The U.S. government is trying to destroy Chelsea Manning.
Five years after the arrest of Manning, an Army private, for providing classified information to WikiLeaks, the government’s cruelty is taking another turn — part George Orwell, part Lewis Carroll. But Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning did not fall down the rabbit hole. She’s locked up at Fort Leavenworth, five years into a 35-year sentence — and the fact that she is not scheduled for release until 2045 isn’t enough of a punishment. Prison authorities are now brandishing petty and bizarre charges to threaten her with indefinite solitary confinement.
Why? The alleged transgressions include the possession of toothpaste past its expiration date and an issue of Vanity Fair with Caitlyn Jenner on the cover. Even if all the charges of minor violations of prison rules are found to be true at her closed hearing today, the threatened punishment is cruelly disproportionate.
As the conservative pundit George Will wrote more than two years ago, “Tens of thousands of American prison inmates are kept in prolonged solitary confinement that arguably constitutes torture.” In effect, the government is now threatening to torture Manning.
The ironies of the situation are boundless. Five years ago, Manning opted to send secret information to WikiLeaks after realizing that the U.S. military in Iraq was turning prisoners over to the Baghdad government with the full knowledge they would very likely be tortured.
After arrest, Manning remained in solitary confinement at a military brig in Virginia for nearly a year under conditions that a special United Nations rapporteur found constituted “at a minimum cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of article 16 of the convention against torture.” Among the publications just confiscated from Manning’s cell, ostensibly as contraband material, was the official Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture.
Last weekend, Manning said that she was denied access to the prison’s law library just days before a closed-door hearing set for Tuesday afternoon that could result in ongoing solitary confinement. The timing of this move was particularly egregious: She was preparing to represent herself at the hearing, which none of her lawyers would be allowed to attend.
“During the five years she has been incarcerated, Chelsea has had to endure horrific and at times plainly unconstitutional conditions of confinement,” ACLU attorney Chase Strangio said Monday. “She now faces the threat of further dehumanization because she allegedly disrespected an officer when requesting an attorney and had in her possession various books and magazines that she used to educate herself and inform her public and political voice.”
A support network for Manning has remained vigorous since her sentencing in August 2013. This helps to explain why the Pentagon is so eager to sever her ties with the outside world. As Strangio put it, “This support can break down the isolation of her incarceration and sends the message to the government that the public is watching and standing by her as she fights for her freedom and her voice.” For Manning, such support is a lifeline.
Since the news broke last week about the solitary confinement threat, nearly 100,000 people have signed an online petition sponsored by several groups, including Fight for the Future, RootsAction.org, Demand Progress and CodePink. “Putting any human being in indefinite solitary confinement is inexcusable, and for offenses as trivial as these (an expired tube of toothpaste, and possession of magazines?), it is a discredit to America’s military and its system of justice,” the petition reads. It demands that the charges be dropped and the Aug. 18 hearing be opened to the public.
As commander in chief, Barack Obama has not objected to the latest moves against Manning any more than he did when the abuse began. In fact, a day after State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in March 2011 that the treatment of Manning was “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid,” Obama publicly endorsed it.
Obama told a news conference that he “asked the Pentagon whether or not the procedures that have been taken in terms of his confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards. They assured me that they are.” The president stood by that assessment. Crowley quickly resigned.
Manning is one of the great whistleblowers of our era. As she explained in a statement two years ago, just after a judge sentenced her to one-third of a century in prison, “It was not until I was in Iraq and reading secret military reports on a daily basis that I started to question the morality of what we were doing. It was at this time that I realized that [in] our efforts to meet the risk posed to us by the enemy, we had forgotten our humanity.”
She added, “We consciously elected to devalue life both in Iraq and Afghanistan … 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.”
Unlike countless others who saw similar evidence but looked the other way, Manning took action with brave whistleblowing that those atop the U.S. military machinery still find unforgivable.
Washington is determined to make an example of her, to warn and intimidate other would-be whistleblowers. From the president on down, the chain of command is functioning to wreck the life of Chelsea Manning. We should not let that happen.