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From Draft NOtices, October-December 2013

Implications of the Sentencing in the Manning Court-martial

— Kathy Gilberd


On August 21, Private Chelsea* Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison and a Dishonorable Discharge, after one of the longest and most significant courts-martial in U.S. military history. She was originally charged with aiding the enemy, for which the prosecution had sought a life sentence, but her attorney, David Coombs, was successful in challenging that charge. Manning was ultimately convicted of violations of the Espionage Act, among other charges, for releasing the Collateral Murder videotape, Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, and embarrassing U.S. diplomatic cables. As the Private Manning Support Network stated, the video, cables and other materials “show a pattern of lacking accountability during the War on Terror, in which civilian deaths go unaccounted for, detainee torture is commonplace and corporations wield enormous influence on U.S. foreign policy.”

Reflecting on her case, Chelsea Manning wrote in a request for pardon to President Obama:

I realized that in our efforts to meet the risk posed to us by the enemy, we have forgotten our humanity. We consciously elected to devalue human life both in Iraq and Afghanistan. When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians. Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability.

In our zeal to kill the enemy, we internally debated the definition of torture. We held individuals at Guantanamo for years without due process. We inexplicably turned a blind eye to torture and executions by the Iraqi government. And we stomached countless other acts in the name of our war on terror.

Manning’s attorney is now preparing a clemency petition to Major General Buchanan, the “convening authority” who has the power to reduce Manning’s sentence. Appeals before the military’s appellate courts will begin next year. The Private Manning Support Network has begun a petitioning campaign asking for a presidential pardon. Information about these campaigns is available from the network at

Chelsea Manning’s 35-year sentence is decades less than the prosecution asked for, but represents much of Manning’s adult life. (She first becomes available for parole in about seven years, but supporters are not optimistic that parole would be granted then.) It is a shocking result for someone who released evidence of U.S. war crimes and military abuses as a matter of conscience. Unfortunately, it is consistent with the Obama administration’s harsh response to whistleblowing, though the sentence is outrageous even in that context.

The sentence sends a chilling message to any potential whistleblowers, and particularly to military members who may consider speaking out about war crimes, illegal orders or other violations of military law and the law of war.

Military whistleblowing — and even reports of low-level misconduct, harassment, or waste and fraud — has long been considered career-ending. Whistleblowers, even those who complained in purely legal fashion to proper military authorities, have often faced harassment, punishment on fabricated charges, and less than honorable discharges. The problem had become so severe by the 1990s that Congress enacted the Military Whistleblower Protection Act to offer limited protection to soldiers who complained to members of Congress, an Inspector General, or other military officials about waste, abuse, fraud and violation of military regulations. Most recently, complaints about sexual assault were specifically added to the list. Unfortunately, the act has done little to halt mistreatment of whistleblowers.

But Chelsea Manning’s sentence raises the stakes for whistleblowing to a much higher level. It sends a clear message to military personnel that it is not safe to speak out against war crimes or military misconduct. Any soldiers who may have thought of revealing evidence of criminal activity to the public or to their chain of command have been given a strong lesson that such actions are unsafe. In typical military trickle-down effect, those who would blow the whistle on smaller crimes will feel threatened as well. Even anonymous whistleblowers (as Manning was originally) are likely to be silenced.

What does this mean for the future? Soldiers are in the best position, sometimes the only position, to observe war crimes and obtain evidence of illegal activity. The chilling effect of the Manning case will serve to protect military privacy, allowing cover-ups of criminal activity. This will greatly limit the ability of the media and hence the public to learn what the military is really doing around the world.

*On the day following her sentencing, Pvt. Manning issued a statement through her attorney, thanking supporters and also stating: “I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility).” In response, the Bradley Manning Support Network has stated its support for Chelsea Manning, and formally changed its name to the Private Manning Support Network.

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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