In the decade since her historic transfer of secret military and diplomatic materials to WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning has consistently and across party lines been condemned as a traitor. Less common, and absent entirely from the government’s efforts to imprison her, are allegations that her leak was an act of terrorism. But anti-terrorism training materials obtained by The Intercept show that the Pentagon is teaching defense workers exactly that.
Both civilian contractors and enlisted personnel are commonly required to complete JS-US007, a Pentagon course designed to “increase your awareness of terrorism and to improve your ability to apply personal protective measures,” according to Joint Knowledge Online, a Department of Defense education portal. JS-US007 covers a variety of grimly serious topics, from detecting roadside bombs to surviving active shooter scenarios and skyjackings. The training also covers so-called insider threat attacks, acts of terroristic violence in which members of a group strike the group itself, like the 2009 Fort Hood, Texas, shooting in which Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan shot and killed 13 individuals on the base, wounding 30 more. The Department of Homeland Security defines insider threat terrorism as “an unlawful use of force and violence by employees or others closely associated with organizations, against those organizations to promote a political or social objective.” Other definitions may differ on technicalities, but like other acts of terrorism, the unifying theme is the violence of the acts.
But unclassified JS-US007 materials obtained by The Intercept show that the Pentagon’s anti-terrorism trainees are learning a far broader definition of terrorism, one that includes the entirely nonviolent acts of Manning. On a slide listing “Examples of attacks by individuals thought to be loyal to the US,” Manning’s “2010 leaking of over 500,000 documents concerning operations in Iraq and Afghanistan” is listed first, followed by three examples of murder: the “2009 active shooter attack at Fort Hood,” the “2003 active shooter attack at Camp Pennsylvania,” and the “2001 anthrax attacks against Government facilities” that closely followed the attacks of September 11.
Another slide in the presentation lists Manning’s alleged “anti-American statements” as a “pre-attack indicator.”
The JS-US007 training is reminiscent of a 2017 “insider threat” seminar presented by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s National Insider Threat Task Force and reported by the Daily Beast, which listed National Security Agency whistleblower Thomas Drake in a gallery of “Those that have done us harm,” including Hasan and Aaron Alexis, who fatally shot 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard in 2013. But while that ODNI presentation framed whistleblowing and leaking only in vague terms of doing “harm” to the intelligence establishment — itself an uncontroversial claim — the JS-US007 slides go further, drawing an explicit parallel between the unauthorized disclosure of state secrets and murder.
“Insiders have an incentive to release information outside the chain of command.”
Following the 2010 disclosures, Manning was widely condemned for the act by both military and civilian leadership in the United States, accused of not only betraying her country, but also substantially damaging the national security interests and strategic positions of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan by “aiding the enemy” in the war on terror, a criminal charge for which she could have received the death penalty or life in prison without parole. Though government prosecutors never accused Manning of committing a terrorist act or plotting with actual terrorists, they maintained that she ought to have known the leaks would have benefited such groups. Some did go so far as to equate Manning’s leak to terrorism, including then-Vice President Joe Biden, who during a December 2010 appearance on “Meet The Press” said, “I would argue it is closer to being a high-tech terrorist than the Pentagon Papers.”
But in 2013, a military judge found Manning not guilty of aiding the enemy, the gravest charge she faced. In 2017, a secret Department of Defense post-mortem report on Manning’s leaks obtained by BuzzFeed News through a Freedom of Information Act request demolished the government’s prior claims that the disclosures had caused irreparable harm to U.S. interests. The report determined that “there is not any significant ‘strategic impact’ to the release of this information” pertaining to Afghanistan, and “with high confidence that disclosure of the Iraq data set will have no direct personal impact on current and former U.S. leadership in Iraq.”
Manning’s disclosures provided evidence of the killing of two Reuters journalists in a strike by U.S. attack helicopters in Iraq, documentation of civilian deaths in the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, cables on U.S. diplomatic support for dictatorships, and revelations about people held for years without charges at Guantánamo Bay. Much of the material was published in outlets like the New York Times and The Guardian.
Both Manning and her attorney, Moira Meltzer-Cohen, declined to comment for this story.
“If the Pentagon truly views leaking information outside proper channels as an act of terrorism on par with the anthrax attacks, then I’m surprised they have been so resistant to enhancing whistleblower protections,” Project On Government Oversight Public Policy Director Liz Hempowicz told The Intercept. “Until those who want to report wrongdoing or illegality in the Department of Defense have confidence that those concerns will be addressed and that they have a chance at prevailing if they suffer retaliation, insiders have an incentive to release information outside the chain of command and hope for the best.”
Despite the Defense Department training’s message that Manning was motivated by a disloyalty to her country, she has been adamant that her disclosure of classified materials was motivated by the opposite. In a 2017 interview with ABC News, Manning explained that her decision came from the belief that the American public deserved to know disturbing details of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were being kept secret. “I have a responsibility to the public, you know,” Manning told ABC’s Juju Chang. “We all have a responsibility.”
The Department of Defense’s Joint Knowledge Online office, which administers JS-US007 and other trainings, did not return a request for comment.
Correction: December 26, 2020
An earlier version of this story referenced Joe Biden as a senator in 2010; it now correctly refers to him as then-vice president.