End Games UPDATED
Yesterday, quite a few people on my Facebook feed were upset over Pres. Obama’s commutation of Chelsea Manning’s sentence. Six years ago, while we as a country were far more heavily involved in wars both in Iraq and Afghanistan, Manning – then Pvt. Bradley Manning – handed over thousands of pages of classified documents to Australian Julian Assange. Assange, who ran a little website called “Wikileaks”, proceeded to dump these classified papers on the Internet. Ratted out by a friend, Manning was arrested, spent three years held in atrocious conditions (two suicide attempts), and sentenced to 35 years for violation of the Espionage Act.
At the time, Manning was arrested, a civilian grand jury was empaneled and Assange may or may not have been indicted (an Australian security company employee was sent by anarchist hackers Anonymous what he claims to be a sealed indictment). Assange, living in London, sought refuge in various embassies, finally landing in Ecuador’s. That’s where he’s stayed, living and running Wikileaks all on Ecuador’s dime while being indicted for rape in Sweden and becoming a funnel for Russian hackers during the 2016 American Presidential election.
A few days before Manning’s commutation, Assange – in the immortal words of Bryan Menegus of Gizmodo – “tripped over his own dick.” He had tweeted that if Manning were set free, he’d allow himself to be extradited. Now, the original wording of Manning’s . . . what shall we call it? Dare? Challenge? Stupid drunk-tweet? – says that Manning had to be given “clemency”. Does that mean formal pardon? Clearly, President Obama couldn’t go that far, for good reasons. Sure enough, the above-linked article confirms, through Assange’s lawyers, he will stand by his promise and face charges.
Now, I have seriously mixed feelings about what Manning did. Unlike Josh Marshall, I do not believe she deserves a pardon. I don’t believe her treatment passes any kind of Constitutional muster, but since no Court has ruled that way, apparently that isn’t the case. Some of what she leaked certainly does rise to the level, if not of war crimes then at the very least questionable actions on the part of US military forces (calling in an airstrike to cover up the murder of civilians is a tad over the top, in my opinion). On the other hand, much of the information released included after-action reports, with information on unit locations and personnel; actions that were and are perfectly lawful; and the normal communications between command and field operations during a time of war (that’s why I’m not all that upset over a black-ops unit that, apparently, was taking out Taliban sympathizers in Afghanistan; war is dirty and ugly and sometimes dirty and ugly things have to be done). She had no business handing over three-quarter million pages of material knowing it was going public, even though some of the material clearly could lead to attacks on US troops. The Army has a chain of command. She could have gone first to her Sargeant, then Lieutenant, then on up the line if she felt some of the information she had indicated criminal actions on the part of US troops. Her actions endangered the lives of US troops during a time of war. Ugly business.
And Assange? He’s a creepy dude, to say the least, less a hero-warrior for the truth than a smug, over-confident self-aggrandizer who has been indicted in Sweden for rape. Staking a place as a truth-teller, he and his site Wikileaks were again in the news this past summer and fall, funneling information hacked by Russian intelligence to the public. At one point he even claimed an upcoming document dump would contain information to indict Hillary Clinton. Of course, there was nothing of the sort. It was these kinds of sensationalistic interventions that did real damage to Clinton’s campaign, however. Pretty much all of the American security establishment is quite ready to make Assange pay for what he did.
So Assange has said that if Manning is released, he’ll allow himself to be extradited. Except, of course, he never said to where. Will he go to Sweden, where he faces rape charges, hoping he can beat that rap? Will he come to the US, arriving of course after Trump is inaugurated? If it’s the latter, people need to be paying very careful attention. I’m guessing that, as of this moment, Trump has no idea who Assange is. Should he arrive in the US, be formally indicted, and if convicted go to prison all without any interference from a Pres. Trump, all is good and well. What if, however, this is a fait accompli? Doing this at the very end of Pres. Obama’s time in office, is Assange gambling that his Russian connections will protect him from any serious legal consequences in the US? Will Trump pardon him? Will Trump tweet-storm about how “unfair” the prosecution is, putting pressure on any federal prosecutor to go easy? As we have no idea how Trump will act in office, at this moment anything and everything is possible. Were I a betting man, however, I would place even odds at the very least upon Trump coming to Assange’s defense. While this will certainly piss off the Army and intelligence community, Trump has already shown he doesn’t care one way or another how they feel. While not likely (in the sense that cloud cover and high humidity are likely to bring rain), it is not out of the realm of possibility that Trump will simply force the Justice Department either to dismiss any current indictments or not pursue legal action. Of course, if he does that, he’ll enrage a whole lot of his supporters.
And Pres. Obama? He’s taking an awfully big risk. While certainly not pleasing a whole lot of people by commuting Manning’s sentence, he’s gambling that Trump will not interfere and allow the legal process against Assange to run its course. I’m guessing the only reason Manning got hit so hard by military prosecutors is they had no one else to punish; had Assange managed to be extradited to face charges, Manning would in all likelihood faced reduced charges, time served, and be free. Just like any such prosecution of an illegal conspiracy, the goal is always to get the top guy; Assange was the target all along. They couldn’t get him, so they threw the book at Manning. With Assange now, it seems, willing to face the consequences of his actions, the US doesn’t need Chelsea Manning.
I think folks should pay very close attention to all that happens in ensuing weeks and months around this matter. It will, I think, be very telling about many things, not the least of them the amount of real influence the Russian government might well have over a Trump Presidency.
UPDATE: So now it seems Assange has changed his mind. Which tells me he thought Obama would never do it. Not sure who’s the worse poker player here, Assange or Obama.