Chelsea Manning’s Release & The Rose-Tinting of a Presidency

Darragh McCarthy looks at the release of Chelsea Manning, and asks if Obama’s act of clemency was really as well intentioned as some would believe.


Chelsea Manning’s scheduled release on 17th of May is great news, but not something that Obama or his administration should receive any praise for considering it was the Obama administration that imprisoned her in the first place. Coming across evidence of the US military’s cold-blooded barbarity and absolutely savage disregard for human life, Manning was unable to in good conscience carry on working for the US Army as an Intelligence Analyst, downloading over 700,000 classified military and diplomatic files from military servers, and then passing them on to WikiLeaks.

These leaks unveiled a whole host of revelations concerning the corrupt nature of US diplomacy, concerning the governments of many of its allies, and concerning sinister dealings with its adversaries. But primarily it unveiled in immense detail the suspected – or, more accurately long-presumed – unaccountability and brutal nature of the US government and particularity its military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Using the 1917 Espionage Act to imprison her, Obama utilised this law more than every other US presidency combined. This statistic alone demonstrates the extent of his vendetta against whistleblowers, a vendetta through which Manning was made an example.

Many liberals have been quick to champion Obama’s decision as progressive mercy, positing the likes of Obama (and by extension, Clinton) as the only viable alternative to Trump’s demagoguery. These liberals will trumpet his decision as a final example of how supposedly great things were before we had Trump, forgetting that they would have condemned Manning’s whistleblowing in the first-place, an act that was viewed as supposedly putting the nation at risk of further terror attacks, risking the lives of soldiers as well as national security more generally.

Manning is one of the 1,385 people that have had their sentence commuted by President Obama, which is the most by any US President in history. When you consider that they have the largest prison population in the world (in excess of 2.2 million people making up more than 22% of the world’s prisoners), this figure of commuted sentences is rather meaningless as any sort of positive statement. At best, this fact is an indictment of the US justice system, and how many prisoners there must be with no real justifiable reason for their imprisonment, other than flimsy and minor legal reasons that incarcerate those failed by the system in which they must toil.

“These liberals will trumpet his decision as a final example of how supposedly great things were before we had Trump, forgetting that they would have condemned Manning’s whistleblowing in the first-place…”

By commuting the majority of her remaining 35-year sentence, Obama is attempting to whitewash the atrocities that were committed against her and many, many others by his administration. During her maximum security imprisonment at the Quantico marine base in Virginia, where she was moved after being held in a US military camp in Kuwait, she was made to strip naked on a number of occasions, and suffered a whole host of other cruel and unusual punishments and conditions. As a punishment for her protest about her treatment she was put on suicide watch (for the second time, having been placed on suicide watch in Kuwait also) for three days after being verbally harassed and taunted by guards, leaving Chelsea stripped of all clothing and her glasses to sit in what she described as “essential blindness”. She has told many more accounts of her horrible treatment in prison, but perhaps most importantly is the fact that her treatment was often made worse due to her being transgender, which she announced after her sentencing, having been diagnosed beforehand with Gender Dysphoria by the military doctors. She would later in 2011 be moved to a male military prison in Kansas. Following a suicide attempt in 2016 she was sentenced to 7 nights in solitary confinement, where she made another attempt on the first night. She was prevented for years from transitioning, not being permitted to grow her hair out as she wished, eventually being allowed and beginning hormone therapy in 2015. It was not until September last year following a hunger strike that the army said she would be allowed to receive gender transition surgery, something for which she had fought to have for so long, and something that had never been permitted before in a US military prison.

In reality, this is a cynical and tactical decision, another part of rose-tinting from the Obama presidency before Trump assumes the role. The more insidious reasoning for Chelsea’s release can be understood when you consider how likely it is that the release would have occurred without Trump winning the election. That is to say, would Obama really have released Chelsea Manning had Clinton won? It’s pretty easy to see that Chelsea being granted clemency in this way is almost a final insult to her from Obama and his administration. Not only was she imprisoned for 6 years for whistleblowing, facing conditions that considering her situation were truly tantamount to torture for her to suffer through. But even in her release she is being used by the administration to further their agenda, albeit ideologically, rather than punish her specifically as was the case in her imprisonment and subsequent treatment.

If Obama truly resembled anything like the praise and adulation his liberal supporters have lavished him with, then we would see the release of other political prisoners denied clemency, such as ex-Black Panther Mumia Abu Jamal and Native American activist Leonard Peltier. But the manner in which some of those granted clemency on the 17th of January, in particular Chelsea Manning, have been cherry-picked for maximum impact really lays bare the true nature of the US government’s agenda here, and in fact many other actions that president Obama found himself carrying out during the final leg of his presidency. Another prime example of this being his recent MLK Day visit to a homeless shelter, where he helped children paint a mural of Martin Luther King Jr., an act of brutal barefaced hypocrisy in this time where black lives matter so little in the USA (not to mention the absolute disregard for native lives), owing in great part to the Obama administration and their wider continuation and intensification of Bush-era policies, no matter how real Barack’s crocodile tears would seem to have been through it all.

The legacy of President Barack Obama is as steeped in the blood and cruelty of US capitalism and imperialism as the presidency of Bush was before, no matter how many murals he may have painted, how charismatic he may have been, or how many sentences he commutes for people him and his government have imprisoned under false pretences. No amount of winning and heart-warming liberal propaganda can whitewash away the atrocities committed during his tenure, regardless of how hard they may try.