As backpedals go, Harvard’s withdrawal of an offer to Chelsea Manning to become a Visiting Fellow ranks up there with non-apology apologies from politicians. Dean Douglas Elmendorf issued a statement early this morning explaining that they didn’t realize that people saw the title as an honor, which must have Harvard’s other Visiting Fellows scratching their heads. Elmendorf rescinded the title but kept the invitation to the program in place:
JUST IN: Harvard Kennedy School dean says “designating Chelsea Manning as a Visiting Fellow was a mistake” and withdraws Fellow title pic.twitter.com/zaEPCafhPg
— NBC News (@NBCNews) September 15, 2017
Facing harsh criticism, a Harvard dean said early Friday morning that he was revoking his invitation to Chelsea Manning, a former United States soldier convicted of leaking classified information, to be a visiting fellow at the university.
The sudden turnabout by the Harvard Kennedy School came after a day of intense backlash over the university’s announcement on Wednesday that Ms. Manning would become a visiting fellow at the Institute of Politics this school year. Douglas W. Elmendorf, the dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, said that while the university encourages a diversity of opinions and does not shy from controversy, naming Ms. Manning a fellow was a mistake for which he accepted responsibility.
“I see more clearly now that many people view a visiting fellow title as an honorific, so we should weigh that consideration when offering invitations,” Mr. Elmendorf wrote in a letter posted on the Harvard Kennedy School website early Friday morning. “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.”
This misses the point so badly that it seems difficult to believe that Elmendorf didn’t miss it deliberately. The issue, over which former CIA director Mike Morell resigned his own position at Harvard, didn’t hinge on the title but on the invitation itself. Elmendorf declares that Harvard extended the invitation and fellowship to Manning on the basis of diversity and influence, but what specifically makes Manning a unique candidate for that? Being transgender? There are plenty of transgender Americans of equal or greater influence in the US.
Former deputy CIA director Mike Morell made the point plainly yesterday in his resignation from the Kennedy School, and it’s not that Morell has an issue with gender identity. He wrote that “I fully support Ms. Manning’s rights as a transgender American, including the right to serve our country in the US military.” Morell also defends — rightly — Manning’s right to speak on campus as a guest, if invited to do so. Where Morell draws the line, however, is granting honorifics to someone who put their fellow service colleagues’ lives at risk and deliberately damage US national security by violating the Espionage Act:
“The Kennedy School’s decision will assist Ms. Manning in her long-standing effort to legitimize the criminal path that she took to prominence, an attempt that may encourage others to leak classified information as well,” Morell wrote. “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.”
And let’s be clear — this is the only unique standing Manning brings to Harvard. Elmendorf and the Kennedy School wanted to benefit from Manning’s infamy by rewarding it with a formal position.
Current CIA director Mike Pompeo put it even more bluntly after cancelling an appearance at Harvard last night in protest:
On Thursday night, CIA director Mike Pompeo, who has a law degree from Harvard, announced he would not speak at that night’s forum, stating that “after much deliberation in the wake of Harvard’s announcement of American traitor Chelsea Manning as a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Politics, my conscience and duty to the men and women of the Central Intelligence Agency will not permit me to betray their trust by appearing to support Harvard’s decision with my appearance at tonight’s event.”
His statement went on to say that his decision “has nothing to do with Ms. Manning’s identity as a transgender person. It has everything to do with her identity as a traitor to the United States of America and my loyalty to the officers of the CIA.”
In the end, Elmendorf didn’t satisfy anyone with his half-hearted and half-baked reversal:
Chase Strangio, a lawyer for Ms. Manning, wrote in a statement that the decision to withdraw the invitation “in the middle of the night without coherent explanation is disgraceful even for Harvard” and also accused the school of being beholden to the C.I.A.
Manning seems unlikely to take up the invitation now, too:
— Chelsea E. Manning (@xychelsea) September 15, 2017
That comparison makes perfect sense … if Sean Spicer and Corey Lewandowski ever got convicted under the Espionage Act. Whatever else Manning is or identifies as, that’s the one truly unique quality that should remind people not to make Manning into an icon for anything but betrayal. If Harvard keeps extending honorifics to those who betray their country, then Elmendorf may indeed render those meaningless in all contexts, as he seems to have considered them until now.