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Shout Out UK interviews Nathan Fuller, the Press Liaison for the Private Manning support group and one of the only Journalists allowed inside the court room during Chelsea Manning’s trial.

(1)    How did you get involved in the Chelsea Manning support group?

First, I would like to state that we are now the Private Manning support group.

In 2010, when WikiLeaks became a national and global topic of interest, I was in college and interested in both anti-war activism and political journalism. WikiLeaks was thus the perfect convergence and I decided to write about it for my college news magazine. Shortly after college, Manning’s case started to gain more attention. I interned with his support network, and as soon as the trial started (the pre-trial hearings in December 2011), I essentially became the courtroom reporter. I have been writing about the case ever since.

(2)    How did you feel when you first stepped into the courtroom?

It was an incredible feeling. I had followed this case for more than a year and a half. Manning was someone I looked up to immensely and had inspired me to get involved with political journalism. I was really grateful to be in the courtroom, witnessing live proceedings as they developed.

(3)    How was it working alongside Manning and his defence team?

Just to be clear, we did not work directly with Manning. We fund Manning’s legal defence and write about the case for our website. We did talk to Manning’s laywer (David Coombs), but his co-ordination with our team is limited. Our main aim was to cover the case in a way which mainstream outlets fail to. For instance, during some hearings, myself and two other bloggers were the only independent means through which updates on the hearing could be channelled. Some of those hearings turned out to be incredibly consequential. Incidents such as the defence not gaining access to documents would not otherwise have been covered. There were mainstream outlets which did not want to cover such menial details.

(4)    Did you find that a lot of hearsay was evident within the mainstream media due to the level of secrecy over the trial?

Absolutely. Manning’s trial was going on for months and the New York Times didn’t have any reports on the hearings. Such circumstances led to media reporters who knew that Manning’s case was of public interest, to pathologise Manning’s gender issues, or to present these issues as the reasoning behind whistle blowing. That’s just one instance of how these rumour mills kept going whilst the menial issues were being litigated in the courtroom.

(5)    Now that Manning has been sentenced, do you believe that ordinary Americans believed in the work Manning did? Do you think Americans view Manning as a hero or as a traitor?

I think there has been an increase in support for Manning. People didn’t really know who Manning was in 2010, yet learned of her prison treatment in 2011. Having heard so much government rhetoric of Manning having blood on her hands, and then learning of how Manning could have released far more documents (with a greater financial cost to the US), people realise that the government really overreached in its prosecution of Manning. Government talk of Manning ‘the aiding the enemy offense’ was clearly embellished. Indeed, people realised that talk of the death penalty was an outrageous reaction on the part of the legal authorities.

(6)    Do you think Manning released any documents which literally ‘aided the enemy’?

There is no evidence of this sort. Even the government admitted that its own evidence was circumstantial. They just had these tweets and documents that they couldn’t even prove Manning saw herself. The legal threshold was that Manning’s activities had aided al-Qaeda. What’s more, some of Manning’s supervisors had not even heard of WikiLeaks. The judge had several opportunities to nullify the charges against Manning. In letting the trial develop, the judge had set a dangerous precedent.

(7)    How do you feel about the sentencing of Manning and the future possibility of parole?

Given the way in which Manning’s trial went, and the way the military treated her in prison and in the court room, I don’t expect a parole board to look too kindly upon her. 35 years is still outrageous for a whistleblower whom should not be spending a day in prison, and certainly not a day more than time already served.

Manning has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (three years consecutively) and that’s not for nothing. People realise that her actions were not damaging to the US and were in reality, contributions towards peace. That’s something that should be thanked and rewarded, rather than criminalised.

(8)    Do you think that the media in America has been fair in its presentation of the trial?

The real problem was the mainstream’s absence from the first few months of the trial; that is from the pre-trial hearings. The media did not acknowledge the importance of the pre-trial. Manning’s defence was not allowed to present a whistleblower’s defence and was not allowed to show lack of harm in the trial proceedings (they were only able to do this once sentencing took place and Manning had been convicted under the Espionage Act). So the government blocked damage and secured these Espionage Act convictions. It only then revealed that no serious damage had been inflicted on Manning’s part. The press did not cover the development of this dangerous precedent.

The press were clearly threatened by the legal proceedings against Manning’s case, citing her case as evidence of the government’s willingness to prosecute those who wish to reveal certain truths.

(9)    Would you consider Manning to be exploited by the government for the purpose of a future precedent? If so, would you agree that this is exceptionally worrying given the US’s historical defence of freedom and democracy?

The government said as explicitly as much in its closing argument. They emphasised the basic point of deterrence. The government’s message was clear: we need to prevent future Private Mannings. In other words, exposing crimes that damage the US’s reputation is not going to be tolerated. Apparently, executing innocent children and women (as the documents Manning reveal demonstrate) is not damaging to the US’s reputation. However, revealing classified documents is. This contradiction sends out a really disturbing message.

(10) Do you see any way out of this, or is this the end of whistleblowing as far as the US Army is concerned?

I think the base of support around Manning led to a stronger base of support for someone like Edward Snowden. We have to realise that this is a long-term battle. Just because the government is going to prosecute a considerable number of people under the Espionage Act in such a short time, it does not mean that we are going to give up defending a worthwhile cause.

We have to learn from Manning’s experience to support Snowden and the whistleblowers that follow similar footsteps. Whilst investigative sources are drying up and the Manning story descends as a global phenomenon, I think people will be emboldened by the courage Manning had. People will come to understand the self-sacrifice of Manning, and the giving up of both her freedom and future.

We classify exponentially. We classified 92 million documents in 2011. Manning exposed less than 1% of that figure. Thus, the exposure of further classified documentation is inevitable.

(11) In your opinion, do you think there is a simplistic reason why the US is deciding to classify more documents?

There are a variety of factors at play. Firstly, the secret acts of the US are horrifying. Whether it be allowing torture, or lobbying against the minimum wage in Haiti, I am not surprised that the US government does not add to public knowledge.

Then we have ‘derivative classification’. This is the basis for this rampant escalation in secrecy. This means that anything that references any other secret document becomes classified. So we have this systemic and seemingly perpetual process of classification. This leads to a culture of secrecy which is built up in the government and this process had been developed by design. The creation of a culture of openness and transparency for whistleblowers is the only way we can reverse this trend.

(12)Do you think that the US is prioritising secrecy of its international operations over its domestic responsibilities?

Yes, I would have to agree with that. I think Edward Snowden’s disclosures revealing that the US is spying on our allies is testament to this trend. The recent diplomatic crises that we have witnessed are also evidence of the US’s self-perception as a power who can act with impunity.

(13) Were WikiLeaks as supportive as they could have been during Manning’s trial?

They were incredibly supportive during the trial. Obviously Assange has faced incredible duress of his own, but his public statements and his interaction with the press and public included calls to support Manning. In fact, such calls were at the forefront of many of Assange’s public statements. WikiLeaks are under financial distress  of their own, given the banking blockade which went on for so long. However, under such circumstances, they were still able to help out in more ways than one.

(14) What is your opinion on Assange: megalomaniac or freedom fighter?

This is a debate which has existed since 2010, yet it is important to note that it stems from the media narrative around Assange. It is the result of the New York Times’ dirty characterisation of Assange. People focus on his personal issues or his narcissism, as was the case with Private Manning. Doing so distracts from the real issues at hand. I don’t think narcissism is a compelling excuse for this kind of journalism. In actual fact, it’s part of a media narrative that has been overblown.

The same can be said for the more recent case of Snowden. Mainstream media coverage focused more on Snowden’s patience in Moscow Airport, than it  did on his aims as a whistleblower.

(15) Do you have any remaining faith in western governments, particularly those of the US and the UK?

It’s hard to keep faith in a government that not only does these things, but does them in secret and proceeds to criminalise and pathologise those who expose such secrets. We do need an overall redress of how national security systems work in the West, but this is of course a big ask.

It’s incredibly difficult to gain accountability on a large scale. We couldn’t even get accountability for the previous President who lied us into war, and initiated a worldwide torture regime.

(16) Do you think that sole initiatives such as closing down Guantanamo Bay would provide enough momentum to launch a wider programme of accountability measures? Do you think this particular act will ever happen in the near future?

I have no faith that we will see the closure of Guantanamo Bay in the near future. We did see two recent releases from Guantanamo but there is no effort to close the entire prison. In fact, I believe several millions of dollars have been made available with the purpose of renovating Guantanamo Bay.

Obama has been allowed to make this propellant excuse that Congress is intransient and is not going to allow him to shut Guantanamo down. We are witnessing a President who fails to go beyond populist rhetoric.

(17) Obama willingly confessed his desire to intervene in Syria on supposedly humanitarian grounds. Do you think he had an ulterior motive?

I don’t believe the US anymore when it gives humanitarian reasons for military intervention. We saw the same sort of excuse in Libya.  Indeed, the civilian killings which were carried out there by NATO forces were overlooked. To think that killings based on racial profiling were also overlooked is  disgusting.

With regard to Syria, it is claimed that the government there used cluster bombs against its own people. Just a couple of weeks ago, the US sold $641 million dollars worth of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia. I certainly don’t believe humanitarian reasoning when the US is funding dictatorial regimes in both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

(18) Would you agree that the US is more motivated about gains in the arms trade than it is by humanitarian support?

That definitely sounds plausible to me. The US has been strongly interested in controlling the arms trade to impose its own tradition on gun control.

(19) Are you concerned about future government surveillance operations and the secrecy this would entail? Can the secrecy exposed by Manning and Snowden get worse? If so, how?

I am admittedly worried, but I am also inspired by the tens of thousands of supporters which Manning has. If we continue to support figures such as Manning and Snowden, we can build a support system to be able to protect that kind of whistleblower ahead of time. However, I am not going to deny that this process will be an uphill battle.

(20) For a support network to work, do you think there have to be countries that are willing to give figures such as Assange asylum?

That seems to be the lesson which Edward Snowden took away from the Manning and Assange cases. Snowden quickly realised that he would have to out himself. Snowden has admitted that he did not want to receive the same kind of treatment which Manning was exposed to. Snowden’s caution has proved to be rewarding. He was watching patiently from Moscow whilst Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

(21)Do you believe that Edward Snowden’s future rests in Russia, or do you think Russia will succumb to some sort of compromise?

It seems that Snowden will remain in Russia for the next few months. I certainly do not want him returning to the US, where he will deprived of his freedom.

(22) Given Russia’s harbouring of Snowden and their vetoing of the UN resolution in Syria, would you agree that Russia is acting on political motives against the US?

Russia certainly does not care for the human rights atrocities in Syria, or elsewhere for that matter. They certainly have lots to gain politically from the US, and their current approach seems to be working for them.

(23) Do you think it is up to so-called peripheral countries to stand up to an aggressive US to induce a balancing of power?

It’s incredibly important to counter this perception of the US as a ‘global policeman’. Ecuador granting asylum to Assange, and at least symbolically to Snowden, was an important step in reminding the US that it does not have the authority to control other sovereign states. We need to see more countries like Ecuador in this world.

(24) Given the rise of the BRICS, do you think it is only a matter of time before these countries can act independently without US economic support?

I think this process has already started. Russia already feels this way, and I don’t think it will be long before these other countries do as well. They are not going to become as powerful as the US, but it is encouraging that they will be able to provide some sort of check on its global reach.

(25)Do you think the increased secrecy apparent in the US is a consequence of the growth of other powers in the world?

The US seemed surprised and bitter when these other countries stood up to them. Such acts could have acted as a wakeup call for the US, but instead resulted in an over-reaction. It’s this paranoia which is doing the US no favours.

(26)Which documents released by Manning were of the most significance in exposing the US’ human rights record etc?

A lot of people cite the ‘Collateral Murder’ video as justification for their support of WikiLeaks, Manning and even political activism. Collateral Murder exposed the willingness of US forces to kill the innocent. All that was needed for civilians to be a target was the possession of a firearm.

However, each of Manning’s releases had their own special impact. Activists from Tunisia who setup ‘TuniLeaks’ have publicly thanked Manning for releasing the state department cables which highlighted the corruption of the now overthrown Tunisian President. These Tunisian activists claim that Manning’s action helped fuse the Tunisia uprising. It’s incredibly important to see the tangible contribution which Manning has made to such movements.

In my opinion, one of the most important set of documents is the Iraq War Logs. They provide a clear picture of this incredibly secretive war. The 15,000 discrepancy in body count exposed by the War Logs is just one example of how Manning added to public knowledge of the Iraq War.

(27) Do you believe figures such as George W. Bush will ever be accounted for their crimes in Iraq?

In the near future, there is no hope of Bush facing any criminal proceedings. This reality is largely a consequence of the failure of Obama to address his predecessor’s crimes. Even recently, Obama has approved of certain aspects of Bush’s presidency. Obama is essentially complicit in his crimes by safeguarding Bush from prosecution. The contrast with Manning’s innocence and her prison sentence is particularly disturbing.

(28)Did Chelsea Manning’s decision to change her gender have any effect on the level of support she received?

A lot of media outlets took longer than they should have to refer to her as Chelsea or through the application of female pronouns. However, people realised Manning’s decision was a particularly brave thing to do, especially given her imminent entry into an all male military prison. Added to this, is the possibility that the jail authorities will not provide her with the necessary hormone treatment. The American Civil Rights Union has however declared this possibility unconstitutional.

(29) Do you think there is a general consensus amongst the US public that Manning was a hero for what she did?

I think there is still an ongoing debate on whether Manning is a hero or a traitor. Nevertheless, we have seen support rise steadily over these past three years and I believe this will continue to grow. This support will hopefully continue to mount pressure on future administrations.

(30) Do you believe that the judge which presided over Manning’s trial gave the defence a fair hearing?

Unfortunately, I think the judge leaned towards the government when it really mattered. When it mattered most (when it came to the rulings), the judge always seemed to land on the side of the government. When it came to blocking documents or blocking the key arguments of the defence, this one-sidedness was particularly evident. The fact that sentencing hearings were treated as classified is evidence of this judicial bias. What’s more, it took a further two weeks for any transcriptions of these hearings to be released.

During the rebuttal phase, the government moved to change its charge sheet. They now suggested that Manning had not stolen entire databases. Had they admitted this before, the government would have fought an entirely different case against Manning, changing the way espionage laws were interpreted.

Unfortunately, in the military court, the tradition has been to protect your own and to not contradict military litigation. It would take a very brave appeals court to contest future legal battles against the military. We are petitioning General Jeffrey Buchanan, the authority responsible for reviewing the case, with a call for him to acknowledge the judicial bias which Manning was subject to. It will take public pressure for Buchanan to adopt this perspective. We want Buchanan to look at the trial from all possible angles; from the abusive detention conditions all the way down to this last minute charge sheet change.

(31)How can a military court perform in isolation from a supposedly democratic and open society?

This is what Buchanan has to be wary of. He is mistaken if he thinks he can rubber stamp the verdict without any backlash from the public. A public backlash is necessary if any form of accountability is going to develop within the military. On the other hand, Buchanan has a real chance to initiate such a process.

(32) Do you think that Manning’s acquittal is completely out of the question?

I don’t think her acquittal is completely out of the question. For instance, when the appeal courts eventually review the abusive detention conditions which Manning was exposed to, they will be totally justified in drastically reducing Manning’s sentence. It was indeed stated by psychologists that Manning spent nine months too many in solitary confinement. During this time, she spent only twenty minutes a day outside her cell.

(33)Do you think bodies within the UN and groups such as Amnesty International should have a taken a greater stand for Manning?

In hindsight, we can say a lot of people should have done more. However, the UN did take an active role in at least highlighting Manning’s plight. The chief UN Torture Chief, Juan Mendez, did attempt to make an official visit, but was blocked by the US military. However, Mendez did conduct a 14 month long investigation and concluded that Manning’s treatment was inhumane and degrading. This investigation in turn led to the signing of a petition by 600,000 people calling for the ending of such treatment. There was also a protest near to where Manning was then being held. This all added up to the Marines being forced to move Manning to reasonable conditions elsewhere. David Coombs, Manning’s lawyer, has himself said that this would not have otherwise happened if it was not for public pressure and international advocacy.

(34) Would you agree that Manning’s experience has alerted people to the underlying actions of their governments?

Manning’s case has resulted in many positive causes. People are now aware of government secrecy, covert war operations, how the US conducts diplomacy and treats large corporations and to the injustice inherent in the military hierarchy. This is exactly what Manning wanted. She ultimately called for debate, discussion and reforms.

Interview conducted by: Matteo Bergamini

Written up by: Michael Tavares