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Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden Criticize the “Decline” of US Democracy

Manning was awarded the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence last night.
Image (cropped): Abode of Chaos/Youtube

Former US Army soldier Chelsea Manning received the 2014 Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence from ex-intelligence officials for providing WikiLeaks with classified documents chronicling the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, in a ceremony held at the Oxford Union on Wednesday evening.

Manning, currently serving a 35-year jail sentence, wrote a compelling acceptance speech that was read at the event by her British school friend Aaron Kirkhouse. Edward Snowden, the recipient of the Sam Adams Award in 2013 for his whistleblowing on secret NSA and transnational surveillance programs, sent a four-minute video message to address the ceremony and pay homage to what he called Manning’s “extraordinary act of public service.”

Edward Snowden's speech at the Sam Adams Award ceremony. Video: Sam Adams/Youtube

Manning’s statement last night sparked a consideration of the current state of democracy in the US and marked a departure from her previous, deeply personal statements during trial, describing her crisis of consciousness as an intelligence analyst within the US Army. A reflection of her enthusiasm for political literature, it was a reminder of the American pillars of democracy—separation of powers, accountability, an informed citizenry—and a stark warning of their crumbling demise.

Manning emphasised the importance of an informed public, writing, “When the public lacks the ability to access what its government is doing, it ceases to be involved in the governing process.”

Zealous state secrecy and over-classification, particularly over instances of criminal wrong-doing such as those Manning witnessed, is tantamount to the difference between “tyranny and freedom” for citizens, she argued. “There is a distinct difference between citizens, in which people are entitled to rights and privileges protected by and from the state, and subjects, in which people are placed under the absolute authority and control of the state.”

Manning only briefly referenced her award, and while Snowden praised her “extraordinary act of public service, at an unbelievable personal cost,” he too focused on warning the audience of the fault lines in the foundations of American democracy—the primary foundation, he said, being the informed consent of the governed. “The decline of an open government, the decline of democracy,” he warned, “begins when the domain of government expands beyond the borders of its public’s knowledge.”

Inside the Oxford Union, Aaron Kirkhouse reads Chelsea Manning's statement. Image: Silkie Carlo

For both these young intelligence analysts, their work implicated them in the murky domain of secrecy far beyond those borders, and further still from the reaches of the oversight and judicial process that they thought so much of the information warranted. A 22-year-old armed with a Lady Gaga CD and an extraordinary dose of courage, Manning made the decision to single-handedly bridge the democratic gap.

Snowden expressed with conviction that the “documents that we received from Manning showed us that some of this information is unambiguously necessary for public ends.” He asked the audience, “How can we vote without evidence of the true costs of the wars in which we are involved, instances of public corruption, official corruption in nations that we support and ally ourselves with, or even national participation in torture programs and rendition programs and unambiguous war crimes?” It was a reminder that several such instances were made public through Manning’s revelations.

Ray McGovern, a former senior CIA analyst and the founder of the Sam Adams Associates, played “Collateral Murder” for the Oxford Union audience—video footage, leaked by Manning, of a US military air strike in Baghdad in which 11 men are shot and killed, including two Reuters employees. A civilian, a “good Samaritan,” stops in his van to attempt to help the men bleeding and dying on the roadside. He, and his van containing his two children, is mercilessly smothered with bullets. “Light ‘em all up,” orders the US soldier. The Oxford Union audience paused for a minute of silence.


Chelsea Manning, too, can be seen as a good Samaritan, and her freedom appears to be mere collateral damage for the American state. For holding up a mirror to what Snowden and McGovern describe as “unambiguous war crimes” of the US, Manning has endured several years of cruel and inhumane treatment, and faces 35 years of imprisonment; incongruously, the soldier who shot and killed 11 innocent men remains free.

Ray McGovern addresses the audience. Image: Silkie Carlo

However, for their presentation of the award, the Sam Adams Associates wrote: “Chelsea, you are more free than all those who spend their lives covering up for evil. We applaud your courage, dignity and integrity and we want you to know that, wherever you may be, we are always with you and supporting you.”

The Sam Adams Award is given in memory of a CIA analyst who knew that the US intelligence on armed Vietnamese communists was being falsified in order to make the Vietnam War publicly appear winnable. Adams went through the official channels to protest this, but nothing was done, and by the time he left the CIA in 1973 it was too late. Hundreds of thousands had died, and Adams endured the searing guilt of insufficient action for the rest of his life. His colleague, McGovern, established the Sam Adams Associates in his memory in the hope that history would cease repeating itself, and to reward intelligence officials who demonstrated a commitment to truth and integrity, no matter the consequences.

Perhaps the increasing instances of conviction and self-sacrifice of intelligence officials in the 21st Century is not simply explained by the anarchy of the digital age. Perhaps it is borne from 20th Century lessons: the acute understanding of the banality of evil; the perils of unquestioning obedience to authority; and the awareness that silence can be a war crime. But it is the digital age that allows Chelsea Manning’s courageous, dissenting voice to be heard, loud and clear.