Op-Ed

Why does Edward Snowden get more high-profile support than Chelsea Manning?

In the last six years, two whistle-blowers have exposed government wrongdoing in the war on terrorism. Both have been punished for their actions — one with imprisonment, the other with exile. Both recently made progress in their struggles with the government, but only one enjoys the high-profile support that both deserve.

This week, the ACLU and Amnesty International launched a campaign urging President Obama to pardon Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee and government contractor who leaked more than a million classified documents in 2013. The campaign  — endorsed by luminaries including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Daniel Radcliffe, George Soros, Michael Stipe, Jimmy Wales and Steve Wozniak — was timed to coincide with the premiere of a major Hollywood biopic, “Snowden,” with Oliver Stone directing and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the starring role. The New York Times Magazine published a cover story chronicling the film’s production, and the day after the ACLU’s announcement, the Guardian released a new interview with Snowden in which he laid out his case for a pardon, arguing that the benefits of his actions far outweigh any negative consequences.

“There has never been any public evidence that any individual came to harm as a result [of what I did],” he said.

With the country’s most prominent human and civil rights organizations, Hollywood and the international press behind him, Snowden is mounting a powerful effort to return home. There’s reason for him to feel optimistic about his chances.

Also this week, three years into a 35-year sentence for disclosing classified information to WikiLeaks, the former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning went on hunger strike. She demanded “minimum standards of dignity, respect, and humanity” while in prison at the military barracks in Ft. Leavensworth, including the ability to undergo gender reassignment surgery, as her doctors have long recommended.

After four days, the Army relented. Yet the fact that Manning felt the need to take such drastic measures suggests how dire her time in prison has been so far. Although she came out as transgender in 2013, and although there is no question that she has struggled with gender dysphoria for most of her life, she is still housed with male inmates and required to keep her hair short. She attempted suicide in July, and in response the Army threatened to place her in indefinite solitary confinement, which psychologists and legal experts increasingly agree is a form of torture.

Manning is not without allies. She is represented by lawyers from the ACLU, and various organizations have expressed support for her. But there is no Manning biopic in the works, nor is there a coordinated, star-studded effort to obtain a pardon.

Why does the Free Snowden movement seem to have so much momentum and energy when compared to the effort to free Chelsea Manning?

Both published extensive evidence of wrongdoing among the American military and intelligence services: the killing of eleven unarmed Iraqi civilians in Manning’s case, and the unlawful surveillance of many millions of Americans in Snowden’s. Both did so not for personal gain or to settle a professional vendetta but because they believed that their government was in the wrong. Both decided to act in full knowledge of the consequences. 

Exile is no joke, but Moscow is not exactly a military prison. Snowden can give interviews via teleconference robot whenever he likes, whereas Manning’s ability to communicate with the world has been severely restricted. Without minimizing Snowden’s ordeal, it is still fair to say that Manning is in greater need of aid and assistance.

Perhaps Snowden is so much more popular — for lack of a better word — because he is male and straight, his sexuality confirmed by the attractive girlfriend who left the United States to live with him in Moscow. He is also charismatic and clear-spoken, running through the technical ins and outs of the government’s complex surveillance system with an approachability and confidence that wouldn’t be out of place in Silicon Valley.

Manning, meanwhile, is a trans woman, a member of one sexual minority that most people still feel comfortable denigrating publicly. It seems many people are not yet willing to associate transgenderism with the kind of self-sacrificing civic heroism that has traditionally been attributed to men.

Manning’s story is also harder to look at, less Hollywood-ready, because of what it says about how the government treats dissidents. In return for her act of conscience, prosecutors charged Manning with “aiding the enemy,” a capital offense. She escaped the death penalty, but must serve decades in a military prison. That’s not the kind of thing we like to see on movie screens. It’s not as uplifting, or exciting, as Snowden’s flight across the Pacific to Hong Kong and later Moscow.

Although Manning can go forward with gender reassignment surgery, she faces new charges related to her suicide attempt. No one should face legal punishment for trying to take their own life, nor should Manning’s upcoming surgery be viewed as anything other than a good start — no whistle-blower should be in prison to begin with. Chelsea Manning deserves widespread, coordinated support for a full pardon, just like Edward Snowden.

Richard Beck is an associate editor of n+1.

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