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.

 

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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.

if you’re anywhere near Philly on March 15th

All this meditating on Bergdahl has gotten me included on this panel on WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station. You should come for veteran correspondent Quil Lawrence and the other panelists:

  • Josh Fattal, Former Iran Hostage
  • Malcolm Nance, Veteran U.S. Intelligence Officer
  • Rachel Van Landingham, Military Law Expert and Professor of Law

Read up on all of them first. It’s going to be amazing.

Newsflash: New York Times + Buzzfeed sue FORSCOM re Bergdahl, and don’t tell anyone

foi-900x500I’m going back and forth between a legal filing I received this weekend and my newswires, which show no signs that some of the major news organization have filed a request with General Abrams, commander of Fort Bragg — politely demanding the public release  of its investigation of Bowe Bergdahl.

I’ve written here before about Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who burst into public consciousness last year after 5 years of being held prisoner by the Taliban. I titled that post “Bergdahl=Rashomon,” given the wildly contrasting, quite-firmly-held views of the case expressed by people who knew nothing about what happened that day in Afghanistan that Bergdahl disappeared, Most recently he’s been a public whipping boy for Presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has planted his flag in the Bergdahl’s a traitor camp even before the Army has decided on a court-martial.

As the public debate over this very complex case rages, Bergdahl’s civilian defense has begun to demand that all investigations be released, even taking the unusual step of releasing the transcript of last-week’s preliminary hearing into the matter. So you’d think it would be news that General Abrams, of the U.S. Army Forces Command, has just been served with a legal “request to intervene” filed by:

HEARST NEWSPAPERS LLC; THE ASSOCIATED PRESS; BLOOMBERG L.P.; BUZZFEED, INC.; DOW  JONES & CO., INC; FIRST LOOK MEDIA; GANNETT CORPS; MCCLATCHY CO; THE NEW YORK TIMES CO; REUTERS AMERICA; AND WP COMPANY LLC, D/B/A THE WASHINGTON POST

With such a list of heavyweight press outlets asking, you might think one of them would mention it. I do expect that to happen eventually, once their national-security legal divisions  have vetted it.

I also expect that later today, Guernica Magazine will be running my own piece on Bergdahl; I’ll add the link later, and also write more about the news that is not yet news.

Update: Here it is, with a title out of CJR. Let me know what you think, and welcome if you came from this blog from there.

Pi Day news: some rational writing to go w/the irrational number

AintMarchincoverbyAlexOK, that title’s a reach. But here goes:

 

news: the Monday dozen

AintMarchincoverbyAlexI know I haven’t posted one of these in a few days, but that’s not because there wasn’t much to note. Below is a full baker’s dozen, though some are echoes of stories already on our radar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

96-year-old outtake: fort leavenworth goes on strike

Even when you’re mistakenly thinking you’re taking advice from William  Faulkner. it’s not so easy to kill your darlings. I learned about the riot at Fort Leavenworth early in my natterings at the Swarthmore Peace Collection, and it’s taken a long time to declare the riot less relevant to Ain’t Marching’s story than I thought.  Most of what’s below has been now excised from the text, but you might be as compelled as I was. Drawn on a magazine story by Winthrop Lane, buddy of Emma Goldman, for its dialogue:

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Leavenworth_View_of_Building_caThe steam hissed through the pipes, but not enough to warm the prisoners at Fort Leavenworth.

Temperatures that normally averaged just at freezing, for January in Kansas, hovered nearer the ten-degree mark. Which meant that the steam pipes kept banging and whistling, trying to keep up, and none of it cooled the blood of the 3,560 men packed together like tightened gears.

Two months after the Armistice, the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth was full to bursting. Workers on the 75-year-old sandstone fortress, on 12 acres surrounded by a 40-foot concrete wall, had built more barracks a mere two years ago, in 1917, so that it could hold 1,500 men — soldiers convicted of theft, murder, deserting the Great War. But the War itself had brought all sorts of new offenders to the prison, many of them dumped by other military installations who’d found they couldn’t handle them. In late January, if the Barracks were a person, it would have been obese, with a high fever and a case of nervous exhaustion.

Certainly Colonel Sedgwick Rice, the prison’s commandant, was trying to prevent such a state that month, when the prisoners went on strike.

The rebellion had begun with a melee after a card game between black and white soldiers, who weren’t used to being in such close quarters. Rice could deal with that. But then they’d started to refuse to work. The real problem, Rice thought, was those troublemaking conscientious objectors, who claimed to “oppose war” and simply refused to do anything. He knew some of them were from the peace churches, but others were more political, probably communist agitators. Like that Evan Thomas guy, brother of a buddy of President Wilson’s: The brawl over the card game had started after Thomas and 112 other objectors were released with $400 in each man’s pocket. Now all work had stopped: no one was cooking, or cleaning the toilets, or painting the new training grounds across the way. Now, everyone was claiming to be “on strike.”

On the morning of January 29, five days after the melee over cards, Sedgwick made his way down to the boiler room, where the strike organizers were doing their work. A large man with a relaxed bearing, he spoke matter of factly to the skinny “objectors” and tired workmen, who looked at him with a mix of rage and fear. “Who here thinks he has a grievance?” A slender young man with cheeks flushed by cold stood. Something about him, about the way he held his cigarette, told Col. Rice that the guy was a Red.

  1. Austin Simons stood carefully, for the colonel’s inspection. A poet and sometime journalist, he knew better than to be surprised when the older man asked: “Are you with the I.W.W. [International Workers of the World]?”

Simons could barely make himself heard over the steam pipes. “No, sir,” he said carefully. He knew a lot was at stake here – right now, his ability to bargain on behalf of the other soldiers. “I never belonged to that organization.”

Rice also asked if Simons was a “constitutional objector – one who objects to all forms of government and order.”

“No, sir, I do not.”

“Well, most Socialists do,” said Rice.

Others in the group approached with complaints ranging from their individual sentences to the “rotten” meat served the prisoners. “The war is over,” cried W. Oral James, a small-bodied man shivering in his thick raincoat. “The government has already released 113 of our fellows. Has it had time to investigate the justice of other claims?”

After three agonizing days, as Rice negotiated face-to-face with the prisoners and sent telegrams to Washington, the various “strike committees” assembled on February 1. Holding a telegram from the capital in his hand, Rice tried not to look as cold as he felt. He read aloud a statement from Secretary of State Dean Baker, which promised that each of their cases would be reviewed. “I fully appreciate that the cessation of hostilities and the return of conditions approximating those of peace,” Rice intoned on Baker’s behalf, “render it just and proper that clemency should now be exercised.”

It’s not recorded, even by journalist Winthrop Lane, who followed the strike carefully, whether the prisoners cheered at the words. Or whether they laughed bitterly, since the author of the statement was the chief architect of “the present war” – without which none of them would have been crowded within these walls to begin with.

Long after the Armistice was signed in November 1918, open rebellions continued to startle military authorities, including the conglomeration of deserters, CO’s and malcontents that stuffed the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks . While the uprising at Leavenworth was covered by major newspapers, especially the Chicago Tribune, the most detailed account was Winthrop Lane’s “The Strike at Fort Leavenworth,” published in the February 1919 issue of the left-leaning Survey Magazine.

Lane, who had visited Emma Goldman in prison and written famous investigations of Harlem poverty and the coal mining industry, had been hired by the National Civil Liberties Bureau to investigate Kansas jails. His perspective is thus explicit, but he was still trusted by Colonel Rice to witness their negotiations. Lane observed quickly that the prison population was singular: “In private life the soldier had been a clerk, a mechanic, a day laborer, a politician, a business man…He may have quitted his post for five minutes, he may have been absent without leave for a week, he may have intentionally deserted.”

They stood at attention or saluted when these officers passed. An unquestioning obedience was expected of them that is not expected of men in civil prison. Yet they organized themselves in the approved labor union way and presented their demands just as if they had the full power of collective bargaining.

H.A. Simons, one of the “elected representatives,” was a poet whose main obsession before the war had been whether his poems would be published in the Little Review. His educated manner helped Simons negotiate with Colonel Rice and others, but he still had to deny first that he had ever been a member of “the I.W.W.” . Pentagon sources, quoted in contemporary accounts, consistently blame the the International Workers of the World for the disturbances at Leavenworth, right up until they started blaming “the Bolsheviks.” The I.W.W., founded in 1905 and nearing the crest of its power with scores of affiliates, had long refused to endorse Wilson’s war.

Objectors were hardly immune to the time’s fervor. After the war, Simons would join his friend Wallace Stevens in writing for The Masses and for The Liberator, “the premier journal of American radicalism,” while Evan Thomas’ brother would be hailed in 1918 as “Comrade Thomas” by the “Queens Socialist Party,” having joined the Party in 1918 and just as his brother was released from prison.

Russia’s infant revolution was also exciting to some at Leavenworth, curious about “class war.” And thus began, perhaps, the nervous, complex love-hate romance between rebellious G.I.’s and the sectarian left that has lasted for nearly a century. Lane tells of the strikers’ “last soviet” with Simons, who said that one worker could be moved “but together, we are immovable.”.

The January strike was only the first in a series. The last ended in July 1919, after most of the conscientious objectors had been released and the remaining prisoners were demanding a full-fledged amnesty. Appropriate to the period, they’d nicknamed their barracks Lenine, Anarchia, and Internationale, according to contemporary newspaper accounts.

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If you’ve read this far, you may be struck by the fact that dissenting soldiers have been a tempting target for sectarian-left organizers for as long as both have existed. I still wonder how  this will end up in the book. Any suggestions?