This Op-Ed in the LA Times got me thinking a lot about something. I encourage you to read that first before reading on.
I think the author there covers the main reasons. Chief among them: Edward Snowden is a heterosexual man.
I fully support what both Snowden and Manning did, so it’s not really an issue of one being better than the other or more worthy of praise or pardon. I think they both should be pardoned. They both need to be pardoned.
The fact that Chelsea Manning is a transgender woman is definitely at the heart of this. While she was locked away for a few years pre-trial (something that is literally unconstitutional), the government worked very hard to smear her. They described her as having serious mental disorders.
As it turns out, her mental disorder can best be described as being transgender.
This matters a great deal for a few reasons.
First, the government outed her as transgender.
Second, they used this as a framework to explain that her motives were petty defiance stemming from her mental instability.
Third, and perhaps worst of all, this became the public narrative surrounding Chelsea Manning.
Fourth, Chelsea was not allowed to speak on any of this. She was often held in solitary confinement (torture) or was denied access to journalists.
She had to watch from prison (where she was being held without charge for well over the allotted 120 days, which is unconstitutional) as pundits picked apart her life. From her sexuality to her alleged motives.
It was, for these reasons, that she faced the trial as Bradley Manning. She and her lawyers decided they did not want the government to use her gender identity against her.
The fact that it’s even possible to smear someone based on their gender is astounding. The public’s discomfort with transgenders is well known. We’ve seen actual laws come into place regarding where they are allowed to use the public restroom.
So maybe it isn’t surprising that the US government used this as a tactic to attack her character. Maybe it’s unsurprising that it worked. But that doesn’t make it any less disgusting.
But let’s talk about the mechanics of a Hollywood biopic. Because, really, that’s what’s shining a light on Edward Snowden at the moment. But even before that, there was the documentary CitizenFour, which is an amazing film that I highly recommend.
Why was Chelsea Manning treated differently?
There are a few obvious reasons. For one thing, she made no grand escape. Chelsea Manning leaked information to Wikileaks, who then worked with several news organizations to release the information. It should be noted that Manning first reached out to news organizations. She wanted to disclose the information right to journalists.
She was ignored.
So she went to Wikileaks.
This isn’t exactly riveting screentime. Sure, they could make it that way, but Manning didn’t hack through government databases. She took readily available information and secretly sent it to Wikileaks, who then, in conjunction with places like the New York Times, released it to the public.
Once she was imprisoned, Chelsea Manning faced extensive cruel and unusual punishment for years before her trial. That’s not even an exaggeration.
Solitary confinement for months at a time. Sometimes she was stripped naked and left naked in her cell.
Human Rights organizations, world leaders, activists, and academics have written letters, pleaded, and demanded that she receive better treatment, but this was largely ignored.
Compare that to Snowden’s story.
Snowden learned an important lesson from previous US whistleblowers. From Thomas Drake and John Kiriakou, he learned that he couldn’t just go to his superiors to let them know that what the NSA was doing was unconstitutional and illegal. From Chelsea Manning he learned that he had to be out of reach before he disclosed the information or he would sit in prison for years. Potentially the rest of his life.
So he made his escape.
I haven’t seen the film yet, but I understand it has the feel of a spy thriller. And it kind of sounds that way!
Maverick government employee steals secrets, escapes abroad, then releases secrets to journalists, and finally puts his own name on those documents, in order to take control of the narrative before the US government could smear him, the way it smeared Manning.
I think it’s true that we wouldn’t have Snowden without Manning. That Manning’s actions seem daring and thrilling makes it all the more appealing to a mass audience. Add to that a love interest, in Snowden’s long time girlfriend, and the fact that Snowden has had the freedom to speak extensively about what he did, why he did it, how he did it, and has been able to be a regular commentator about privacy, national security, and human rights for years since his disclosure.
To put it simply, Snowden became a household name. Even people who don’t follow politics are aware of him. Some think he’s a traitor while others a hero, and still others are wholly indifferent to him as a person. But there was a built in audience for him. An audience that he is allowed to cultivate by virtue of not being in prison.
Add to that the documentary, which is thrilling and amazing and informative, and you have an easy road to make him a movie with a certain level of mass appeal, or at least mass interest.
But when I say Chelsea Manning, most people need to wikipedia her name to even know who I’m talking about. Even people who have followed Snowden’s disclosures may be unaware of who Chelsea Manning is and what she did.
Being imprisoned took the narrative out of her hands and into the hands of her captors. More than that, the collaboration of the pundit class with our military’s agenda makes this kind of story easy to ignore and hide from the general public.
So Chelsea Manning was ignored and continues to largely be ignored.
How do you film the last six years of her life?
One prison cell after another. Solitary confinement. Her trial, which was a military tribunal so no reporters were allowed to even take notes, seriously hampering any kind of transparency. In fact, many have described it as a kangaroo court. To many, including Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, it appeared that Assange was being tried in absentia along with Manning.
Without evidence–or rather, refusing to allow evidence to the contrary–they described Manning’s disclosures as aiding the enemy and seriously endangering the lives of US soldiers and intelligence officers.
None of which was proved because none of that was true. In fact, just the opposite. She made it safer for everyone by exposing US war crimes.
After her trial, she came out as transgender, was imprisoned in an all male prison. She had to petition and fight to receive gender transition medication, which they outright refused at first. For the last three years, Manning has been refused to be moved to a female prison. Refused to grow her hair out. Refused, at times, access to her medication and to be able to undergo gender affirming surgery. This led to her attempting to commit suicide, which she’s facing even more charges for.
This isn’t exactly a sexy narrative to play out on screens across america. A nation still actively at war in the Middle East. Now in even more countries than when Manning disclosed our war crimes. A public that believes we should continue these wars. A government that plans on expanding them still further.
To me, these are the reasons there has been no huge movement to grant Chelsea Manning a pardon.
- She’s a transgender female.
- Lack of visibility
- Her disclosures are even more damning to the US
My hope is that Snowden receives his pardon. But my greatest hope would be that Chelsea Manning also receives a pardon. Her plight is far greater than Snowden’s and she faces far more barriers to freedom.
If President Obama pardoned both, it would do a lot to lessen the great damage he has done to freedom of the press.