I have to admit I have mixed feelings about Chelsea Manning’s sentence being commuted by President Obama. I suppose I’m okay with it because it does not absolve her of the crimes she was convicted of like a pardon would have, and she has clearly suffered inhumane treatment while being incarcerated.
Chelsea Manning is a United States Army soldier who was courtmartialed and convicted in July of 2013 for 17 violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses, including five counts of espionage and theft, after disclosing to WikiLeaks nearly 750,000 classified or unclassified but sensitive military and diplomatic documents. She has served nearly seven years of her 35-year sentence.
I am not a lawyer or an expert on the Chelsea Manning case. I am a transgender woman and also a veteran. Transgender people have a long history of serving honorably in the military, and as a veteran myself I feel she has brought dishonor to herself and the Army and brought a lot of negative attention to trans people in the military, especially since her defense used the fact that she’s trans as one of the main reasons to justify her crimes. Being transgender and serving in the military is not easy, but it can be done as evidenced by people such as retired Navy SEAL Kristin Beck and Shane Ortega who served while being open about the fact he was transgender and played an important role in getting the military to allow trans people to serve openly.
Whether you view Manning as a traitor to her country or a hero for being a whistle-blower depends on your point of view. This is a topic which people seem to have very strong views about and there seems to be no middle ground. But the one thing which is not disputable is that she was convicted of violations of the Espionage Act for releasing classified documents and that she pled guilty to 10 of those charges.
But, after doing some research it became apparent that it would be a tough if not impossible task to mount a defense against these charges because the way the way the Espionage Act is written and the limitations the defense had to contend with. However, Manning’s defense was based largely on the claim the Army disregarded Manning’s emotional turmoil over her gender identity and isolation in a military that barred homosexuals from serving openly, which in my opinion is a pretty weak defense and does little to defend her actions. Again, transgender people have a long history of serving honorably in the military and managing to do so without committing espionage.
I’ve also learned more about the Edward Snowden case and I have an easier time understanding what he did and why he did it than I do the Manning case. There are obvious similarities between the two cases and it’s difficult not to compare the two. But to me, the main difference is that Manning was a soldier and broke her oath to serve her nation and fellow soldiers. She voluntarily joined the Army and took an oath to serve her country, and she broke that oath and the law when she willfully stole classified documents which she released. Should there be no consequences for her actions? But, Snowden fled the country and is living in Russia to avoid prosecution, while Manning went through the legal process, acknowledged she had done something wrong, and was tried and convicted. So, it does seem kind of hypocritical for me to be okay with what Snowden did while condemning Manning actions, but as a veteran what she did just doesn’t set well with me.
I also take issue with all the people who have campaigned for Manning to be pardoned for her crimes because of the inhumane conditions and treatment she has had to endure while incarcerated. I think we all agree that her treatment while being detained has been inhumane and unacceptable. But to say she should be released because of that is unreasonable because the two issues are completely unrelated. She was found guilty of 17 charges against her, and while her mistreatment is deplorable, it has no legal baring on her conviction; that is a separate legal issue. I’m sure Charles Manson has claimed he hasn’t been treated fairly in prison, so should he be pardoned too? Any trans person who is incarcerated has my sympathy and support because I can’t begin to imagine what a nightmare that must be. Anyone who is incarcerated deserves to be treated in a humane way and given the rights they are entitled to, but in my opinion they deserve nothing more. Prison is for people who have broken the law and been convicted for their crimes; it is not meant to be a fun place. Perhaps she, as with all people who willingly choose to break the law, should have considered the consequence of her actions.
The other argument which I take offense to is that she should not have been convicted to begin with because she was reporting war crimes. Again, she did plead guilty to 10 charges and was convicted of 17 counts including espionage. And I’m fairly certain that the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Espionage Act have no exemptions which state that espionage is acceptable as long as you’re reporting war crimes. And speaking of war crimes, has there been an official investigation and hearing to determine an official ruling of war crimes? She was also convicted of theft, having stolen information which was not hers. So, everyone who wants her pardoned must feel that stealing is acceptable and that people who break the law should not be punished? The bottom line is that she was found guilty of espionage. Her guilt or innocence is not in question and should not be an issue.
Whatever your opinion of Chelsea Manning, be it from the perspective of a citizen of this nation, a veteran, or a trans person, the fact remains that she committed a crime which she was convicted of and sent to prison to serve her sentence. I suppose time will tell what her legacy will be in the history of our nation, but in my opinion she failed her country as a soldier and she failed the transgender community by attempting to justify her crimes by using the fact that she was trans as an excuse. And our nation and military failed her by not providing safe and humane treatment while she was incarcerated. Perhaps something positive will come from this, that her mistreatment will serve to highlight the problems within our military and civilian prisons and prevent other trans inmates from being subjected to inhumane conditions. And hopefully Ms. Manning will find peace and be able to move on with her life.