As one of his final acts, President Barack Obama responded to widespread public outcry and commuted the bulk of Chelsea Manning’s prison sentence. Instead of serving 35 years in a military prison, she will be released on May 17, after nearly seven years behind bars, including months in conditions that the United Nations considers to be torture.
Pardons and commutations are often controversial. But on balance, this decision should be seen as major victory for free speech and human rights—a move that will make all of us safer, and strengthen our democracy.
In 2009, Manning faced a difficult ethical question: while serving as a military analyst, she witnessed corruption, abuses of power, and violations of human rights, all of which were hidden from the public eye. In one video, U.S. soldiers can be seen firing on and indiscriminately killing unarmed civilians in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists. Other documents revealed that the U.S. military knowingly allowed their Iraqi allies to torture and kill detainees, likely in violation of the Geneva Convention. Within a hierarchy that was ignoring and even covering up these abuses, disclosing them to the public was a moral responsibility.
Manning did her best to disclose these documents responsibly. First, she went to journalists at The New York Times and The Washington Post. When they failed to respond, she turned to Wikileaks, a relatively new organization at the time, which offered the U.S. government an opportunity to determine what information was truly sensitive and should be redacted to protect innocent people. But the government refused to participate in this process and the information was therefore released in bulk, without redaction. This was not Manning’s decision.
While some of the disclosures may have been embarrassing for the Obama administration, there is no evidence that anyone was harmed as a result. Prosecutors at Manning’s trial had a strong incentive to provide some example of harm to bolster their case. They provided nothing. Despite shrill fear-mongering from politicians and pundits following Manning’s commutation, even intelligence officials admit that not a single American death has been tied to the information she revealed.
Meanwhile, the benefits of these disclosures have been profound. When governments break the rules of war, they endanger all of us. By bringing transparency and accountability, Chelsea Manning’s disclosures may have saved countless lives. One document revealed that U.S. troops executed a group of Iraqis, including women and children, and then ordered an airstrike in order to destroy the evidence. It played a critical role in helping to end the Iraq war.
Chelsea’s actions gave journalists and human rights advocates a historic glimpse into the impacts of U.S. foreign policy on civilians. The documents she released have been the subject of hundreds of crucial news stories, and helped spark desperately needed public debate.
Regardless of where you land on the political spectrum, we can all agree that politicians and government officials must remain accountable to the public. When governments are allowed to behave this way in secret, it puts all of us in danger.
Confronted with the reality that her own government was committing crimes with impunity, Chelsea did what all of us hope we would do in the same situation—she risked everything to reveal the truth, in the hope that it would bring about change and save lives.
She has suffered dearly for it.
As a transgender woman serving a decades-long sentence in an all-male military prison, Chelsea dealt with systemic cruelty on a daily basis. She twice attempted to take her own life as a direct result of the government’s mistreatment, and was outrageously punished for her suicide attempt with more solitary confinement. She fought protracted legal battles to gain access to medically recommended healthcare, helping set a precedent that will benefit so many others.
When Chelsea is released in May, she will have served a longer sentence than any other whistleblower in U.S. history. Even if you’re unsure of her intentions, or concerned about the potential impact of revealing government secrets, it’s impossible to claim that she got off easy.
The Obama administration waged nothing short of a war on whistleblowers, using the draconian and outdated Espionage Act to prosecute people who exposed government wrongdoing more than all other U.S. presidents combined. Commuting Chelsea’s unreasonably long sentence doesn’t undo the harm that has been done, but it sends a message, and comes as a clear signal that the world’s overwhelming support for Chelsea, and tireless campaigning from activists, made a difference.
Giving whistleblowers fair and humane treatment under the law makes our government more accountable. In the years to come, we are going to need courageous individuals who stand up for what they believe in more than ever. The day Chelsea walks out of prison we will all be a little safer, and a little more free.
Evan Greer is a transgender musician and activist based in Boston. She’s the campaign director of Fight for the Future and a friend and supporter of Chelsea Manning. Follow her on twitter at @evan_greer