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If you like political irony, you noted what happened at Harvard’s Kennedy School this week. The school’s Institute of Politics invited Chelsea Manning to speak with students and faculty as a visiting fellow. CIA officials, former and current, objected strongly, and essentially boycotted the school to express their displeasure. They said no institution, least of all Harvard, should honor someone who betrayed her country.

You have to credit these people with a complete lack of self-awareness to appreciate what they say, and how they act. Apparently when you work in government, especially a secret agency where you try to keep your activities secret, you start to think so well of yourself that you condemn others out of hand. CIA officials object to Chelsea Manning as a traitor to her country, yet those officials speak for an agency that organized a torture regime that committed war crimes. It’s obvious to me who betrayed our country, its principles, and its laws. It’s not the army private who released classified information.

The Kennedy School’s dean, Douglas Elmendorf, should have had guts to say so. He probably worried he would lose his job. Here’s what you get when caution becomes cowardice, and you employ the usual academic language to justify a decision that amounts to, ‘we have to act in the best interests of the institution’:

Therefore, we are withdrawing the invitation to her to serve as a Visiting Fellow—and the perceived honor that it implies to some people—while maintaining the invitation for her to spend a day at the Kennedy School and speak in the Forum. I apologize to her and to the many concerned people from whom I have heard today for not recognizing upfront the full implications of our original invitation. This decision now is not intended as a compromise between competing interest groups but as the correct way for the Kennedy School to emphasize its longstanding approach to visiting speakers while recognizing that the title of Visiting Fellow implies a certain recognition.

Read the whole thing, if you can swallow any more language of this sort.

Here’s a related question. Why in the world would the Kennedy School want to honor political hacks like Sean Spicer and Corey Lewandowski, in preference to a patriot like Chelsea Manning? The main difference between Manning and her critics at the CIA is that administrators like Dean Elmendorf believe their interests lie with people who used to work in Washington. That, and Manning actually wants our country to do good in the world.

As for Dean Elmendorf, we all get to choose the company we keep, don’t we?

Here’s a subsidiary question we may want to ask. For how long have we thought it’s okay for the sitting director of the CIA to call an American citizen a traitor? We expect the person in that position to make statements, when necessary, about matters that involve the CIA. How do we reconcile our republican traditions with this instance, where our chief intelligence officer accuses a former soldier of treason, after the individual leaves prison? Why does the CIA director pronounce judgment on the status of people who have nothing to do with the CIA?

The answer is obvious, of course, but still troubling. The CIA director wants to deter disclosure of government secrets. Mike Pompeo may think Chelsea Manning is a traitor for doing so. He can think that, but he stated his judgment as a public accusation, to run down her reputation and deny recognition from a prominent academic institution. Is that the kind of thing we expect from the leader of our nation’s intelligence agency? Do government leaders now think it’s okay to level charges like that against private citizens? Note Pompeo’s statement, quoted in Wikipedia, where he calls Manning an “American traitor”:

While I have served my country as a soldier in the United States Army and will continue to defend Ms. Manning’s right to offer a defense of why she chose this path, I believe it is shameful for Harvard to place its stamp of approval upon her treasonous actions.

When you charge someone with treason, you ought to stand on solid ground. Director Pompeo does not. Look hard at CIA Director John Brennan’s remarks after the Senate Intelligence Committee released unclassified sections of its report on CIA torture. You will not find even faint acknowledgement that his agency’s practices were shameful, illegal, or even improper. You will certainly not find an acknowledgement that they were treasonous. No CIA director since Brennan – not Pompeo, or any other leader of America’s intelligence agencies – has spoken to or modified Brennan’s response to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report.

In fact, the CIA and other enforcement agencies want to ignore their history of mistreatment, as they still endorse punitive, coercive methods in federal prisons. One lesson you learn from the army’s prosecution of Manning is that the military and federal intelligence agencies – including the CIA – go to great lengths to deter leaks, especially if the leaker aims to expose illegal activity. Another lesson is that the feds do not regard torture as an illegal activity. They prepared memos to explain why torture is both justified and legal, and why those who engage in torture are protected under the law. They wrote these memos in order to justify, in advance, the way they planned to treat prisoners.

Federal authorities even practiced their favorite forms of mistreatment – solitary confinement and sleep deprivation – on Chelsea Manning. You develop a special kind of alienation from your government when you watch its institutions and leaders authorize torture of prisoners. You have to inure yourself to even more disillusionment when you witness the same leaders and their allies call their victims traitors.

Only a year ago Chelsea Manning tried to take her own life twice, due to treatment she received at Fort Leavenworth military prison. Even after President Obama commuted her thirty-five year sentence, leaders of our government revile her as a traitor. The same leaders never criticize the Central Intelligence Agency or the military services for their mistreatment of prisoners. Moreover, people who speak for the federal government apparently do not think the way authorities treated Chelsea Manning is wrong. They appear to think she should still be in prison, subject to solitary confinement, and any other punishment her keepers care to visit on her.

An ironic response to the Kennedy School’s rejection of Manning would applaud Dean Elmendorf for so decisively picking the wrong side. It requires a perverse determination to side with people who overlook, accept, or even advocate mistreatment of prisoners to deter disclosure of information they deem secret, or to offer any kind of support to people who cloak their own actions in false legality. The Kennedy School knew its decision to recognize Chelsea Manning as a visiting fellow would be controversial. When objections came, straight from the CIA no less, the Kennedy School embarrassingly chose to align itself with an agency that mistreated prisoners as a matter of policy.

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