As has been widely reported, President Obama has commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning. And it’s great news. All the way back in November, James wrote, Chelsea Manning: Obama Should Pardon Her Now — a long an passionate argument on the matter.
But there are things that bug me about this. On the top of the list is that Manning is being set free because the administration thinks she has suffered enough. No, no, no! Chelsea Manning shouldn’t have been put in prison in the first place. Neither should the many other leakers who the Obama administration oppressed (as well as general whistleblowers like John Kiriakou).
(Of special note is the abuse of the Espionage Act of 1917. As many of use have been saying for years, Obama was setting a bad new norm and he wouldn’t always be president. Imagine what President Trump will do with this law? Breaking norms matter — perhaps especially when Democrats do it, because it legitimizes the norm breaking so much more.)
The Case Against Manning
But I think the case can be made that Manning should have been punished — although not to the extent she was. The truth is that her release of documents was reckless. I would counter that she tried to work with reporters and was ignored and dismissed. She could have done some culling before giving the material to Wikileaks, but I think that’s asking quite a lot from one so young.
You can disagree with me, of course. But I don’t think anything close to a reasonable argument can be made for a 7 year sentence — much less the 35 year sentence she was assigned barring commutation. The idea that “Manning had served enough time” just shows that the government has learned nothing from this. It isn’t interested in having a well-informed public. The question isn’t whether those who inform the public of our dirty deeds should be punished; it is just a question of how much they should be punished. According to Obama, 7 years is about right for an American hero like Chelsea Manning.
Here’s where we get into troubled waters: the Edward Snowden comparison. I am sick to death of hearing the official Democratic Party line on Snowden coming out of the mouths of dozens of liberal friends and acquaintances. Manning is the Good Leaker and Snowden is the Bad Leaker. Let me quote from an administration official, “Chelsea Manning is somebody who accepted responsibility for the crimes she committed. She expressed remorse for committing those crimes. She began serving the sentence that was handed down.”
So the distinction here is that Manning was a good a little girl and took her punishment. And Snowden was the bad little boy who ran away. Please! Think about this in a different way. Think about Harriet Tubman. After breaking the law by helping slaves escape, should she have turned herself into the Maryland police to see that justice was done? Of course not. Doing so would have been beyond naive. Yet that is what I am constantly told Snowden should have done.
I think the single biggest difference between Manning and Snowden is naivete. And I say that as someone who used to be very much like Manning. I used to think that if you did what was right, everything would be okay. But that’s not true. And I suspect if you could get inside Chelsea Manning’s head, you would find that she has had second thoughts about that. Those in power are not interested in right and wrong. They are interested in power and weakness. People like Manning and Snowden are the weak and must be destroyed.
Edward Snowden, with his libertarian politics, did not believe all the “home of the brave, land of the free” propaganda that Manning and I did. So he did the rational thing: he ran.
The “Screw You Snowden” Theory
I believe that a good part of why Manning’s sentence was commuted is because of Snowden. If the government didn’t have Snowden to hold up as the Big Bad Leaker, there would be far less pressure to release Manning. The message from the administration could not be clearer, “We’ll treat you right [Ha!] if you hang around, but don’t run!”
(Also: the idea that Snowden’s real crime is that he ran to our enemies is a joke. If he had run to the UK, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, or whatnot, he would have been handed over to the US. He clearly doesn’t want to be in Russia; that’s the choice of the US — not letting him move around. Had he gone to Venezuela, people would make the same arguments against him. In addition, there’s a good chance the US would have invaded Venezuela. Remember the invasion of Panama? Yes, the US is that sick a country that it would kill thousands of innocent people just to get one guy who pissed it off.)
Chelsea Manning’s Remorse
I also hate this idea that Manning “expressed remorse” for these “crimes. First, the whole idea of criminals showing remorse is a joke. No judge or jury can say that anyone is remorseful. Psychopaths are notably really good at showing remorse, even while feeling none. And everyone shows remorse — and every other emotion — differently. A couple of years ago, I was reading about a guy falsely convicted of killing his wife. It all stemmed from the fact that the police didn’t think he showed the proper emotion. So they railroaded him, as they are wont to do.
The other issue is that I don’t think Manning should show remorse. She’s a hero. Okay. She could show remorse over little things. She could have dealt with the leak better. (More like Snowden!) But that’s not what the Obama administration is on about. They are saying that she has shown remorse for doing it at all. And she shouldn’t be remorseful about that. And I suspect after she’s out — hopefully being something like an advocate for open government — she’ll be clear that it was right to release those documents.
So it’s great that Chelsea Manning is getting out of prison. But from a political standpoint, it isn’t a good thing. In fact, it’s only going to get worse. This is what happens to empires. They get too big. Those who lead them become too powerful. They will brook no disobedience. If America isn’t a dictatorship in a century, I’ll be surprised. If it is one in 20 years, I won’t be shocked. All Obama did yesterday was adjust a prison sentence. He didn’t make a stand for open government. Why would he? He isn’t for it.