After key figures in the United States government publicly criticized Chelsea Manning’s invitation to be a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (KSG), the offer was rescinded. She had previously served seven years in a military prison for illegally providing national security-related government documents to WikiLeaks before having her sentence commuted by President Barack Obama.
Chelsea Manning is a former private first class in the U.S. Army. She was arrested and imprisoned in 2010 after WikiLeaks published confidential documents she had disclosed to the site. She was charged on 22 counts relating to the unauthorized possession and distribution of more than 720,000 confidential military and diplomatic documents. On July 20, 2013, she was convicted in a court-martial on all but one of the original charges, or slightly altered versions of them: aiding the enemy, which could have resulted in a death sentence. She was sentenced to 35 years in prison. In court, Manning defended her actions by saying she had wanted to start a debate about U.S. foreign policy, reported the BBC. She explained at a sentencing hearing that she had believed she could “change the world for the better.” While in prison, Manning, a transgender woman originally named Bradley, reportedly tried to take her own life twice and went on a hunger strike in 2016 until the Army agreed to pay for her gender reassignment surgery. In November 2016, Obama commuted her sentence, resulting in her release the following May after serving seven years in prison. A White House spokesperson said this was to make Manning’s sentence comparable to the ones handed down to other government “whistleblowers.”
Douglas W. Elmendorf is dean of the KSG at Harvard. He informed Manning on the phone that she was no longer welcome as a visiting fellow, but that she was still eligible to speak at the university. Elmendorf publicly called the decision to offer Manning a fellowship a “mistake.”
The visiting fellows program is sponsored by the KSG’s Institute of Politics (IOP), and those selected to receive fellowships attend a number of campus events and engagements where they interact with the student community. Bill Delahunt, a former Massachusetts Democratic congressman who was then acting director of the IOP, said the program seeks to broaden “the range and depth of opportunity for students to hear from and engage with experts, leaders and policy-shapers” and welcomes a “breadth of thought-provoking viewpoints on race, gender, politics and the media,” reported The New York Times. Manning was to be part of a class that included Sean Spicer, former press secretary for the Trump administration, and Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign manager, among others. Also included in that class of fellows were MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski.
Michael Morell, former deputy director of the CIA, resigned as a non-resident senior fellow over Manning’s initial invitation to become an IOP visiting fellow. NPR reported that he said he could not be part of an institution that “honors a convicted felon and leaker of classified information.” Then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo followed suit by canceling his own planned appearance at the Kennedy School. He claimed that “Harvard’s actions implicitly tell its students that you too can be a fellow at Harvard and a felon under United States law,” and called Manning an “American traitor,” reported The Washington Post.
The Times reported that Elmendorf called Manning to explain the disinvitation, which occurred less than two days after the initial offer. He told her she was still invited to spend a day speaking to students at the Kennedy School, but that the school was concerned that the title of visiting fellow would wrongly imply its endorsement of her actions. The call lasted about 10 minutes, and Manning’s team left the call “stunned and insulted,” according to the Times. Manning tweeted her refusal to speak at Harvard, and wrote that she was “honored to be 1st disinvited trans woman visiting @harvard fellow.” She continued in a separate tweet, “so @harvard says @seanspicer & @Clewandowski [former Trump campaign spokesman Corey Lewandowski] bring ‘something to the table and add something to the conversation’ and not me.”
After withdrawing Manning’s fellowship, Elmendorf released a statement explaining the decision and repeating that Manning was still welcome “to meet with students and others who are interested in talking with her, and then to give remarks in the [John F. Kennedy Jr.] Forum where the audience would have ample opportunity—as with all of our speakers—to ask hard questions and challenge what she has said and done.” He later added, “We did not intend to honor her in any way or to endorse any of her words or deeds, as we do not honor or endorse any Fellow.” Elmendorf proceeded to describe the invitation as a “mistake” and admitted that his own assessment of the matter had been wrong. “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,” he wrote.
Harvard students and alumni criticize disinvitation
A Harvard Crimson op-ed written shortly after the announcement of Manning’s disinvitation was signed by 159 faculty members. It criticized the university for reacting to a “climate of anxiety and intimidation,” and decried the pressure from Morrell and Pompeo as “overt intimidation by the federal government.” In conclusion, the op-ed requested that Harvard do three things: add “criminal history” to its existing non-discrimination policies; support faculty interest in prison education; and invite Chelsea Manning “to a public forum to discuss her work and advocacy for LGBTQ rights.”
A petition titled “Tell the Harvard Kennedy School: Revoking Chelsea Manning’s Fellowship is Disgraceful” also circulated online, garnering more than 16,000 signatures. Another petition with more than 2,000 student and alumni signatures called on Harvard to apply the same level of scrutiny to Spicer and Lewandowski and to disinvite them as well.
Prepared by Graham Piro ‘18
Uploaded May 29, 2018