Incarceration Nation

Chelsea Manning is Free,
and Her Impact is Worldwide 

Interview by Aaron Mate

U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning is free after serving seven years behind bars. Kevin Gosztola of Shadowproof and Nathan Fuller of the Courage Campaign, have remained deeply involved in her case, discuss Manning’s freedom and her global impact.

Aaron Mate: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. Chelsea Manning is free. The Army whistleblower marked her release from a Kansas military prison with a tweet reading, “First steps of freedom.” Manning was behind one of the most important leaks of government information in history. Her release of more than half a million files to Wikileaks exposed stunning revelations on U.S. foreign policy. She was sentenced to 35 years in prison, but President Obama commuted her sentence in January. She served seven years behind bars, the longest ever for a U.S. whistleblower. During her imprisonment, she announced her identity as a female and fought to receive hormone treatment from the military. 

Her prison conditions led the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture to accuse the U.S. government of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. I’m joined now by two guests who closely followed Chelsea Manning’s case and were among the small group of people who attended her 2013 trial. Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of and co-host of the podcast Unauthorized Disclosure. We’re also joined by Nathan Fuller. He is with the Courage Campaign, which is now raising funds for Chelsea Manning’s legal appeal seeking to have her sentence not just commuted, but overturned. Gentlemen, welcome. 

Nathan Fuller: Thank you.

Aaron Mate: Nathan, I’ll start with you because you’ve been a big part of the grassroots effort to win Chelsea’s freedom. A campaign that’s been sustained for a very long time. What’s your reaction to seeing her walk free today? 

Nathan Fuller: I really, for a long time, thought this day would never come. I spent several years of my life advocating for Chelsea’s freedom, and I’m just incredibly grateful and just overjoyed that it’s actually here. I’ve been calling for the U.S. to free Chelsea Manning for a long time, and it’s now an adjective, not a verb. 

Aaron Mate: Kevin, you covered this trial. Were among the few journalists who actually did that, which was surprising given the amount of attention that the WikiLeaks disclosures that Chelsea’s release got. Did you ever think that this day would come? 

Kevin Gosztola: I thought this day would come. I believed it would come five or even ten years from now. I knew that she would be eligible for parole at some point, but I never would have imagined that a president, and specifically I guess President Barack Obama, would commute her sentence. I believe that’s a testament to the power of this movement, this grassroots movement, which Nathan was involved in and others were involved in. It’s also probably a testament to some of the independent media out there that was giving attention to her case, and some of the human rights campaigners that were able to make this possible. She’s eating hot, greasy pizza and she’s happy. It’s an incredible moment. 

Aaron Mate: Yeah. You’re referring to her second tweet upon her freedom, which was her showing the piece of pizza that she was eating. Kevin, you mentioned the media. Let’s talk about that for a second, and the climate that Chelsea Manning faced during this time in prison. She was not treated as a hero by the U.S. political and media establishment. Can you break that down for us? 

Kevin Gosztola: Yeah. Far from it. Usually there was this dichotomy of, is she a hero? Is she a traitor? Which really told people in this country nothing about what she did. The media largely ignored the substance of her releases and preferred to either talk about her problems with gender or mental health issues, preferred to look at character defects, or just ignore her entirely and just focus upon the character of Julian Assange, or the way in which WikiLeaks went about doing its journalism. Instead of recognizing that she provided a great deal of information that contributed to the public knowledge. It’s very difficult I think for the duration of the trial to get any kind of a sympathetic or reasonable detailed look at what was unfolding beyond, is she guilty or is she not guilty? Is she going to be in jail for her life, or is she going to have a shorter sentence? 

Aaron Mate: Let’s talk for a moment about some of that information that she released. We can’t go through it all because it was so extensive. Among the earliest disclosures that Chelsea Manning made, and the one that got among the most attention was this video Collateral Murder, showing a U.S. military helicopter. Footage from that helicopter firing on and killing Iraqi civilians, including two employees of the Reuters news agency. Let’s go to a clip of that. 

Speaker 4: Light them all up. 

Speaker 5: 002 traffic 260. 

Male: Come on. Fire. 

Speaker 4: Roger. Keep shooting. Keep shooting. Keep shooting. 

Male: Bushmaster 26 bushmaster 26. We need to move, time now. 

Speaker 4: All right. We just engaged all eight. 

Aaron Mate: That’s just a brief clip from Collateral Murder released in April 2010, if I remember correctly. Nathan, can you give us the context for that video? Chelsea was serving in Iraq at the time when she came across this. 

Nathan Fuller: Right. She was an intelligence analyst, so she was viewing videos and documents, archiving the daily reports of activities in Iraq and Afghanistan and the conflicts there. This is one of many things that she came across that disturbed her, that she felt revealed the inhumanity of some U.S. soldiers and U.S. policy, and something that she thought if the U.S. people saw what was being done in their name, they would object to, would at least want to have this information public. She felt like this was being kept from the American people, and the only way to change that was to make it public. 

Aaron Mate: Kevin, as a journalist, can you briefly talk about just the impact that Chelsea Manning’s disclosures, there’s more than half-a-million files that she released, had on our understanding of how U.S. foreign policy works?

Kevin Gosztola: I can address that from a personal standpoint. I developed into the journalist that I am today because there was this information that was available, which I was able to dig into and produce stories that resonated with people who regularly read my work, and we benefited. My audience benefited, I benefited. I’m specifically referring to the U.S. diplomatic cables. There are dozens upon dozens of important revelations that came out of them. One that comes to mind that I think of often cited but remains critical is that these cables revealed the way in which some drone strikes were being carried out by our U.S. military, and the fact that specifically in Yemen, General David Petraeus had this informal agreement or formal agreement with Ali Abdullah Saleh where they would claim responsibility for the drone strikes and say those were Yemen bombs when in fact it was the U.S. that was carrying out drone strikes. 

That’s one example. We obviously don’t have time to go through many of the other ones, but on climate change, on wages issues, issues of, you know, all kinds of human rights issues that had ramifications that rippled through Egypt and Tunisia, and influenced some of the uprisings in those countries. That was extremely beneficial to the entire world to learn what was going on behind closed doors with diplomats. We know that the State Department was selling natural gas fracking through its work in various countries. She has had a tremendous impact in bettering our understanding about how not only the U.S. carries out wars militarily, but how we pursue agendas in different regions of the world. 

Aaron Mate: Nathan, we haven’t heard Chelsea speak very much in her own words. She made a statement at her trial, but otherwise we’ve only been able to hear from her either through her attorneys or through her occasional statements on Twitter or in OpEd pieces. Based especially on what she said at the trial, what do we know about what motivated her to carry out this huge act of whistle-blowing with such serious consequences to her life?

Nathan Fuller: We know that she took those consequences very seriously, and that this was a very deliberate meaningful action. Not some reckless, wanton act as the government tried to portray it. She really looked at these documents and videos and understood that they were going to bring a new context to the American people, and she knew that it was going to have ramifications for herself. She was willing to die or go to prison and understood that that would be worth it. She said that she wanted to spark a debate. She hoped that the American people would be interested. She was heartened when she was still able to view the news and saw the initial reaction to that Collateral Murder video, and she saw that it was sparking discussion and debate. People actually cared. She wanted that debate and she got it. It certainly was by all accounts a success. 

Aaron Mate: Kevin, among the charges that she faced from the government was aiding the enemy. What was the significance of her facing that charge, and also of the fact that she was ultimately cleared of it? 

Kevin Gosztola: The significance was the innovation behind it. The way that military prosecutors went about prosecuting her. It amounted to calling her a traitor essentially. Beyond that, there was the implication for media outlets, whether we’re talking about the New York Times or we’re talking about the Washington Post, or even an independent media outlet like my former, which is where I was affiliated when I covered the trial. This idea that if we are publishing information that was previously classified and somehow related to national security or the military on the internet, then we are aiding the enemy because people who are in the Islamic state or Al-Qaeda or any groups that are considered terrorist groups could access that information and use it to their own ends or however they would choose to. That’s a very dangerous argument. It goes up against the freedom of the press. It was a fortunate outcome that the military judge, Denise Lind, determined that there was no evidence to substantiate convicting Chelsea Manning on this charge. I think it’s very important to emphasize that legally speaking she’s not a traitor. She was acquitted of aiding the enemy. 

Aaron Mate: Let’s talk a bit about her prison sentence and actually what led her to be imprisoned. Nathan, I’m wondering if you could tell us about Adrian Lamo, this hacker who Chelsea Manning communicated with and ultimately who turned her in. 

Nathan Fuller: Adrian Lamo was someone who she reached out to talk about her time in the Army and her feelings of insecurity and anxiety, her questioning things. Adrian posed as a...He said even, “Treat me as a priest.” He posed as a journalist or a priest, someone that she could confide in privately, and he burned her like never before and turned her into the FBI and was the reason for her getting picked up as quickly as she did. 

Aaron Mate: Then, that leads to her imprisonment. Tell us about what kind of conditions that she faced after she revealed her sexual identity. I remember she was confined then to, basically, cage-like conditions, denied access to her lawyer. Talk about what she faced. 

Nathan Fuller: Before she even came out publicly in that way, she was mistreated badly in her pre-trial detention. She was arrested in Iraq, brought to Kuwait where she was held in a cage. Treated worse than an animal and wanted to kill herself there, and was just treated brutally. She actually didn’t know where she was being taken from there. She thought she might go to Guantanamo but was brought to Quantico, the Marine brig, which is now closed. She endured solitary confinement for several months. She was abused and mocked by prison officials and a lot of that came out in the trial. 

Despite all that, she survived. She endured and was a very strong poised voice in court. Unbelievably, she took an even bigger risk upon her conviction and she came out as a woman, knowing she was going to go to an all-male military prison, and knew that was going to be an incredibly uphill, arduous battle. She has become a voice for trans rights. She got the Army to allow her to begin hormone therapy, and she’s become a hero not only to the people who appreciate her whistle-blowing but who appreciate her speaking out for prisoners rights, trans rights, and just for respectability for trans people. 

Aaron Mate: Yeah. Kevin, if you could pick up here. I mean, this is what partly makes her story so extraordinary. After committing one of the most bold acts of whistle-blowing in history, she then goes and takes on this fight for her rights as a transgender woman against an institution like the U.S. military, not exactly known for its inclusiveness. 

Kevin Gosztola: It almost transcends her whistle-blowing act. I exchanged letters with her while she was in Leavenworth Prison, and it came through. One of the things that I was stunned by is that she was so willing to make herself vulnerable and allowed people to see what was going on inside and how she was struggling. Invite people to join her in trying to make sure that the military didn’t succeed finally in actually breaking her and actually pushing her to that moment where she could no longer move on with her life. In the letter she described how people who were being bullied from LGBTQ people, how they would write to her, young people, people who were going through experiences would write letters to her. She would read them and they would be awful, and she would feel so bad for them. She would occasionally have the time to write replies to these people. 

I just thought, this is remarkable. This is someone who doesn’t have to do this, but she’s taking on this role as someone who people can look up to and see as a fighter, and from a place where she doesn’t have any power. The U.S. military is one of the worst places you could possibly be and come out as a transgender person, and she still looked it head on and said, “This is who I am, and this is who I’m going to be during my sentence.” 

Aaron Mate: Nathan, what do we know about what Chelsea Manning’s plans are now that she is free? Where does the grassroots campaign that supported her go? I know you have this effort seeking to overturn her initial sentence. 

Nathan Fuller: Right. Personally, she’s indicated she might want to go back to Maryland to live with some of her family there. She might want to go to college or write a book. She’s become a really outspoken voice with her Guardian column and Medium blog, and I expect that voice only to grow. I’m really excited to see what she does with it. Yeah, I want to remind people that while she’s out of prison, and I’m incredibly grateful for that, her case is not quite over. The appeal is ongoing, and it’s really important for her personally to clear her record, to not be dishonorably discharged from the Army, which would act like a felony on her record. It matters more broadly.

Her case set a precedent for leaking to the media, someone being sentenced that long for leaking to the media. Also, she wants to overturn and challenge the Espionage Act convictions because of the way the Espionage Act was used so broadly equating whistle-blowing with espionage. She wants to finally challenge that. What the Espionage Act needs if we’re going to keep it at all is a public interest defense. People need to be able to defend themselves in court, which Chelsea Manning was not allowed to do by explaining that their actions were done in the public interest, and that should supersede the alleged potential harm caused by them. Chelsea clearly had the public interest in mind when she was leaking documents. 

Aaron Mate: Kevin Gosztola, your final thoughts as we wrap this segment on the release of Chelsea Manning today. 

Kevin Gosztola: I think it’s profound, and everyone who was involved in making it possible, the grassroots movement, they have themselves to congratulate. I think everyone should just enjoy it. It’s not a lot of times that we have these kinds of successes. I know that she’s also being released the same day that another political prisoner, Oscar Lopez Rivera is released. Not to get into his case, but just to say that these victories don’t come often. When they do come, especially in this political moment with President Donald Trump, it’s important to remind ourselves of the kind of power we have to influence and make sure that we stick up for people on our side and on our own, and take care of each other. 

Aaron Mate: You know what, Nathan? Let me pick up on that point and ask you as someone who was so involved in this grassroots campaign to free Chelsea Manning. What kind of challenges you faced to bring this case to light and to get public attention around it, especially with a media that while it covered the WikiLeaks disclosures was not so sympathetic to her plight? 

Nathan Fuller: Right. The mainstream media got hundreds of stories from all these documents and repaid her by basically ignoring her trial for way too long. Not showing up to any of the pre-trial hearings. Before that, the military made it very hard to cover this case. Kevin and I and Alexa O’Brien and just a couple others were those who were at every single hearing. For the first several days we were not allowed to use computers to type. Obviously we couldn’t record, and people couldn’t see video of the trial, so we had paper and pen and had to write down everything in a full day of court. 

The military knew that that was going to make it more difficult for the press to pick up on this story, and the press failed to do so. It took a lot of work. It took a lot of organizing rallies and writing about this case to get people to pay attention and to finally pick it up. We actually got the New York Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who was at the time the public editor, to embarrass her own reporters into showing up at the trial, and they finally did. I think that is part of the reason that so many people know about and care about her case today.

The Real News Network, May 17, 2017