of the trial itself, not to mention the events that led up to it, requires patience and concentration. It helps to have a knowledgeable guide, and Stoeckley proves himself quite worthy. Despite occasional spots in the book where his explanations don’t actually clarify what’s going on, his brief introductions, notes, and asides save the reader from becoming lost in a sea of military legalese.

Unfortunately his accompanying courtroom sketches don’t do the same work, rarely showing the reader much beyond talking heads. Whereas the chronological, date-framed structure of the book is both logical and helpful, the page layouts do little to illuminate or enhance the story. Add to that somewhat garish coloring and an awkwardly drawn perspective that gives almost every figure badly foreshortened hands, and the graphic premise of the book becomes basically moot.

The trial itself, however, makes for surprisingly compelling reading. The United States vs. Private Chelsea Manning begins in December 2011, 18 months after Manning’s arrest, when the military convened something called an Article 32 Hearing at Fort Meade, Maryland, to determine whether Manning would face a general court-martial, “the most serious of military trials, and the only in which [sic] allows life in prison as a possible outcome,” according to Stoeckley.

Two months later, investigating officer Lieutenant Colonel Paul Alamanza does recommend a general court-martial, and Manning is formally arraigned. She’s accused of releasing more than 700,000 government documents to WikiLeaks, namely on-the-ground war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan, called the SigActs; a handful of videos — including one WikiLeaks later dubbed “Collateral Murder” — that shows US forces in Iraq firing on journalists and civilians; Detainee Assessment Briefs from Guantanamo; and State Department cables. For that, the government charged her with 22 offenses, including five counts of Stealing USG Property, eight counts of Violating the Espionage Act (incidentally, eight is also the number of prosecutions President Obama has pursued under this act, “more than all previous presidents combined”), and one count of Aiding the Enemy, “which carries a maximum punishment of life in prison,” Stoeckley writes. 

At this point, a judge is appointed, Colonel Denise Lind, but it takes over another year for the trial to begin. In the meantime, the court slogs through pretrial motions and hearings, which the reader must do as well. Although these did, importantly, “determine the contours of the general court-martial — the shape of arguments and the kinds of testimony allowed,” in Stoeckley’s words, they don’t make for the most compelling reading material. It’s here that the proceedings feel byzantine and require the most explanation, and without any narrative or characters to latch onto (besides the articulate and crusading lead defense lawyer, David Coombs), it’s tempting to quit.

That is, until Manning appears, at a hearing in November 2012 to discuss the conditions of her pretrial confinement. In simple yet eloquent language and harrowing detail, she recounts how she passed the time in her 6-by-8-foot cell at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia, sometimes 21–23 hours a day in that tiny, confined space, with even the positions in which she could sit subject to official authorization:

There was no reasonable way of accessing natural light. I ate every meal inside of the cell. I did not have glasses. I cannot see without my glasses. The entire day I sat upright. I was technically allowed to speak to other detainees, but the cells on either side of me were empty, and talking to someone farther away would have violated the “conversational tone” rules. I never had sheets or blankets. If I needed toilet paper, then I would stand up to the front of the door and announce to the observation room “request permission to use toilet paper.” Sometime they say they would get it, and then they didn’t.

In addition to such cruel physical conditions, Manning was, against the recommendation of her consulting psychiatrist, constantly deemed a suicide risk and placed on Prevention of Injury, statuses that the staff at Quantico used to punish her, at one point taking away even her underwear. Judge Lind finds much of Manning’s pretrial treatment excessive and grants her 112 days of sentence credit.

The abuse (as well as the hefty number of charges brought) indicates plainly how the US military and government conceive of Manning: not as a whistle-blower, someone who broke the law because of her conscience, but as a purposeful traitor. Indeed, when the trial finally begins, in June 2013, the prosecution attempts to portray Manning as such, calling her “a determined soldier with the knowledge, ability, and desire to harm the United States.” Manning, the prosecution claims, had a “personal quest for notoriety” and a “general evil intent.”

This runs directly counter to how Manning portrays herself. In a pretrial statement that forms the ethical core of the trial and book, Manning walks the listener/reader step-by-step through her leaks, explaining what led her to release various documents and information and what she hoped to accomplish. Though she sounds naïve at times, she also sounds like many liberal journalists and figures in the public sphere, albeit with access to more concrete information. Here she is, discussing the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs:

I began to become depressed with the situation. In attempting to conduct counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations we became obsessed with capturing and killing human targets on lists. If the public had the SigActs, it could spark a debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy. Detailed analysis of the data over time might cause our society to reevaluate counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations that ignore the complex dynamics of people living in the affect environment every day.

This testimony comes ringing back when the defense attempts to establish that the larger problem the leaks represent is overclassification (5.1 million Americans had security clearances last year, 1.5 of them top-secret access). Three army officers and specialists testify in succession that much of the information leaked by Manning was already available in some form, each sounding more and more like a cog in the wheel. The third, Charles Ganiel, admits to the defense: “I just felt that a lot of the information was already out in the public domain by doing my research. But if the Original Classification Authority says it’s secret, that’s how you treat it.”

This tangle — in which Manning decides to act, rather than simply sit, on her conscience, causing her to break the law and become a “traitor” — calls to mind a passage from Hannah Arendt’s postscript to Eichmann in Jerusalem:

There remains, however, one fundamental problem, which was implicitly present in all these postwar trials and which must be mentioned here because it touches upon one of the central moral questions of all time, namely upon the nature and function of human judgment. What we have demanded in these trials, where the defendants had committed “legal” crimes, is that human beings be capable of telling right from wrong even when all they have to guide them is their own judgment, which, moreover, happens to be completely at odds with what they must regard as the unanimous opinion of all those around them.

Later on in the trial, Manning apologizes for her actions, saying, “When I made these decisions, I believed I was going to help people, not hurt people. In retrospect I should have worked more aggressively inside the system.” But the system, based on this trial, is filled with officers who considered Manning anti-American even before the leaks, and called her “faggoty” because of her gender identity disorder. How far would she have gotten?

Arendt continues:

Those few who were still able to tell right from wrong went really only by their own judgments, and they did so freely; there were no rules to be abided by, under which the particular cases with which they were confronted could be subsumed. They had to decide each instance as it arose, because no rules existed for the unprecedented.

In Manning’s case, conventions have existed for decades regarding whistle-blowing; what’s unique about her situation is the volume of information she leaked, as well as the organization to which she gave it: WikiLeaks. Another fascinating discussion in the trial revolves around the question of whether WikiLeaks qualifies as a journalistic organization and whether Manning should be afforded the protections of a journalist. At one point the defense calls Professor Yochai Benkler, who argues for WikiLeaks’ journalistic value because it “provides a solution for how network journalism can stabilize leak-based investigative journalism in the face of diminishing newsrooms, many more organizations, and a much less well-structured way of defending it in court.”

Judge Lind then asks Benkler if anyone who “had information that they weren’t supposed to disclose […] put it on an individual blog for the world to see, is that person now a journalist?” Benkler’s response is thought-provoking:

This is the problem of defining a range of the journalist’s privilege. As the Supreme Court wrote in Branzburg: the liberty of the press is the right of the lonely pamphleteer with a mimeograph, as it is for the metropolitan press with the latest technologies. It’s a hard line to draw.

Is Manning a journalist? No, she’s a source, a part of the journalistic chain. But, unlike Edward Snowden, who shared his documents directly with bona fide reporters and newspapers, Manning went to WikiLeaks — although not, it should be noted, for lack of trying. In her pretrial statement, Manning explains that after making the decision to leak her first set of material, the SigActs, she contacted a reporter at The Washington Post and the public editor at The New York Times. “I do not believe she took me seriously,” Manning said of the former (this crucial line is omitted from the book but available in a transcript of Manning’s statement posted online); the latter never responded.

WikiLeaks went on to release pieces of Manning’s material itself and to partner with The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, and other newspapers for the publication of bigger troves like the Afghan and Iraq war logs. Does the fact that Manning is a source one step removed from traditional media — and that she went to an organization whose journalistic credentials are far from widely affirmed, despite Benkler’s testimony — explain, at least in part, the media’s habit of distancing itself from her? (Her transgenderism should not be underestimated as a cause, either.)

“The Web site WikiLeaks, which published the raw material provided by Mr. Manning as well as other secrets, differs from journalism in methods if not goals,” wrote The Washington Post editorial board in response to Judge Lind’s July 30, 2013 ruling that found Manning guilty of nearly every charge except the most serious one, aiding the enemy. (She later sentenced Manning to 35 years in prison.) “The Post and many others in print and broadcast journalism sift and check information and take care not to reveal sources and methods or to endanger lives in bringing secrets to light. WikiLeaks and Pfc. Manning showed less care.”

There is an irony here, of course, in knowing that Manning initially approached the Post and was rebuffed. Also, in knowing that Manning continues to express concern about the state of the traditional press: in a June op-ed in The New York Times, she elucidated the alarming way the military controls and clouds reporters’ access to information. “The gatekeepers in public affairs have too much power: Reporters naturally fear having their access terminated, so they tend to avoid controversial reporting that could raise red flags,” she wrote. “The existing program forces journalists to compete against one another for ‘special access’ to vital matters of foreign and domestic policy.”

It’s understandable that many traditional newspapers and media organizations are hesitant to embrace the 26-year-old transgender former Army intelligence analyst who’s become the de facto poster child for the confusions of what constitutes journalism in the age of the internet age; digital outlets and organizations like WikiLeaks have no doubt contributed to their decline. But the US government isn’t just going after easy targets like Manning; it’s shown itself increasingly hostile to “real” reporters too. Better to align ourselves now, before it’s too late.


Jillian Steinhauer is a senior editor of the art blog Hyperallergic and a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

LARB Contributor

Jillian Steinhauer is senior editor of the art blogazine Hyperallergic and a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review Daily, The Awl, and the Jewish Daily Forward, among other places. For smaller doses, you can also find her Twitter.


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