Harvard’s Institute of Politics announced late last night convicted felon Chelsea Manning will not be a Visiting Fellow at the university this fall after two pillars of the national security community protested the convicted felon’s inclusion.
Manning, who was found guilty in 2010 on 20 of 22 counts in the biggest leak of classified records in history, was announced Wednesday as a member of a class of about ten public figures who would spend a day or more on campus speaking to students and taking questions. Others in the class include Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezenski, Sean Spicer, Robby Mook, and myself.
Manning indiscriminately downloaded and leaked some 250,000 government documents as an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq. Seven years into a 35-year sentence, Manning received a commutation from President Obama. During the trial and sentencing, Manning’s lawyers blamed Manning’s gender dysphoria for leading to his crimes, and in 2016 then-Bradley Manning declared in a commutation application, “I am Chelsea Manning, a proud woman who is transgender and who, through this application, is respectfully requesting a first chance at life.”
Since then, Manning has been feted by elite society as a symbol of trans heroism and overcoming hardship. The announcement of Manning’s Harvard fellowship came on the heels of an Annie Liebovitz photoshoot for the September issue of Vogue.
A former CIA director, Michael Morell resigned the day after Manning was named a Fellow at Harvard, saying he couldn’t be part of a program “that honors a convicted felon and leaker of classified information.” Current CIA Director Mike Pompeo also canceled a speaking appearance at Harvard’s Kennedy School this week in protest.
“[A]fter much deliberation,” Pompeo wrote, “My conscience and duty to the men and women of the Central Intelligence Agency will not permit me to betray their trust by appearing to support Harvard’s decision (to hire Manning) with my appearance at tonight’s event.”
Douglas Elmendorf, who runs the Harvard Institute of Politics, called the title of fellow for Manning a “mistake,” saying it was not intended to convey honor or endorsement of Manning’s actions or views:
I still think that having her speak in the Forum and talk with students is consistent with our longstanding approach, which puts great emphasis on the value of hearing from a diverse collection of people. But I see more clearly now that many people view a Visiting Fellow title as an honorific, so we should weigh that consideration when offering invitations. In particular, I think we should weigh, for each potential visitor, what members of the Kennedy School community could learn from that person’s visit against the extent to which that person’s conduct fulfills the values of public service to which we aspire. This balance is not always easy to determine, and reasonable people can disagree about where to strike the balance for specific people. Any determination should start with the presumption that more speech is better than less. In retrospect, though, I think my assessment of that balance for Chelsea Manning was wrong. 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.
I wrote a book about free speech and regularly bemoan the limits placed on it, especially on college campuses. That is, in fact, the subject of my contribution to the fellows program at Harvard. I think bright lines about what speech students can hear should be few and far between, but giving a prestigious title to a convicted traitor seems a pretty logical one to draw, and I’m glad Harvard is belatedly observing it. I want Manning to get very tough questions at Harvard, and I’m hopeful this controversy encourages campus dissenters to be there and offer them.
Manning was the first trans person to be given the title of Fellow. There is no doubt trans status played a part in both Manning’s commutation and continued whitewashing of the crimes committed. But if we’re serious about treating trans people equally, Manning’s crimes should be treated seriously, not diminished or even celebrated because of one’s status as a transperson. Tolerance of Manning’s status does not require public honor and celebration. And surely there is some other trans activist, or even trans veteran, who could offer perspective to students as a fellow without a conviction for betraying the country.