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Usaid Siddiqui

Chelsea Manning's release is a victory for common decency

Manning's release would not have been possible without relentless campaigning by activists [AFP]

Date of publication: 17 May, 2017

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Comment: Manning's actions are credited with helping to inspire the Arab Spring, and revealing how ill-advised and criminal American policy can be. Her release gives us hope, writes Usaid Siddiqui.

Today, 17 May 2017, Chelsea Manning will be a free woman after seven years of incarceration, a sentence she served for leaking thousands of US military documents to whistle blowing website WikiLeaks – a cause of major humiliation for the American government.

When former president Barack Obama pardoned her in his final days, opinion on the matter was strikingly divided. For some she remains a traitor who risked American lives; while others hail her as one of our "generation's greatest heroes".

While the release of sensitive military documents can certainly be unsettling, there has been no report of any incident that jeopardised the security of US military personnel or diplomats, as a result of Manning's actions.

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A 2011 Reuters report found that internal US government reviews showed that while the leaks were embarrassing, they did not compromise or pose any danger to US soldiers or accomplices in the field. In fact, Manning's actions brought forth evidence on how ill-advised and criminal many American policies can be - information that would rarely be made public otherwise; an act for which she paid an enormous price.

American wars exposed

Aside from the duplicitous nature of American policymaking, the documents Manning leaked were perhaps most revealing in the insight they provided into American conduct in wars abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Arguably at no point in time in US history have whistleblowers been less safe than in the post 9/11 era

Perhaps the most defining exposé of all, remains the 39 minute footage from 12 July 2007, which disclosed a series of air to ground strikes on Humvee in a neighbourhood in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters employees. The gathering was mistaken for a group of insurgents with alleged weapons that turned out to be cameras.

According to former military personnel testimonies, such incidents are routine except the public is not privy to any of it.  

"What happened then was not an isolated incident. Stuff like that happens on a daily basis in Iraq." Ethan McCord recalled in an interview, a US soldier serving in Iraq who witnessed the infamous 12 July incident. "The first real serious doubt, where I could no longer justify to myself being in Iraq or serving in the Army, was on that day in July 2007," he added. McCord believes the incident constituted a war crime.

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The leaks also shed light on the shocking death count in Iraq from 2004 to 2009; well over 100,000 of which upwards of 66,000 were civilians. According to Iraq Body Count (IBC), a UK based monitor group that tracks civilian casualties, "These logs contain a huge amount of entirely new information regarding casualties" the IBC told The Guardian, including 15,000 deaths that were previously unaccounted for.

The leaks also shed light on the shocking death count in Iraq from 2004 to 2009; well over 100,000 of which upwards of 66,000 were civilians

Had this continued to be hidden from the public, US and British governments would have remained dismissive of independent challenges to their conservative casualty estimates - or lack an effort to make any estimates at all.

It also helped to further destroy the blithering lie that the sole removal of Saddam Hussein from power made the invasion a worthwhile endeavour, when parts of the country today are controlled by groups such as Islamic State (IS).

In addition to enhancing the public's knowledge, one of the many positive consequences of Manning's actions included civil societies organising around the world to challenge their governments, that in some instances altered the course of history.

One of the many positive consequences of Manning's actions included civil societies organising around the world to challenge their governments

Outside of the US, the leaks are credited to have lit the fuse for the Arab Spring in late 2011 that saw major upheaval against Middle East dictatorships. Tunisian activist Sami Ban Gharia, in whose country that Arab Spring first took shape (and overthrew a decades long dictatorship) thanked Manning for her courageous action, calling her "an inspirational and iconic figure".  

"Closing a cell door on a prisoner with a free mind has opened a thousand and one doors for a free society," he added in his praise of Manning.

The future of whistleblowers

Arguably at no point in time in US history have whistleblowers been less safe than in the post 9/11 era.

Obama, who promised at the start of his presidency more transparency in government - a vow central to his first run for office - ended up persecuting more whistleblowers than any US president before him.

His successor is certainly set to be even harsher. Upon the announcement of Manning's sentence being commuted, Trump called her an "ungrateful traitor" and opined she "should never have been released from prison".

Defending his decision to commute Manning's sentence, Obama said Manning's seven year incarceration - the longest served by a US whistleblower - had set an example that would deter potential whistleblowers from leaking sensitive government materials.

So far, though, there is little proof that such draconian punishments are likely to stop citizens from blowing the whistle on government indiscretions.

There is little proof that such draconian punishments are likely to stop citizens from blowing the whistle on government indiscretions

Less than three years after Manning's actions, Edward Snowden leaked millions of classified documents belonging to his former employer the National Security Agency. This brought public scrutiny to a massive surveillance apparatus that many condemn to be an vehement attack on personal freedom and civil liberties.

In October 2015, online publication The Intercept released leaked papers in relation to American drone strikes revealing the callousness with which the CIA runs the controversial programme, as many suspected, in which 90 percent of those killed "were not intended targets".

Moreover, while the governments do everything in their power to discourage and safeguard their criminal actions, many in civil society have shown they are willing to stand by those that risk everything to hold their governments accountable. Manning's release would not have been possible had it not been for the relentless effort of hundreds of activists who helped propel the plea that landed her freedom.

The future may not look promising, but Manning's release provides a sliver of hope for those who may take up her mantle one day and know they will not be left to fend for themselves.

Usaid Siddiqui is a freelance Canadian writer. He has written for PolicyMic, Aslan Media, Al Jazeera America and Mondoweiss on current affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @UsaidMuneeb16

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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