Future of whistleblowers unclear as Chelsea Manning claims her freedom

The 29-year old Army private may be free now but the future of whistleblowers is still unclear.

CREDIT: U.S. Army via AP, File
CREDIT: U.S. Army via AP, File

Chelsea Manning took her first steps as a free woman today.

Seven years ago, Manning was imprisoned for giving thousands of military intelligence documents—including diplomatic communications, evidence of military abuse and torture, and the infamous “Collateral Murder” video of a 2007 airstrike in Baghdad that killed 12 people, two of whom were Reuters reporters—to Wikileaks.

President Barack Obama commuted Manning’s 35-year sentence during his last days in office. “The notion that the average person who was thinking about disclosing vital, classified information would think that it goes unpunished, I don’t think would get that impression from the sentence that Chelsea Manning has served,” he said during a news conference announcing the commutation. “I feel very comfortable that justice has been served.”

It’s been a long, hard road for Manning. She survived two suicide attempts and long stretches in isolation, often as punishment for minor infractions. She encountered resistance when trying to receive transgender health care and garments that match her gender, and the Department of Justice leveled questionable “safety” concerns when she sought permission to grow her hair out. The U.S. Army also denied Manning’s request to transfer to a female prison.


As of today, the 29-year-old Army private will return to active duty—unpaid, but with health care benefits—while her military court conviction is appealed. But while Manning adjusts to life outside of Fort Leavenworth’s walls, the future of potential intelligence whistleblowers like her remains unclear under the Trump administration.

The Obama administration was tough on security leaks, prosecuting seven of the 150 intelligence-related cases referred to the Justice Department. But President Donald Trump has previously suggested whistleblowers should receive even harsher punishments than Manning’s, possibly even the dealth penalty.

In 2013, during an interview with Fox New’ Eric Bolling on Fox and Friends, Trump called NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden a “terrible threat” and “traitor” who should be killed.

“We can’t allow this guy to go out there and give out all our secrets and also embarrass us at every level. We should get him back and get him back now,” Trump continued.


His hardline stance on leaks of classified information became a focus after Trump found himself embroiled in several intelligence controversies of his own making after it was reported that he revealed highly classified information regarding a potential ISIS threat to a Russian official. News broke late Tuesday that Trump also asked former FBI Director James Comey to drop the department’s investigation into his former national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Michael Flynn.

Trump’s divulging of classified information in conversation is considered an act of declassification reserved for the president. Those protections don’t extend to anyone else, who could be jailed if they were to breach classification protocols.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) called Trump’s disclosure “disturbing,” and compared the government’s investigation of Trump’s relationship with Russia to the Watergate saga. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) said it was “troubling.”

With leaks from inside the administration flowing steadily in the past four months, the phenomenon seems to bolster a public need and desire for whistleblowers to help keep government officials accountable.

That’s what Ben Wizner, the ACLU’s director of technology, speech, and privacy policy, predicted before Trump took office.


“More Americans are going to recognize very quickly the importance of whistleblowers,” Wizner previously told ThinkProgress. “The public relies on the independent media and the media relies on sources.”

Republicans traditionally favor harsh penalties for intelligence leakers, and while disclosures regarding Trump’s conduct remain a concern for lawmakers and the public at large, it’s likely that anti-whistleblower sentiment will remain should another major intelligence leak happen in the next four years.

Trump has already removed penalties for federal contractors who retaliate against whistleblowers that may report on dangerous conditions, fraud, waste or abuse. There are also no real consequences for government officials who attempt to conceal wrongdoing.

But it’s possible that should the White House leaks continue, they’ll force a conversation about reform rather than mounting prosecutions.

Some members of Congress have already taken precautions to protect potential whistleblowers by encouraging staff to use encrypted messaging systems.

Since March, it is now Senate policy for staffers to use secure, end-to-end encrypted messaging app Signal. The Senate also made all of its web pages more secure by switching the domains to HTTPS, ZDNet reported. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), a staunch privacy advocate, championed the policy change, which was announced in a letter to the Senate’s Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin.

“With the transition to default HTTPS for all of the other Senate websites and the recent announcement by your office that the end-to-end encrypted messaging app Signal is approved for Senate staff use, I am happy to see that you too recognize the important defensive cybersecurity role that encryption can play.”