Thoughts on Chelsea Manning, Harvard and the CIA, from a former flag-lover

In a stunning moment of cowardice, Harvard announced early Friday morning that it would be disinviting Chelsea Manning to a fellowship at the school, ostensibly because the CIA complained about it.

Manning was originally invited to be a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government, but the school’s dean wrote that, “I now think that designating Chelsea Manning as a Visiting Fellow was a mistake, for which I accept responsibility.”

Nothing about Manning’s invitation was a major issue beyond the typical political debate—hell, Sean Spicer and Corey Lewandowski are also Harvard fellows—until the CIA got mad. Former acting and deputy CIA director Michael Morell resigned from his post at The Kennedy School after Manning’s invitation, and current CIA director Mike Pompeo decided to boycott an event shortly after.

That the CIA doesn’t like Manning is no surprise. Manning revealed that the CIA has covered up torture, killed innocent people and lied about it all to the public. Among the most jarring items she released:

  • The US covered up torture, murder, rape and other illegal actions by Iraqi police.
  • A number of videos and documents demonstrating US killings of innocent civilians and journalists, many of which the US misrepresented or lied about.
  • The US held people at Guantanamo Bay without charges even though it knew they were innocent.

Understandably, the CIA didn’t love the world seeing proof that it has committed egregious human rights violations. The agency has tried to brand Manning’s actions as treasonous, even though that is plainly false. Manning was acquitted of “aiding the enemy,” was never even charged with treason, and despite the agency’s best efforts to “prove” otherwise, didn’t get a single American killed or put anyone at risk. Even the military investigator who tried to connect her to deaths could not. Manning simply reported on crimes that the US government had tried to cover up.

But Morell is sticking to his false narrative, and in his resignation letter, he offered up a jarring line: “I have an obligation to my conscience—and I believe to the country—to stand up against any efforts to justify leaks of sensitive national security information.”

I’ve spent a lot of time today thinking about this line, and I legitimately cannot begin to comprehend it. I do not understand how one’s conscience places greater value on protecting human rights violators than on exposing reckless behavior that has killed innocent people (and is ironically helping convince people, perhaps justifiably given the circumstances, that the United States is enemy number one). This coming from the same person who has tacitly endorsed torture and the killings of innocents.

I do not understand this worldview. Nor do I understand how a university can possibly consider itself an independent institution of higher learning when it allows an agency with a history of committing war crimes to bar it from teaching about those very crimes. Of course, it was Manning who, bold as always, pointed out the danger set with this precedent.

But the fact that I don’t understand Morell and Harvard’s views would be a shock to those who knew me five years ago. Once upon a time, I was this person.

I *loved* the flag. I loved the United States unconditionally. My favorite movie was Zero Dark Thirty and I thought that some day I’d love to work for the CIA. My Facebook cover photos featured multiple photos like this.

Back then, loyalty to the United States was my identity. I despised Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, and I couldn’t fathom how someone in this country could see its evils.

Somewhere along the line—and I’m not sure when—I started to realize that the reason I could love the United States like I did was because it worked for me. The US wasn’t going to randomly shoot me from the sky for fitting the “signature” of a terrorist—that is, being a 6-foot-2 person who sometimes carries a backpack—because I’m a 6-foot-2 white guy who luckily happens to live in Texas, not Afghanistan. The US wasn’t going to detain me, a well-off white guy, for years in a secret prison without charges. The US wasn’t going to “kill this motherfucker” if it suspected me of a crime, because the US didn’t see me as “a bad dude.”

Eventually, I realized that I was doing a disservice to people far less privileged than me if I didn’t start to care about what the US can do, and does do, to others. I don’t know how to help others to make this realization, but if you think, like Harvard seems to, that the CIA somehow has moral superiority over Manning, I’d ask you to question why you think that is.

Why does your loyalty to the territory in which you live extend so far that it causes your conscience to side with the perpetrators of egregious human rights violations over those who expose them? Is it because you know you won’t be affected by those actions, or is it because you’re in denial about what this supposed government of justice really does in secret, even when confronted with the facts?

It’s a hard question to confront, and it took me a long time to finally realize that I could no longer explain away my country’s actions, even though admitting to these actions would cause me to feel shame about the country I once, erroneously, regarded as above moral reproach.

If you do, indeed, value all life equally, the facts insist that your conscience cannot hold the CIA in higher regard than those who display its abuses to the world. If you would rather actively ignore those facts, then your conscience and your decisions don’t deserve the world’s respect.