Now that Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning has been sentenced to serve 35 years behind bars, her backers face the very practical question of how they can best continue their support and show their love for the diminutive, bespectacled 25-year-old soldier whose cause they have so long championed. The answer may seem like a no-brainer, but in truth it’s only partly so.
The no-brainer aspect is that Manning needs political, legal, monetary and moral support as much if not more than ever. According to Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, the prison term handed down by military judge Col. Denise Lind was “dramatically longer than the longest sentence ever [imposed] for disclosing classified information to the media. ...” The government meant to make a cruel example of Manning, and by any standard of decency it has.
Under military law, Manning will be confined at the United States Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Once there, as reported by Reuters, she’ll face years of monotony, housed as a man in a tiny cell appointed with a bed, toilet and desk. She’ll be permitted to read a limited number of preapproved library books but will be deprived of Internet access, although she’ll be allowed to use an electronic word processor for typing and mailing communications to the outside world.
Day by day, she’ll be assigned to tightly structured work details doing chores like catering, laundry, cleaning and yard maintenance. And while Leavenworth is generally regarded as safer than many civilian prisons, some inmates, according to Reuters, have described the environment as a “tinderbox” where tempers often flare. In short, until her ultimate release, Manning’s existence will be only slightly better than a living hell.
That brings me to the second and less obvious aspect of the future support she will need. With her trial in the rearview mirror, Manning could benefit from a tactical pivot by at least some of her ardent supporters, redirecting their efforts to doing whatever is practically necessary to secure her release from prison rather than simply promoting her case as a vehicle for fighting the wider and very dangerous crackdown on whistle-blowers.
This isn’t to say that Manning’s supporters should abandon or diminish their engagement in the bigger struggle, but to emphasize that a real live human being requires their aid to set her free. To accomplish that goal, Manning’s supporters will have to separate the myth from the woman, to realize and accept the fact that despite the impact of her disclosures, Manning is not the second coming of Daniel Ellsberg or another Nelson Mandela. She’s a unique human being, like the rest of us, with a unique set of personal issues, the first and foremost of which is to get out of Leavenworth.
A good way to begin the pivot would be to review the final argument made by David Coombs, Manning’s very able civilian lawyer, at her sentencing hearing. As Coombs told Lind, the “over-generalizations” about Manning in the press and at times in court as either a traitor or a super-hero ignored the multifaceted and vulnerable person Manning actually is.
Without abandoning his defense of Manning as a whistle-blower, Coombs portrayed his client as very intelligent and caring but also damaged and confused, and subject to extraordinary stress as a result of a highly troubled upbringing, gender-identity issues and her combat deployment to Iraq. Manning echoed many of the same themes in a personal statement to the court, accepting responsibility for her actions and even apologizing for any harm that her release of classified documents may have caused.
Coombs’ approach was both standard practice for a defense attorney attempting to humanize his client and mitigate punishment at the conclusion of a long trial and a preface to the legal and political work that remains to be done post-trial on Manning’s behalf. In the coming weeks, Coombs will begin the long process of seeking a presidential pardon and clemency from military authorities, preparing a series of legal appeals, and failing such remedies, pursuing parole. He’ll also represent Manning in her efforts to obtain gender-reassignment treatment while in prison.
It’s always possible that some of Manning’s convictions will be reversed on appeal, but she was found guilty of no less than 20 offenses, including six violations of the Espionage Act. She also pleaded guilty to 10 lesser offenses, which will not be subject to appellate review and by themselves carry a potential prison term of 20 years. Given President Obama’s dismal record on pardons, it’s also unlikely that Manning will achieve any success in that department.
This means that Manning’s best actual prospects for freedom likely will lie with the ordinary discretionary remedies of clemency and parole, for which she will be eligible in 6.5 years, according to Coombs. However, to succeed on those fronts, most military-law experts agree, Manning will have to show, as she did at her sentencing hearing, that she has accepted responsibility for her offenses and that she will have substantial family and social support in the community upon release.
The choice for the left, then, which has acted as Manning’s support base since her arrest in 2010, should be plain: Either it can continue to make her the centerpiece of resistance to government overreach, further antagonizing the military and the surveillance state in the process, or it can—without sacrificing that resistance—show its real love for Manning, follow Coombs’ highly nuanced lead and resolve to do whatever it takes to help set her free.