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Chelsea Manning: The Best Senate Opinion?

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Perhaps the strangest match-up in the upcoming 2018 Senate elections will take place in a Maryland Democratic primary, between transgender activist and former leaker Chelsea Manning and epitome of the deep state establishment, the incumbent Ben Cardin. The election reverses the usual national security issues: Ms. Manning, who is running to the left of Mr. Cardin, opposes his anti-Russia crusading. Moreover, Ms. Manning’s bizarre recent encounters with prominent far-right activists have added yet more zest to the contest.


This is not Ms. Manning’s first claim to fame, however – originally, she rose to prominence by leaking hundreds of thousands of documents related to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In 2010, Ms. Manning, serving in Iraq as a military intelligence analyst, obtained and sent WikiLeaks the largest collection of classified documents leaked in history. These documents included videos of U.S. aircraft killing civilians and journalists, military records of the Iraq and Afghan wars exposing many civilian deaths, files documenting conditions in Guantanamo, and diplomatic cables revealing American foreign policy machinations.


Immediately afterward, Ms. Manning was arrested by the military and court-martialed on numerous charges, including violating the Espionage Act and aiding the enemy – a potentially capital offense, according to the Los Angeles Times. She served seven years of her 35-year sentence, the longest of any American whistleblower, before her sentence was commuted by then-President Barack Obama.


Since her release in 2017, Ms. Manning completed her transition to female and announced her run for Cardin’s Senate seat. Cardin is the archetypal milquetoast liberal senator, thoroughly mainstream on social and domestic issue but neoconservative on foreign policy. Although confident he’ll win, Cardin himself acknowledged his lack of popular recognition.


Cardin’s position as the lead Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has provided his only noteworthy action. As a senator, he has used his podium to shout bellicose statements about Russia and its collusion with President Trump’s campaign. At one point, Cardin even sank so low as to call Russia’s unconfirmed interference in the 2016 election “an act of war,” according to Politico, going along with trendy, unproven sound bites.


Especially relevant to the campaign is Cardin’s push to strengthen the Espionage Act, the act which imprisoned Ms. Manning and whose strengthening would further punish whistleblowers.


Ordinarily, the choice would be clear: a candidate who supports rational foreign policy over one whose every speech urges conflict with a nuclear power; a candidate who supports broader access to healthcare and criminal justice reform over one whose staid ideas rarely diverge from the party line.


But Manning complicated the matter in January by showing up at a far-right party. She claims that she was there in order to spy on her fellow attendees. It is a dubious excuse, but there are no better explanations. She is certainly not a Russian spy or a secret fascist, as some have suggested. Her career of activism has demonstrated that much. But the incident remains deeply concerning with respect to Manning’s judgment.


Nevertheless, although I hesitate to endorse her wholeheartedly after such an incident, the broader picture is in her favor. Manning is the face of opposition to the rogue national security state, and she, along with Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, will be a rare voice of dissent in the Senate against its excesses. When neither the Democratic and Republican Parties are skeptical of the intelligence services (except when partisan interests dictate), the United States needs fearless legislators willing to protect the people’s civil liberties more than ever.

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