Podcast: Rainey Reitman on defending Chelsea Manning

May 9, 2017

Rainey Reitman

by Courage to Resist | 35:18 min.

Rainey Reitman was a co-founder and steering committee member for the Chelsea Manning Support Network, a network of individuals and organizations that advocated for the release of WikiLeaks whistleblower US Army Private Chelsea Manning. In this Courage to Resist podcast, Rainey shares what it was like to help start a movement. A movement that would successfully free one of America’s most important political prisoners.

Rainey currently serves as director of the activism team at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She is a board member and co-founder of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a nonprofit organization that defends and supports unique, independent, nonprofit journalistic institutions. Rainey, along with co-founders Daniel Ellsberg, Trevor Timm, and J.P. Barlow, received the 2013 Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award in Journalism.


Eric Kline: Rainey Reitman is an activist who cofounded the Chelsea Manning Support Network, which was fiscally sponsored by Court to Resist. Rainey worked on that campaign for six years, on the steering committee, and was very involved in outreach and planning. It was a long, long road to victory and Rainey Reitman and the Chelsea Manning Support Network had to sustain their efforts for the long haul.

And one of the big things I wanted to learn from Rainey during our conversation was how she did it. What kept her going in the work.

Rainey Reitman: I was on the East Coast and I was talking to someone who had gotten involved in Chelsea Manning advocacy work and was sort of famous and she was especially engaged in helping raise awareness about Chelsea’s solitary confinement. And she said to me something to the effect of I don’t get involved in cases I can’t win and I think we can win getting Chelsea out of solitary.

And I remember being so struck by that because I do get involved with cases I can’t win. And when we started the Chelsea Manning Support Network our goal was definitely not just to get her out of solitary confinement. It was to get her free and we knew we were facing terrible odds. I mean, we were up against the entire United States government and they were going to drag this out as long as they could because every day they dragged it out we had to keep fundraising and keeping it in the news and keeping the drumbeat of this campaign alive and it is hard to do that. It is just so hard to do that when we’re in a society that loses interested in something, you know, after two days.

And I think that in some ways, while it’s important to make strategic decisions about where you can make the biggest impact and so you’re optimized for where you can when, sometimes we’ve got to take on a case even when you’re pretty sure you’re not going to win.

I didn’t think we were going to win on Chelsea Manning many, many times. I wasn’t sure if I was going to see her walk free in my lifetime. I did it anyway and so did everybody else because if the next whistleblower comes around we want to make sure that they know that people are going to step up and fight for them no matter what.

Eric: This is the Courage to Resist podcast. My name is Eric Klein. On the show today we have Rainey Reitman, cofounder of the Chelsea Manning Support Network. Rainey Reitman also cofounded the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which did Chelsea Manning advocacy work and fundraising. The Freedom of the Press Foundation raised awareness of Chelsea’s case, including publishing audio recordings of Chelsea Manning’s voice and bringing court reporters into the courtroom to take detailed notes on Manning’s trial.

Rainey Reitman currently works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation of the director of EFS’s activism team. EFS wrote an Amicus brief in relation to the case of Chelsea Manning, but Rainey Reitman spoke with us with Courage to Resist as an individual, not as a representative of EFS.

I began our conversation by asking Rainey to tell me about who she was when she started working on behalf of Chelsea Manning.

Rainey: I first heard about Chelsea Manning, who was at the time known as Bradley, when I was living in San Diego and working as a consumer advocate and I found out about her because of the video that Wiki Leaks published, the collateral murder video, and I remember sitting, I think I was at work and watching this video that somebody had passed to me, and just being so shocked because I had never gotten that kind of front row center experience about what America’s foreign wars were like.

And it was appalling and eye opening. And I remember this recognition as soon as that video ended that I was never going to think of our foreign policy the same way again. And on the heels of that came this certainty that whoever had released this video had done an incredible public service and should be shielded from repercussions – that they had brought something to the world that needed to be said and needed to be seen and as the voting American public we had a right to see it.

So even before Chelsea was arrested or anybody knew her name I already sort of had a kernel of deep commitment to this whistleblower, the anonymous whistleblower. I sent that video to pretty much everybody I knew. I kind of lost a day of work, I’m sorry to say, just watching that video and sending it around. And then I remember a while passed before Chelsea got arrested and new broke in the United States about that and some of the people I had shown that video to actually reached out to me with articles that were being published about Chelsea.

And I was living in San Diego. It’s a very military heavy town. In some ways it’s a very conservative town and even in the earliest days Chelsea was being painted as a traitor and I had a huge moment of conflict where I thought the right thing to do is to stand up for this whistleblower, who I think has done this incredible service, and I felt a little scared, to be honest, at least in those first, you know – that first 24 hours. And in some ways that fear lingered where I was, like, is this going to be the kind of choice that destroys my future career opportunities or paints me as a radical anti-war activist or something like that.

And then I thought I don’t care. I just don’t care. This person needs the court and needs people like me and other to speak out and defend her, so I remember contacting an activist named – or I don’t even know if he considers himself an activist, a web developer, based in Bratislava named Mike Gawlowski and he had just registered the domain name Bradley Manning.com or dot org and said, you know, we want to do some advocacy around this whistleblower, but I’m just one person. Does anybody want to be writers or social media people or write press releases or help run coalition calls or organize days of action.

And I thought about it for maybe 12 hours and then I got in touch and I said, yeah, I’ll do that. And then after that, you know, it’s so funny. I guess I always thought that there were these great organized, you know, nonprofits running everything for these kind of whistleblower campaigns, but really it’s just citizens who care and are willing to step up and as much as you’re willing to dive in there’s work to be done.

So we started organizing, you know, regular conference calls. At the time there were these huge sprawling calls, sometimes lasting many hours with people we didn’t know across the country who had found out that we wanted to do something about Chelsea and wanted to get involved.

And, you know, at this time, and this is, you know, back in 2010, we didn’t think we were going to have to raise any money because we were under the impression, based on misinformation that was going around on Twitter and then a couple of reports, that WikiLeaks was just sending Chelsea some attorneys who had volunteered their time. That was not true because it turns out that legal defense of a whistleblower in a case like this is just enormous.

And so at the time we thought we were just going to fundraise a little bit of money to help her when she got out, if she got out, for college and stuff like that. And so we decided to start. You know, we were going to set up some sort of a bank account and we started looking for options around that. We weren’t a 501(c) 3.

Then we heard about Courage to Resist and wow, what an amazing group of people. How lucky we were that they wanted to get involved in Chelsea’s case and early on – really early on. I mean, they were there just a few weeks in. And, you know, I remember calling around to people I trusted who I thought might know Courage to Resist and Jeff Patterson and asking about it because here we were going to put all of our eggs in this basket, they were going to be our fiscal sponsor, they made that offer and on terms that were incredibly generous, and the people got back to me and said there’s nobody with a better reputation in this space than Courage to Resist. They do incredible work.

And I worked with Courage now for six years and one of the best decisions Chelsea Manning Support Network ever made was hooking up with them. They are amazing. I can’t sing their praises enough, in fact, I became a regular donor to them, I think for a couple of years there.

So once Courage got involved became ready less rag tag, right? We were able to accept donations and then within a few months we went from the sort of scattered group of volunteers who were trying to organize this defense of this whistleblower, sort of, you know, ad hoc through consensus, to, okay, no we have an office and we’ve got a staff member, like, on activist in the beginning who was working on it.

And then slowly we actually built up to the small team. And there’s still a ton of engaged volunteers who helped put on events and stay involved in the campaign, but we actually staff members of Courage that could just become the drum beat, the heartbeat, I think, of the larger work.

Eric: So it’s such a monumental task. You were up against so much. I don’t even understand how a conference call transforms into a successful campaign to free somebody from military prison for so many years. What was one of the first big steps?

Rainey: Well, probably the first big step was that initial decision that we were going to be a fundraising organization and then just discussing the series of things around that and getting to a vote within the organization, again, all volunteer group that was sort of working together on this, but, yeah, we were going to accept funds even though we didn’t have any idea what that meant and we had no idea that we were going to be on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, which we were able, over many years, to cover so that, you know, Chelsea’s family did not have to mortgage their home in order for her to get adequate legal defense, something I will be proud of ’til the day I die.

I would also say another, you know – you have to remember the Chelsea Manning Support Network started with just one week, right, so when we got started the only thing that had been published was the collateral murder video. And we thought we were a defense organization for whistleblower week 1 video and then more and more came out over the coming months and that was a real interesting series of conversations because the news was so polarizing.

And, you know, had government officials going on and talking about incredible consequences to America’s troops as a result of these leaks and national security repercussions and there were some deep conversations. And I think a few people even may have reconsidered their involvement with the organization. And I came to really become even more rooted in my conviction that this type of transparency was necessary for us to better understand America’s wars.

And I also, through this work and through the connections I made and the networks of other organizations that are working on whistleblowers, came to recognize that this is such a typical thing that as soon as a whistleblower comes out you see the government attack them by trying to paint this horror story of all of the terrible repercussions of their actions, while at the same time engaged in character assassination, painting a picture in the media of them being, oh, untrustworthy or having poor motivations.

And now that I’ve been through that process, wow, I see it with every whistleblower story that ever comes up.

Eric: Yeah. And there’s a real pile-on as well with the members of the media sort of freelancing the work of the military, in this case, to attack the whistleblower and to impune their motives and to also exaggerate, like in this case, the deaths that resulted in the leaks.

So you mounted an incredible campaign and it’s a legal defense and it’s also an organizing campaign, right, because you’re continuing to fundraise and it spans over six years.

Rainey: Yeah. It changed a lot over those six years. I mean, there were, in the early days – I remember when I was first working on the Chelsea Manning campaign it was sprint, right? You know, and I was going around to activist groups in San Diego at the time because I was based there and it’s sort of my job to get San Diego on board. And I was going around and I was saying, you know, you’ve got a lot of different priorities, you activist groups, but you should know that a military trial like this is normally only 90 days, but in this case, given the severity of the court martial and the complexity of the issues, this could take up to six months. I was saying that. I was literally saying that.

And I was being sincere because I had no idea that this was going to drag on so long. So over time keeping volunteers engaged and keeping the community aware of what was happening to Chelsea was something that took different forms, you know. We hosted regular conference calls for years where we kept people up-to-date and I think at this point we more moved to a mailing list.

You know, with a long campaign like this you can’t stay in sprint mode for six years. And, also, as Chelsea’s identity publically sort of shifted, especially when she began to have an opportunity to speak out herself to identify her gender, to start speaking publically, a whole new community of people started waking up to Chelsea and getting more engaged with her campaign.

Eric: All right, Reitman, your life for six years was this work on behalf of Chelsea Manning Support Network. What was one of the biggest turning points for you?

Rainey: Getting her out of solitary was huge. At the time Chelsea was being – oh, the conditions were atrocious. She was kept away from all other people. She was in this tiny cell. She had an hour where she was allowed to walk around in a walled-in area, which I think had an open sky and she was shackled. They were taking away her reading glasses. She was sleeping in an anti-suicide like burlap sack sort of thing. She wasn’t allowed to do any exercise in her cell. They had people just staring at her all the time.

I mean, I can’t imagine what that must have been like for her. And they prolonged it, so I think that’s that is a not unusual step to take with a prisoner for the first, like, 24 hours when they get moved into a new facility and they prolonged it for I don’t even know how long. I forgot the exact number of days, but it was extraordinary.

And we had, you know, human rights experts, even someone from the U.N. actually spoke out and said, you know, this is torture. And the first big victory of the network and of the campaign was raising awareness about her situation there and raising such a ruckus. I mean, we had protests in front of the military base and we had huge campaigns around it and actually got her released from solitary confinement. That was a turning point.

Eric: And, Rainey, was it around this time that the person that we had known as Bradley Manning started to ask people to call her Chelsea?

Rainey: You know, there were some rumors and some articles being published pretty early on. Like, in the first couple of days after her arrest was made public, as soon as the chat logs came out around whether or not she might identify as trans, and to be honest, like, her very candid chat logs with basically an almost stranger on the internet really spoke to me and her gender identity.

Well, okay, I didn’t have anyway to know how she identified at that time and I had spoken to friends of Chelsea who said at that time she was not asking her friends to use a female pronoun and I also want to respect the agency of someone to decide when they want to transition and how they want to transition and it’s nobody else’s decision to do that. And so even though there were a couple of groups online, even in the early days that were saying, you know, we should be using the female pronoun, my sense was I will use whatever pronoun she or her attorney tells me to use when they tell me to use it and if so I get told that, I mean, stick with the pronoun that she had asked her friends to use prior to her incarceration.

But I think for me, you know, I knew she was queer and, you know, I am queer and I remember, you know, the frustration and the loneliness, especially in high school and, you know, in college, but especially high school and I remember turning to the internet and to often strangers on the internet and trying to have conversations to flush out issues that were complicated and confusing and that I had no one at home that I could talk to.

And that was a huge reason that I became so emotionally connected to this campaign and why it went from something that, oh, I’m just sending this video to all of my friends to, oh, I’m dedicating six years of my life to putting a lot of time into getting this person out of prison was I did have a personal resonance in a way that I think was, at least, a tiny bit connected to my own, like, struggles around being queer in the world.

Eric: Tell me about how the Chelsea Manning Support Network managed the balance between keeping up the pressure to support Chelsea from outside of the courtroom, all the while staying out of the way of Manning’s legal defense.

Rainey: We had some communications with her lawyer and we avoided ever trying to ascribe intention to her –

Klein: Right.

Rainey: – try to talk about what she did or didn’t do. And so we really sort of talked about, you know, this is a community of people that are fighting for her release; that we always knew we were kind of in the dark around, like, what would Chelsea want. And so we did let her attorney know some of the things we were doing, but it was actually important to us not to look like we were collaborating or connected to her legal defense because we didn’t want anything we did, you know, as a protest or whatever, to run afoul of their legal strategy, so we –

Klein: Right.

Rainey: – sort of got – so we kept separate.

Klein: Well, I am really fascinated by the legal strategy and this victory because it took me completely by surprise. Did it take you by surprise that President Obama commuted Chelsea Manning’s sentence?

Rainey: I would say the moment I was most surprised in this campaign was when Chelsea was found not guilty for certain aiding the enemy charges and I was floored because I had assumed – I was just so worried about losing that and her facing, you know, literally the rest of her life in prison that that was the moment that I was just shocked. I had already written in op-ed about why that was terrible and I still have it and all she was facing 35 years, but it felt like a victory because we’d been so afraid it was going to be worse.

When Obama made his decision it was done in this weird way where we had already been hearing from the press secretary sort of inklings that this might happen. And so they’d been sort of hinting at it. And so we didn’t know exactly the moment, but he’d kind of been indicating that this was on the horizon, so I was incredibly happy and surprised, but not shocked because we’d been hearing these rumors for a little while.

Eric: Do you have an explanation as to why you won?

Rainey: You know, I don’t. I will say that this isn’t the way I would’ve wanted to win. I don’t think that we should hope and pray that a benevolent president will choose to commute the sentence of whistleblowers.

I think that our laws should be better protecting whistleblowers. I think that the court system should have allowed Chelsea to present the reasons that she released these documents and they should have allowed Chelsea to present evidence to show that there was no harm to American troops as a result of these leaks and how could she possibly have a fair trial without being able to talk about those things.

So I think there’s big problem with America’s court system, especially when it comes to whistleblowers, especially when it comes to, like, the espionage act and things like that and it’s the same problem that, frankly, Snowden and others are facing in trying to get a fair trial and so ultimately this wasn’t the way I was going to want to win, but better than nothing and it certainly made me feel a lot more warmer towards Obama.

Eric: Yeah, that’s really something to just dwell on and clearly we don’t have time to just dwell on it, but this legacy that President Barack Obama leaves us in these ongoing wars, so complicated, and the commutation of Chelsea Manning’s sentence is certainly something that stands out – that really, really stands out and of course is controversial and not here on the Courage to Resist podcast, in the United States of America in the current environment, in the current political environment, it’s controversial.

I wonder, Rainey Reitman, if you have any other thoughts about that – about that controversy around Chelsea Manning’s status as a whistleblower.

Rainey: You know, there’s a lot of people maybe are not huge fans of Chelsea Manning and have concerns about – especially what they write in the media as far as the repercussions of some of these leaks. And one of the things that I always think about is that whistleblowers are a response to a broken system. They’re sort of a last safety valve. You know, when the courts and the laws and the practices of our government are not quite meeting the public’s expectations and when there’s just been a huge disconnect between, you know, what’s right and what we’re doing, whistleblowers are sort of our last hope.

And I really think that I’ve become a huge advocate for better protections for whistleblowers and have really come to understand this issue about more – I strongly support the leaks that Chelsea named and I also – you know, I think Chelsea has suffered enormously, has suffered torture, has suffered isolation and has been put through just incredibly brutal punishment through the American military prison system, so I feel like a whistleblower should never have had to go through what Chelsea went through – in fact, a human shouldn’t have to go through what Chelsea went through.

Eric: Yeah. Tell me about what you saw in that video? What’s wrong with people dying on a battleground in Iraq?

Rainey: So the video shows – it’s a truly horrific video to watch and I’ve seen a lot of times. I actually just re-watched it again, recently after not seeing it, I realized for a couple of years. And it shows a Reuter’s journalist. I think it’s a photo journalist carrying a camera and walking down a street with some other people and you hear the conversations of – I think they’re in a helicopter – of American troops discussing how they want to fire on this group down below and they’ve mistaken them for, I guess, enemy combatants.

And then you watch as they get approval and they open fire and they just fire and fire and fire until one guy, I think the photographer, is alive and he’s crawling along the street and they start urging him on and they say, oh, reach for an weapon so I can open fire again. And they start – he’s literally just crawling on his hands trying to get to safety on this open street. And they just keep shooting. They get authorization and they shoot some more and then a little van shows up and just a passerby who – I mean, must have been so brave and I can’t even imagine what decision he made that he would stop and he would get out and would help this wounded individual and in the process of trying to get this man to safety military forces opened up and started firing on his van where he had two young children inside.

And then they, you know, because the video is cut, they actually identify where the children are and where the photographer are throughout. So you’re watching, almost unable to breathe, while you see these people just opening fire on individuals who are entirely innocent and they’ve got no escape.

Eric: Yeah. And no weapons. There are no weapons.

Rainey: There’s no weapons. They’ve done nothing wrong. So there’s this – it spills – it has the aspect of a video game. Like they’re just, like, playing a video game and they’re celebrating and they’re not actually on the ground and they’ve got no idea what it’s like for the people on the ground who are just getting attacked from above and have no recourse and no way to fight back.

And then, I mean, for one thing they don’t have guns and they’re children and they’re not enemy combatants. They’re just regular civilians. And then, you know, you see, I think Ethan McCord. I think they show this. They actually show an American soldier finding the children and running a child to safety.

I’m friends with Ethan now on Facebook and he’s talked a lot about that and I think it was an incredibly traumatizing experience for him and I think that there’s probably countless other stories like this. You know, Reuter’s sought information about its murdered journalist, I think, for years and the military sat on this video and didn’t turn it over. It took a whistleblower to make this video public, even though had been seeking access to it for I don’t even know how long.

Eric: Right. So your choice to do this work, to me, was incredibly brave because it is scary to take a stand and you really do cut yourself off from certain lucrative opportunities in life when you do anti-war work. Why did you do it?

Rainey: Why did I do it? I – you know, it’s funny because it felt like a big choice then and it was a huge choice. I think it does close doors. I did it because I felt a moral imperative that we needed, someone needed, to be standing up for the whistleblower who had released that video.

And I almost couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t put up my hand and say, yes, I will join with you. I will help you build this campaign, especially because I could do it, you know. I was a writer. I knew how to work on websites and do social media and do press releases and that was exactly what they wanted, so here we had this individual, who I found incredibly sympathetic because of the chat logs that had been released – a video that had forever changed my life every since I’ve seen it and a need, you know, for people with exactly my skills to get involved.

And I thought about it for 24 hours and I was, like, you know, what am I saving my life up for. When am I going to cash these chips? You know, am I really going to get some, you know, like, government job with the FTC or something, which would be – you know, or is this just literally my one shot at making a difference in the world. Is this life I’m living right now and holding off for some better opportunity is ridiculous.

And so I – yeah, I remember I had some friends who were, you know, in military families who were disgusted and cut me off. I had my parents skeptical for years. They’re not skeptical anymore. And I had, you know, some acquaintances through my career that were a little skeptical, but I had to make a decision that was right ethically and that’s why I stood up.

You know, there’s this decision we make every day about, like, where we put our energy and choosing not to get involved is a decision. And at the time I had the time and I knew how to do the work that needed to get done, so I felt like I had to.

Eric: Rainey Reitman’s time working on the Chelsea Manning Support Network is done now. It’s over. And at the time we recorded this interview Chelsea Manning is set to be released in a matter of days.

Rainey: There’s a fundraiser to give her a welcome home fund so that she can get set up and have a bit of a life when she gets out of prison. I’d love to meet her. I’ve spoken to her many times on the phone and I’m am so impressed by her empathy and her sensitivity and her intellect, quite honestly.

So I think that the Chelsea Manning Support Network doesn’t exist anymore and in fact the website has been taken down. It was sort of six years of my life that’s kind of gone. It’s not gone, but it’s over and so we’re ready for whatever the next generation of supports for Chelsea Manning looks like.

I think at this point it’s really important that Chelsea – you know, for so many years other people had to speak out about what Chelsea’s done or why it mattered or why people should care and now we get to pass the mike over to her and say, hey, it’s your turn. Tell us your story.

Eric: Well, I want to thank Rainey Reitman of the Chelsea Manning Support Network so much for spending the time with us here on the Courage to Resist podcast.

You can subscribe to this podcast on ITunes, on Stitcher – on other podcasting platforms. And you can really do us a real solid by rating and reviewing the work. It’s brand new. Its teeny tiny here and every rate and review by every listener will really go a real long way towards building it up.

If you want to support the work go to urgetoresist.org, of course, and stay tuned. Next week we have an interview, I’m really very proud of, an interview with David Coombs, Chelsea Manning’s defense lawyer, so check that out in the coming days.