By Ken Stone
Careful not to step on a political land mine, renowned leaker Chelsea Manning kept some of her own thoughts secret in a visit Monday to San Diego State University.
When a young man queried about using the Democratic Party to carry on resistance against institutions, the transgender activist born Bradley Manning said: “I really can’t talk about that.”
And offered a chance to explain her use of WikiLeaks as a “platform of last resort” — since she said The New York Times and The Washington Post didn’t take her seriously — Manning conceded she was saving some of those details “for the book.”
“WikiLeaks had the resources available” for her release of nearly 750,000 classified or sensitive military and diplomatic documents, Manning told a rapt audience of 300 (with almost 100 listening to speakers outside the Parma Payne Goodall Alumni Center’s) Fowler Family Ballroom.
Manning avoided talking politics (mentioning Donald Trump only once in passing) because the 30-year-old challenger of Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin wanted to avoid campaign-finance issues, Varadarajan told Times of San Diego after the College of Arts and Letters event.
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“This is not an endorsement of her candidacy,” Varadarajan said of the whirlwind visit — Manning’s first to San Diego. “They didn’t want at all to raise this question.”
But plenty of other issues were aired in the 70-minute session — first with moderator and philosophy professor Mark Wheeler and then a dozen audience questioners, mostly male.
Admitting that she uses “paranoid levels of security,” Manning urged the audience to turn off social media and smart-phone apps that allow the government and corporations to invade their privacy.
“If you’re not using a locational service, why do you turn it on?” Manning said (although confessing to using such functions when she’s lost).
She didn’t directly address the latest news about Facebook being hacked for 87 million users’ private information, but said: “We don’t need to create a monster we have no ability to control.”
Audio of Chelsea Manning visit to San Diego State:
- Introduction by Latha Varadarajan
- Mark Wheeler questions Manning (part 1)
- Mark Wheeler questions Manning (part 2)
- Mark Wheeler questions Manning (part 3)
- Questions-and-answers with Manning (part 1)
- Questions-and-answers with Manning (part 2)
Manning — whose 35-year prison sentence was commuted by President Obama after seven years served in a Kansas lockup — repeatedly raised the specter of computer algorithms and databases being used in dangerous ways.
Asked by Wheeler about a worst-case scenario, Manning talked about machine learning — the ability of computers to get smarter as they access more data.
“When I look under the hood, I’m still scratching my head,” said Manning, who used complex math in her intelligence job. “We are all under surveillance.”
She later talked about “spooky, scary, deep-learning stuff going on” with “exponentially increasing” data collection, citing Google’s open-source TensorFlow software library for numerical computation.
“I’m struggling with what’s going to happen in 2027,” she said.
Manning condemned those who use an ever-expanding definition of “national security” to justify classifying more and more data as secret. She mocked news that even Department of Education officials have been granted security clearances.
Such efforts to put information out of public hands is meant to “stifle conversation about any particular thing,” she said.
But the public — falsely thinking that institutions and “systems” will reform themselves — should be in active resistance against them, whether they be companies or government agencies, Manning said.
She decried the “complacency — the complicity — of inaction. Somebody’s not going to fix this for us.”
People have to go “outside they system,” she said, not reporting misconduct through mandated channels.
“Safe channels” — which she called rhetoric — are “nonsense,” she said.
Manning said she’s talked in Silicon Valley about taking time to think through the negative consequences of technology, “deep learning” and other technical issues.
“We need to slow down,” she said. “We don’t even realize we’ve lost control.”
She cited the labor movement as a model. But instead of going on strike for higher pay, tech workers should consider stopping work to protest the sinister potential of their software.
“We have control over these institutions,” she said. “We just think we don’t have.”
But marching in the streets with signs for an hour isn’t enough, she told the mostly student audience, with dozens sitting on the floor at the sides.
“We can’t just ask for it. We have to demand” change, she said to applause.
Manning said technology has empowered average citizens to take on the police, by taking pictures of misconduct, for example. But technology in the hands of the government and corporations makes for “asymmetrical warfare in the digital landscape.”
Moderator Wheeler asked Manning about a 2017 incident where Harvard University backed out of an offer to let her speak on campus as part of an honorary fellowship.
“From our perspective, it was a blip on the radar,” she said. (She ended up doing an event at nearby MIT, she said to laughter.)
One young woman during the 20-minute question time challenged Manning to defend her use of WikiLeaks, known to have been a Russian front for meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Manning noted U.S. interference in political processes around the world, but responded with a question: How can Americans be so susceptible to false content?
“If you’re worried about 2016,” she said, “then where the hell are you going to (be) in the next 20 years?”
Manning called for a wider debate on tech methods of influencing public opinion to include companies as well as nations.
“I’ve been warning about this for eight years now,” said Manning, wearing lipstick, eyeliner and what looked like black military boots.
Having waited in line to use a floor mike, Brooke Petersen, a San Diego State graduate student in English, introduced themselves as transgender.
Manning, who said she received nearly 300,000 letters in prison during her transition, said she depended on friends and family during her transition, but acknowledged “I’m in therapy. It helps.”
Varadarajan, the professor who also is director of SDSU’s International Security and Conflict Resolution program, revealed how Manning came to Montezuma Mesa.
“Some of our students were really interested in pursuing the question of whistleblowing and national security and democracy,” Varadarajan said after the multi-department event.
She said she and colleagues wondered whether they could recruit “any of the whistleblowers who are alive” for a talk with students.
By a “sheer stretch of coincidences,” she said, she was able able to contact the ACLU lawyer who represented Chelsea in her 2013 court-martial.
That led to Manning’s publicist. And with the support of several university officials, especially Norma Bouchard, dean off the College of Arts and Letters, the January dream became an April reality.
“The contract was signed last week,” Varadarajan said. As a result, the event venue wasn’t as large as she’d hoped.
“I wish we had had a larger room. I know there were many interested students who were initially turned away because of safety reasons. The room got full very fast.”
By the time Manning’s visit was settled, “this was the only space available to us. We tried to find other, bigger rooms on campus, but they were all booked up.”
The professor wasn’t startled by what Manning had to say, being familiar with the whistleblower’s recent travels and accounts on YouTube.
“It wasn’t surprising, but it was interesting to see that our students were genuinely interested. It would have been great if she had stayed here longer — and had more time as well.”
Varadarajan called it “the danger of getting someone who is busy basically flying across the continent day in and day out.”
Manning seemed to be in a rush, in fact.
“End this thing,” she said before taking flight through a back door. “I gotta get out of here.”
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