The Silencing Of Chelsea Manning Puts Power Before Freedom Of Speech

There are difficult questions for Chelsea Manning to answer. As a visiting fellow – someone expected to speak publicly, answer questions, and be confronted by different opinions – everyone might have benefited

It is ironic that the most powerful most fear powerlessness. Enter Harvard University.

This week, wobbled by pressure from the CIA and other institutions, the Harvard Kennedy School of Government rescinded its invitation to Chelsea Manning to become a visiting fellow at its Institute of Politics. With that, the most powerful university in the world silenced a twenty-nine-year-old transgender traitor-cum-hero.

The facts of the case are these. In 2007, then-Bradley Manning enlisted in the Unites States Army. Six weeks later, she was almost discharged, partly due to the effects of being bullied by recruits. Amidst a national deficit of soldiers, however, the discharge was revoked and she was later trained in intelligence before being deployed to Iraq. Her first contact with WikiLeaks occurred in January 2010, and on 3 February she sent them roughly 490,000 documents.

Over time, she sent more, including footage of a helicopter attack on Iraqi civilians in 2007. Manning was arrested in May 2010, convicted by court-martial in July 2013, and sentenced to thirty-five years confinement in August 2013; ultimately, this sentence was commuted by Barack Obama shortly before he left office.

To many, especially in the defence community, she is an arch-traitor. To others: a hero.

There is much to discuss here, a discussion in keeping with the “mission of Harvard to educate the citizens and citizen leaders of our society”. Indeed, in his letter to the Harvard community explaining the decision to rescind Manning’s invitation, the Kennedy School’s Dean, Doug Elmendorf, said: “The approach to visiting speakers is to invite some people who have significantly influenced events in the world even if they do not share our values.” He goes on to say that “engaging with people with fundamentally different worldviews can help us to become better public leaders”.

I agree. Indeed, so would most proponents of the ostensibly-American ideal of free speech. There are difficult questions for Chelsea Manning to answer. As a visiting fellow – someone expected to speak publicly, answer questions, and be confronted by different opinions – everyone might have benefited. She may still visit to speak, but will not be available for the same level of engagement. As graduate student Natalia Cote Muñoz told me: “However you feel about Manning, we would have the opportunity to engage her if she were a fellow.”

This, then, is not a decision about free speech, nor is it really a decision about the merits or demerits of Chelsea Manning’s actions. This is a decision about power.

On Tuesday, after announcing their invitation to Manning to become a visiting fellow, the institution was surprised by the backlash from the defence community. With characteristic efficiency, the CIA responded with a coordinated attack: on Thursday morning, former deputy director Michael Morell resigned as a senior fellow at Harvard, and later than night Mike Pompeo, CIA director, backed out of a high-profile speaking engagement at the last minute.

Thus began a completely imbalanced – and consequently very short – power battle. In the blue corner: the intelligence and defence establishment of the United States of America, including some significant individual and organisational donors to the Kennedy School. In the red corner: a young, isolated, recently-released-from-prison member of the transgender community.

Seen through the prism of power, Manning’s gender identity is not an irrelevant factor. She is a member of a small, politically and economically disenfranchised community. One third of respondents to the 2015 US Transgender Survey lived in poverty, 54 per cent of those who had come out as transgender at school experienced verbal harassment, and nearly one quarter had experienced housing discrimination. This is not a powerful coalition from which to take on the state.

Many students are furious, pointing out a perceived lack of consistency in the Kennedy School’s approach. Michael Galant, currently studying public policy and formerly employed by the United Nations, says: “[They are] happy to have fellows who have spent their careers fighting against the rights of LGBTQ persons: Jason Chaffetz. And fellows who blame the Sandy Hook shooting on a lack of religion in public schools: Mike Huckabee.

“But when someone risks her freedom to expose a disregard for civilian life at the hands of the military, she is the one whose invitation we rescind. The blatancy of elite interests is appalling.”

I do not necessarily share Michael’s views on the other fellows he mentions, but it is certainly a shame that the decision to silence Ms Manning means that while other fellows will be called on to defend their positions, she will not have the opportunity to do so. Tweeting on Thursday, she wrote: “Honored to be 1st disinvited trans woman visiting @harvard fellow…they chill marginalized voices under @cia pressure.”

honored to be 1st disinvited trans woman visiting @harvardfellow ???? they chill marginalized voices under @cia pressure ???????????? 

It would be a mistake to blame the Kennedy School’s Dean, or any one individual, for this unfunny comedy of errors. Instead, Harvard, and other institutions like the CIA, should reflect on their contributions to a power structure which repeatedly seems to quash dissenting voices.

Real leadership – really educating the citizens of the future in Harvard’s case, or really protecting America’s integrity in the CIA’s case – is about helping communities to address difficult challenges. Questions of whistleblowing versus betrayal and issues of gender identity certainly constitute such challenges.

That is why it is a great shame that the most powerful and best university in the world chose to cover its ears and shut its eyes.

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