By Ruth Conniff
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Former Army Private Chelsea Manning was convicted on 20 counts in July for revealing more secret U.S. government information than anyone to come before her. Though she's currently serving a 35-year sentence, defense attorney David Coombs has continued advocating for Manning's release, recently launching a three-city tour to raise money for Manning's birthday on Dec. 17.
The first of the birthday fundraisers was held Dec. 9 at Santa Monica's Church in Ocean Park, where Coombs and Emma Cape, the lead organizer for the Bradley Manning Support Network, addressed a crowd of about 100 people.
Many in the crowd were wearing t-shirts emblazoned with photos of Manning, and slogans declaring "Truth" and "Secrecy is Terrorism." With a large photo of his client behind him on a church wall, Coombs, who served for 12 years with the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Corps, described Manning as having been "a gay person in the don't ask, don't tell military."
The lawyer explained, first and foremost, Manning's ongoing defense, as well as practical matters like personal supplies from the prison canteen and a calling card so she can "call me anytime she wants," adding: "Usually I speak to her three times a week." Manning also wants to legally change her name and pursue a college education from behind bars.
Another factor is "Chelsea's hormone replacement therapy," he said, which will help to resolve her gender dysphoria as she transitions. "They've had three months now," he said of the request. "If they don't make a decision soon, my good friends at the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center, who have transgender experts, are going to assist me in bringing the fight to the government," Coombs said. "If that happens I'll become more vocal."
"If that therapy is denied, hopefully [the LGBT] community will rally to her support," he added, stressing that Manning's release of a vast treasure trove of classified information to WikiLeaks was "a conscious decision to do what she thought was right" -- not a move she made due to her gender dysphoria, as some critics have suggested.
While all of these things may make life easier for Chelsea, she's still facing the likelihood of spending most of her life in prison. However, Coombs said he's seeking clemency for his client. "But Chelsea... I don't hold much hope for that," he said, "because in my 17 years of military practice I've rarely seen a convening authority take a step of disapproving findings and sentences. If that doesn't actually come to fruition, the date I am circling on my calendar is 2 February, 2020. And there is absolutely no reason why Chelsea should not be a free person [the following day]."
"You look at all of the reasons why you should grant parole to somebody, it is: Are they a violent offender? No, Chelsea is not," he went on. "Are they at risk of recidivism? Well, no -- I don't think they're going to give her classified information... Chelsea has a lot of support in the community, and is she able to be productive and positive in society? Chelsea would be fantastic... Chelsea is a model inmate and I'm hopeful that she'll get out."
"There will be an appeal," he said, responding to a question from The Progressive. "More than likely that appeal process will start sometime in late 2014, early 2015. The wheels of justice, especially at the appellate level, are very, very slow. We don't even have a record of trial yet, although we should be getting that shortly, and that kind of starts the process."
Coombs added that Manning is currently allowed to release statements to the media and supporters, although given the ongoing legal wrangling, "we're always thinking through how that can be used against her." Still, that didn't stop Time from publishing a holiday piece by Manning on what she has to be thankful for this year. Manning wrote that she's thankful for "having social and human justice pioneers who lead through action, and by example, as opposed to directing or commanding other people to take action," among other things.
Coombs went on to say: "When I first met her, she was in Quantico and Chelsea was definitely suffering from the conditions she was in." Those conditions were called "ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid" by former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. U.N. special rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez seemed to agree, saying Manning's conditions were "cruel and inhuman."
"Once she got out of Quantico, her personality came out and we became friends," Coombs continued. "When she was at Leavenworth I could pull her out of the confinement facility and actually have her at the trial defense office. She has advanced so far because she was surrounded by people who did care about her."
Coombs believes that the widespread grassroots support many activists showed for Manning led to her finally being taken out of solitary confinement, and possibly dodging the most serious charge of "Aiding the Enemy." Coombs noted that while some call Manning a "traitor" because of her conviction under the Espionage Act, that "is just the name of the act. It doesn't mean you committed treason. She wasn't found guilty of treason."
Coombs also spoke eloquently about Washington's cult of secrecy, saying there are "a little over a billion documents that are classified" by the U.S. government. "According to the last statistics in 2012, there were 97 million classification determinations... That is the executive, and doesn't have a lot of over watch. If it's classified, there isn't anybody paying attention to what's going on."
"As we classify more and more there is a need for individuals to educate us on the information we don't know," he said. "Even though these releases by Chelsea were important -- it wasn't stuff we already knew -- when you did see this information, I started to ask why it was still classified. Anything like a significant activity report from Iraq, that happened seven years earlier, there's no need for that to still be classified. There's a definite need for our government to be more forthright with its citizens."
Coombs also confessed to The Progressive that he does not know if Wikileaks founder Julian Assange might be indicted over his role in releasing documents provided by Manning. "I don't have any information on that," he said. "I know what everyone else knows: That there's been a grand jury that's been impaneled and they've been apparently looking at stuff for quite some time. I wouldn't be surprised if they have a secret indictment. If he ever leaves the embassy and they get their hands on him, I think we'll all know that fact."
In a stroke of bitter irony, Coombs added that the war crimes Manning revealed have not led to any prosecutions whatsoever. "When I saw the [Collateral Murder] video, I think I had the same reaction of a lot of people to that video. During the trial I played the video, during the sentencing. If you look at it, you see it as human beings, real people, going about their everyday lives. A guy is obliterated. His crime is he was walking down the sidewalk."
"The only thing Chelsea was guilty of was having a conscience," he insisted, saying that Manning's actions "led to an end of the Iraq War and to the Arab Spring," along with major changes at the Guantanamo Bay military prison.
Meanwhile, Manning is still paying dearly for what artists Crosby, Stills and Nash once called "the cost of freedom."
LA-based writer Ed Rampell is co-author of the new book, "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book," available now.
Featured photo: Flickr user Timothy Krause, creative commons licensed.
Other photos: Ed Rampell.