CIA constricts debate at Harvard

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CIA constricts debate at Harvard

Chelsea Manning, who leaked more than 700,000 classified military documents to WikiLeaks, was named as the Kennedy School's

Chelsea Manning, who leaked more than 700,000 classified military documents to WikiLeaks, was named as the Kennedy School's "first transgender fellow." (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Chelsea Manning, who leaked more than 700,000 classified military documents to WikiLeaks, was named as the Kennedy School's "first transgender fellow." (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Chelsea Manning, who leaked more than 700,000 classified military documents to WikiLeaks, was named as the Kennedy School's "first transgender fellow." (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

By Maggie Durwald | For The Pitt News

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When Edward Snowden appeared via internet connection for a speech in the William Pitt Union this February, students reacted to the presence of the controversial figure, best known for leaking documents from the CIA, with both curiosity and distrust. But while Pitt allowed the event to go forward, students at Harvard weren’t as lucky last month.

Harvard’s 2017-2018 list of Visiting Fellows, who spend a year doing research and occasionally speaking at the university, includes controversial figures such as former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. The list also formerly boasted Chelsea Manning — a transgender woman best known for passing off more than 700,000 classified military documents to WikiLeaks — as the Kennedy School’s “first transgender Fellow.”

CIA operatives immediately voiced their distaste at Manning’s inclusion on the list. Former Director Michael Morell resigned from his position as a senior fellow at Harvard in protest, and current Director Mike Pompeo cancelled a speech at the school he was scheduled to make that same week.

Ms. Manning betrayed her country and was found guilty of 17 serious crimes for leaking classified information to Wikileaks,” Pompeo said in a letter to Harvard’s administration. “My conscience and duty to the men and women of the [CIA] will not permit me to betray their trust by appearing to support Harvard’s decision with my appearance at tonight’s event.”

In response to the CIA’s displeasure, Harvard quickly revoked its Fellowship offer to Manning.

Morell and Pompeo have every right to their own disgust. But it was wrong for them to voice disgust as public figures linked irrevocably to an arm of the federal government. Even though they’re no longer government employees, their opinions are not simply those of private citizens — the actions of these former high ranking officials affect the stance of the national government, which has no business aligning itself with or against a private institution’s speaker. Since when is it Harvard’s job to place PR over intellectual diversity — or to please the federal government, for that matter?

The CIA should have no say in whether or not the speakers are morally representative of the country, and it most definitely should not be so easily able to influence university decisions.

What’s more, former CIA Director David Petraeus pleaded guilty in 2015 to leaking classified government information to his biographer and lying about it. Yet, he remains to this day a senior Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and the CIA has not protested his presence as a Fellow in any way.

By specifically choosing to condemn Manning and Harvard, the CIA thwarted Harvard’s role as a social educator. There’s nothing wrong with allowing Manning to speak of her experiences with the government — she tells a story that differs from that of Pompeo, and there’s nothing wrong with hearing both sides to the story.

And Harvard’s response to CIA pressure was just as hypocritical. The school’s almost immediate, skittish backtracking is as concerning as the CIA’s reaction. Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf released a statement Sept. 15 in which he ignored students’ desire to hear Manning’s point of view and essentially caved to pressure from members of the national security community and the CIA.

“I now think that designating Chelsea Manning as a Visiting Fellow was a mistake, for which I accept responsibility,” Elmendorf said. “But I see more clearly now that many people view that title as an honorific, so we should weigh that consideration when offering invitations.”

Regardless of how people outside the academic sphere saw Manning’s title of Visiting Fellow, Harvard has a duty to its students to provide speakers who can present an alternative to the story the government wants us to hear. Several student groups at the university wrote and cosigned a letter to the editor in the Harvard Crimson to that effect, expressing “deep dissatisfaction” with the school’s actions.

Conservative thinkers on campus should also find Manning’s removal from Harvard’s academic community concerning. The removal of Chelsea Manning from her official position as Visiting Fellow is little different from the creation of “safe spaces,” where students are free from ideals that might clash with their own — something most conservatives in government oppose.

What kind of conversations would Manning’s Fellowship visit have produced? We’ll never know. Harvard students were robbed of the chance Pitt students got this February to learn from a controversial leaker like Manning. Thanks to aggressive moves by former CIA employees with the power of the agency behind them, an opportunity for dialogue was turned into a show of pettishness both by the government and the institution that allowed itself to be swayed by government opinion.

Following her removal, Manning emphasized this perversion of intellectual freedom.

“This is what the military/police/intel state looks like,” she tweeted. “The CIA determines what is and is not taught at Harvard.”

Manning’s tweet rings with an eerie truth — and there lies the CIA’s greatest misstep. In punishing Harvard so publicly for its choice in Fellows, it has appointed itself the moral and educational overseer of the United States. And that’s a role the agency is not entitled to take.

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