Chelsea Manning never ended up lecturing at Harvard University after loud objections from the Central Intelligence Agency. But late Monday afternoon, the day she was supposed to begin her fellowship, Manning did talk about surveillance, tech, and social repression down the street—at the similarly prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
For someone who enlisted in the Army at a young age and spent most of her adult life in prison, seeing the prevalence of domestic surveillance and the militarization of policing is “like I’m walking out into the most boring dystopian novel I can imagine,” she told The Daily Beast shortly after her talk. “It feels like American cities, certain parts of them, are occupied by an American force, the police department.”
Having traveled across the East and West Coasts since her release, one of the 21st century’s signature whistleblowers is trying to reconnect with her country and spread an activist message about political engagement. She ran up against an obstacle last month: the current and former intelligence officials who pressed Harvard to reject her fellowship.
Yet the result was an MIT conversation with the ACLU’s Kade Crockford that encouraged the software engineers of tomorrow to think through the applications of their innovations that might aid a more expansive surveillance apparatus—itself a statement of defiance to those who’d rather respectable institutions shun her.
“What’s important here is that the Central Intelligence Agency and associated people in the intelligence community, they think they can stifle dissent, all forms of dissent, all across America and use academic institutions as a battleground,” Manning said.
Last month, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government withdrew a fellowship offer it had extended to Manning. Michael Morell, the former acting CIA director, set off a backlash by resigning his own Harvard fellowship over outrage that “leaks by Ms. Manning put the lives of U.S. soldiers at risk.” Mike Pompeo, the current CIA director, followed up by calling Manning an “American traitor.” (Never mind the fact that Pompeo promoted WikiLeaks, the outlet that published Manning’s leaks, during the 2016 campaign.)
Manning said she couldn’t be bothered by the spymasters’ words. “I’m not going to be afraid and I’m not going to be intimidated,” she added.
Her MIT talk, delivered to about 130 students and other attendees, was the result of a post-Harvard invitation extended by Joi Ito of the MIT Media Lab after Manning reached out through a mutual friend, MIT confirmed. In it, Manning said, she touched on living in the panopticon of prison as a “microcosm” for tech-fueled advancements in repression, “when it comes to facial recognition, surveillance, using databases and techniques to monitor and surveil people,” as well as how she depended on other inmates for support while imprisoned.
Then she issued a warning to the engineers MIT will matriculate: “While we might be making a piece of software that does one thing, for medicine or marketing or advertising, it can be used in a military context or to suppress dissent. These technological solutions are kind of universal in that sense that they can be misused.”
‘Aiding the Enemy?’
The MIT talk was the latest skirmish in a battle over Manning’s legacy—one that shows no sign of stopping.
“One of the things we wanted to make sure was that it was about the substance of the conversation, we didn’t want this to be just about snubbing Harvard,” Ito explained in introducing one of the first public talks given by a figure who has been defined for seven years mostly by hostile, powerful officials.
Contrary to Pompeo’s invective, a military judge in 2013 specifically acquitted Manning, then known as Bradley, of knowingly “aiding the enemy.” She was convicted of multiple counts of leaking classified information and received a 35-year sentence. After serving seven years, to include pre-trial detention, President Barack Obama commuted her sentence in January. She walked free from Fort Leavenworth in May after confinement so severe—it included a yearlong stint in solitary—that a U.N. special rapporteur on torture called it a violation of her “right to physical and psychological integrity as well as of [her] presumption of innocence.”
Manning’s deployment to Iraq and exposure to the material she leaked disillusioned her to the U.S. war effort. She said at her sentencing: “It was never my intention to hurt anyone. I only wanted to help people. When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.”
Pompeo and Morell made points frequently invoked by Manning’s detractors, and not often carefully. In the wake of her disclosures’ publication by WikiLeaks in 2010, the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff charged that the group “might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.”
Yet an actual taxonomy of any harm resulting from Manning’s leaks, something that might allow for a balanced assessment of what she did and the punishment she subsequently endured, is not a matter of public knowledge seven years after Manning’s saga began. Detractors in the intelligence agencies say doing so would put more sources and methods at risk, compounding the damage; Manning supporters consider that too convenient, permitting overblown accusations against her to remain in perpetual circulation.
Manning’s defense counsel in her military trial was not permitted to read a classified document assessing the impact of her leaks of thousands of tactical military reports and diplomatic cables.
But BuzzFeed’s Jason Leopold obtained the document earlier this year after transparency litigation and wrote that the multi-agency task force found her leaks “largely insignificant and did not cause any real harm to U.S. interests.” The 2011-era document found the leaks had potential to “serious[ly] damage… intelligence sources, informants, and the Afghan population” and would have their greatest likely effect on “cooperative Afghans, Iraqis, and other foreign interlocutors.”
Academics and human-rights groups have said that contacts with the U.S., revealed in the diplomatic cables, complicated their jobs and potentially placed them in danger in authoritarian countries. But there remains little certainty over whether those leaks actually led to someone suffering harm.
Evidence the leaks contained about greater civilian deaths and injuries than the Pentagon had disclosed, something Manning’s defenders cite to demonstrate her leaks’ importance, could damage “support for current operations in the region,” the task force found, focusing more on the leaks than on the deaths they revealed.
That matched contemporaneous reporting, which found the Obama administration’s claims about the damage Manning caused exaggerated. A congressional official briefed on the leaks’ impact in 2011 told Reuters they were “embarrassing but not damaging.”
‘An Historic Embarrassment for American Academia’
In a confusing statement following the CIA pressure, Harvard’s Douglas Elmendorf called extending the fellowship to Manning “a mistake.” Elmendorf said the initial invitation to her was defensible but neglected the impact of the “perceived honor that it implies to some people,” which opened up Harvard to criticism for hypocrisy in honoring, among others, Sean Spicer, who repeatedly lied from the White House podium as President Trump’s press secretary. As a consolation, Elmendorf offered Manning a one-day opportunity to “spend a day at the Kennedy School and speak in the Forum.” That isn’t going to happen.
The filmmaker Eugene Jarecki told The Daily Beast that Harvard’s decision was “an historic embarrassment for American academia.”
Jarecki interviewed Manning at a public event on Nantucket shortly after Harvard’s about-face and pronounced himself impressed with her willingness to engage with hard questions.
“She’s a remarkable human being who really is a walking concentration of several-hot button issues in American life,” Jarecki said. “It was both a surprise and no surprise, in a way, to see an institution such as Harvard quake in their boots when Chelsea’s name is mentioned.”
Despite the CIA pressure and Harvard’s acquiescence to it, Manning indicated to The Daily Beast that political activism will be a feature of her unfolding life as a free woman.
In prison, she learned “we are our own political agents,” depending on one another—a message that seems to inform where she’s going next.
“I’m trying to live my life, but I realize I can’t go back to the life I was living before. I need to be with the people I care about, and we need to be with each other. It’s not about me—I’m very concerned about the direction all of us are going in,” she said.
“I think it’s important people understand they have power. Nobody can give them power and give them rights, we need to assert that.”
Out in the tech world, Manning said she got the sense engineers are “expecting someone to tell them what to do” with their innovations, rather than figuring out their social utility through dialogue with their neighbors.
“The reality is people need to... have these conversations in our communities right now. We can’t wait for someone to come up with a final product, idea, [or] solution,” she said. “There’s no roadmap to the future. We have to chart our own course.”