Only one person on earth has ever wanted to be Chelsea Manning. That person, of course, was Army PFC Bradley Manning—still Chelsea’s official identity back in 2010 when she was an intelligence analyst in Iraq. Troubled by all the horrible crap she’d come across, she passed a huge trove of classified material to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Because he’s Assange, which is Australian for “putz,” he didn’t redact much, if any, of it before dumping the whole vat of sludge online: war logs, gruesome airstrike videos, thousands of indiscreet diplomatic cables, the works.
Ratted out as the leaker and arrested that May, Manning spent three years in often-harsh custody even before a court-martial in 2013 sentenced her to 35 years in Leavenworth.(She pled guilty to 10 of 22 counts in the indictment and was convicted on 17 of them.) Then, she declared she’d always felt female, renamed herself Chelsea and began battling the Army to allow her hormone therapy and eventually, gender transition surgery. She’s reportedly tried to kill herself twice, most recently in October.
Presumably, most of you know some of this already. So why reprise it now? Because a whole lot of people would like to see President Obama commute Manning’s sentence before leaving office. This week, enough of them—more than 100,000—signed a White House petition to effect, by Obama’s own rules, a mandatory response from the Executive Branch. This “We The People” outlet is one more memento of his administration that’s unlikely to survive Trump’s inaugural by more than a day or two. And it may not deserve to survive.
In the five years since the “We The People” process was instituted, more than 300 petitions have reached the required threshold. Very few of them have ever prompted more than anodyne claptrap in reply, and that includes the one that successfully lobbied the White House to release its secret beer-brewing recipe. The most famous petition of all was the one from Star Wars fans asking the government to build a Death Star, which drew a memorably droll response (“the Administration does not support blowing up planets”). All in all, if Manning’s supporters seriously believe Obama might be inclinded to spring her just because 100,000-plus of them clicked “Sign Now,” they’re among the most poignant people in America.
Manning’s own reaction to the news, however, was “I’m just grateful I am not forgotten.” Only 22 years old when she turned over her filched document cache, she may very well have trusted Assange to make more discriminating use of it than he did. He might have considered going public with the genuinely damning nuggets about the ugly side of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after removing the names of people whose lives might be put at risk or skipping the reams of tittle-tattle that merely embarrassed U.S. diplomats. (In 2010, it was much easier to believe Assange and Wikileaks were on the side of the angels than it would be today. )
At her sentencing, she expressed seemingly earnest remorse for the “unintended consequences” of what she’d done. “I am sorry that my actions hurt people. I’m sorry that they hurt the United States,” she said. Nonetheless, she’s been incarcerated longer than any whistleblower in our history.
At one level, her gender dysphoria is totally irrelevant to the misdeeds she pled guilty to—and should, as a serving member of the American military, have done time for. (Only left-wing crackpots think she should have gotten off wholly unpunished.) But it’s obviously a long way from being irrelevant to the argument that Manning, to use the traditional formula, has suffered enough. It’s not like transgender people don’t still face plenty of hostility in civilian life, but to make that fight in a maximum-security U.S. Army prison takes guts.
Even if our outgoing POTUS decides to pay heed to a “We The People” petition for a change, the odds of Obama commuting her sentence are slim. His administration has always been even more antagonistic than prior ones were to whistleblowers and leakers, and from his perspective, the damage caused by the 2010 info dump was very real. Even so, a commutation isn’t the same thing as a pardon. Besides, freeing Manning would be a nice parting gift to an LGBTQ community that’s bracing for four years of Vice President Mike Pence.
Once she finally gets to grow her hair long—something her Army warders have denied her—her voice will come in handy at those angry rallies, no? Anyhow, you get one guess as to who’s the 112,622nd American to sign the “Commute Chelsea Manning’s Sentence To Time Served” petition at Whitehouse.gov, no matter how futile a gesture it may be.