In recent days it had been rumoured that President Obama was planning a new round of commutations for prisoners, and that on the shortlist was army whistleblower Chelsea Manning. This afternoon this rumour was confirmed by the White House and Manning shall be release from prison on 17th May 2017. The announcement of her release is a positive move from the Obama Administration, and we would be wise to remember Manning’s ordeal, particularly given that Obama’s successor appears to have many authoritarian tendencies.
Chelsea Manning was originally court-martialed under the Espionage Age in July 2013 for passing around 750,000 classified documents to the pro-transparency organisation Wikileaks. The material passed to Wikileaks gained notoriety because of the scale of the leak and the content of the documents. The documents revealed that the US government had conducted double tap drone strikes- strikes that are designed to kill a target and all first responders who rush towards the scene.
I would argue that double tap drone strikes could well be a violation of international law. A key premise of warfare that all nations are supposed to abide by is that civilians are not to be targeted. The very nature of double tap drone strikes makes the likelihood of civilian casualties much higher, and as such should not be carried out.
In a hypothetical situation in which car has just been bombed by a drone, the people who first respond are not the initial targets and are not seen as a threat. The people who respond are not only paramedics and doctors, but are literally anybody who happens to be nearby. The decision to launch another drone strike so these responders are also killed is, in my humble opinion, morally indefensible.
The resultant trial of Manning found her guilty under the Espionage Act and sentenced her to 35 years in prison. This initial miscarriage of justice should not be forgotten. If the state is pursuing a course of action that you believe is unjust, I am very much of the opinion that you should dissent and show the public what was being done in their name. Manning shouldn’t have been put on trial let alone sentenced to 35 years in prison.
I can predict that liberals, who are currently in the process of the romanticising every aspect of the last eight years, will celebrate this move. However let’s not lose sight of the fact that Manning was prosecuted and imprisoned on Obama’s watch. Defenders of the Obama Administration will say that to commute Manning’s sentence would be politically inexpedient. This answer is deeply unsatisfying. If the President shouldn’t act to rectify an injustice if it will cost them electorally, liberals are essentially saying that electoral success is more important than acting to create a more just world.
The reason that this is important is that Trump has a tendency to overreact about everything and be punitive to all who disagree with him. Whistleblowers, by their very nature, are critical of government policy and as such will come into conflict with the White House. Given that Trump has, on numerous occasions, punished people who openly criticise him or what he says, I can only suppose that whistleblowers in the next four years will be severely punished. Obama could have avoided this precedent but not prosecuting Manning, but by adopting a harsher line on whistleblowers, the people around Trump will use it to justify some horridly oppressive measures.
Chelsea Mannning’s release from prison is a good step forward and Obama was right to commute her sentence but this is really only half the story. For the past three and half years Manning has been imprisoned for revealing the crimes of the US government. This should not have been an issue, and Obama should have acted years ago. The situation of whistleblowers in the US government is now unclear because of Obama’s approach. With Trump now becoming the head of the US government, whistleblowers will need protection and public support. The Left and the Right need to prepare for some serious abuses in government power, and whistleblowers will be at the vanguard of this fight.