The Injustices of Manning’s Ordeal

Exclusive: For exposing war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pvt. Chelsea Manning suffered nearly seven years in prison, an ordeal President Obama finally is ending but without acting on the crimes she revealed, says Marjorie Cohn.

By Marjorie Cohn

After overseeing the aggressive prosecution and near-seven-year incarceration of Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning, President Obama – in one of his last acts in office – commuted all but four months of her remaining sentence but ignored the fact that he had taken no action on the war crimes that Manning revealed.

A button urging freedom for Army Pvt. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning.

At his final news conference, Obama explained his reasons for commuting Manning’s record-setting 35-year sentence for leaking classified information to the public. Manning is scheduled to be released on May 17.

“Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence,” Obama said. “It has been my view that given she went to trial; that due process was carried out; that she took responsibility for her crime; that the sentence that she received was very disproportionate relative to what other leakers had received; and that she had served a significant amount of time; that it made sense to commute and not pardon her sentence. … I feel very comfortable that justice has been served.”

But there has been no justice for the Iraqis and Afghans whose unjustified deaths and mistreatment were exposed by the then-22-year-old Army private, known at the time as Bradley Manning. An Army intelligence analyst in Iraq, Manning sent hundreds of thousands of classified files, documents and videos, including the “Collateral Murder” video, the “Iraq War Logs,” the “Afghan War Logs” and State Department cables, to WikiLeaks. Many of the items that she transmitted contained evidence of war crimes.

In an online chat attributed to Manning, she wrote, “If you had free reign over classified networks… and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC… what would you do?”

Manning went on to say, “God knows what happens now. Hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms… I want people to see the truth… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.“

Callous Killings

The Collateral Murder video depicts a U.S. Apache attack helicopter killing 12 people, including two Reuters journalists, and a passerby who stopped his van to rescue the wounded. Also wounded were two children in the van. Finally, a U.S. tank drove over one of the bodies, cutting the man in half. These acts constitute three separate war crimes under the Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Army Field Manual.

A scene from the Collateral Murder video, showing a passerby getting out of a van to help the wounded.

Manning fulfilled her legal duty to report war crimes. She complied with her duty to obey lawful orders but also her duty to disobey unlawful orders. Enshrined in the U.S. Army Subject Schedule No. 27-1 is “the obligation to report all violations of the law of war.”

Manning went to her chain of command and asked them to investigate the Collateral Murder video and other “war porn,” but her superiors refused. “I was disturbed by the response to injured children,” Manning stated. She was also bothered by the soldiers depicted in the video who “seemed to not value human life by referring to [their targets] as ‘dead bastards.’”

The Uniform Code of Military Justice sets forth the duty of a service member to obey lawful orders. But that duty includes the concomitant duty to disobey unlawful orders. An order not to reveal evidence of war crimes would be an unlawful order. Manning had a legal duty to expose the commission of war crimes.

Manning’s revelations actually saved lives. After WikiLeaks published her documentation of Iraqi torture centers established by the United States, the Iraqi government refused Obama’s request to extend immunity to U.S. soldiers who commit criminal and civil offenses there. As a result, Obama had to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.

Although Manning pled guilty to 10 offenses that carried 20 years in prison, military prosecutors insisted on pursuing charges of aiding the enemy and violation of the Espionage Act, that carry life in prison. Manning was not allowed to present evidence that she had been acting in the public interest.

When she entered her plea, Manning stated, “I believed if the public, particularly the American public, could see this it could spark a debate on the military and our foreign policy in general as it applied to Iraq and Afghanistan.” She added, “It might cause society to reconsider the need to engage in counter terrorism while ignoring the situation of the people we engaged with every day.”

Col. Denise Lind, the presiding judge, found Manning not guilty of the most serious charge – aiding the enemy – because the evidence failed to establish that Manning knew information she provided to WikiLeaks would reach Al Qaeda. A conviction of aiding the enemy would have sent a chilling message to the media and to whistleblowers that leaked classified information could lead to sentences of life in prison. That would deprive the public of crucial information.

Although that draconian possibility was averted, Manning still was convicted of 20 crimes, including Espionage Act offenses, itself an ominous warning that could deter future whistleblowers from exposing government wrongdoing. Traditionally, the act has been used only against spies and traitors, not whistleblowers. Yet Obama used the Espionage Act to prosecute more whistleblowers than all prior administrations combined.

Judge Lind, who sentenced Manning to 35 years in prison, reduced her sentence by 112 days because of the mistreatment she suffered in custody.

Harsh Treatment

For the first 11 months, Manning was held in solitary confinement and subjected to humiliating forced nudity during inspection. In fact, Juan Mendez, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, characterized her treatment as cruel, inhuman and degrading. He said, “I conclude that the 11 months under conditions of solitary confinement (regardless of the name given to [her] regime by the prison authorities) constitutes at a minimum cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of article 16 of the Convention against Torture. If the effects in regards to pain and suffering inflicted on Manning were more severe, they could constitute torture.”

U.S. Army Pvt. Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning.

Mendez could not conclusively say Manning’s treatment amounted to torture because he was denied permission to visit her under acceptable circumstances. Mendez also concluded that, “imposing seriously punitive conditions of detention on someone who has not been found guilty of any crime is a violation of [her] right to physical and psychological integrity as well as of [her] presumption of innocence.”

Manning, who began her gender transition following her sentencing, has been denied critical and appropriate treatment related to her gender identity at various points during her imprisonment. Her long sentence and harsh incarceration also drew protests from other human rights advocates.

“Chelsea Manning exposed serious abuses, and as a result her own human rights have been violated by the U.S. government for years,” said Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA. “President Obama was right to commute her sentence, but it is long overdue. It is unconscionable that she languished in prison for years while those allegedly implicated by the information she revealed still haven’t been brought to justice.”

“Instead of punishing the messenger, the U.S. government can send a strong signal to the world that it is serious about investigating the human rights violations exposed by the leaks and bringing all those suspected of criminal responsible to justice in fair trials,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.

The commutation was the culmination of efforts by the Chelsea Manning Support Network, her legal team, and hundreds of thousands of people who signed petitions demanding her release.

Indeed, Kathleen Gilberd, executive director of the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild, stated, “While Chelsea’s freedom is long-overdue, we are gratified that she has been afforded some measure of delayed justice. There is no doubt that the tremendous outpouring of public support and organizing for commuting the sentence contributed to this outcome. Still,” she added, “we remain critical of a government that seems more intent on prosecuting those who expose war crimes than those who commit them.”

(An earlier version of this story incorrectly put Manning’s scheduled release at March 17, instead of May 17.)

Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, and on the advisory board of Veterans for Peace. Her books include Rules of Disengagement: The Politics and Honor of Military Dissent (with Kathleen Gilberd) and Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues. Visit her website at and follow her on Twitter @MarjorieCohn

17 comments for “The Injustices of Manning’s Ordeal

  1. January 31, 2017 at 02:53

    Fake victim of oppression. Fake story of oppression. “There was this dissident and they gave him a sex change operation while he was in prison”
    What a load of crap.
    The purpose of lying to people is to assault their intelligence.

  2. Josh Stern
    January 27, 2017 at 05:42

    This Newsbud video – and related links provided there – highlights the extent to which the media reporting of the Manning story focused on observations of “mistakes” in combat and missed or glossed over the elements in the leaks that dealt with truly nasty U.S. policies: Reviewing that makes one sad to see how this omission has not been corrected in any way by the recently publicity.

  3. delia ruhe
    January 26, 2017 at 13:04

    You cannot expect a government as deeply corrupted as are all three branches of the US government to hold any one of its members to account for the crimes s/he commits.

    The Bush-Cheney administration designed and gave the order to implement a regime of torture to take place in black sites around the globe. The people who were prosecuted for it were the kids who played along and photographed it at Abu Ghraib.

    Wall Street banks and giant insurance corporations — among the biggest purchasers of politicians — defrauded their own organizations and almost completely crashed the global economy. And then got huge bonuses for a job well done! Those who paid for that nightmare were the seven million families who were first in line to be defrauded by the banks that sold them the mortgages and thus lost them their homes.

    Obama is responsible for the drone-murder of countless terrorist suspects, along with their families, their friends, their neighbours and anyone else who happened to be in close proximity of the exploding hellfire missiles. This crime will never be prosecuted, nor will anyone be compensated for the loss of life and property.,

    But the above crimes are only the most recent of the thousands of crimes committed in the name of all Americans because . . . hey, who can stop the hegemon from committing them? The USA enjoys total impunity.

  4. theswan
    January 26, 2017 at 11:09

    Marjorie, I think your article may be the best I have read on Ms. Manning. You captured it all. I hope it will get around. I also hope your March 17th release date is correct, as I thought it May. The sooner the better. Bring this Hero home.

  5. backwardsevolution
    January 26, 2017 at 09:03

    Chelsea Manning would not have been imprisoned if the U.S. had not gone into Iraq.

    The people killed would not have died if the U.S. had not gone into Iraq.

    The military personnel would not have been in the “fog of war” if the U.S. had not gone into Iraq.

    Solution: don’t invade foreign countries.

  6. Bill Cromer
    January 25, 2017 at 16:52

    Two Apache helicopters were called in for air support by an American Humvee after being attacked from two locations (intersections) in a nearby courtyard 100 meters to his east. They were arriving at the beginning of the video when one (Crazyhorse 1/8) targeted the so-called rescue van traveling south “on the road beside the Mosque dome.” Immediately after, the other Apache (Crazyhorse 1/9) targets one of the Reuters employees (Saeed Chmagh) as a “target fifteen – a guy with a weapon,” walking north on this same road. This pilot – gunner named Kyle – mistook Saeed’s camera for a weapon (AK47). The van, bye the way, returned on this road traveling north several minutes after the first engagement.

    In the “Permission to Engage” documentary another Reuters employee said the photographer (Namir Noor-Eldeen) called at 6:00am that morning and said he was going to photograph an American Humvee being attacked by the Mahdi Army. At 10:00am he walks through a courtyard where 16 other men are standing around, three of whom have weapons, and goes to the last reported position combatants were using to attack the Humvee and takes three photographs of that Humvee. All three included a large dirt pile combatants were using for another attack earlier that morning.

    Rather than argue against your “soda straw” view of events taking place on the ground, I propose that you gain an overall perspective. For this you need to be familiar with the entire radio transcript, a satellite map of the area and a Reuters map. Both maps can be printed from the following instructions:

    (1) A satellite map of the area can be obtained from Wikipedia’s article entitled, “July 12, 2007 Baghdad airstrike,” by clicking on the link labeled “Coordinates,” 33°18’49.3″N 44°30’43.2″E. Next click on a link labeled view this location “Google map” and another link for satellite view which is actually a small photo at bottom left. Lastly, left click and hold mouse on the image to move entire map a little to the right and down until the Mosque dome comes into view at center top. [print]

    (2) A Reuters map can be obtained from the “Collateral Murder” website by clicking on “Resources” link at left of page. Then scroll down to “Map of the first attack made by Reuters.” Click on map to enlarge. [print]

    (3) Transcript can be found at “July 12, 2007 Baghdad airstrike transcript”:,_2007_Baghdad_airstrike_transcript

    • Joe Tedesky
      January 25, 2017 at 17:14

      Is there somewhere in the manual about what to do when in doubt? Don’t rip my head off if you reply, just give me an answer, and I will pay attention to the fog of war element…this would be greatly appreciated.

      • Gregory Herr
        January 25, 2017 at 19:34

        Good question Joe. And anyway, whether or not protocols were strictly followed, and the fact that I do not know all the “extenuating” circumstances, cannot in any way dissuade me from a feeling of contempt for the cavalier, almost gleeful manner in which the shootings took place..
        The invasion, destruction, and occupation of Iraq resulted in massive civilian suffering that continues to this day. “Counterinsurgency” tactics included fomenting sectarian clashes (ask Condi about that one) and prisoner abuse. Fallujah’s sufferings were extended way past the initial horrors thanks to depleted uranium. We can go on, but the point is that Bill Cromer trying to “justify” or rationalize “isolated incidents” in the context of the larger picture in which this incident took place, a picture of crimes against humanity, leaves me almost speechless.

    • Josh Stern
      January 25, 2017 at 21:05

      The issue is that the Pentagon would like everyone to let them report reality & trust what they say. However, they are systematically biased on many issues, including motivations for war, what “the enemy” did to provoke U.S. action, what unprovoked offensive actions the U.S. is involved in, what the civilian casualties were, how allocated funds were spent, etc. In reality, the U.S. is almot always involved in warfare for one pretext or another – c.f. – the U.S. is rarely attacked, never invaded in modern history, but almost always killin’ somewhere. Our national personality is pretty much like Yosemite Sam – shooting & cussing & only sometimes figuring out what happened much later. A lot of people are dissatisfied with that situation & see that we ALL have a life & death stake in getting access to more accurate info, at earlier points in time. Hence, there is a real issue to say “What about not having the military in complete charge of the information flow and dialog?”

  7. evelync
    January 25, 2017 at 16:18

    Thank you Marjorie Cohn!
    Thank you Chelsea Manning for your heroism! We need your courage! If you’re up for it please run for Congress! You have what most people at the top levels of government lack.

  8. Josh Stern
    January 25, 2017 at 16:15

    In sympathy…I’m glad that the heroic Manning was freed; I support her & Ms. Cohn’s sentiments, and I have an ambivalent feeling about the reality that her release was secured by a massive emotional publicity rather than any sort of policy or legal reconsideration of unnecessary brutal military action against civilians or the public’s right to hear about that. There is a broader struggle at play, in which the U.S. Deep State willfully pursues criminal paths of both corruption and empire building while using “security”, classification, military orders, and other statutory regimes to aggressively criminalize all outside knowledge of what it is up to. Scott Horton’s “Lord’s of Secrecy” is a good book on the general theme of secrecy as a corrupt instrument of power. Priest & Arkin’s “Top Secret America” is a good book on the extent of the current U.S. apparatus. It is out of control and growing. Arguing for the de-criminalization of unauthorized disclosure of battlefront events by military personnel in combat support is, pragmatically, one of the least likely areas to make a legal or policy stand to reverse that tide. I read an account the other day of how Morley Safer toured the CIA’s Operation Phoenix in Vietnam, but was sworn to secrecy not to describe what turned out to be the criminal assassination of many tens of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians. That was a journalist who had inside knowledge of mass murder, not in the heat of combat, and felt obliged to keep his mouth shut for fear of reprisal. And so it goes…

  9. Bill Bodden
    January 25, 2017 at 15:32

    The crew of the helicopter in the “collateral murder” video may not have been charged because investigators agreed with John King of CNN that it was an accident.

  10. Bill Bodden
    January 25, 2017 at 14:59

    After Manning revealed war crimes and other transgressions in our government and military both entities and many citizens proceeded to reveal profound moral and ethical deficiencies, paranoia and hypocrisy in our society. Among the first was the outrage of people directed at Manning who didn’t seem to care that officials in their government and the military were committing acts in their name detrimental to the interests of the nation and its people. Among the more ludicrous claims against Manning was an alleged “fact” that al-Qaeda learned through Wikileaks about the abuse directed against Iraqis and Afghans. No doubt that would have been a big surprise.

    Then came the abusive treatment of Manning in the brig at the Quantico Marine Base. All participants in this cruel and unusual punishment from President Obama (who thought Manning’s treatment was “appropriate”) on down through the highest ranks in the Pentagon to the lowest in the brig were in violation of their oaths to uphold the Constitution, particularly the 8th Amendment.

    One image from Manning’s incarceration at Quantico that suggests paranoia in law enforcement came courtesy of local police forces in Prince William County in Virginia who assembled in their Darth Vader outfits ominously guarding the approaches to the marine base because of a threat they perceived coming from a group led by Daniel Ellsberg that wanted to lay some flowers at the gate to the base.

    The hypocrisy of exposed criminals not brought to justice for their crimes is, of course, nowadays par for the course despite Obama’s repeated claptrap about no one being above the law. We can confidently presume similar diligence will apply during Trump’s presidency.

  11. January 25, 2017 at 14:25

    What mental manipulations were performed to scar this human being? Did Bradley Manning survive the torture?

    It seems unusual that an alleged traitor would be afforded medical care for gender conversion. Is the gender conversio–paid by “our” government– a part of the government control drama to manipulate public opinion? Is the person being released really Chelsea (Bradley) Manning or a ‘look alike’ made easier to fool the public by the sex change?

  12. Dennis Merwood
    January 25, 2017 at 14:05

    Why don’t they free her tomorrow?

    • Joe Tedesky
      January 25, 2017 at 17:30

      Dennis Merwood I hear you. On another post a few days ago I wrote how I fear for Chelsea Manning while still in detention. My reasoning is based on how dangerous it is for any prisoner while short timing it while still in prison. I mean there are a whole host of reasons why Chelsea could be at risk while serving out her last remaining days. On one hand sympathetic prisoners could come to her aid, and protect her, but it would only take one of those prisoners to do something terribly horrific to her in her last days while in jail. I don’t trust the management either. I would not put it a pass a prisoner being put up to it to do something bad to Ms Manning, and I’m sure this contracted prisoner would do it with some promise for a benefit such as them receiving drugs, or a get out of jail early commitment being made as part of the deal…then that prisoner better watch his, or her back. Chelsea should be let out immediately, because as each day goes by it will be a nerve racking nail biter without a doubt.

      Someone hire Scooter Libby’s lawyers and get her out of prison right the hell now.

  13. Znam Svashta
    January 25, 2017 at 13:05


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