manning

Looking Back on 6 Years of Fighting for Chelsea Manning

Follow me on Twitter @RaineyReitman

President Obama announced that he would commute Chelsea Manning’s sentence today. Instead of spending another 28 brutal years in a military prison for men, she’ll walk free in just a few months.

Chelsea inspired me, and her actions forever changed my life. I remember watching the Apache helicopter video of American soldiers gunning down unarmed people in Iraq, including a Reuters journalist and two children. It fundamentally changed how I saw America’s overseas wars.

I believed strongly that this video belonged in the public. People who elect our government had a right to see what was being done in our name. They had a right to decide for themselves if they agreed with our foreign policies. The day it was published by Wikileaks, I sent it to pretty much everyone I knew.

In late May 2010, Manning was detained. Sometime around June 10th or 11th, word leaked out to the press that an Army analyst named “Bradley Manning” was being charged with leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks. On June 11th, an anarchist in Bratislava named Mike Gogulski put up a blog post on BradleyManning.org—a domain he had just registered—linking to the Apache helicopter video. On June 13th, he put out a blog post asking for volunteers.

He said he needed writers:

“We need people writing on-topic, current material on an ongoing basis. Articles could be published here either under your name or pseudonymously, and material already published elsewhere is welcome.”

I decided to send an email.

At the time, just sending that first email seemed scary. Manning was being labeled a traitor, and I was living in the military-heavy town of San Diego and thinking I might one day apply for a job at the Federal Trade Commission. I thought getting involved with Manning’s campaign might land me on some government watch list, or hurt future career opportunities.

Instead, I was swept up, and the campaign we built together over the coming weeks, months, and years took over my life.

My friend Charles Langley, who was the first person I talked to about wanting to do something about Chelsea Manning, said at the time that he feared I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I replied that life was about biting off more than you can chew.

Today, looking back over the beauty, mess, and weirdness of the last six and a half years, I still believe it. Life is definitely about biting off more than you can chew.

It boggles the mind to think how far we came with the Chelsea Manning Support Network. In some ways, we were squaring off against the United States government itself, with its seemingly infinite resources. As the trial dragged on for years, we had to fundraise for every dollar to cover legal fees, buy supplies to send mailings, and pay a pittance to a small group of overworked, dedicated, wonderful organizers who used every scrap of bravery and creativity imaginable to advance the public’s knowledge of Chelsea Manning.

That campaign included billboards, flash mobs, banner drops, rallies, viral videos, and one full page ad in the New York Times. I remember working late in the night to help craft a letter to propose Chelsea Manning for the Nobel Peace Prize, stepping onto a soap box with a bullhorn for the first time in my life, waking up to calls from supporters in other time zones, and sitting in a court room furiously scribbling notes during Chelsea’s pretrial hearing and court martial. 

Even as I continued my work with the Chelsea Manning Support Network, I shifted more of my energy to the Freedom of the Press Foundation over the last few years, where I continued working to raise awareness about Chelsea. We brought the world Chelsea’s voice in court, leaked anonymously to us, and we also launched a crowd-funding campaign to send court reporters to document Chelsea’s entire court martial. Between the two organizations, we covered the overwhelming majority of Chelsea’s legal fees.

Working on the Chelsea Manning campaign, I learned to believe in the transformative power of hope. And also the importance of clear delegation, well-run conference calls, and getting good photos at public events. 

I also learned that heroes are fictional. No matter how awe-inspiring someone seems on paper, we’re all human. In many ways, I appreciated Chelsea even more as I got to know her over the last year, and discovered that she was funny, sensitive, gentle, and deeply intelligent—not someone to put on a pedestal, but someone to trust and talk to as a friend.

I wish that we had won Chelsea’s freedom in court. I wish that she’d received a sentence of time served at her court martial, and that she could have walked out of prison free years ago. As Trevor and I wrote earlier today, “Whistleblowers acting in the public interest should not be beholden to the president’s whims. Instead, fair laws should ensure strong protections for whistleblowers who shed light on human rights abuses, war crimes, corruption, and government deception.”

Even as Chelsea Manning prepares to leave prison, many others await justice. Among them is Edward Snowden, a young man who responsibly disclosed documents about intelligence abuses and has been in exile for years as a result. His campaign—which is far prettier and better organized than anything we ever made for the Chelsea Manning Support Network—is at PardonSnowden.org.

The last 6 years, I’ve been continually inspired by not just Chelsea, but the dedicated group of people working—often with no appreciation—in defense of Chelsea Manning. There are too many to name, but I have to acknowledge a few who have every right to celebrate today. Above all, Jeff Paterson, Project Director of Courage to Resist. I truly believe no one on earth handles a crisis better than Jeff, which is lucky since we had more than our fair share.  Also, David Coombs, Chelsea’s first attorney, who gave everything to her case for many years.

So many people spent years fighting to raise awareness about Chelsea’s case. These include (in no order whatsoever) Daniel Ellsberg, Mike Gogulski (OMG Mike did this really just happen really?), Emma Cape, Trevor Timm, Alexa O’Brien, Evan Greer, Chase Strangio, Nancy Hollander, the amazing individual who is too private for me to name publicly but knows how much I value them, Gerry Condon, David Solnit, Kevin Zeese, Michael Thurman, Charlotte Sheasby-Coleman, Logan Price, Jonathan Matthew Smucker, Owen Wiltshire, Nathan Fuller, Melissa Keith, Farah Muhsin, Gary Virginia, Leez, Martin MacKerel, and the rest of Get Up Street Theater, Bob Meola, and Michael Moore. I know I’m forgetting a ton of names, and I’m sorry, but it’s late and I’m still dizzy with gratitude. There were also stellar journalists covering this case, and while I can’t name them all, Glenn Greenwald, Kevin Gosztola, Denver Nicks, and Charlie Savage were especially dedicated to ensuring the public understood this case.

Many organizations other than the Chelsea Manning Support Network  and Freedom of the Press Foundation fought hard to ensure justice for Chelsea, including Courage to Resist, Demand Progress, Fight for the Future, ACLU, EFF (my full time job), and Amnesty International. I know there are many others, these are just the few I worked with most closely.

Also, a huge shout-out to those who spoke out for Chelsea Manning in our celebrity video, including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Roger Waters, Oliver Stone, Phil Donahue, Alice Walker, Tom Morello, Matt Taibbi, Peter Sarsgaard, Angela Davis, Moby, Molly Crabapple, Tim DeChristopher, LT Dan Choi, Bishop George Packard, Russell Brand, Allan Nairn, Chris Hedges, Wallace Shawn, Adhaf Soueif and Josh Stieber.

And finally, a special thanks to Michael Ratner, a tireless advocate for Chelsea Manning until his death. I know he would have been proud to be here today.

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2 interviews for Chelsea Manning campaign

As you may have read, we’re shutting down the Chelsea Manning Support Network. I’ve been processing a lot around this, and will likely write more about it. But for now, I’m just gathering up a few of the old campaign materials and copying them here for archival purposes.

Here are two interviews I did for Chelsea Manning advocacy that I particularly liked. The first, with Tech Crunch, was right before Chelsea changed her name. The second, with Swirl, was after.

Swirl Episode 6- Chelsea Manning, Rainey Reitman, Transgender Law Center from The Michelle Meow Show on Vimeo.

How we crowd-sourced transcripts of the entire Manning court martial

Originally published on the Freedom of the Press Foundation site.

On May 9, 2013, we made a bold claim on this website. We promised to crowd-fund enough money to hire independent court reporters to provide transcripts of the entire Manning court martial.

We knew that it was vital that the public have a virtual seat in Chelsea Manning’s trial1.  A public record of the court proceedings could fuel better, more accurate, and more frequent news coverage of the trial and could hold the government to account for its actions during the court martial. The government had forbidden tape recorders or cameras from entering the courtroom, so the only way to get an accurate accounting of the proceedings was sending in someone to take notes by hand.

Paying professional court reporters to transcribe the proceedings seemed like the perfect solution – if it was possible.

We knew it would be hard, but had no idea how hard. At every turn, we faced new obstacles to getting transcripts of the trial. So, finally, here’s the story of what we faced – and all the people who helped us surmount those obstacles.

Where do you even find a court reporter?

The very first problem we faced was finding a court reporter that would work with us. We knew we needed a reputable court reporter/stenographer that could do real-time transcripts and would be familiar with military jargon. But many court reporters rely on military court systems for their livelihood and didn’t want to jeopardize those relationships. In addition, we were asking for an incredibly quick turnaround time in conditions that didn’t allow the court reporters a recorded backup, or the ability to ask for any court participants to slow down or repeat their statements, like most court reporters can. Given the long court hours, this puts a toll on any court reporter, no matter how good.

Tony Rolland

Tony Rolland, who connected us with Gore Brothers

We were incredibly thankful when court reporter Tony Rolland (pictured right) approached us and recommended Gore Brothers. They are a professional court reporting firm that serves the larger DC/Baltimore metropolitan area. While other court reporters turned down our business, Gore Brothers understood how important it was to have accurate, timely records available to the public for one of the most important trials in our lifetime. Even though it was a politically contentious issue, Gore Brothers took us on and agreed to send in court reporters.

Working with Gore, we realized that one court reporter wasn’t going to be nearly enough. Instead, Gore brought together a team of 6 court reporters so that there would be continual coverage throughout the many weeks of the trial.

We know that journalists need transcripts quickly in order to write stories about the trial, and so we prioritized speed in getting these transcripts made. That meant two court reporters every day: one covering the morning and one covering the afternoon. By having court reporters only covering half days, we could ensure that we got transcripts edited and live on the website faster – morning sessions would go live at 7 PM in the evening, afternoon sessions would be published early the following morning.

Wait, it costs how much?

The second barrier was funding. We knew that professional court reporters were expensive, but we underestimated how expensive. We originally believed we needed to raise $40,000-$50,000 to cover the entire trial.  But it quickly became apparent that we needed to raise twice that much.

What made this possible? Amazingly, it was individual donors. Over one thousand six hundred people chipped in $10, $20, and $50 because they believed that the Manning trial should be public for the whole world. The average donation was under $100.

We made the platform, but ultimately it was the generosity and faith of individuals making small contributions that made the transcripts possible.

Taking on the U.S. government

Money and a team of top-notch court reporters weren’t the only thing we needed to cover the Manning court martial. We also had to get into the courtroom, and the government made it very difficult for us and many other media organizations to access the trial.

We knew there were strict regulations preventing any electronic equipment in the courtroom, but the media center allowed journalists to bring in laptops as long as they didn’t record or connect to the Internet during the proceedings.

We knew we were far more likely to be allowed to bring stenography equipment into the media center than into the courtroom, so we teamed up with the Verge, the Guardian, and Forbes. Each organization requested a press pass for their reporter and a second press pass for a court reporter to accompany their reporter.

Unfortuantely, each was issued only one press pass, meaning there wasn’t an extra space for our court reporter.

And we weren’t the only ones shut out. Of the 350 media applications the government received, only 70 were granted.

We weren’t ready to give up. With the help of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, we organized a coalition of twenty major media organizations – including the Los Angeles Times, NPR, Fox News, and the New Yorker – and sent a letter to the Army requesting two additional press passes.

We also tried to find someone to lend us a press pass.  We reached out to individual media organizations and also tweeted in hopes that someone would lend us one, with no luck.

I flew out to Fort Meade the weekend before the court martial was scheduled to begin and began approaching journalists who had been granted press passes. Unsurprisingly, almost all of them refused to lend Freedom of the Press Foundation a pass.  Many wanted to help, but they didn’t want to give up their press passes for the first day of a historic trial.

Finally, the night before the trial began, we managed to get one press pass for the first day. Nathan Fuller, a blogger for the Private Manning Support Network2, temporarily loaned us his pass. We are deeply indebted to Nathan for giving up his seat in the media center that day. It’s the only reason we managed to get a transcript of the first day.

After the first few days, the crowd in the media center thinned. We were able to use donated press passes from ARD German Radio, the Verge and Forbes.

During the trial

When court reporters work, they use a computerized stenotype machine to make a quick transcript. They sit close to the judge so that they can hear everything, and have the ability to interrupt proceedings or ask for clarifications in order to get an accurate transcription.  Above all, court reporters make a recording of everything, and double-check their transcripts against the audio recording.

Our court reporters were denied all of these things. They were in a room with the rest of the media, watching a live video feed of the court proceedings. The audio was muffled and difficult to understand at times, and there was no way to interrupt proceedings when things were hard to understand.

Worst of all, they were forbidden recording devices – so there was no way to double-check the accuracy of their notes. Instead, our court reporters simply had to transcribe as quickly as possible, often without breaks for long stretches of time, and try to get every word down accurately.

We also had trouble switching out court reporters midday. The strict rules meant that everyone who wanted in the media center had to be on base by 8 AM. This meant that both of our court reporters had to be on base at 8 AM, even though one didn’t start working until after lunch.  It was not until the defense brought this issue to the judge was our court reporter allowed to show up half way through the day.

Alexa O'Brien

Alexa O’Brien outside the media center at Ft. Meade. Photo by Xeni Jardin.

On more than one occasion, we ran into technical difficulties. Once we even lost a large section of the transcription.  Journalist Alexa O’Brien (pictured left) –whose own meticulous hand-typed transcripts of the trial have been an invaluable service to the public–generously offered to lend us her transcript from that day, for which we are deeply grateful. Her attention to detail is one of the many reasons we awarded Alexa a grant before the trial began.

After the trial

In all, we raised over $100,000 – all from individual contributions.

After fees taken out by credit card processors and our fiscal sponsor, that was about $5,000 more than the total needed to pay for the court reporters.

When we originally announced this campaign, we promised to donate any extra funds to the Manning Support Network. The Support Network has decided to apply half of that money to Chelsea Manning’s legal fees during her appeal and has generously offered to donate the other half back to the Freedom of the Press Foundation so we can continue our work.

You’ve probably noticed that there were a lot of people who went out on a limb to help us – folks like Tony Rolland, Gore Brothers, Nathan Fuller, Alexa O’Brien, Forbes, the Verge, the Guardian, ARD German Radio, the twenty media organizations that signed onto a coalition letter in support of our endeavor, and the hundreds upon hundreds of people who donated to ensure we could cover the costs of the court reporters. It is their generosity and their courage that was responsible for the Manning transcripts being freely available to the public today.

  • 1.Shortly after the trial concluded, Chelsea Manning publicly acknowledge that she identifies as a woman and prefers the name “Chelsea” to “Bradley.” We respect this decision and will use it going forward when possible. However, in the transcripts her name is still written as “Bradley” for historical accuracy.
  • 2.Disclosure: I am a steering committee member of the Private Manning Support Network, and also a proud co-founder.

From the Nation: Access Blocked to Bradley Manning’s Hearing

Note: This article was originally published at the Nation, and I’m just keeping a copy here for historical purposes. Note that this was before Chelsea had come out as a transwoman.

Bans on recording devices and Internet access and other arbitrary rules are preventing the public from witnessing this historic trial.

The WikiLeaks saga is centered on issues of government transparency and accountability, but the public is being strategically denied access to the Manning hearing, one of the most important court cases in our lifetime.Twenty-four-year-old Private First Class Bradley Manning is facing life in prison or even the death penalty for leaking hundreds of thousands of documents about US wars and diplomacy to the whistleblower website WikiLeaks. Some of the documents in question are now posted online and have been the fodder for news articles and public discussion about world politics for well over a year. This case will show much about the United States’s tolerance for whistleblowers who show the country in an unflattering light. Are we a nation that tolerates criticism and values transparency? Or are we willing to crack down on whistleblowers of conscience? Unfortunately, the military is taking steps to block access by the media and the public to portions of the proceedings, robbing the world of details of this critically important trial.

No full transcript available

The details of Bradley Manning’s prosecution aren’t making their way into the public domain in large part because there is no full transcript being made public. During a recess from the hearing, I questioned a public affairs officer, who refused to provide his name, about when a transcript would be made available. He said that it would likely be three to four months—long after the media interest had faded.

Computers and recording devices banned

The government has banned all recording devices, audio or video, from the media center or the courtroom. This is particularly galling because the government has ample ability to record the proceedings in full and make them publicly available; in fact, the trial is being recorded and livecast to the media center, where reporters under the strict supervision of public affairs officers are taking frantic notes.

Journalists are forbidden to connect to the Internet, making the possibility of live tweeting and live blogging challenging. The government allowed a mere twenty members of the public into the hearing. Spectators were denied laptops, meaning the only way for the public to get notes on the pretrial hearing is by scribbling notes on paper.

Media access denied or rescinded

When Nathan Fuller applied for a press pass to attend the hearing and take notes from the media center, his request was granted—and then rescinded. Among other things, Fuller is an intern with the Bradley Manning Support Network, a coalition of individuals and organizations working to cover the financial costs of Manning’s defense and educate the public about the issues involved. On Monday, I asked the public affairs officer at the hearing what criteria were used to assess whether someone qualified as a journalist for the purposes of receiving a press pass, and he said he did not know. I asked how many other individuals had been denied press passes to the hearing, and he again replied that he didn’t know. I asked how many other individuals had received press passes only to have them rescinded and got the same non-response. He didn’t know if there was a phone number for someone who would have the answers to these questions. I asked my questions again on Tuesday, and the public affairs officer still knew nothing—except that he wouldn’t have an answer for my questions that day.

Overflow theater closed down even when people are barred from the courtroom

On the first day of the hearing, individuals not among the first twenty to arrive at the hearing were given access to a theater across the street. While recording devices were not allowed, this theater offered the flexibility to enter and leave at will. As a result, there was access to cars where laptops and cell phones were stored, which facilitated reporting. The theater also provided a way for those who were late to the hearing to be able to sit down and start watching the proceedings right away, instead of waiting in an empty trailer for an hour or more for the first recess. This is particularly important because there were long lines to have vehicles inspected to gain entrance to the base, and there was no published schedule for when the hearing would begin, making lateness a frequent occurrence.

After the second day, however, the overflow theater was closed down. I spoke to a military representative who said the theater was closed down because the courtroom wasn’t full. It is true that Saturday the courtroom was not at spectator capacity, but that was the day of the public rally protesting the prosecution of Bradley Manning, so it’s not surprising there were fewer people in the court. The courtroom was at capacity on Tuesday and two individuals who had driven in from Occupy DC were denied entrance because there were not enough available seats. Nonetheless, the military still refused to open the theater.

No accommodations for disabled and elderly access

If you’ve got a small bladder, poor hearing or can’t handle stairs, then forget about attending Manning’s trial. I was particularly sad to see famed Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg struggling to hear the proceedings. I spoke to the military police and urged them to open the public theater so that individuals like Ellsberg could sit closer to the sound system. I was rebuffed.

Access denied

Manning’s pretrial hearing is being held at Fort Meade in Maryland. Individuals who want to drive on base have to undergo a lengthy inspection of their vehicle, often waiting in line for a long period of time. And sometimes even waiting in line won’t get you in: Lt. Daniel Choi, a veteran and outspoken advocate for ending the military’s discriminatory policies toward LGBT servicemembers, was held at the entrance at length. The military personnel at the entrance to the base took issue with Lt. Choi’s military uniform and delayed his entrance to the base for some time. Though he eventually passed through security, Choi was there only briefly before being removed from the base; his uniform was ripped and his wrist injured as he was forcibly evicted. The military, which did not charge him, accused him of “heckling,” though no witnesses saw any evidence of untoward behavior on Choi’s part.

Lt. Choi spoke out against the Manning trial during an interview with Keith Oblermann. “You don’t have to be in the military to understand this is a show trial,” he said, “This is a farce of justice and being in that courtroom this weekend, I don’t think that America has had lower moments.”

The long delay at the entrance caused Choi to arrive late at the courtroom, and because the theater was closed he was unable to watch much of the proceedings.

While the documents attributed to Manning have been widely dispersed and are the subject of many news articles, the government insisted on shutting the public and the media out of large portions of the hearing. On the third day of the trial, the investigating officer decided to accommodate the prosecution’s request for a closed hearing for a portion of the next day. The investigating officer found that the information had been properly classified and that the need to maintain that classification outweighed the value of a public and open trial. But the public, who has had access to the WikiLeaks releases for well over a year, was not given an opportunity to object. The only objection raised was from the defense team of Bradley Manning, to no avail. No explanation was provided regarding what information would be reviewed in the closed portion of the trial. And notably, the investigating officer allowed “relevant government agencies” to remain even as the public was ousted, without providing any information on what agencies were considered relevant.

No media organizations have yet contested the right to have access to the closed portions of the proceedings.

Wikileaks thrown out

Among those thrown out of the courtroom during the closed portions of the hearing were attorneys for the whistleblower website WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks had petitioned for guaranteed access to the hearing, and had sent in an attorney who had the highest level of secret security clearance. The Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing Assange and WikiLeaks, is appealing their right to access the trial. In a press release, CCR legal director Baher Azmy said, “As counsel for WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, we must be given access to these proceedings. The lack of transparency that has been a hallmark of the military’s prosecution of Private Manning to date also serves to obscure his abusive conditions of confinement.” Assange and his lawyers are also concerned about the threat of an extradition request from the United States on matters raised in Private Manning’s proceedings.

At its heart, the Bradley Manning trial is about secrecy, about understanding how our own government as a world power operates in complex international waters, about debating the sacrifices we’re willing to make to advance our interests. Whatever interests the military may have in conducting its case against Manning behind closed doors, we as a society cannot tolerate attempts to rob us of knowledge of the court proceedings. This trial will change the history of our country; I only hope we get to be in the room when it happens.