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Lauren Carroll
By Lauren Carroll February 1, 2017

McCain says Taliban 'murdered' people because of Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., opposes former President Barack Obama’s decision to shorten Chelsea Manning’s prison sentence — in part, he says, because her decision to release a large cache of government documents to WikiLeaks resulted in unnecessary deaths.

In 2013, a judge sentenced Manning, a private in the U.S. Army, to 35 years in prison, an unprecedentedly long sentence for a leak of government information, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. In January 2017, Obama decided to commute her sentence. She will leave prison in May.

In a Jan. 18, 2017, interview, Fox News Host Bill O’Reilly asked McCain for his reaction to Obama’s decision.

McCain said he felt "sorrow for the families of those individuals who identified in these leaks in Afghanistan that the Taliban went after and murdered. And rage because this president is basically endorsing a proposal that allows someone to go free who is responsible for the needless deaths of those people who are allies."

O’Reilly pushed back on McCain’s assertion that individuals identified in the leaks were killed by the Taliban.

"I just wanted to know if it was specific leaks that came to you as a Senator which showed what WikiLeaks did with Manning's help killed people that were helping the U.S.A.," O’Reilly said.

McCain replied: "Let me be specific. The information I received when I was there was that the Taliban went after these people. I assume, killed them."

The interview left us still wondering if people were killed because their names appeared in the documents that Manning leaked, so we decided to put McCain’s claim on the Truth-O-Meter.

McCain spokeswoman Julie Tarallo said the Taliban has a history of retaliating against people who cooperate with United States forces. She pointed to a 2010 interview by British television station Channel 4 with a Taliban spokesman, who said the group would "punish" Afghan nationals working for the United States named in the WikiLeaks logs.

"If they are U.S. spies, then we know how to punish them," said the spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid.

But we could find no evidence the Taliban acted on these threats. We scoured court documents, congressional hearing transcripts and media reports, and we found that the government has not named a single individual who was killed because he or she was named in the leaked files. 

Not in public record

In 2010, Manning — then known as Bradley Manning — was an Army analyst in Iraq. She downloaded about 700,000 government files and gave many of them to WikiLeaks, who made the files public. The records included diplomatic cables, reports about the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and notably a video of a 2007 American helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed civilians.

The government was concerned that the Taliban or other adversaries might retaliate against foreign nationals named in the documents because the individuals cooperated with the United States. However, officials have never pointed to an example of someone actually getting killed because of the leaks.

The closest call came in August 2013, during the sentencing phase of Manning’s trial, when the government tried to make the case that Manning’s leaks caused harm. Robert Carr, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general who led an investigation into the leak, testified that he knew of "one individual that was killed" by the Taliban as a result of the leaks.

However, Carr conceded that the person killed hadn’t actually been named in the documents Manning gave to WikiLeaks. As a result, the judge decided to strike that testimony from the record. Here’s the relevant exchange (from an unofficial transcript provided by the Freedom of the Press Foundation):

Carr: "As a result of the Afghan logs, I only know of one individual that was killed. The individual was an Afghan national. The Afghan national had a relationship with the United States government and the Taliban came out publicly and said that they killed him as a result of him being associated with the information in these logs."

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Defense attorney Major Thomas Hurley: "Ma'am, we may object again as to relevance. General Carr is going to going to talk about how this person wasn't listed in the WikiLeaks  disclosures. This individual's name wasn't listed among those names, among the hundreds of names he talked about."

Judge Denise Lind: "Is this, what you're testifying  to, tied to the information in the disclosures in any way?"

Carr: "The Taliban killed him and tied him to the disclosures. We went back and searched for this individual's name in all of the disclosures. The name was not there. It was a terrorist act on behalf of the Taliban threatening all of the others out there. But the name of the individual that was killed was not in the disclosures."

So the Taliban said they killed an individual because of the WikiLeaks logs, but the logs didn’t actually mention this individual. Carr said that he only knew of that example.

In his closing argument at Manning’s sentencing trial, lead attorney for the government Ashden Fein only said the leaks put hundreds of people "at risk of injury, incarceration or death as a result of the release of their names." He didn’t argue that anyone actually died.

We should note that part of Manning’s trial took place in a closed hearing in order to discuss classified information. So it’s possible that deaths caused directly by Manning’s leaks could have happened, and we can’t know unless that information was declassified.

David Coombs, Manning’s lawyer, attended the classified hearings. He told us that the government didn’t present any evidence that showed individuals were killed as a direct result of the leaks.

"That information was never brought out because it doesn’t exist," Coombs said, calling McCain’s claim "completely false."

Fein, the lead attorney for the government on the case, declined to talk to us on the record.

If not deaths, what damage did Manning’s leaks do to national security? The government has repeatedly said the main impact is a "chilling effect" — meaning foreign officials and citizens are less likely to speak and cooperate with American soldiers and diplomats.

But Obama administration officials have indicated the leaks didn’t actually cause a lot of harm.

"I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought," said former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2010, adding later, "Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.’’

In a December 2010 interview on NBC, former Vice President Joe Biden said about WikiLeaks, "I don't think there's any substantive damage, no. Look, some of the cables that are coming out here and around the world are embarrassing."

Our ruling

McCain said, "The Taliban went after and murdered" people identified in the Chelsea Manning leaks.

In the several years since WikiLeaks released hundreds of thousands of government documents leaked by Manning, the government has not publicly identified a single example of the Taliban killing someone because that person was named in the leaks. If someone had died as a result, it seems logical that the incident would have become public knowledge, either through Manning's trial or in media reports.

At Manning’s sentencing trial, one Army witness said he knew the Taliban killed one person and blamed it on the WikiLeaks revelations. However, that person’s name doesn’t appear in the files, and the military has provided no additional information.

We rate McCain’s claim Mostly False.

Update: This article has been updated to include more information from McCain's staff.

Our Sources

Fox News, O’Reilly Factor transcript, Jan. 18, 2017

Freedom of the Press Foundation, United States v. Manning unofficial transcripts, Summer 2013, courtroom notes, accessed Jan. 27, 2017

CQ, Senate Armed Services Committee Holds Hearing on Worldwide National Security Threats, March 10, 2011

CQ, House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Holds Hearing on National Security Leaks, July 11, 2012

New York Times, "Gates on Leaks, Wiki and Otherwise," Nov. 30, 2010

New York Times, "In Sentencing, U.S. Tries to Prove Harm by Manning," July 31, 2013

New York Times, "Witness in Manning Case Says Leaks Could Help Al Qaeda," Aug. 28, 2013

New York Times, "Manning Sentenced to 35 Years for a Pivotal Leak of U.S. Files," Aug. 31, 2013

PBS, "Just How Damaging Were Manning’s WikiLeaks?" Aug. 6, 2013

Reuters, "U.S. Official: Wikileaks Revelations ‘Embarrassing But Not Damaging,’" Jan. 19, 2011

Atlantic, "The U.S. Can't Connect a Single Death to Bradley Manning's Leaks," July 31, 2013

NBC, "Biden on START, WikiLeaks," Dec. 2010

Phone interview, Manning lawyer David Coombs, Jan. 30, 2017

Email interview, RAND spokesman Khorshied Samad, Jan. 30, 2017

Email interview, McCain spokeswoman Julie Tarallo, Jan. 27, 2017

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McCain says Taliban 'murdered' people because of Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks

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