Since leaving prison in 2017, former intelligence analyst and whistleblower Chelsea Manning has been busy. She ran unsuccessfully for Senate in her home state of Maryland, became a Twitch streamer, and was jailed for contempt after refusing to testify in a U.S. government case against WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. Manning joins Ryan Grim and Intercept reporter Ken Klippenstein to talk about prison, prospects for whistleblowers in the Biden era, and what she’s been up to since her release.
Ryan Grim: Hi Deconstructed listeners.
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Over the last year, this show has become an increasingly important part of our DC political coverage. It was here on Deconstructed that we first published leaked audio from a Biden Zoom call back in December…
Speaker: We ready to go? Can’t hear you, Cedric. You’re on mute.
RG: And just this month we obtained audio of Senator Joe Manchin on a phone call effectively asking donors to dangle a post-retirement financial opportunity in front of a fellow senator to induce him to change his vote.
Sen. Joe Manchin: Roy Blunt is a good friend of mine. Great guy, OK?
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RG: On June 14, former intelligence specialist Reality Winner was finally released from federal prison to a halfway house.
Shepard Smith: A former NSA contractor, sentenced for leaking secrets to the news media, released from prison today.
RG: But it wasn’t part of any pardon, commutation, or compassionate release. She was released for good behavior ahead of her full release, which is scheduled for November. The five years she spent in prison is the longest federal sentence ever handed down to a whistleblower in U.S. history.
SS: The release today for good behavior. She’s now on home confinement.
RG: For more on how she was treated in prison, go back and listen to her interview with her mother, Billie Winner Davis.
Billie Winner Davis: All of the experiences that she has had in the system has opened her eyes. Human beings shouldn’t be treated like this.
RG: The approach that our government now takes in punishing those who leak classified information is new. We didn’t always bring down the full weight and power of the law on whistleblowers. The only person to spend more time than Winner behind bars for leaking classified information is Chelsea Manning, who served her time in military prison. She was first detained on May 27, 2010 for leaking state department cables and evidence of U.S. war crimes to WikiLeaks. She was sentenced to 35 years in maximum security, but her sentence was commuted by President Obama after nearly seven years.
Speaker: The Obama administration had actually considered charges of precisely this kind, but ultimately concluded it would violate the First Amendment and have an intolerably destructive effect on the Free Press.
RG: Chelsea Manning, as she’ll discuss on the show today, went back behind bars just two years after being released, for resisting a grand jury subpoena in the Assange prosecution. She was freed again just as the pandemic ramped up.
We’ll also be joined by Ken Klippenstein, an investigative journalist for The Intercept who has brought a new public-facing approach to developing sources inside the military, corporations, and government agencies. He’s also developed a reputation for trolling politicians on Twitter, and recently tricked Matt Gaetz into retweeting an image of Lee Harvey Oswald, thanking him for his “service.”
I wanted to bring the two of them together because of their mutual appreciation and their mirror image roles in the quest for transparency. As Manning puts it:
Chelsea Manning: If Ken were around in 2010, he would have been the recipient. Well, we’ll just put it that way.
RG: I’m Ryan Grim. This is Deconstructed.
RG: Alright, so every episode, of course, of Deconstructed is special. But this is a very special episode. We’re bringing together one of the most important whistleblowers in several generations, along with a journalist whose name has kind of become synonymous, at least on twitter.com, with whistleblowing. So I’m talking, of course, about Chelsea Manning, and Ken Klippenstein.
Welcome to you both.
KK: Hey! Which is which, Ryan? You didn’t say!
RG: Well, until you blow the whistle on — no. So, Chelsea, let’s tell people a little bit about how this episode actually came together. A few days ago on Twitter, you put out a pretty funny post.
KK: A cryptic post!
RG: A cryptic post. That just said: “ken klippenstein.”
KK: That was it.
RG: So tell us about that. What did you mean by that?
CM: ’Nuff said.
RG: ’Nuff said.
KK: It speaks for itself. [Laughs.]
RG: It does speak for itself.
KK: The philosophers will debate the meaning for eons.
RG: And then your reply was: “*our* journalist.”
CM: Yes. Our journalist.
The reason why I tweeted that was because, I mean, one I’m a huge fan of Ken Klippenstein’s trolling in his posts. He’s been doing really incredible work, doing what muckrakers throughout history have done, historically, which is to troll the powerful, and I view a lot of his more aggressive Twitter antics as an extension of that historical legacy, if you will.
I mean, if you remember back before the big lawsuits of the late 90s and the early 2000s, there used to be a lot more hidden camera investigations, a lot more undercover investigations and things like that. And I view that as no different. I view it in the same light. It may have a little bit more of a social media spectacle element to it, but I still see it as holding powerful people to account and showing them who they are.
RG: Ken’s version, I guess, would be that he trolls the comfortable and then comforts the trolls. Yeah.
RG: So —
KK: Chelsea, I want to point out here, I think you’re engaging in some erasure, because there is still undercover reporting. Are you going to just paper over all of the excellent work that Project Veritas has done, because they still exist?
CM: Ah, yeah, but they’re not — we’re not gonna give them the veil of credibility here. There is a difference between propagandizing and doing real work. Ken Klippenstein can do both.
RG: And before we get to Ken’s muckraking, what are you up to now?
CM: Oof. [Sighs.] So this year has been a little different. The year before that, I was obviously in a grand jury resistance case, so I was in jail. And then I got released after a depression spiral that happened. They ended the grand jury around the same time as they were getting more aggressive with trying to get me to talk to FBI agents, as opposed to just the grand jury.
I knew the pandemic was about to hit, and I knew it was about to hit hard. And I was just terrified that I was going to spend — because the county jail is different than prison, it’s a lot more intense. There’s fewer people, you interact with fewer people, and I was under the impression that I was going to spend the rest of the six months in lockdown and be forgotten about as a major disaster — rightfully so, what turned out to be, as I anticipated one of the largest disasters in modern history — played out. So I went through a depressive spiral and there was a suicide attempt — content warning. I was released from jail and out into the middle of lockdowns.
Literally the same week that I was released, New York City went under the first week of lockdown. And I’ve been just sort of scrambling to find my own place and find some semblance of stability, while the rest of the country has been, you know, wracked by both an increasing amount of political tension and economic tension, as well as the devastation of this pandemic.
RG: And I will say that that year or so that you spent resisting the grand jury, locked up, is one of the most incredible feats of courage that I can even contemplate because you had already spent, what? Seven-plus years.
CM: Ah, just shy — just 10 days shy of seven years. Yeah.
RG: Ten days shy of seven years, in just brutal conditions, and to then get a commutation from Obama, and then to finally get your freedom.
RG: And then to be willing to give that up again, it almost feels like it took more courage that time because you knew what you were putting yourself into. I guess it’s a different system.
CM: Yeah. Right. Yeah.
RG: But it’s not a whole lot different.
CM: Yeah, there’s no charge, there’s no trial, you just go in there and you say, “I’m not answering questions.” They give you immunity. They bypass the Fifth Amendment by giving you immunity; you have no protections, no lawyer or anything, and everything is done in secret.
And people, I think, make the assumption that it was about the 2010 case. And they certainly seem to want to talk about that, but there’s no limit to what they can question you on. And once you answer any questions, then you sort of waived your right to make a legal case to resist subpoenas in the future if you cooperate. So I treated this no differently than if it was for a protest or for some other grand jury — if it was a grand jury in general, I would respond the same way. But it did appear that this one was about, specifically, the 2010 disclosures; the media was speculating, but our legal team and ourselves, we never got full confirmation as to whether that was the case. So you can connect those dots. But I didn’t answer any questions, so they never got around to asking any specific questions. And so I ended up not learning anything at all.
CM: But yeah, I have no problem risking my personal safety and my personal comfort for that. The fines, I think, were much more egregious, and much more troublesome, and much more worrying, particularly since I have never had $250,000 before. And I was fined over $250,000. And if I had gone for another six months, it could have gone almost as close as $500,000. I have never had that amount of money in my entire life. So —
RG: what’s the status of those?
CM: So there was a crowdfunding effort after my release, and they managed to raise the money for me, which I’m super grateful for. But it just put me at $0, it didn’t really give me a foothold to — I came out of this with maybe some savings and the charity of others, to just sort of — because I lost everything. I lost my apartment, I lost my main source of income because of the pandemic, which is doing speaking engagements and traveling and doing traveling consulting, I do digital security consulting. Yeah. So the last year has been about building from that.
And, I think, content production has been for me a little bit more of a potentially stable means of generating income since I haven’t been able to do events, since I haven’t been able to travel, since a lot of the clients that I normally go to for consulting work don’t have the same amount of grants or funding that they did pre-pandemic. So I’ve done what many other people have done, and that is the shift towards digital. [Laughs.] And so I’ve been playing video games!
As well as doing activism like I do. I still do my usual activism during the pandemic; you know, giving out masks, receiving donations for mutual aid groups, going around the city doing deliveries, things like that. Pretty basic stuff. It’s been a busy, wild year, here in New York. And yeah, and then there was last summer. I was in the protests last summer, the protests were pretty intense.
I was actually — and I already have come out with this, I wasn’t talking about it — But I was assaulted at the Washington Square Park, the police during the pride event wasn’t even like a protest. It was a march, during the Pride march, we were attacked, and I got tear gassed and roughed up by some of the NYPD officers, although some people in the crowd pulled me out, thankfully, and I was able to clean myself up. But yeah, it was pretty wild that they came out of nowhere and attacked us. I’m fine! I didn’t get any —
RG: Was that just random? Or did they know who you were?
CM: Oh, I don’t think they knew who I was. It was too chaotic. I was just a bystander, I think. I was dodging somebody who was coming at me, or in my direction, with a baton, dodging an officer, and then somebody else came from the side, and I got blindsided, and I got decked in on the shoulder. And I’ve been digging for footage of it. And I haven’t been able to find camera footage of that. But there’s definitely pictures of me in the crowd. And nobody really noticed me in the videos, so I’m guessing that the officers didn’t recognize me, either. I mean, I was wearing a mask, too.
RG: Well, maybe somebody will find that footage and send it to Ken. Ken, what’s your phone number that they should send that to, if they have it.
KK: I’m 202-510-1268. You can send it on signal. I love that, getting to know Chelsea, she has so many stories like this that are kind of shocking and you’re so understated in all of it. You became a celebrity, obviously, after your disclosures. But there’s so much more that people don’t know and that you don’t talk about unless you’re asked.
CM: Yeah, I think it’s true. I’m pretty busy. I do a lot of things.
I think one of the things that sort of is strange for me, is I’m so used to this. In fact, I am so used to being in prison — and I’ve talked to therapists about this, right? I am so institutionalized, and I will admit — I am institutionalized from my experience being in prison for most of my adult life — that I view things baseline from the prison perspective. So I view things through the lens of my own experience in prison, and I try to understand the rest of the world from that.
It’s like people ask me, “What’s prison like?” And one of the problems that I have constantly is I’m like, “Well, what’s this world like? What’s the regular world like?” Because I’m still trying to figure that out. So most of my experience just comes from either being in the military, or being in prison.
Immediately after school, I was basically homeless for a year. I spent another year sort of working at Starbucks, going to college, before I enlisted in the military. So my experience of most people’s lives is pretty different; the average person, pre-pandemic, at least, has been foreign to me.
RG: Right. And then you had what, you were out for about two years before you went back in?
CM: Yeah. And it was a whirlwind of travel, events, touring. I did a Senate campaign; I had a failed Senate campaign — which I view as actually successful. I managed to get the message out and get some ideas out there. And, you know, I don’t think that was a failure, so much as it was like I obviously didn’t win. [Laughs.]
KK: I feel like you have to compare it to a baseline of expectation. I would say Cal Cunningham had a failed Senate campaign.
KK: [Laughs.] If you’re running to kind of bring issues out, that’s a much different baseline.
RG: He brought issues out, that’s for sure.
CM: Yeah, yeah.
RG: And then you get released into a pandemic.
CM: Yeah, I got released from the grand jury, because it was less than two years before I got the grand jury subpoena. That was a wild year and a half of trying to figure things out, and then losing everything again, like back to square one, you know? Do not pass go, do not collect $200, go directly to jail.
RG: Yes, quite literally.
RG: Ken, tell us a little bit about the muckraking that she’s talking about. For years, and like she said, for generations, some news outlets have been muckraking, some have been soliciting tips, making it either easier or harder to reach out with information. But you’ve kind of gone all the way in that direction. For people who don’t know, that phone number you gave earlier, that’s your number. If somebody does have information, they can hit you up on Signal, the encrypted app, and you’ll receive it.
When did you first start experimenting with that? And when did you realize that it was going to work?
KK: Well, it kind of emerged organically, I didn’t really plan for there to be this kind of Twitter thing where — take, say, the Amazon story. Everyone’s angry about Amazon. I just tweet out, “Oh, if you work there, you know reach me via my number.” There was never any sort of like scheme, as much as I would like to pretend like I plotted this whole thing out, it just kind of happened.
And I realized that if just being myself on Twitter, and doing that, that’s quite different than how sort of legacy media not only does that, but how they’re socialized to do journalism in j-school and things. And so, you know, in retrospect, I’m glad that it played out how it did.
I didn’t live in D.C. or New York for a very long time, so I didn’t have the same access to sources, so I had to come up with a method to find things different than the things people are typically taught. And I spent a lot of time on Twitter, so that was like this sort of porthole into the world when I was starting out. And so it just kind of emerged, I guess. I didn’t really think it through.
And I’ve just been kind of floored every time by how many people want to reach the press, and how they wouldn’t have a means to do so otherwise, because like I said before, I’m not from the D.C. area, or hadn’t been in New York for a long time, those tend to be the constituencies that are best served by national media outlets. But if you’re not an official, and you don’t know how to use those channels to get to media, there’s a whole lot of other people that would love to reach me that they just don’t know how to. And so I think it’s just that I was talking to and reaching out to people that hadn’t been reached out to more than any sort of brilliance or finesse or anything on my part.
RG: Do you find that there’s a typical type of person that reaches out to you, or is it all across the spectrum?
KK: Um, it’s not as obvious as people think. People always think, “Oh, it must be Twitter leftists or something.” Or when I was reporting on the Department of Homeland Security a lot under the Trump administration, some people would say, “Oh, there’s Ken with his DSA sources in DHS.” And it’s like, you don’t have a great sense of DHS, do you? [Laughs.] Do you think there’s DSA people in there?
A lot of them are actually conservatives, my sources, I would say more than anything, they just don’t fit neatly into the buckets that people like to think exist for politics. So it’s not so much that they’re liberal or conservative. I tend to get a lot of people that they’re just not really happy with how things are being conducted. And I don’t know how I would characterize their politics in a lot of cases. Some people, like myself, I guess, spend a lot of time thinking about politics, and so we have these designations and these ways that we characterize things and that we characterize ourselves, but a lot of people they don’t really necessarily think about these sort of theories or about the history of labor or whatever it may be; they just see wrongdoing and feel bad about it. And that’s what drives them.
So I would say it’s a lot more heterodox than what you might think generally about what kind of political person is this, or what age group, or what demographic is this person.
RG: And Chelsea, and you guys can feel free to chime in to each other.
RG: But Chelsea, where would you put yourself on that spectrum in 2010? How political would you say you were? And what drove you to become the kind of person that would have leaked to somebody like Ken?
CM: Ah! If Ken were around in 2010, he would have been the recipient. Well, I’ll just put it that way. I say that hands down.
You know, I was looking for someone, preferably a recognized outlet in 2010. I reached out to The Washington Post, The New York Times, before getting more desperate and trying other means and methods. And Ken obviously — he blurts out, like, “Hey, come send me encrypted messages, right?” which didn’t exist 10 years ago. These kinds of methods weren’t available then.
In 2010, me, personally, I didn’t have a strong political bent, right? Now, after living through prison and really kind of growing up a little bit, I have sort of developed a more left-wing, radical politics. But that came after. In 2010, when I enlisted in the military, I was pretty agnostic. And one of the ways that I like to describe my politics in 2007, when I enlisted, was that my politics consisted of “Leave Britney alone,” right?
CM: Like that was how non-political I really was. I didn’t really participate in politics, I didn’t really participate in political discussions. I knew about history, I knew about politics, but I didn’t see it as playing an active role in my life, or making a difference. I was much more in video game culture, in pop culture, I was kind of a normie, in 2010. Or maybe, by 2010, I was becoming a little bit more politically aware, but that was out of the necessity of seeing the reality of what Iraq was and what Afghanistan was from on the ground, which was a pretty life-changing experience.
But I think that the two political moments for me, in sort of my political development, happened first in 2008, which was the passage of Proposition 8 in California. As sort of a queer person questioning identity, it made me feel like history was still happening, and that I was a part of it. And then going to prison, and really experiencing that whole intense world of being a member of a forgotten percentage. Like, there’s a whole percentage point of the adult population that is incarcerated at any given time in the U.S., isn’t really talked about, and is living in a totalitarian surveillance state every day, trying to survive. And that is the primary experience of my adult life, after eight years of being in confinement, including solitary confinement for over a year. That’s shaped my political experience more than anything else, I think, is going through the carceral system.
RG: And what kind of people did you meet there? Were you able to make a lot of friends there? Are you still in touch with anybody there?
CM: Yeah, so prison rules are pretty strict. They don’t allow formerly incarcerated people to contact incarcerated people, typically. And they check. So the answer is no, I have been completely disconnected. But I made a ton of friends — everywhere I went, I make friends wherever I go, and I was no different in prison, right? I was pretty friendly. And I made friends with a large number of people. But you also can’t get too close, because people get transferred, they get moved, they get released, you move housing units, you move custody classification levels. So there’s that little bit of distance, because you know that the most you’re going to spend time with somebody is three to five years. And that is extraordinary, right? Most people you know, for a few weeks, and you’ll never see them again.
But what I find so fascinating is that, being on edge and being so desperate and having this like sense of community that builds in the carceral system and this environment, without any sort of political elements to any of that, right? Just the ability of people to come together in a desperate time and come to an agreement, share resources, really get to know people and share experiences, especially in group therapy sessions and things like that, and really face against the security apparatus on a regular basis. If the guards pick on one person, it’s not just a good thing to stand up for the person, it’s also in your direct interest because you could be next. The sort of group dynamic of having a group of people to work together and have solidarity with each other has really struck me, and that was throughout the entire carceral system without question.
I think that TV shows and pop culture sort of give you an impression of what prison life is. And sure, there’s some high school drama, because it’s like high school, but you can’t leave. But also there’s that aspect of, you know, I got your back. At the end of the day, if it comes between you and the guards, the other inmates are going to have your back. And that was everywhere I went: military, civilian, educated, uneducated, white collar, blue collar, drug offenses, violent offenses, it didn’t matter. Age, background, it didn’t matter. That sense of solidarity was always there. And that’s always been very powerful for me to remember.
I think people are under this impression that prison is a violent place because of the inmates, but it’s not. And I found this time and time again — time and time again, when I was in prison, the most violent and dangerous people I encountered time and time again were the prison guards. And these are in maximum security settings, right? Where time and time again, the most of abusive people, the most violent people, because there’s no consequence, right? Does society care if an inmate in a maximum security prison is just abused? What recourse do you have? You don’t have a lawyer anymore, because you’re convicted. You might have an appellate attorney, but there’s no cause of action. If you try to go to a civil court, the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1997 basically forces you to exhaust your administrative remedies before you can file a civil suit. And when you do that, you have no idea, because they don’t tell you, and they don’t have to tell you all of the administrative remedies that you need to [do], and so you can get your case kicked. And if you try to push a case more than three times, there’s a three-strikes-you’re-out rule, where essentially, you lose your ability to file lawsuits at all.
So there’s no recourse. There’s no way to navigate that in any kind of legal or administrative way. And they know that, so they just abuse you and there’s nothing you could do but take it.
RG: The whole time you were there, did you see anybody get held accountable on the guard side for anything?
CM: The most I ever saw was, whenever a prison guard would get into trouble, they would transfer them. That was the most I ever saw. They would make the problem go away.
RG: Like the Catholic Church.
CM: And the alternative is to transfer the inmate as well.
Say you’re in a civil district of Kansas, right, and you file a lawsuit, they’ll transfer you to a different jurisdiction to screw up your whole case. And they’ll take all your papers, because going through the transfer process, they take everything, you have to throw everything out, so you have no notes, you have no paperwork. And because you can’t afford a lawyer and you’re having to do everything yourself, you’re screwed. And you basically have to dismiss the case, because what are you going to do?
I always used to say: “It’s worse than Vegas.” Right? The house always wins. They have total control over everything.
RG: Ken, how cognizant do you think the sources are who are reaching out to you of the risks that are inherent to leaking, at least if you’re a member of the national security state now?
KK: It really depends. I think, often not. I think the more senior, more experienced ones tend to be, but also counterintelligence is not an intuitive thing. You have to be trained to think that way. I don’t think that it’s human nature to be very paranoid and think four steps ahead and try to anticipate what your adversaries are going to try to do to get you in trouble.
So, in my experience, the bulk of the concern I’ve had to shoulder, and I’ve had cases where people give me things that I’m having to tell them like, “I can’t use this, they’re gonna find out,” and explain to them why. And that’s more common than my trying to be the kind of pushy reporter you think of in movies, is a younger person, less experienced, definitely a moral compulsion — I can’t stress enough how often, at least in my experience, it’s a moral impulse. It’s not even political, necessarily, because people don’t seem to have thought it through that much; it’s more just like they see something and feel bad about it. And then I have to be the voice of reason and say, “Let’s think this through. How many people have access to this? What is the likely response?” And that kind of thing, and that’s the opposite of how I expected things to work when I came into media.
RG: Right. Right. It’s not how a lot of mainstream news outlets work.
KK: Noooo. [Laughs.]
CM: Yeah, I can say out of experience like, I never thought I was going to prison. It had never happened before. And I think people forget that before my case, nobody had ever gone to prison for a national security disclosure to the press, right? It had never happened before.
Even Dan Ellsberg, he turned himself into a federal courthouse. And I didn’t really know about the Ellsberg case, but I knew about the Drake case. And the Drake case, you know, he was out and about, and he never went to prison for it, right? Thomas Drake.
So my understanding of the risks then was very different than it is even now. And I thought: Worst-case scenario I lose my job, I lose my security clearance, I’m in the doghouse and I can’t get a job anywhere else, because nobody wants to hire me, I can’t be a defense contractor anymore, I lose my security clearance, I’m discharged.
And I thought those were horrible things, don’t get me wrong. Being in the military, that was everything — all my job security, all my future, everything that I was looking forward to was at risk, and I was willing to do that. But I think that the idea that I was going to go to prison for all of this, it never really crossed my mind, right?
KK: Chelsea, you make an interesting point.
I often find that sources will understand internally. just within their agency, what the likely consequences are, but they are not good at anticipating the political consequences. Because the law is not fairly applied. The Justice Department clearly makes a calculation about how embarrassing things are.
You know, there’s a saying that an FBI official was telling me a little while ago, “Don’t embarrass the Bureau.” And sort of tacit in that is, you know, we’re going to enforce these things depending on how embarrassing it is to officials down here.
And so that tends to be what they’re weakest at. And it’s not that they’re dumb. It’s like, they don’t work in politics, so how should they understand how something is going to be received and how angry senior leadership will be about it? So that’s another thing — I would say that’s probably the foremost thing that I have to warn people about is trying to explain like, there’s gonna be a shitstorm [laughs] in Washington media if this comes out.
RG: Chelsea, how do you think that would have changed your calculus, if you would have considered that?
CM: I have been asked this question before. And the answer is: I don’t really know what I would do if I had known. What I can say is that it would probably not change the outcome much.
CM: Yeah, and I hate trying to speculate, right? And I’ve thought about this a lot, because I get asked it a lot. That’s the only reason that it really comes up, is because people are like, “Well, you know, would you have?” And the answer is, “If I had done it any differently, it wouldn’t have been me, right?” I knew what I knew, in 2010, and I had access to what I had, and I had the time and resources that I had, which was pretty limited. High-speed internet is not a thing in a lot of places in 2010, and this is gigabytes of data. I mean, even compressed, like this stuff is DVD-Rs, right? It’s like gigabytes upon gigabytes of stuff, right?
CM: So we’re probably talking about, and I’m speculating here a little bit, but I would assume that it would make me maybe perhaps a little bit more cautious in terms of time, where I was rushing in 2010. In 2010, I would say that I definitely rushed out of necessity, because I had a limited amount of time in the U.S. to be able to do uploads or to find anyone who would accept, right? So I felt rushed. If I had known the consequences, I am assuming that I would probably slow it down a little bit, but I would be a little bit more methodical, perhaps. But, again, I don’t actually know.
RG: Right. Ken, it sounds to me like from your conversations with sources, the answer would be similar in the sense that they’re driven by a moral compulsion. And this goes to this argument that Daniel Ellsberg has been making that it actually is unconstitutional, to criminalize leaking, never mind criminalizing publishing, there’s absolutely no constitutional basis for that, but there also isn’t for leaking, that leaking is also protected by the First Amendment. And if the government wants to hold its employees accountable, the only thing that they can really do is all of the things Chelsea just laid out: you can be fired, you can be put in the doghouse, you can be dishonorably discharged, you can have your security clearance revoked —
CM: That was scary enough!
RG: Sure! Because that salts the earth for the rest of your career.
RG: So the number of people who would be dissuaded by prison, but wouldn’t be dissuaded by that, I think, is tiny. Because once you’re willing to take that risk, you’re doing it for a moral reason, not for any personal interest calculation.
But Ken, what do you think? If we went back to the regime that Ellsberg is talking about where somebody who leaks and gets caught faces professional consequences, but not criminal consequences, do you think, all of a sudden, the leak floodgates open up? Or do you think it’s roughly about the same?
KK: I would love for them to open up. But I think it’d be exactly the same. I mean, when you look at these cases that the Justice Department brings, I don’t see any evidence that there’s a deterrence. In the intelligence world, at least — it’s different in the private business world and other areas — but in the national security world, which is a lot of what I cover, some leaks are handled internally. They handle it “administratively.” And the idea is maybe they’ll cut off someone’s access to a certain program, or they’ll move someone, or they’ll fire someone, or whatever it is. People are plenty terrified of that, I mean, in the economic system that we have. I mean, any sort of administrative punishment, that’s your livelihood. I mean, we don’t have this generous welfare state that you can fall back on if you lose your job. So I’ve certainly never seen any evidence that there’s meaningful deterrence.
And it’s so selectively applied, too. Like the notion that this is not political, going back to my FBI friend saying, “Don’t embarrass the Bureau.” I know former leak investigators that carried out these cases in the FBI and they will tell you very explicitly that this is supposed to send a message to people to scare them, as it has been described to me. How many four-star generals are targeted by these leak investigations? How many people in the Senior Executive Service in the FBI or the DHS, whatever it is? It’s almost never that. It’s almost always people like Chelsea, junior people, rank and file.
So the idea that it’s some coincidence that the senior executives — I mean, I can tell you as a reporter, the senior executives leak, it’s just that you never hear about it, because the FBI and the DOJ, they don’t go after those people, not publicly anyways.
KK: So, I already see a system where it’s overwhelmingly just being handled administratively. Why not just handle it that way entirely, instead of this sort of ritual sacrifice process we have, where occasionally you’ll find a junior person like Reality Winner, or, like Chelsea, where you just eviscerate them to try to make an example of them.
CM: Yeah, so, on that note, I’ve actually been told by Obama-era officials — not like Senate-confirmed positions, but people have told me privately — that one of the concerns that they’ve had with some of these high-profile leak investigations is that it may not act as a deterrent, but may actually, essentially by creating a name and generating the the mass-media attention, that it’s actually doing the opposite. It’s drawing attention to the fact. That somebody goes along and says, “Oh, maybe I can do that!”
CM: So there’s been a question among some people, perhaps pre-Trump era, because I don’t know about Trump administration, but certainly Obama-era people, were definitely asking the question: Is the juice worth the squeeze? Are we just creating publicity for future people who may be encouraged to do this because they see these high-profile cases? And I think that may be a calculus that’s also happening as well, is that prison isn’t really the thing that some people are concerned about so much as it is, “Oh, well, maybe people will defend me.” Essentially, like, they don’t want to create martyrs at the same time. That’s become a concern post-Snowden.
RG: Right. And, in American culture, if you reveal something to the public, we still have these very strong kind of small-d democratic norms.
RG: You are a hero. That’s how you get portrayed even in the mainstream press. So that is probably a miscalculation on the government’s part, that with every leaker you elevate into the press and then lock up, you create several more who are like, “Wow that person put everything on the line, and I need to do the same thing and expose what I’ve come across.”
RG: Ken, have you seen any of that? I don’t want to call it copycat leaking, but people who’ve been inspired by previous whistleblowers?
KK: Totally — 100 percent. You know, people aren’t always as well-read on the specifics of what someone like Snowden discloses, but this general sense that, wow, that guy sacrificed all of this, I mean, in a situation where maybe I’m working for a private company, and this isn’t classified, and there’s no criminal penalties, the least I can do is tell Ken or tell somebody what the heck’s going on.
I mean, that’s had an effect in my work. You know, when I’m nervous about career consequences about things, I think: Well look at these folks who risked so much more, I can’t look at myself in the mirror without sort of laughing at the relative risk that I face.
So, absolutely. I’ve heard that mentioned explicitly, and I think it reverberates in the culture, I think. Because the notion of a dissident — not being a traitor, but rather looking at them as someone that cares so much about the system that they come from that they want it to work better, and perceiving it that way, rather than somebody betraying them, which is the way that a national security state likes to try to — you know, he’s a traitor and all this insinuation about this playing into the hands of X, Y or Z adversary. On the contrary, I think ordinary people hear these things and realize, whoa, actually, it’s not that binary. People can do things that anger the institution, but also we’re going to end up helping it in the end, and helping it to function better. So I do think that there’s that sense, on the part of, at least, a lot of ordinary people, maybe not the senior executive class.
RG: Before you guys go, I want to get your expertise on another thing. You’re both what they call “extremely online,” people.
RG: And social media is built quite explicitly for engagement. And by engagement, they mean people attacking and destroying each other to create content for, for people to then enjoy.
RG: Yet neither of you have fallen into that. How have you escaped that kind of quicksand or the morass of social media, yet live so much of your lives in it?
KK: Chelsea, I feel like you’re just very chill, you’re very chill.
CM: Oh, I have a very simple rule.
RG: I’m taking my notebook out here, because this is important.
CM: And I have a post-it note that says this: “Nobody wants to hear you complain.” Right? So that’s my simple rule that I’ve always had with regards to social media, right?
I don’t complain, right? If I have something to say, and I create a sort of social media strategy of things that I want to say, in general, and topics that I want to cover in general, and I stick to those. Because when I don’t stick to those, that’s when I’ve had negative feedback, or it’s just kind of fallen flat. I try to find things where I’m actually generating content and content that I want to, and not just, “Oh, yeah, it sucks.” You know? Because I think there’s that impulse, and I get it, too. There’s definitely times where I just want to complain online. But, again, I block myself, because the post-it note says a lot. And sometimes I have to replace it. And maybe I should just tape it up there.
RG: I like that. I’m putting that up. Ken, how do you do it?
KK: I just feel like who gives a shit what I think about x thing. You know what I mean? I hardly give a shit what I think about x thing. I have my own internal thoughts, but it’s just like — I mean our focus, Ryan, and I think you’d be sympathetic to this, has always been kind of scoops and breaking things, and I don’t think I’ve ever done opinion, at least in written form, and I don’t know — I wish there was a loftier way I could say it, but who gives a shit what my feeling or reaction is. You don’t have to have a public reaction to everything that happens. That’s how I feel.
CM: Yeah. I feel like that’s like gamer debate culture —
CM: — that has just been written large, ‘cause like the insular Twitch, YouTube, gamer debate community. But it’s a microcosm of the larger discourse that happens in social media. And a lot of that is driven, I think, by clicks, views, the algorithm, and I don’t see longevity in that. Someone will do something that gets a big splash in 2017, and then be forgotten about by 2019. Right? And as somebody who’s written boring opinion pieces for The Guardian, I tend to keep my opinions very grounded and bureaucratic. I mean, because ultimately, I’m a bureaucrat at heart.
There’s a longer, slower payoff to that kind of credibility and that kind of legitimacy than just dunking on people. Although it feels great to dunk on people, and there are some people that really need to be dunked on, and I think that’s where Ken and I agree. Like sometimes Kyrsten Sinema needs to be dunked on.
KK: Yeah, I have two standards. You know, if you’re a powerful public person, that’s a much different set of rules, at least that I believe in personally —
KK: — Then if you’re just some ordinary person. I mean, you’re allowed to be an ordinary person and wrong in my view, and not have to have to get dragged publicly for it.
RG: Chelsea, is there a name of any of the shows or content that you’re going to be producing —
RG: — that you can tell people about?
CM: So I have a Twitch channel, which is twitch.tv/xychelsea87. That is where I play video games and I do a lot of science and technology content. I also am producing my first YouTube videos on science and technology. The first video is going to be on cryptocurrency, the second video is going to be on artificial intelligence, they’re very Bill Nye the Science Guy style videos; it’s a pretty large production. It’s taken me some time. I started in April and my first video is still getting put through the editing process, and we’re about to spin up filming for the second video. And I also have a Patreon to support these things, to support my endeavors beyond just Twitter, and that’s patreon.com/xychelsea,
RG: And we have a decent number of listeners who are as old as me or older. And so that they’re going to be like, “Wait, playing video games.”
RG: Can you tell people a little bit about what kind of audience you have. And what do people see when they’re tuning in to watch you play?
CM: Yeah, so I have a younger audience, mostly 15 to 35, I would say — Zoomers and millennials, most of whom have a political bent towards the left, not always.
It’s safer for me to play video games, which I really enjoy, by the way, than it is for me to talk about intense politics and things. And I just feel like it’s much more motivating and much more positive for everybody involved. And also, I just want to sort of be a role model for people, because I feel like people, particularly in the gaming space, have a tendency to be aggressive, or try to do things for clicks and try to generate controversies and get contents and stuff and, and I have more flexibility and more shielding from that kind of thing. Most things just sort of roll off my shoulders, so I view myself as being a role model. And I also want to reach out to the younger generation and be like, “Hey, look! You can be trans, you can go through the worst of the worst, and still come out the other side, and still have fun and still be positive, and still be engaged.”
And I do a lot of educational content. Most of the games that I play are pretty cerebral. We’re not talking about shoot-‘em-ups. We’re talking about strategy games, city builders, I talk about the environment a lot, I talk about politics, very constructive things. Historical warfare — I know that you have an interest in the Second World War — [laughs], so I highly recommend Hearts of Iron IV, because it’s a very good war simulator, but I do play a modded version — I play a couple modded versions which have much better, much more fun alternative history content.
RG: Ken, any final questions or final thoughts?
KK: Can we expect a Ryan/Chelsea gaming thing that we can all watch? Because I would really like to —
CM: Let’s go!
KK: — see Ryan in a gaming situation in general, like, regardless of which game.
RG: I haven’t done much since Street Fighter II, but I’d be happy to.
CM: Hey, the graphics are pretty good on that, not gonna lie.
RG: It’s true.
CM: Yeah. And you know, one of the other journalist friends that I have, Jordan Uhl, he also does video games on Twitch and that kind of thing. And I’m a huge fan and a follower of Hasan Piker, who has basically bridged the divide, I think, between political commentators and video gamers. So it’s been fascinating to see that grow.
RG: True pioneer.
KK: Yeah, he’s great.
RG: No doubt.
Well, Chelsea Manning, thanks so much for joining us.
CM: Yeah. Thank you.
RG: Kenny Klips, thank you for joining us here on Deconstructed.
KK: My pleasure.
CM: Bring it to him!
RG: That was Ken Klippenstein and Chelsea Manning, and that’s our show.
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