President Obama Commutes Sentences of Chelsea Manning and Oscar Lopez Rivera
We speak to ShadowProof.com’s managing editor Kevin Gosztola who chronicled Chelsea Manning’s trial
JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
We’re coming to you live on Facebook, to give you this breaking and historic news: U.S. President Barack Obama has commuted the sentence of U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning. And he’s also commuted the sentence of Puerto Rican independence fighter Oscar López Rivera, which has gotten almost no attention in English-language news. We’ll talk about that a little bit today, but we’ll follow up on that story tomorrow.
Now, back to Chelsea Manning. In 2010, Manning leaked classified files to pro-transparency site WikiLeaks. Much of the time Manning already served was in solitary confinement. Manning was hospitalized several times, according to attorneys, after several suicide attempts. Manning –- and we’re going to show you his picture in just a second –- is a former intelligence analyst in Iraq. He’s serving a 35-year sentence, after a 2013 military court convicted him of providing more than 700,000 documents, videos, diplomatic cables and battlefield accounts to WikiLeaks. It was the biggest breach of classified materials in U.S. history. The leaks had impact across the world. They’re credited with helping spark the Arab Spring.
We’re now joined by Kevin Gosztola to discuss this. He’s the managing editor of Shadowproof, co-host of a weekly podcast, as well. Thank you so much for joining us.
KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Thank you.
JAISAL NOOR: Kevin, reflect upon this for a moment — the fact that Obama really made this surprise announcement. We knew that Chelsea Manning was in contention to receive this pardon, but I think it surprised many people, considering Obama has waged an unprecedented war on whistleblowers, a war on leakers, and even journalists that work with them. Talk a little bit about the gravity of this announcement.
KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Yeah. Just to add to the introduction, I covered all of the court martial, as one of four or five journalists that covered all of Chelsea Manning’s court martial at Fort Meade. And so, I’ve been following her case closely, ever since she was arrested. Whether I was writing about it or not, and I think what happened here is very, very remarkable. Something shifted within the national security establishment, where people convinced themselves that Chelsea Manning had done enough time. That she had taken responsibility for her actions, and that it was okay to commute her sentence and give her, what basically amounts to time served.
And that’s incredible to me. I think that’s a tribute to all of the work, of the people who have been saying free Chelsea Manning, since she entered a jail cell. It’s a tribute to some of the journalism that’s been done. It’s a tribute to some of the few human rights organizations that were willing to speak up for her. Although sometimes they didn’t speak up for her about what she did, but just spoke up for her and treated her like a political prisoner, and stood up for her human rights, which was critical.
But, I think that you’re right: Barack Obama has this record of this war on whistleblowers. And as we’re talking about Chelsea Manning, often because Edward Snowden came forward at the same time as Chelsea Manning went on trial, there’s been this comparison of the two, and Edward Snowden was treated like the good whistleblower, by people when he revealed information about the NSA, and Chelsea Manning was treated like a bad whistleblower, because she leaked information to WikiLeaks.
Now we’ve seen this kind of a shift, where the fact that Edward Snowden is in Russia, and didn’t face up to his actions, actually works against him. And Chelsea Manning, to her credit, because she went before a military court, is getting out of prison.
JAISAL NOOR: You covered that trial extensively. Did she receive a fair trial, in your view?
KEVIN GOSZTOLA: I don’t think that it was that fair of a trial, because she wasn’t able to put forward evidence in the courtroom about why she had made the choice that she made, to disclose information. Basically what happened is, she ended up pleading guilty to a lot of the charges. We had a trial, but we had a sort of abbreviated trial. It wasn’t just a sentencing, but it was a shorter trial because she had pled guilty to some of the offences, parts of the offences. And so, there were larger issues at stake, such as whether she had aided the enemy.
You know, the military went after her very, very zealously, and made some very harsh arguments against her that went after her patriotism. Whether she was a traitor or not, suggesting that these leaks had helped Al Qaeda, that somehow you could trace all of these leaks to Osama bin Laden. And that they had found files on Osama bin Laden’s digital media, when they raided his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. And so this was very, very, I think, damaging to her reputation.
We had people there in the court, military prosecutors, who were suggesting that she maybe was no longer much of an American, because she had questions about whether you should worship the flag. Similar things, like, well, now we hear people talking about whether you should kneel during the national anthem -– it was that kind of thing with Chelsea, that she had questions about how you should worship America, while she was within the army. And they used that against her to paint her as a traitor.
So, I don’t think that she got as fair of a trial as she should have gotten, but she was convicted. She received a 35-year sentence. She was convicted under the Espionage Act. And this president has indicted more individuals under the Espionage Act, than any other president in the history of this country, which is really something to consider.
But, of course, this was a military justice case. It’s a little bit different from the federal court cases that have been brought against other whistleblowers. But the same regime, under the Obama administration, went after Chelsea Manning.
JAISAL NOOR: And Manning transitioned while in prison. She suffered… she faced solitary confinement. She was treated… the way she was treated was condemned by human rights organizations around the world. Can you comment about that? That she’s still surviving all this… what amounts to torture at the hands of her former employers.
KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Yeah, go back to Quantico Marine Brig in 2011, and we have these reports — P.J. Crowley, who was spokesperson for the State Department at the time — comes out and says something about Chelsea Manning’s treatment. You had the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture calling her treatment cruel and inhumane, and making it a part of the world’s concerns, frankly, and embarrassing the Obama administration because there is this abuse happening to somebody who hadn’t even been convicted of crimes yet. This was during pre-trial detention that she was receiving this abuse, and that influenced the trial.
We had a long section of the court martial before we got to trial, that just heard evidence for a number of days about how she had been abused, so that we could have credit put into the… she would have credit go toward her sentence. So, she had time, she had 112 days taken off of her sentence, because she was abused at Quantico, in solitary confinement conditions.
Then fast-forward to Leavenworth, Kansas, where she is right now, and will be until May. She was put in solitary confinement as punishment, because she committed suicide, because she’s struggling with mental health issues that the facility, frankly, has done little to address. When people who advocate for her have said, “Please do something about this. This is really bad; this is something where we’re worried about her well-being, we don’t know if she’s going to be able to make it.” And I think, frankly, Obama has saved Chelsea Manning. It’s very possible that she would have died in Leavenworth Prison, if he had not commuted her sentence.
JAISAL NOOR: The impact that Chelsea Manning made cannot be understated with these actions, which many have described as courageous. Because with the… they helped spark the Arab Spring. They helped inspire people to revolt against autocratic rulers, starting in Tunisia and across the world. And of course, there’s that footage — the collateral murder footage — we have that video, and we’re going to play it. But it shows the U.S. military targeting civilians, targeting a Reuter’s journalist, and killing them for sport, it seems like. And no one was held accountable for those killings.
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JAISAL NOOR: And so we’re watching some of this footage. It is… it is quite disturbing to see that. But, again, no one was held accountable for those actions. Kevin, can you comment about that, as well?
KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Absolutely. That definitely colored my coverage of the court martial, and especially the outcome, the verdict. The fact that she was convicted of all of these offences — and also I want to say she was convicted of all of those offences on July 30th — which the country celebrates, or at least, our Congress, our government recognizes as National Whistleblower Appreciation Day.
And I thought that was pretty ironic, particularly her case, showed glaringly, the disparity in justice. You know, the fact that you can blow the whistle on these sorts of crimes. That you can reveal the wrongdoing that is going on as a result of our wars, and the people who are responsible for torture. The people, who are involved in committing crimes against humanity, or war crimes, do not get hauled before a court. They’re not brought before a military judge. And, yeah, what she released has been tremendous for the world, in coloring our understanding.
I mean, the fact is, Reuters tried to get a copy of the collateral murder video, as we know it now, and they were not allowed to have a copy. Freedom of Information Act rejected their request. They went through that process. They did not get a copy. These war logs, these military incident reports, gave a complete picture of what was happening on the ground in Afghanistan, in Iraq. Showed exactly where things were playing out. Revealed things like this task force that was going around and murdering people.
And this is the first time that we’re getting into assassination squads that the Bush administration had been using. And these diplomatic cables, this tremendous trove of diplomatic cables that gave us a complete look at the way our diplomats work around the world. And how they will work on behalf of corporations, and how they’ll cozy up with dictators. And in seeing things like, you know, we’re going to… having Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Yemen, say to General Petraeus, that he would say our bombs were from Yemen, so that we didn’t have to take responsibility for drone strikes. These are huge revelations.
And then there were even Guantanamo files, and we got to see all of the flawed intelligence, all of the fabricated intelligence. Much of it that the U.S. military has on the 779 men that were imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, and now it’s down to, you know, less than 100 people. And a lot of that is because she’s contributed to this conversation about who these people were, that were imprisoned at Guantanamo. And so all of this, everything, is just a tremendous impact that Chelsea Manning had on the way we understand our world.
JAISAL NOOR: And a common refrain used to attack Chelsea Manning is that, she’s a traitor, that her actions risked lives, that they cost lives, in fact. But, you know, an interesting thing happened is, that U.S. officials were forced to acknowledge that there’s no evidence to date, that the documents released led to anyone’s death.
So, you know, you still… you still see it on social media, and right wing and some even on the left, say that Obama should not have commuted Chelsea Manning’s sentence. Can you respond to those statements?
KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Yeah. I’ve seen that we can’t celebrate this because it’ll be bad for the U.S. army’s morale. I’m sure people are suggesting that lives were put at risk, and people died because of Chelsea Manning. I followed this trial, and I can tell you that there was never anything put in the public record during this trial, about a person who was killed as a result of Chelsea Manning’s disclosures.
Now, there may have been secret evidence in the closed sessions -– there was a closed part of the trial that the press and public were not allowed to see because it involved classified information — but it was always my conviction, I felt that if you were going to charge her with these serious offences, and put her behind bars for decades, that you needed to show evidence and declassify evidence of people’s deaths.
And I always thought that if somebody had died as a result of these disclosures, we would be hearing about it, because our government would make sure that we knew that that was why this was not a good thing for us to celebrate. They never had a single individual that they could put out there as the example for why we needed to demonize WikiLeaks, and/or why we needed to not support and celebrate Chelsea Manning.
And so, now as we sit here, talking about the commutation of Chelsea’s sentence, there is not a single individual that anyone who is opposed to this action can cite, because it just does not exist in the public record.
JAISAL NOOR: Well, Kevin, we want to thank you so much for joining us. We’re going to link to your work covering the trial of Chelsea Manning, and we interviewed you at the time, so we’ll link to those reports you provided us.
And again, Oscar López Rivera has also had his sentence commuted. He had been imprisoned for 36 years -– I’m reading from a report from TeleSUR –- for his struggle to free Puerto Rico from U.S. colonial rule. He was part of the armed forces of National Liberation, he was captured in 1981, he claimed he was protected by the Geneva Convention as a freedom fighter. We know that his commutation has gone through, too.
But it’s also worth mentioning that there are other freedom fighters, like Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther, former journalist, who are still… remain in prison. Many have demanded his release. Others also like Leonard Peltier, who is in dire health… facing dire health conditions, part of the American Indian Movement, also been in jail for decades. And also yet to be, sentence commuted from President Obama. But we’re going to keep following this story, and Kevin, thank you so much for joining us.
KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Thanks.
JAISAL NOOR: And thank you for joining us at The Real News. Go to Therealnews.com for our full coverage on Chelsea Manning’s case and the impact of its leaks. We’ve interviewed Kevin, and as well as Michael Ratner who was on our board, and he passed away last year. We’ll link to those interviews, as well. Thank you so much for joining us.