By Colonel (Retired) Ann Wright, Peace Voice
At a vigil on November 20, 2016 outside the gates of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, speakers underscored the need for pressure in the next six weeks on President Obama, before he leaves office on January 19, 2017 to approve clemency for U.S. Army whistleblower Private First Class Chelsea Manning. Manning’s lawyers filed a Petition for Clemency on November 10, 2016.
Chelsea Manning has been in prison for six and one-half years, three in pre-trial confinement and three since her 2013 conviction by court-martial of stealing and disseminating 750,000 pages of documents and videos to Wikileaks in what has been described as the largest leak of classified material in U.S. history. Manning was found guilty of 20 of the 22 charges against her, including violations of the US Espionage Act.
Manning was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison.
The speakers at the vigil in front of Fort Leavenworth included Chase Strangio, attorney and friend of Chelsea’s; Christine Gibbs, founder of the Transgender Institute in Kansas City; Dr. Yolanda Huet-Vaughn, a former US Army doctor who refused to go to Gulf War I and who was court-martialed and sentenced to 30 months in prison, of which she spent 8 months in Leavenworth; Brian Terrell who spent six months in federal prison for challenging the US assassin drone program at Whiteman Air Force Base;
Peaceworks Kansas City peace activist and attorney Henry Stoever; and Ann Wright, retired US Army Colonel (29 years in Army and Army Reserve) and former US diplomat who resigned in 2003 in opposition to Bush’s war on Iraq.
The vigil was called after Chelsea’s second suicide attempt inside the Leavenworth military prison. During the six and one-half years she has been imprisoned, Manning spent nearly a year in solitary confinement. A United Nations investigation into her isolation at Quantico Marine base, which involved being forced to strip naked every night, described her situation as “cruel, inhuman, and degrading.”
In 2015, Manning was threatened with solitary confinement again after she was charged for violations including storing a tube of expired toothpaste in her cell and having a copy of Vanity Fair. More than 100,000 people signed a petition against those charges. Manning was found guilty but was not put in solitary; instead, she faced three weeks of restricted access to the gym, the library, and the outdoors.
The other two charges involved “prohibited property” and “conduct which threatens.” Manning was authorized to have the property in question, her attorney Strangio said, but she allegedly used it in a prohibited way while attempting to take her life. It is unclear whether other prisoners at Fort Leavenworth would face similar administrative charges after a suicide attempt, or whether the “nature of the charges, and the aggressiveness with which they may be being pursued, is unique to her,” Strangio said.
On July 28, the Army announced it was considering filing three administrative charges in connection with the suicide attempt, among them an allegation that Manning had resisted “the force cell move team” during or after her suicide attempt, according to the official charge sheet. But Manning’s lawyers say their client could not have resisted because she was unconscious when officials found her in her cell at Fort Leavenworth detention center in Kansas. Her lawyers and the Army have not disclosed how she attempted to kill herself.
After her arrest in 2010, the whistleblower formerly known as Bradley Manning was diagnosed with gender dysphoria, a condition of extreme distress that results when a person’s gender identity does not match his or her biological sex. In 2015, she sued the Army to be allowed to start hormone therapy. However, according to her lawyers, the Army has not taken other steps to treat her like a female prisoner. “She has identified her ongoing deterioration of her mental health state as stemming in particular from the continued refusal to adequately treat her gender dysphoria as an ongoing need,” her attorney Chase Strangio reported.
Manning’s attorney’s filed a Petition for Clemency https://www.chelseamanning.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Chelsea-Manning-Commutation-Application.pdf
on November 10, 2016. Her three page petition asks that President Obama approve clemency to give Chelsea a first chance to live a “real, meaningful life.” The petition states that Chelsea never made excuses for disclosing classified materials to the news media and that she accepted responsibility at trial by pleading guilty without the benefit of a plea agreement which her lawyers state was an unusual act of courage in a case such as hers.
The petition notes that the military judge had no way of knowing what constitutes fair and reasonable punishment as there was no historical precedence for the case. Additionally, the petition comments that the military judge did not “appreciate the context in which Ms. Manning committed these offenses. Ms. Manning is transgender. When she entered the military she was, as a young adult, attempting to make sense of her feelings and place in the world,” and that many of Ms. Manning’s fellow soldiers teased and bullied her because she was “different.” “While the military culture has improved since then, these events had a detrimental effect on her mentally and emotionally leading to the disclosures.”
The petition details that since Chelsea’s arrest she has been subjected to torturous conditions while in military confinement, including being held for a year in solitary confinement while awaiting trial, and since her conviction, has been placed in solitary confinement for an attempted suicide. The United Nations has taken up the fight against the use of solitary confinement. As the former U.N. special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, explained, “[solitary confinement] was a practice that was banned in the 19th century because it was cruel, but it made a comeback in the last few decades.”
The petition request that “This Administration should consider Ms. Manning’s prison conditions, including the significant time she spent in solitary confinement, as a reason for reducing her sentence to time served. Our military leaders often say that their most important job is to take care of their service members, but no one in the military has ever truly taken care of Ms. Manning…Ms. Manning’s request is reasonable – she is merely asking for a time served sentence -the result of which would still place her off the charts for an offense of this nature. She will be left with all of the other consequences of the conviction, including a punitive discharge, a reduction in rank, and the loss of veteran’s benefits.”
The petition continues, “The government has wasted considerable resources on Ms. Manning’s prosecution, including by proceeding in a months long trial that resulted in a not-guilty verdict as to the most serious allegations, and by fighting Ms. Manning’s efforts to obtain treatment and therapy for gender dysphoria. She has spent over six years in confinement for an offense that in any other civilized judicial system would have resulted in at most a few years of prison time.”
Included in the petition is a seven-page statement from Chelsea to the board that outlines why she disclosed classified information and her gender dysphoria. Chelsea wrote: “Three years ago I requested a pardon related to my conviction for disclosing classified and other sensitive information to the media out of concern for my country, the innocent civilians whose lives were lost as a result of war, and in support of two values that our country holds dear- transparency and public accountability. As I reflect on the prior clemency petition I fear my request was misunderstood.
As I explained to the military judge who presided over my trial, and as I have
reiterated in numerous public statements since these offenses occurred, I take full and complete responsibility for my decision to disclose these materials to the public. I have never made any excuses for what I did. I pleaded guilty without the protection of a plea agreement because I believed the military justice system would understand my motivation for the disclosure and sentence me fairly. I was wrong.
The military judge sentenced me to thirty-five years confinement- far more than I could have ever imagined possible, as there was no historical precedent for such an extreme sentence under similar facts. My supporters and legal counsel encouraged me to submit a clemency petition because they believed the conviction itself coupled with the unprecedented sentence was unreasonable, outrageous and out of line with what I had done. In a state of shock, I sought a pardon.
Sitting here today I understand why the petition was not acted on. It was too soon, and the requested relief was too much. I should have waited. I needed time to absorb the conviction, and to reflect on my actions. I also needed time to grow and mature as a person.
I have been confined for over six years – longer than any person accused of
similar crimes ever has. I have spent countless hours revisiting those events, pretending as though I did not disclose those materials and therefore was free. This is in part because of the mistreatment I have been subjected to while confined.
The Army kept me in solitary confinement for nearly a year before formal charges were brought against me. It was a humiliating and degrading experience – one that altered my mind, body and spirit. I have since been placed in solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure for an attempted suicide despite a growing effort- led by the President of the United States- to stop the use of solitary confinement for any purpose.
These experiences have broken me and made me feel less than human.
I have been fighting for years to be treated respectfully and with dignity; a battle I fear is lost. I do not understand why. This administration has transformed the military through the reversal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and the inclusion of transgender men and women in the armed forces. I wonder what I could have been had these policies been implemented before I joined the Army. Would I have joined? Would I still be serving on active duty? I cannot say for sure.
But what I do know is that I am a far different person than I was in 2010. I am not Bradley Manning. I really never was. I am Chelsea Manning, a proud woman who is transgender and who, through this application, is, respectfully requesting a first chance at life. I wish I were strong and mature enough to realize this back then.”
Also included are letters from Colonel Morris Davis, former Chief Prosecutor for the Military Commissions at Guantanamo from 2005 to 2007 and resigned rather than use evidence obtained by torture. He was also the head of the U.S. Air Force Clemency Board and Parole Program.
In his two page letter Colonel Morris wrote, “PFC Manning signed the same security agreements that I did and there are consequences for violating those agreements, but the consequences should be fair, just and proportional to the harm. The primary focus of military justice is the maintenance of good order and discipline, and a key part of that is deterrence. I know of no soldier, sailor, airman or Marine who looks at the six-plus years PFC Manning has been confined and thinks he or she would like to trade places. That is particularly time of the period PFC Manning was incarcerated at Quantico under conditions the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture called “cruel, inhuman and degrading” and that led to the resignation of then State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley (Colonel, U.S. Army, retired) after he called PFC Manning’s treatment “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid. Reducing PFC Manning’s sentence to 10 years will not cause any service member to think the penalty is so light that it might be worth taking the risk under similar circumstances.”
Additionally, there is a long-standing perception in the military of disparate treatment. The phrase I heard repeatedly from the time I joined the Air Force in 1983 until the time I retired in 2008 was “different spanks for different ranks.” I know that it is impossible to fairly compare cases, but rightly or wrongly there is a perception that senior military officers and senior government officials who disclose information get sweetheart deals while junior personnel get slammed. There have been high-profile cases since PFC Manning was sentenced that help perpetuate that notion. Reducing PFC Manning’s sentence to 10 years will not erase the perception, but it will bring the playing field a little closer to level.”
Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg also wrote a letter included in the petition package. Ellsberg wrote that it was his firm belief that PFC Manning “disclosed classified material for the purpose of informing the American people of serious human rights violations including the killing of innocent people by United States troops in Iraq. She hoped to begin a dialogue in our democratic society about the continuation of a war that she believed was wrong and was contributing to illegal acts…Ms. Manning has already served six years. This is longer than any other whistleblower in United States history.”
A letter from Glenn Greenwald, former constitutional lawyer from New York and journalist at The Intercept, who has extensively covered issues of whistleblowing, press freedom, transparency, surveillance and the National Security Agency (NSA) was also included in the Petition for Clemency. Greenwald wrote:
“Remarkably, the difficultly of Chelsea’s ordeal over the last several years has only strengthened her character. Whenever I have spoken with her about her prison life, she expresses nothing but compassion and understanding even for her jailers. She is devoid of the resentments and grievances which are common even among those with blessed lives, let alone those facing great deprivation. It’s difficult to believe for those who don’t know Chelsea- and even for those of us who do know but the longer she has been in prison, the more compassionate and concerned for others she has become.
Chelsea’s courage is self-evident. Her entire life- from joining the military out of a sense of duty and convlction; to undertaking what she regarded as an act of courage notwithstanding the risks; to coming out as a trans woman even while in a military prison- is a testament to her personal bravery. It is not an exaggeration to say that Chelsea is a hero to, and has inspired, all kinds of people all over the world. Wherever I go in the world to speak on issues of transparency, activism and dissent, audiences filled with young and old break out into sustained and passionate applause at the mere mention of her name. She is a particular inspiration to LGBT communities in many countries, including those where being gay, and particularly trans, is still quite dangerous.”
President Obama will be leaving office in six weeks. We need 100,000 signatures to get the people’s petition before President Obama for him to approve Chelsea’s Clemency request. We have 34,500 signatures today. We need 65,500 more by December 14 for the petition to go to the White House. Please add your name! https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/commute-chelsea-mannings-sentence-time-served-1