Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Manning mercy belies double standard on whistleblowers



It has taken a period of not inconsiderable pain and torment, but Chelsea Manning, who will forever be a bright symbol of the international whistleblower movement, has had the bulk of her sentence commuted from a brutal 35 years. Barring any upsets or reversals, she should be free 17 May.

Chelsea ManningManning, to much gruesome fanfare, became the victim of an institutional drive to punitively target whistleblowers, with the centrepiece of the prosecution focusing on computer crimes and the Espionage Act. Manning had made her name supplying military incident logs to WikiLeaks on US operations in Iraq, thereby earning notoriety both for herself and Julian Assange.

The flawed prosecution always sensed that a conviction was already in the bag. What mattered in such cases was not actual harm in disclosing secrets (in that case, revelations included abuses by Iraqi military officers and civilian deaths), but the mere act of disclosing them.

Not even Manning's insistence the disclosures had been made in the interest of exposing war crimes, notably the attack by a US helicopter that led to the deaths of two Reuters journalists, mattered. 'When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of love for my country and a sense of duty to others.'

The rumours had been building that President Barack Obama would make use of his executive privilege to commute the sentence as a parting gift. Such hope might well have been premature: the Obama administration has been unswervingly brutal in its efforts to gag low level whistleblowers.

The contradictory contrast lay in another figure Obama granted a pardon to: General James E. Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Cartwright found himself in the lurch after disclosing details of a top secret cyber attack on Iran's nuclear program to reporters. The gravity of the offence was compounded by his mendacity to the CIA.

Under Obama's watch, nine cases have seen the prosecuting light of day, doubling the numbers of all previous presidents combined. This fact alone suggests a disturbing fixation with the 1917 Espionage Act and the cult of official secrecy.

It also suggests inconsistency and unevenness. During the Obama years, the fixation on punishing low-level figures stood in contrast to the kid gloves approach to high-ranking, often bumbling officials. In Obama's America, a General Petraeus or Cartwright could be assured of being treated more mildly than a Manning.


"Punitive approaches, once formed, are hard to break. The desire to punish the noble discloser of classified material remains strong."


Petraeus, hailed as an astute general who subsequently took up the reins at the CIA, pleaded to a misdemeanour in supplying his biographer and lover, Paula Broadwell, notebooks with 'the identities of covert officers, war strategy, intelligence capabilities and mechanisms, diplomatic discussions, quotes, and deliberate discussions from high-level National Security Council meetings and ... the President'.

This was not a point he was willing to disclose to FBI investigators in October 2012 either. Rather than jailing him and throwing away the key, the authorities have keenly sought to rehabilitate the erring general. The contrast with Manning could not be more striking.

This is far from the only instance of inconsistency in the Obama administration's legacy on punishing the discloser of classified information. As does sometimes happen, the discloser tends to be a bigwig holding the reins of an intelligence establishment, privy to an abundance of secret material.

Former CIA director and defense secretary Leon Panetta supplied a glaring example of a highly placed official who had been less than scrupulous with operational details, revealing material to the film makers of Zero Dark Thirty on the raid that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011.

In 2013, a draft Pentagon Inspector General report noted how a secret speech given by Panetta at CIA headquarters on 24 June 2011 had filmmaker Mark Boal present, a mere two months after the raid. Marked 'Secret/No Forn' (not to be released to foreigners), Panetta's speech was sufficiently detailed to reveal 'the unit that conducted the operation and identified the ground commander by name'.

Panetta was hardly the only one to find himself mildly reprimanded for what would have been, in many instances, an offence attracting severe punishment. Former CIA operative and undersecretary of defense for intelligence Michael Vickers was positively effusive in discussing operational matters with director Kathryn Bigelow and Boal. A 'special operations planner' was named, one who 'can probably give you everything you want'.

Such an approach demonstrated the gulf between the cosy, public relations air of an administration keen to project certain achievements (the killing of bin Laden) through celluloid, and its stomping on those keen to disclose inappropriate, not to mention illegal conduct in the security and intelligence services.

From the outset, the length of Manning's sentence proved a stunner of penal brutality. It also gave her little by way of hope — last year, she made two attempts to take her own life, having already spent six years behind bars.

The pain of it was compounded by the circumstances of being incarcerated at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas as a transgender woman, with the military seemingly incapable of dealing with her gender dysphoria. Her imminent release signalled a minor change of heart on Obama's part, one taken over the disapproving Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. That said, punitive approaches, once formed, are hard to break. The desire to punish the noble discloser of classified material remains strong.


Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Barack Obama, whistleblowers



submit a comment

Existing comments

History will show young Chelsea, Assange and Snowden to be game changing heroes.

Marilyn | 19 January 2017  

Brilliant! Should be required reading for everyone, especially the punishers.

Gordon Rowland | 20 January 2017  

"Might is right" is in every country ... And not just in the political sphere either. Thank you for this article Dr. Bindy ...

Mary tehan | 20 January 2017  

History will show Donald Trump to be (unwittingly) a hero for keeping Hilary Clinton out of the White House where she would have given the world more of what Barack Obama did.

Paul | 20 January 2017  

This is a great article, Binoy. I agree with those who see that Manning, Assange, Snowden and other whistle blowers are heroes who dared to expose the war crimes committed by the US Military Industrial Complex. This action by Barack Obama was one of the few highlights of his 8 years as president. It would have been good if he had also stopped arms supplies to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, supported the state of Palestine, stopped supporting the foreign, terrorist jihadists invading Syria and kept his promise to stop US instigated wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was good that he lifted the ban on US citizens from visiting Cuba, but disappointing that he didn't halt the inhumane blockade and hand back Guantanamo Bay to Cuba. It was also good that his administration abstained from a vote in the Security Council on Israel illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, but a pity that the US did not vote for it and refused to recognise the state of Palestine. I guess we have to be thankful for small mercies!

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 20 January 2017  

Similar Articles

Trump moves against vulnerable women

  • Catherine Marshall
  • 25 January 2017

No-one doubted Trump's ascendancy would deeply fracture the world as we know it. But few of us could have anticipated the swiftness with which his orders would impact some of the world's most disadvantaged citizens: vulnerable, impoverished women. With just one signature, the newly-installed president snatched from these women access to services that are essential to their physical and mental wellbeing and their economic prospects - and, in so doing, endangering countless lives.


Bread and circuses in modern Australia and America

  • Julie Davies
  • 24 January 2017

I can understand the Trump phenomenon. Hard-working Americans and many Australians are blaming various minorities as responsible for their decline. They are being blinded to the real culprits: our own governments and their wealthy backers. Juvenal's 'bread and circuses', designed to keep the people docile and distracted in Ancient Rome, have been updated to Maccas and manufactured news. And hatred. Are we so easily manipulated? Is the American model the future Australia wants for itself?