The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Harvard dean rescinds Chelsea Manning’s visiting fellow invitation, calling it a ‘mistake’

Harvard University withdrew a fellowship invitation to Chelsea Manning after CIA Director Mike Pompeo distanced himself from the school. (Video: Reuters)

Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government rescinded a visiting fellowship offered to Chelsea Manning, the former military intelligence analyst who spent seven years in prison for leaking classified government secrets, after the university faced forceful backlash from CIA Director Mike Pompeo among others.

“I now think that designating Chelsea Manning as a Visiting Fellow was a mistake, for which I accept responsibility,” Douglas W. Elmendorf, the school’s dean, wrote in a 700-word statement released shortly after midnight Friday.

Manning was one of four visiting fellows announced two days earlier by the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. As part of the program, visiting fellows appear on Harvard’s campus for speaking engagements and events, interacting with undergraduate students on “topical issues of today,” the school’s initial announcement explained.

Elmendorf decided to withdraw the invitation after realizing that “many people view a Visiting Fellow title as an honorific,” though the school had not intended to “honor [Manning] in any way or to endorse any of her words or deeds.”

She is still welcome to spend a day at the Kennedy School and speak at the school’s John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, the dean said.

“I apologize to her and to the many concerned people from whom I have heard today for not recognizing upfront the full implications of our original invitation,” Elmendorf added.

Manning’s website generates an automatic response to media requests and indicates she’s not giving interviews.

On Twitter, however, she accused the school of suppressing “marginalized voices” and caving to pressure from the CIA.

The dean’s decision came only hours after Pompeo withdrew from a planned appearance at the Kennedy School and chastised the institution for calling attention to Manning. In a biting letter to the event’s organizers, Pompeo, who earned a law degree from Harvard, branded Manning an “American traitor” whose actions and ethos contradicted the intelligence agency’s most basic and sacred values.

“Harvard’s actions,” Pompeo added, “implicitly tell its students that you too can be a fellow at Harvard and a felon under United States law. … I believe it is shameful for Harvard to place its stamp of approval upon her treasonous actions.”

Pompeo’s blustery withdrawal from Thursday’s event joined a chorus of denunciation from national security experts, military veterans and others.

Earlier Thursday, in a stern letter of his own, Michael Morell, a former CIA leader who spent more than three decades at the agency, resigned from Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He had been a fellow there since September 2013. The school’s invitation to Manning, Morell said, all but endorsed her decision to break the law.

“I have an obligation to my conscience — and I believe to the country — to stand up against any efforts to justify leaks of sensitive national security information,” wrote Morell, 59, who twice served as the CIA’s acting director and retired in 2013 as the agency’s second-in-command.

Pompeo praised Morell’s decision to resign, writing in his letter that Harvard “traded a respected individual who served his country with dignity for one who served it with disgrace.”

Ex-CIA official quits Harvard after the school offered a visiting fellowship to Chelsea Manning. (Video: Reuters)

Manning, 29, is transgender. As an Army private first class named Bradley Manning, she was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 35 years in prison for providing thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks, which Pompeo and Morell characterized as “an adversarial foreign intelligence service.”

Supporters of the site’s founder, Julian Assange, consider him a champion for transparency whose public disclosures of sensitive information are in protest of government overreach.

On Thursday, Assange assailed Pompeo’s withdrawal from his Harvard appearance.

President Barack Obama commuted Manning’s prison sentence before leaving office, and she was freed in May from the military’s supermax prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Since then, Manning has been a prominent voice for LGBT rights and routinely writes about “the social, technological and economic ramifications of Artificial Intelligence,” as Harvard’s fellowship announcement noted.

Manning has said “a responsibility to the public” compelled her to leak government secrets. But her harshest critics describe those actions as traitorous, having put deployed U.S. troops at risk. President Trump and lawmakers from both political parties have questioned Obama’s decision to commute her prison sentence, which he called disproportionate when measured against the punishment meted out to other whistleblowers.

Like the Obama administration, Trump’s White House has struggled to curtail information leaks. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster issued a memo this month to leaders throughout the federal government, imploring them to conduct an hour-long training session next week. Pompeo, in particular, has prioritized this matter, calling it a leading reason for his decision to have the agency’s Counterintelligence Mission Center report directly to him.

At CIA, a watchful eye on Mike Pompeo, the president’s ardent ally

The Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy announced a broad range of visiting fellows for the 2017-2018 academic year, including Sean Spicer, President Trump’s short-lived White House press secretary, and Corey Lewandowski, who was fired as Trump’s campaign manager several months before the election.

Manning noted their participation shortly after Elmendorf, the dean, said he was withdrawing her invitation to serve as a visiting fellow.

In selecting Manning for a fellowship, Elmendorf said, Kennedy School officials felt they were keeping with the program’s guiding objective, which is to expose students to individuals whose words or actions influence world events — “even if they do not share our values and even if their actions or words are abhorrent to some members of our community,” he noted.

“We do this not to endorse those actions or legitimize those words, but because engaging with people with fundamentally different worldviews can help us to become better public leaders,” he wrote. “Because controversy pervades many questions in politics and public policy, some speakers are controversial. While we do not shy away from that controversy, we insist that all speakers take questions, and these questions are often hard and challenging ones.

“Hearing a very wide range of views, regardless of what members of our community think about the people offering those views, is fundamental to the learning process at the Kennedy School.”

He added that “I think we should weigh, for each potential visitor, what members of the Kennedy School community could learn from that person’s visit against the extent to which that person’s conduct fulfills the values of public service to which we aspire. This balance is not always easy to determine, and reasonable people can disagree about where to strike the balance for specific people. Any determination should start with the presumption that more speech is better than less.

“In retrospect, though, I think my assessment of that balance for Chelsea Manning was wrong.”

Harvard fellow and former congressman Jason Chaffetz said the dean’s decision to revoke Manning’s invitation was “the right call.”

Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who was in the same class of fellows with Manning, expressed the same sentiment. Speaking on Fox News’ “Fox and Friends” Friday, he said that while there is a need for an open and honest discussion of ideas, “it is quite another to take someone who has been a traitor to his country… and invite them to be part of the process.” 

The school’s initial announcement suggested Manning’s advocacy on LGBT issues would be a focal point during her campus visit, and that discussions with students might center on the social challenges associated with being transgender in the military.

At Trump’s direction, the Pentagon is studying how to implement his ban on transgender men and women in the armed forces. In their letters, Pompeo and Morell specifically sought to distance themselves from any suggestion their decisions were motivated by Manning’s choice to become a woman or publicly discuss her crimes.

“But it is my right,” Morell added, “indeed my duty, to argue that the School’s decision is wholly inappropriate and to protest it by resigning from the Kennedy School — in order to make the point that leaking classified information is disgraceful and damaging to our nation.”

This post has been updated.

Read more:

Jim Mattis didn’t undermine President Trump’s transgender military ban. Trump already had.

Chelsea Manning doesn’t look glamorous in Vogue. And that’s great.

Chelsea Manning on leaking information: ‘I have a responsibility to the public’