The day I finally met Chelsea Manning

chelsea, me, Rache

Chelsea Manning at the Annenberg School of Journalism, Philadelphia, PA., talking to me (messy hair, leather jacket) and my wife. Photo by Kyle Cassidy

Updated to add this link, in which Chelsea Manning spoke more clearly about her case than she felt able to do at Penn. (Forgive the deadname in Atlantic’s title; it was before she came  out to the world as the assured young woman you see above.

The photo above was taken on November 29, 2017, right after Manning spoke to about 400 students at the University of Pennsylvania, which treated her far better than Harvard had. That figure in the leather coat  is me, my hair stressed by the windy day. And in that photo, by the celebrated Kyle Cassidy, the shadows under her eyes tell more truths than she could or did that night.

I showed up hoping to live-blog/tweet it, and to ask if I could share what part of her story ends up in my book. The live-blogging was kind of foiled by the unsure wireless at Penn, and by having to wait in line at a microphone to ask her a question in public.

I’m happy that the event was covered by WHYY, which provides a far more exuberant photo, conveying how happy she was to be there. For exact words said, click the link: what I provide is more a set of musings, and answers to questions some of you suggested.

The event was at Annenberg Center Live, at Penn’s journalism school. As I sat waiting, I thought of seeing her in that Fort Meade courtroom five years ago, when we all knew her as Bradley Manning but many, including me, suspected she was transgender. Now her trans identity is one of the first things most people know about her, I thought. Especially those following @Xychelsea on Twitter.

Instead of a journalist, she was on stage with Gabriella Coleman, a professor at McGill in a field I didn’t know existed: Scientific and Technological Literacy. (One of the fields thats emerged with the STEM generation, I was told by a student who  didn’t know how old that made me feel.)

Most of those in the audience had likely been in their teens when Manning was in basic training. They howled in celebration when Manning and Coleman took the stage, Manning wearing shorts, lace tights and Doc Martins.

Coleman started by telling stories about calls she’d get from Manning when she was at Leavenworth; Manning’s work is already included in Coleman’s, work which includes the books The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking and The Many Faces of Anonymous

That period when they met was when Manning was starting to be able to tell her own story –  200,000 letters from supporters were streaming into Leavenworth, and Manning was tweeting back and writing op-eds with a very patient editor at Guardian UK. “It all had to happen in the U.S. mail,”  Manning said. She would type her drafts, get them in the mail and then make a collect call to the Guardian and dictate the article, to get it into the queue. “Op-ed is a very difficult form in journalism,” Coleman pointed out.
They talked about some of the op-eds, including one for the New York Times about the dangers of big data. This part of the conversation was the most substantive, discussing the way the data we provide for online convenience enters algorithms that can impact our lives in unforeseen ways.  “In Iraq, I was working with comparatively primitive software,” Manning said. “And my algorithm killed people.” Coleman mentioned next the video released by Wikileaks as Collateral Murder,  the helicopter-cam video of a 2007 airstrike in Iraq that killed two Reuters journalists. “I showed the video to one of my classes at New York University,” she said. “And I can tell you that they felt betrayed. Why hadn’t they seen anything like this? Why didn’t they know what was happening in Iraq?”
“That’s why I felt—” Manning started and then stopped. More slowly, she added that “The American people deserved to know the unvarnished truth about the war.” Her reluctance to go into detail about her actions, Manning added, was because so many details of her case are still classified – or re-classified. “How can they do that?” Coleman piped up to mention the booming U.S. intelligence establishment, with dozens of agencies claiming sole right to more and more data.
Coleman asked what crossover Manning saw between two of Manning’s most ardent constituencies: the activist/privacy/hacker community, and those fighting for transgender rights. “So many communities,” said Manning. “If you’re trans, or brown or queer, you’re making yourself a target to the people in power.” Not dissimilar, she added, to her time in Leavenworth: “Everybody in prison faces challenges like that — and we have to lean on each other when it gets hard. It’s a real community…Communities know what’s going on, what has to change.”
Then came the “Jordan Peterson conversation,” for which I will defer to Bobby Allyn’s WHYY piece:

Manning became most animated when Coleman asked about the brouhaha that erupted over a Canadian professor’s refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns, saying it impinged on his free-speech rights.

“It’s all about him, isn’t it?” said Manning to audience laughter. She then shifted to a sterner tone.

“We are who we say we are. It’s as simple as that. This isn’t a free-speech issue. It’s a dignity issue. It doesn’t hurt him, just use it,” she said. “It’s hurtful to be on the other end of that and not be acknowledged or validated.”

See Allyn’s article for most of the Q&A, including Manning’s elegant summary of Democratic security policy:“A ‘D’ is more likely to say, ‘We need more trans drone pilots.’ ” But I wanted to talk about my own question  which really belonged to Desert Storm veteran Scott Lee, who suggested it on AM’s Facebook page.
I was one of the last to get the mike, and I first said: “It’s good to see you. The last time was at Fort Meade, during your court-martial.” The expression that crossed her face was a harder version of the photo at the top of this post. She didn’t like being reminded of that time, though her eloquence when she did get to address the court displayed far better than she’d done that night.

Then I told her that many veterans look up to her, and my question was from one of them ‘When he was in the military, he said, there were classes in what was and what not a lawful order. His question: When does one cross the line to become a whistleblower?”

This was both a substantive question and a softball: an opportunity to put her actions in context, the way she did at Fort Meade. Instead, Manning said that it was complex, that every order is technically a legal order because it comes from someone above you in the chain of command — and as for actions that violate international law, it’s legal if the Pentagon says it is. Her tone was flat, a cross between a tired activist or a paralegal.

I don’t know what I’d expected to hear, but it wasn’t that. I guess part of me was remembering her account, at Fort Meade, of seeing one of her intelligence “products” used to round up and detain people who had done nothing but petition their local authorities.That changed how she looked at the data she was collecting; it must have rendered repulsive the next order to produce more data. But Manning wasn’t comfortable offering details of her work in Iraq, perhaps fearing they were now classified.

After the talk, Manning actually sat on the stage to talk to people, which gave me a chance to ask my other questions. I told her about Ain’t Marchin (not by title), and asked if she had thoughts about Reality Winner or Edward Snowden. “Nothing to say about other cases!” she said.”I can barely talk about my own.”

Then came the request portion. “I’m like other journalists who’ve been trying to write about you before you started telling your own story.” I told her the book will be published, but I was hoping to pass the sections about her by someone who could ensure it was accurate. (This is something I did with Heather Lea Linebaugh, and with the brother of Vietnam veteran Jeff Sharlet.) She nodded, and took down my information (including the URL for this page). Her assistant, her people, are supposed to get in touch.

At this point my wife, the poet/computer geek Rachel Rawlings, had joined us; it turned out that Manning’s supporting herself at a job like Rachel’s, and the two of them commiserated about life as a system administrator. She also told both of us that it’s only in the past few months that she’s come down to earth and really started to process what she has been through, now that the post-release elation was fading. That explains the 1000-yard stare: telling her story, even in this abbreviated form, must be as re-traumatizing as much as it is healing. Not to mention the documentary she’s working on, XYCHELSEA, which comes out next year.

After we all went our separate ways, Manning had 2 afterparties – one at a local bistro and one at the Haktory, a hackers’ workspace.  The latter sounds perfect, because being Chelsea Manning sounds like hard work.

 

Advertisements

VIDEO: Millennials and conscience

Some video reminders why this book has to exist. A simple question, posed 6 years ago by a respected journalist to an author, was already being answered Chelsea Manning, soon to be echoed by the voices of the whistleblowers above.

I discovered the first as I was reshaping – for the last time, I hope! — my World War I chapter, featuring the iconic conscientious objector Evan Thomas. His great-niece Louisa wrote a book about her family, and was interviewed by Jon Meacham below:

https://www.c-span.org/video/?300240-1/conscience

Watching this six years later, I was struck first by how much Thomas resembles her uncle. Then, after an engaging discussion of conscience, war and social responsibility, Meacham asks Thomas “Why does your generation not engage in this kind of dissent?” Meacham asks this despite knowing about then-Private Manning, who at that very moment was in the same prison where Evan Thomas had been tortured. (In that case, Meacham was taking the government’s side.)

Thomas’ response ignores contemporary soldier-dissenters, telling Meacham “Maybe it’s because we aren’t being forced to go to war” and suggesting that the Shark Tank crowd comprised her generation of rebels. But just as I was listening to that exchange, in my Twitter feed gave us Lisa Ling, one of those who stepped forward in Sonia Kennebuck’s documentary NATIONAL BIRD.

I can’t embed the video, but you should click on the link and watch it. Shaming that 2011 Meacham-Thomas exchange, Ling uses the phrase “poverty draft,” which I’m still astonished is not more common. As she describes her path from aspiring nurse to anguished drone operator, you can almost hear the voices of Brandon Bryant and Heather Linebaugh,both of whom honored me with interviews for Ain’t Marching.

When I’ve thought I should drop this whole project, I remember their faces and voices.

 

Who has Reality Winner’s back? We do.

I just got off the phone with Billie Winner-Davis, a clinical social worker in Texas who’s been in the press lately because of her daughter, Reality. Our chat was brief, and stayed away from the facts of Reality’s legal case. I still congratulated her on the support network she’d started in partnership with Courage to Resist.

Happy to talk about her daughter, Winner-Davis described Reality’s early gift for languages,  including teaching herself Arabic back in high school. When she told her parents she might join the military, it was Winner-Davis who contacted the Air Force instead of the Army or Marines, hoping they’d take early advantage of her daughter’s gifts.  “It was all about the languages for Reality,” she said.

realitywinnerThough she ended up working for a contractor after the military, Reality wanted most to travel, Billie added. “She was looking into the International Red Cross or humanitarian organizations, so she could use her skills to help people.”

Ever since Reality’s arrest, making sure she has what she needs has become a full-time job, Winner-Davis added. This is challenging because her work every day, in Child Protective Services, is of necessity all-consuming. But she hopes to retire in August, she said, when she can devote that energy to protecting her own child.

By October, when her trial is set to begin, I’ll have more free time than I do now. I hope to meet Winner-Davis there, as well as my old colleague (and Gulf War character) Jeff Paterson. I don’t know enough about the case to know whether she belongs in this book, but by threatening her with the Espionage Act the government may have put him there.

Should Reality Winner be spending this holiday in federal prison?

I need to learn and write more about this newest target of the Espionage Act, but for today I’m boosting the signal from Courage to Resist, as ever the first to publicly support a dissenting servicemember. The link above also has a petition, urging that charges be dropped.  (Full disclosure: the latter organization is also a supporter of this book via Kickstarter.)

 

WHAT DOES INDEPENDENCE REALLY MEAN TO AMERICANS TODAY? WHAT IS THE MEANING OF FREEDOM?

By Courage to Resist

This 4th of July millions of Americans will be barbecuing, drinking beers and celebrating independence from tyranny. But one young American will not be enjoying her freedom. This young woman sits behind bars for allegedly acting upon her own commitment to stand up for a government free from tyranny.

Reality Leigh Winner is an Air Force veteran and military contractor who has been arrested for allegedly leaking an NSA document to news media. The classified document in question details Russian cyberattacks against a voting machine software company and more than 100 elected officials. This is the most detailed information that has still yet to reach the American public regarding the government’s investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections.

Charged under the Espionage Act, which some argue does not sufficiently address needed whistleblower and First Amendment protections, Ms. Winner is now the first criminal leak case of the Trump era. With the White House declaring less than two months ago an imminent crackdown on those who leak classified information, many are concerned that Ms. Winner is a sitting duck in this politically-motivated shooting range. “Espionage Act charges carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison, although conventional leak cases have typically resulted in prison terms of one to three years.”

Held without bail in federal prison since early June, Ms. Winner made her first court appearance this past week for a bond hearing and her court date has now been set for October 23rd. When asked by local news media of the status of his defense strategy Mr. Titus Nichols stated, “At this stage the only thing we have (evidence) is a press release from the deputy attorney general and an application for a search warrant. In all my time as a prosecutor, that’s never been sufficient to either try a case or to even prepare for a case.”

While addressing the dubious political motivations for the aggressive prosecution of Ms. Winner her lawyer stated “My client has no criminal history. She’s a veteran. She served the Air Force for six years but now she’s been pulled into this political windstorm where there’s a much larger debate going on that this administration is choosing not to focus on. Instead of focusing on the question of was Russia involved in interfering with the election, now we’re focusing on the extent of punishment for this low-level government employee.”

A recent video of incarcerated Ms. Winner shows her making use of the prison grounds to practice the yoga poses crow, full wheel and headstand. These are all exercises which can assist one’s focus and gaining a different perspective while managing chaos, fear or inflexibility.

While celebrating our independence this July 4th, let’s also take the time to practice focus and courage. We can ask ourselves what would I do to defend or gain freedom for myself or others? And how can I support and defend those who may seek to do the same?

Reality Leigh Winner (right) with her mother Billie Winner-Davis.

For Reality Winner’s case, she needs widespread, transpartisan public support. Please share this article on social media, or post a photo of yourself with a “I Stand with Reality” sign.

The road to revolution via…Julia Davis?

standing_rock_3The TV cameras are gone now. So are most of the veterans I was tracking and wrote about for Guernica, upon the request of the Standing Rock elders. Everyone knows that last week’s decision was only a battle won, and that the struggle continues: the drilling below Sioux land isn’t even completely stopped, the company having decided that it’s easier to pay fines to the Army Corps of Engineers even at $50,000 a day. But there seems to be a pause in the satyagraha at that location, as everyone regroups.

Me?  I’m still in Philadelphia, musing about the big picture. I told my wife as she left for work, “I’m going to show that the Oceti Sakowin protests all began in Philadelphia.” By Philadelphia I mostly meant Chester native Bayard Rustin, who said long ago:  ““Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn.” And I meant Quakers, who’ve been making trouble since before Philly was founded in 1682.

The thread I’m noticing now traces at least back to Thoreau, who told peers he was “more of a Quaker than anything else, and anti-slavery iconWilliam Lloyd Garrison, a non-Quaker but a fellow traveler like me (I call myself an “aspiring Quaker.”) Garrison, who got his start editing a Quaker anti-slavery newspaper, urged and practiced “nonresistance,” a kind of proactive pacifism based in part on Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience.”

I knew “nonresistance” from how it was used by World War I conscientious objectors like Evan Thomas, but if I’d been an actual historian I’d have known how ubiquitous a term it was among progressive types in the 19th century. It was even global, a favorite word of War of 1812 veteran Leo Tolstoy, who  wrote a letter to America, praising Thoreau and Garrison as pioneering visionaries:

I’d like to ask the American people why they do not “>pay more attention to these voices (hardly to be replaced by those of financial and industrial millionaires, or successful generals and admirals), and continue the good work in which they made such hopeful progress.

 

Tolstoy went on to become a leading exponent of radical Christianity, and a pen pal of a young South African named Mohandas Gandhi.

From Gandhi we can go back to talking about Bayard Rustin, Quaker thanks to his eminent and charismatic grandmother, Julia Davis Rustin.  Julia mentored Rustin as he went to work for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which had been practicing the Quaker “peace witness” since 1915 and sent Rustin, the FOR’s “youth secretary,” across the country as a “Peace Ambassador.” She visited Rustin in prison when he went there instead of serving in World  War II, and cheered him on when he went in 1948 to India, newly freed by Gandhi’s movement.

 

Rustin arrived in India right after Gandhi died, but he met with many of those who’d helped him perfect the technique they had named satyagraha. The Indian activists admired Rustin’s own nonresistance, including the very first Journey of Reconciliation in 1947. And he came back bursting with ideas about using satyagraha on behalf of African-Americans. Soon, he was crossing the country to talk about how to use nonviolence to fight both militarism and racism.

His workshops were electric, one of its participants said years later. They had “actually talked about the history of nonviolence, the history of Gandhi…Thd whole philosophy of the use of nonviolent direct action to accomplish your goals and your purposes: That really appealed to me.” Once trained, many put it to use trying to integrate lunch counters, restaurants, pools.  From that phase of the civil rights movement to now is too much for one essay, and includes both Philip Berrigan and ACT-UP, which was founded in 1987, a few years before Rustin died. 

I haven’t included anything here about Native American practice of nonresistance, or wondered if any contemporary Native activists have any use for Rustin or the Quakers.  However,  I suspect that this peace might be incomplete without it.

(Photo: Joe Brusky, Flickr.)

The sins we carry: Eric Fair’s CONSEQUENCE

http://www.npr.org/player/embed/472964974/473004679

consequencecoverI pre-ordered this book after seeing an op-ed by its author, and spent the past day and a half tearing through it. The name of his former employer, CACI,had long since been for me code for “detainee abuse,” and I had tried to write an article based on the company’s misdeeds when applying for a business-reporting fellowship for J-school (won by the far more deserving and-kick-ass Moira Herbst).  By then, the Center for Constitutional Rights’ 2004 lawsuit against CACI on behalf of detainees was in the news, and going through the now-familiar paces of wars over classified information and webs of culpability.

The New York Times calls CONSEQUENCE “profoundly unsettling.” I think I can safely say that or those of us for whom the words “Abu Ghraib,”CACI” and even “torture” have become drearily familiar, it’s also quietly mindblowing.

In prose that simultaneously recalls Michael Herr,  Charles Bukowski (the latter for the use of profanity) and Pilgrim’s Progress, Fair’s narrative makes you feel for this young Presbyterian who joins the Army to prepare for a career in law enforcement and ends up an employee of CACI, described by Fair as a mixture of Kafka and the Keystone Kops. But just as the reader is trying to absorb this new picture of CACI, Fair takes you to Abu Ghraib — first the muddy tents that shocked Aidan Delgado, then a moment in the “hard site” we all think we’ve seen.

There’s an aha! moment after CID tries to talk to everyone working in that site and Fair’Bs team realizes by elimination which soldier is about to blow the whistle: Joe Darby, who several months later “the Army will then place in protective custody” after SecDef Rumsfeld publicly thanks him for leaking those damaging Abu Ghraib photos.
I’ve been trying to embed Fair’s interview with Terry Gross above; if that doesn’t work you might want to click on the link and just listen. She gets him talking about the heart condition that almost killed him (for real), his faith journey and so much more.

I, of course, want to ask him different questions. I want to know if he’s ever spoken to a New York attorney named Aidan Delgado, who completed an entire conscientious-objector claim while working at another part of AG, and whether his pastor-wannabe self has touched base with the Brite Divinity School’s Soul Repair Center. He never uses the term “moral injury,” and I’d like to know why. I’d also encourage him to accept the help my friend Joshua Phillips has offered him, since we both see common agonies as described in Joshua’s book about soldiers who’ve tortured, None of Us Were Like This Before.  After reading the latter book, I did wonder about the inner lives of contractors like Fair, and am both glad and deeply sorry to have been so richly answered.

Would also LOVE to curate a discussion among Fair, Delgado and Phillips, in which my words would be the least important.

 

TheWarHorse.org is taking on the hardest questions

warhorse

I think I’ve mentioned it before, but this ambitious, mostly soldier-driven journalistic project is already going some unexpected places. (Full disclosure: I hope to write for them sometime on a freelance basis. I can take NO credit for the thorough, startling work they’ve already produced.) Talk about testing what new ways nonfiction storytelling can go.

And checking in there today, I was blown away by this piece, whose authors take on “the ambiguity of war” – from a front-line NCO’s split-second decisions, especially after “it’s your friend that yxploeou were just talking to that morning and you have to fight birds for the pieces of his body”- to  legal analysis of what’s behind the question, Did X constitute a war crime?

The “principle of distinction” is a foundation of humanitarian law that obligates all parties in conflict to distinguish between combatants and civilians, according to the Georgetown Law Review. But while it would greatly reduce civilian casualties if fighters adhered to that principle, but they don’t, which is why the IBC is so staggeringly high. What complicates that for fighters is that the Protocol of the Geneva Convention, which is intended to prevent non-combatant casualties, states that “Intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities” constitutes a war crime.

Read the whole piece. I find myself wanting to send it to half the people I know, and 75% of the veterans. As our understanding of those complexities deepens, it makes questions of war and peace even more perplexing, I think.