The Dumbing Down of Chelsea Manning

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been confined in London’s Belmarsh Prison since April 2019 fighting extradition to America, where he is charged with federal offenses relating to one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States. In January 2021, a London district judge found that Assange’s mental condition made it oppressive to extradite him, and ordered him released. However, he remained in custody pending the outcome of an appeal by the U.S. On December 10, 2021, England’s High Court of Justice overruled the lower court and approved extradition. Assange’s lawyers say they will contest the decision at the UK Supreme Court.

The compromise of classified information at the heart of the indictment against Assange occurred in 2010, when a low-level U.S. Army intelligence analyst deployed to Iraq stole 734,885 military and diplomatic files and dumped them at WikiLeaks, which published them on the Internet. Convicted by general court-martial in 2013, PFC Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison. In January 2017, with four days left in office, President Barack Obama commuted her sentence. She consequently walked out of prison at age 29 instead of age 57. It was a momentous turn of events.

Given her freedom, Manning might be expected to champion the cause of Julian Assange, whom she once admired as a “crazy white-haired Aussie who can’t seem to stay in one country.” Yet she has not done so. In March 2019, Manning was summoned as a witness in the U.S. grand jury investigation into Assange. Although granted immunity by both the District Court and Department of the Army ensuring that nothing she said could be used against her, Manning refused to answer prosecutors’ questions. Found in contempt of court, she was jailed.

Why wouldn’t Manning talk? Many assumed it was out of loyalty to Assange, and that she was willing to go back behind bars in order to protect him. But that was by no means clear. “If it was a grand jury in general,” she later told The Intercept, “I would respond the same way.” In the same interview, she said that had journalist Ken Klippenstein been “around in 2010, he would’ve been the recipient” of her leaks. Some Assange supporters saw this as Chelsea throwing Julian under the bus.

In any event, not once during Assange’s long ordeal avoiding the long arm of American law has Manning spoken out on his behalf. She has neither condemned his incarceration nor opposed his extradition. She told The New York Times in May 2019, “I’m still under obligation under the court rules and the Classified Information Procedures Act of 1980” to not talk about the leaks that made her famous. In October 2021, she told Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board that she is bound by a Non-Disclosure Agreement with the U.S. government likewise pertaining to her leaks. While it is unclear whether these restrictions prevent her from speaking out publicly in support of Assange, or if she simply doesn’t care, the fact remains that Manning has been mum.

This silence is consistent with Manning’s flight from politics since 2019 — in contrast to her incarceration at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where she remained politically engaged. Over the span of 3½ years, The Guardian published 21 mostly political op-eds that she wrote for them in prison. In 2014, The New York Times featured her op-ed “The Fog Machine of War.” She also blogged 26 times here at Medium, often with political content.

In 2015, Manning further raised her profile by activating a Twitter account. Since inmates were denied Internet access, she dictated her tweets by phone for an intermediary to post. Quickly attracting more than 50K followers, her account was duly verified with Twitter’s coveted blue checkmark. By the time she left prison, Manning had generated 14K frequently political tweets and amassed 143K followers.

Once sprung from the slammer, Chelsea Manning’s makeover into a full-fledged celebrity culminated with her candidacy for U.S. Senate in Maryland’s 2018 Democratic primary. Despite receiving $94,517 in contributions, with Manning personally kicking in $13,900, she finished a distant second in a field of eight, with 5.8% of the votes.

Manning was undeterred, shedding her Democratic Party protective coloration in favor of Antifa black. She kicked off 2019 by, on the occasion of the USA’s annual National Law Enforcement Appreciation Day, tweeting “Fuck the police” with an attached screenshot of a burning “Thin Blue Line” American flag, normally displayed to show support for police officers, especially those who have fallen in the line of duty.

Two months later, dressed in all black with a lapel pin depicting the black flag of anarchism, Manning appeared at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, in response to a subpoena requiring her testimony before the grand jury. After refusing to answer questions, Manning was found in contempt of court and remanded to the Alexandria City Jail until she would agree to testify. After 364 days in captivity, still having not cooperated, Manning was finally freed following a suicide attempt. The judge conveniently found that the grand jury’s business had concluded and ordered the recalcitrant witness’s immediate release.

Since then, Chelsea has been uncharacteristically subdued. Her principal public activity is streaming herself online playing video games at Twitch, where she has 20.6K followers. Politics is verboten. Everyone is here simply to have fun.

Even her Twitter account, where she has 402K followers, is a shadow of its former self. Chelsea’s tweets are personal, not political, often reduced to a single, frequently cryptic word or short elliptical phrase, seemingly intended as comical asides to insiders. Her lack of seriousness is paramount. Her followers’ silliness is reciprocal.

Chelsea Manning in Brooklyn on April 21, 2020. Detail of photo by @anarchakelly licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Public License (CC BY-SA 4.0).

What happened to Chelsea Manning? She’d emerged in 2017 after seven years in military prison fully charged and ready to jump into American politics. Yet after a year in civilian jail, she retired from all things political. As it happened, she was released into the third month of the COVID-19 pandemic that was ravaging the country. To her Twitter profile, Chelsea added “Socially Distanced,” and tweeted a photo of herself masked up in Brooklyn, where she relocated post-Alexandria.

In a rare political moment a year after leaving jail, Manning spoke for three minutes during the call-in portion of a hearing by the Criminal Justice Committee of the New Hampshire House of Representatives. Under consideration was a bill to delist solitary confinement as acceptable under state law. Chelsea decried the “long-term consequential effects to being held in isolation,” saying she suffered from complex PTSD, a serious health condition resulting from repeated trauma over time.

Was her year in Alexandria City Jail the trauma that broke the camel’s back, pushing her over the edge from confident political engagement into sheepish avoidance for the sake of mental self-preservation? If so, her retreat represents a triumph for the American judicial and carceral state apparatus, which has in effect dumbed Manning down in both senses: to make simpleminded and to be deprived of the power of speech.

In 2015, she described her life as a “rollercoaster.” While I deplore her criminal anarchism, I hope this withdrawal into triviality is just another in a series of deep drops destined to race up steep slopes, and that Chelsea Manning will rise again to public analysis of our political scene, which is poorer for her absence.

Copyright © 2021 by Alan Kurtz

Alan Kurtz is the author of Chelsea Manning’s War (2021), a self-published Amazon Kindle e-book.

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