Truth trumps treachery: What Jamie Kirchick gets wrong about Chelsea Manning

Zinnia JonesDisclosure: I testified for the defense at Chelsea Manning’s court-martial and served as her representative at SF Pride 2014.

In an August 29 New York Times op-ed on Wikileaks source Chelsea Manning, Jamie Kirchick writes:

Celebrating Chelsea Manning just a few years after gay and transgender people were permitted to serve openly in the military discredits the L.G.B.T. cause. Throughout most of the 20th century, homosexuality was associated with treason and used as a basis for purging gay people from government jobs, denying them security clearances and restricting their service in the armed forces. The decision by Ms. Manning’s defense team to argue that untreated gender dysphoria was a factor in her decision to leak classified information unwittingly aids those who say that L.G.B.T. people cannot be trusted in sensitive government jobs. And it dishonors the L.G.B.T. people who have served in the military throughout history without betraying their country.

Kirchick’s characterization of the defense’s arguments relating to gender dysphoria is overly reductive and omits crucial details of the case. While he implies that the defense should have refrained from presenting evidence regarding Manning’s dysphoria, this would have meant leaving out numerous relevant facts about her circumstances and the Army’s actions in the leadup to her arrest.

The defense was not making a general argument that untreated gender dysphoria can somehow predispose a person to leaking classified material, an argument that would indeed cast undue aspersions on all trans servicemembers and government employees. This was a specific argument focused narrowly on Manning’s chain of command, their awareness of her gender identity and the severe distress she was experiencing, their higher priority of ensuring that she remain deployable, and their resulting failure to act on these issues appropriately or ensure she received the necessary care. These facts were established at length during her pretrial hearing and court-martial.

On April 24, 2010, Manning emailed one of her supervisors, former master sergeant Paul Adkins, informing him of her identity as a woman. Adkins testified in 2013 that he did not pass along this email to his commanders until after Manning was arrested, and explained that he was instead focused on making sure she could continue to serve as an analyst:

Adkins sent the “My Problem” e-mail to his company’s command after Manning was arrested at the end of May 2010. Adkins testified that when he received the e-mail, he thought he should talk to Manning about the contents but not forward it up the chain of command.

He said he was concerned it “would be disseminated among the brigade staff. . . and I really didn’t think at the time that having a picture floating around of one of my soldiers in drag was in the best interests of the mission.”

Adkins also testified that Manning’s position “as an analyst was important to the mission. And my intent was to make sure, if I could possibly do it, that he could maintain his functionality as an intelligence analyst.”

Manning’s gender did not come to the attention of anyone else in her unit until May 8, 2010, when she came out to her psychologist Capt. Michael Worsley following a physical altercation. Worsley later testified that the Army had no resources available for soldiers with gender dysphoria, and that Manning was likely under intense stress at the time:

Worsley told the sentencing hearing at Fort Meade military base that Manning would have been put under considerable stress.

“With little support, and few coping skills, the pressure would have been difficult, to say the least,” Worsley said. “It would have been incredible.” …

Asked by Manning’s counsel, David Coombs, what kind of support was available to Manning at that time, Worsley replied: “Really, none. There as nothing available other than somebody like me.”

He added that by confiding in a clinical psychologist, Manning was “taking a chance” and may have received a court martial and been “put out of the military”.

Worsley also noted: “I questioned why they wanted to leave someone in that position with the issues that they have.” But her command’s refusal to acknowledge her gender identity, in the interests of retaining her as an intelligence analyst, was a continuation of an ongoing trend of willful neglect toward known issues regarding her mental state at the time:

Coombs asked Manning’s supervisor, former Master Sergeant Paul Adkins, why he did not remove Manning from his job as an intelligence analyst in Iraq in 2009 and 2010 when he showed erratic and sometimes violent behavior.

Coombs mentioned incidents in which Manning punched a soldier in the face, carved the words “I want” into a chair with a knife and flipped over a table while being reprimanded about being late to his job.

Adkins said his unit was short-staffed and needed Manning’s analysis work. …

He said he believed Manning was being helped by mental therapy. “I wrongly assessed that he was stable enough to continue his shift,” Adkins said.

Manning had already privately contacted a gender counselor online in late 2009 around the time of these incidents. (Army CID agents pressed me at length about the identity of this counselor in 2011, and some have claimed that I was this counselor – I am not.) Adkins stated that he deemed her fit for duty because another soldier in the unit could not deploy, and because Manning was merely coping with a “non-physical health issue”. He admitted that she should not have been deployed to Iraq:

“In a perfect world, I think, if I could have left him behind, to make sure that he was getting behavioral health care on a consistent basis, I would have,” Adkins said.

He said “there was the indirect pressure of making sure everyone who could physically deploy was deploying.”

Adkins was later demoted due to his mishandling of Manning’s mental health needs and failure to pass these concerns along to his commanders. Capt. Steven Lim, Adkins’ superior, was kept in the dark about Manning’s difficulties, and Lim testified that her security clearance should have been withdrawn based on these incidents prior to her leaking of classified materials:

Defense (Coombs): You said it was obvious Manning was suffering from the 2009 email. Should his security clearance have been removed, and he removed from the SCIF?

Lim: Yes.

Defense (Coombs): Fair to say that the later offense may not have happened?

Lim: Yes.

Defense (Coombs): And, these offenses [charges] may not have happened?

Lim: Yes.

Defense (Coombs): Did Master Sgt. Paul Adkins have duty to report a ‘derog’?

Lim: Yes.

Defense (Coombs): Did these concerns predate deployment?

Lim: Yes.

Kirchick has failed to place her defense’s arguments in this crucial context, and his assessment is incomplete and compromised as a result. The defense’s reference to Manning’s untreated gender dysphoria does not imply that transgender troops cannot be trusted to handle sensitive information, any more than the defense’s reference to Manning’s diagnosis of an anxiety disorder implies that individuals with anxiety cannot be trusted with sensitive government materials.

This argument is fundamentally about the Army’s pervasive neglect of Manning’s known health issues, which, had they been handled properly, would have led to the removal of her access to classified material long before her leaks. This does not cease to be relevant to her case merely because one of those health issues, gender dysphoria, happens to be currently subject to cultural stigma and needless politicization.

Kirchick blithely accuses Manning of “betraying [her] country”, yet he leaves out these relevant details of how the military failed Manning. It’s all the more galling that he uses this oversimplification to portray her defense as somehow irresponsible or damaging to the cause of LGBT equality. Her struggles were magnified, and appropriate treatment withheld, because of homophobic and transphobic policies that forced her into isolation and secrecy as a transgender woman. Acknowledging this reality does not constitute an argument against open integration and affirming care of transgender troops. It’s an argument for that. Standing behind Chelsea and her values – that we have the right to exist as our genuine selves – can hardly be said to diminish our cause’s credibility. It’s necessary to any kind of credibility that matters.

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender healthcare, public health, psychiatry, and history of medicine, integrating these many perspectives and guided by the lived experiences of trans people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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