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Chelsea Manning and the Criminals of American Empire


Chelsea Manning, formerly Bradley, came out as a woman on Thursday, one day after she was sentenced to 35 years at a military detention center for men in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Her case highlights the hypocrisy of America’s criminal justice system, as well as the larger context in which it functions—a system that serves to repress the truth and punish the trivial, all the while perpetrating and abetting the greatest crimes of all.

In July, Manning was convicted of 20 (out of 22) counts, including several violations of the Espionage Act of 1917, originally used to prosecute peace activists during World War I. In the 96 years the law has been on the books, it has only been used to prosecute whistleblowers nine times. Eight of those cases have been brought by the Obama administration, Daniel Ellsberg being the only exception. What does it say about the state of our republic that one of the most outspoken presidents in history about the importance of transparency and government accountability has dramatically prosecuted eight whistleblowers as enemies of the state?

Manning was also charged with embezzlement of government property. He “stole” (or copied) information the government would have paid a pretty price to keep secret, given the atrocities exposed by the files. The diplomatic cables demonstrated the high-level corruption and bribery rampant in governments around the world, and helped ignite the spark of the Arab Spring in Tunisia. The Afghanistan and Iraq war logs painted a picture of a Vietnam-style quagmire in the Middle East, replete with waste, fraud, abuse, and violations of international law. A Pentagon memo Manning is also believed to have leaked details the administration’s strategy for delegitimizing Wikileaks long before any of the most devastating leaks surfaced. And the Collateral Murder video showed the intentional murder of civilians and Reuters journalists—a crime for which the U.S. government found no evidence of wrongdoing.

While Chelsea Manning serves 35 years for her attempt to wake the American people up to the reality of an empire gone mad (“I realized in our efforts to meet this risk posed to us by the enemy, we have forgotten our humanity,” Manning told the court in her apology), those murderers and the army officials who allowed the whole affair to blow over will continue terrorizing the Arab world, and creating more terrorists every day—all of which raises the questions: who here is the enemy, and who is aiding it?

During Manning’s trial, navy forensic psychiatrist Captain David Moulton testified that he diagnosed Manning with narcissism, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and gender dysphoria, an outdated medical description of Manning’s gender identity. As Chelsea spends what could potentially be the bulk of her adult life in a military prison in which no one will acknowledge her as the woman she feels she is, for an act perceived as so honorable to so many that she has actually been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, we must ask ourselves who has committed the real atrocities.

Chelsea Manning, like Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden and so many other truth-tellers, exposed crimes committed by the American empire. No one responsible for those crimes will serve time in prison. Nor will any of the banking executives responsible for the 2008 stock market crash and the foreclosures of millions of American homes. Nor will any of the decision-makers at HSBC, who laundered money for Mexican drug cartels and other deadly criminal enterprises. The Department of Justice deemed HSBC too big to really punish, taking $1.9 billion (or about 5 weeks of profit) and dropping all criminal charges. The American people could surely use two billion dollars, perhaps to help save social security and welfare programs, but I think we can be pretty sure Lockheed Martin has dibs on the extra cash.

Other corporate entities (and their human stewards) who won’t be spending the next three decades behind bars include BP and Exxon-Mobil. Despite the fact that BP recklessly allowed the largest oil spill in the history of petroleum and then intentionally sprayed cancer-causing Corexit in unprecedented, untested, and illegal amounts to create the illusion of a clean-up, no one will serve time in prison as a result. And Exxon-Mobil, which has been illegally storing hazardous materials in a town near Mayflower, Arkansas, after its (extremely weak and cracked) tar sands pipeline spilled, forcing the evacuation of 22 homes, has thus far similarly escaped criminal liability.

Our prisons are filling up nonetheless, however, with a 500% increase in the incarceration rate over the last thirty years, despite a 25% decrease in the crime rate over the same time period. There is little, if anything, to be proud of about the American way of dealing with crime, from the definition of the crimes themselves, to the individuals chosen for punishment, to the length of their sentences and prison conditions. Many prisons are overcrowded, and many prisoners are raped, mistreated, and deprived of physical and mental healthcare.

“There may not be a soldier in the history of the Army who displayed such an extreme disregard” for his mission, Manning’s prosecutor told the judge in his closing sentencing arguments on Monday. That statement, perhaps more than any other in the trial, betrays the hypocrisy of the twenty-first century American empire. Manning disclosed classified information “out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.” According to what love, to what moral compass, does our government act?

Kate Epstein is a lawyer and activist who manages the blog The Lone Pamphleteer. She can be reached at

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