Barack Obama Doesn’t Get A Pass On His Abuse Of Chelsea Manning
As our Commander-in-Chief since 2009, Obama is responsible for the abuse that made this commutation so necessary in the first place.
It’s official, then: Chelsea Manning will go free.
After years of campaigning and petitioning from whistleblower and transgender rights activists, the (in)famous former intelligence analyst no longer lives in fear of exiting prison in 2045. Instead, she’ll rejoin the free world this May — nearly seven years to the day after her arrest for funneling classified documents and videos to WikiLeaks. (Worries about whether President Trump will reverse this decision are thankfully unfounded; since a commutation replaces the original sentence, constitutional law experts say an executive attempt to overturn it would violate due process.)
It’s an important moment for justice in this country, and President Obama deserves credit for listening and making the right choice. But as liberals rallied around their messiah one last time with gushing social media posts detailing his heroism, it was striking to see how quickly everyone had seemingly forgotten one key fact: As the Commander-in-Chief since 2009, Obama is also responsible for the abuse that made this commutation so necessary in the first place.
Arrested in May 2010, Manning spent approximately 11 months in de facto solitary confinement while being held in Kuwait and Quantico, Virginia. (The UN has called for a total ban on solitary confinement lasting more than 15 days; Special Rapporteur on torture Juan E. Mendez told a UN committee in 2011 that the practice should only be used in “exceptional circumstances” to protect prisoners from other inmates.) While at Quantico, Manning was denied clothing, sheets, and pillows, and had only minimal access to toothpaste, which permanently damaged her teeth. Her time in solitary, she later wrote in a November 2016 blog post begging Obama for clemency, was “a humiliating and degrading experience — one that altered my mind, body and spirit.”
Although Manning was not publicly calling herself Chelsea at this point, her diagnosis of gender dysphoria was known to the military. “I believe they used my diagnosis as a weapon against me,” Manning wrote in her November post. “I feel that they used it as a tool to justify their harsh treatment.” Because of her dysphoria, Manning was emotionally unstable and was in danger of self-harm — but rather than provide psychiatric care to ensure her safety, prison officials chose punitive measures that only exacerbated the problem.
Rather than provide psychiatric care to ensure her safety, prison officials chose punitive measures that only exacerbated the problem.
Where was Barack Obama?
During Manning’s June-July 2013 trial, Justice Department lawyers sought a 60-year sentence to deter future whistleblowers, far greater than any precedent. Immediately after her sentencing to 35 years (minus time served) in August 2013, Manning publicly came out as transgender; still, she was to serve out her time in the all-male prison barracks at Fort Leavenworth, rather than the Naval Consolidated Brig, a medium-security military prison where female prisoners are housed. Though her name change was approved by a Kansas judge and (theoretically) recognized by the military in April 2014, Manning was forbidden by prison officials from receiving hormone replacement therapy (HRT) until February 2015. And she was officially referred to as “he” in all military contexts until that March, further damaging her mental health. Her requests to receive gender reassignment surgery (GRS) were also denied.
In July 2015, Manning’s cell was searched, and she was charged with “medicine misuse” and “prohibited property” for possessing toothpaste that was three months expired and a small collection of transgender-focused reading material. She was threatened with indefinite solitary confinement, but after pressure from Manning’s lawyers and public outcry, she was slapped with a three-week restriction on recreation instead.
What came the following year was far worse: After a suicide attempt in July 2016, military officials served Manning with charges—while she lay recovering in a mental health observation room. Trying to kill herself had “interfered with the good order, safety, and running of the facility,” they said, finding Manning guilty of “conduct which threatens” during a hearing where Manning was denied an attorney or advocate. Her punishment: 14 more days in solitary, seven of them suspended — and seven of which she was forced to serve almost immediately after her sentencing, with no chance to notify her attorneys or supporters, who feared for her life.
It’s important to note here that I’m glossing over a lot of other torments, including the unreliability of Manning’s psychiatric care and her hunger strike to obtain permission for GRS, in order to once again get to the point: Where was Barack Obama?
Apart from a singular 2011 comment in which Obama said she “broke the law” (which was highly inappropriate, given that Manning had yet to be convicted), the outgoing president has made no official statement regarding her treatment in prison, despite strings of offenses by his military that may amount to negligence, abuse, and psychological torture. Military officials have sought throughout Manning’s imprisonment to impose upon her the harshest possible punishments for even the smallest infractions. It’s not hard to conclude that Obama’s military repeatedly attempted to kill Manning by her own hand, knowing her fragile mental state and propensity for self-harm.
There are two possible scenarios: Either Obama was not involved in these abuses—in which case he was a negligent commander—or he was, in which case he is a much bigger monster than his supporters wish to believe. Did Obama order these actions against Manning, willfully turn a blind eye, or manage to remain entirely ignorant? Regardless, there’s no scenario where Obama avoids culpability.
It’s one thing to support civil rights for a marginalized group through speeches, but an entirely different thing to follow through when it matters — and Obama, in his apparent vendetta against another of the intelligence whistleblowers he so despises, has failed to do the necessary legwork. If he’d consulted with Manning’s lawyer Chase Strangio, for instance, to better understand the vitality of regular, uninterrupted psychiatric care or the pressing urgency of obtaining HRT, Manning might have avoided severe degradation of her mental health. But he didn’t. And she paid the price.
Either Obama was not involved in these abuses — in which case he was a negligent commander — or he was, in which case he is a much bigger monster than his supporters wish to believe.
It’s also worth mentioning that trans women of color in civilian prisons and detention centers face violence even worse than this every day at the hands of their captors and other inmates — an issue on which Obama and his Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, have been largely silent, despite their public support of trans rights.
Would we be having this conversation at all if Manning were black or brown? Would she still be alive?
Let me be clear: Chelsea Manning did not deserve to go free simply because she is a transgender woman, and whether her initial conviction and its severity was justified is a legal debate for another time. But President Obama had a responsibility to ensure that Manning was kept safe and afforded necessary medical care. He failed — rather miserably. And just because he seemingly came to his senses three days before leaving office doesn’t mean Obama gets a pass on causing irreversible emotional and physical harm to one of the country’s most vulnerable prisoners.
Today, there are two things I hope for the future. The first is that liberals will not forget the harm that was done to Chelsea Manning by their hero, Barack Obama. The second is that she will find solace, sisterhood, and healing in her new life — that, freed from her lonesome cage after seven long years, Chelsea will finally discover the peace she so richly deserves.