Truthdigger of the Week: Nancy Hollander, Chelsea Manning's Attorney
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.
The greatest victory of this past week does not belong to Donald Trump or the Republican Party, but to whistleblower Chelsea Manning and people like Nancy Hollander, the lead counsel on Manning’s appeal, who never stopped fighting for justice.
People like Hollander will go down as true patriots in our history books. The criminal defense lawyer has worked on high-profile, controversial cases throughout her career, defending nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, “Guantánamo Diary” author Mohamedou Ould Slahi and, most recently, Manning.
She was instrumental in the release of Lee, who was wrongfully accused of attempting to sell nuclear information. Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer wrote about Hollander in a piece for The Nation in 2000:
“There was a peephole in the door, and there was someone who sat outside, and who was watching him and taking notes,” recalls his Albuquerque attorney, Nancy Hollander, who visited him often in jail. “And you have to understand: Not only are they watching him eat and sleep, they’re watching him use the toilet.” His cell would change, but never the twenty-four-hour-a-day light or the shackles—hands and feet linked to a chain around his waist—that he wore during his one hour of permitted exercise, on the occasions he got to talk with his lawyers and during brief visits with his wife.
Hollander has spent decades representing the most hardened of criminals, but still, she says, she was shocked: “I’ve had murder clients, drug clients, clients accused of taking millions of dollars from the federal government, you name it, but I’ve never had a client treated like Wen Ho Lee.”
Hollander and her co-counsels worked largely for free and at a discount for Lee, because as Charles Daniels, who also worked on the case, said, ”This is what we went to law school for. There’s an opportunity to correct an injustice. When the issue came up, we never even debated it.”
It is that same dedication to the law that led Hollander to defend two Guantanamo Bay detainees, cases that led to the questioning of her loyalty to her native country. And yet, rather than buckle under public pressure, Hollander explained in a gracefully penned piece for The New York Times that she is proud to be a “terrorist lawyer.”
When I defended someone charged with raping a baby, no one thought I might have raped my own. When I defended someone charged with murder, no one searched my closets for skeletons. When I defended someone charged with a drug crime, no one accused me of using narcotics. … No longer. Now that I am defending those accused of terrorism, some people assume that I have stepped over an imaginary line and become “soft on terrorism” or worse, that I support terrorism and am providing aid and comfort to the enemy. …
Contrary to recent attacks by those who claim to be supporters of American justice, my defense of people accused of serious and sometimes horrific crimes is not an endorsement of those crimes. Rather, it is a testament to the strength of my belief in, and to, the American system of justice.
Why? Because in my defense of every client, I am defending the United States Constitution and the laws and treaties to which it is bound, and I am defending the rule of law. If I am a terrorist lawyer, I also am a rule-of-law lawyer, a constitutional lawyer and a treaty lawyer.
Hollander aided in the October 2016 release of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian who was detained and tortured in Guantanamo Bay for 14 years without being charged. His best-selling memoir offers an unprecedented look into the suffering of the men held in the detention center and became the first detailed account of the torture that occurred there. His story was later confirmed by the U.S. Senate’s report on CIA torture.
Regarding Slahi’s release, Hollander said, “We are thrilled that our client’s nightmare is finally ending. After all these years, he wants nothing more than to be with his family and rebuild his life. We’re so grateful to everyone who helped make this day a reality.”
Hollander’s latest triumph came in the form of a last-minute commutation by President Barack Obama on Tuesday. Chelsea Manning, the whistleblower who leaked to WikiLeaks the footage known as “Collateral Murder” that showed the U.S. military attacking civilians in Iraq, served seven years of her 35-year sentence, during which the transgender woman was held in the all-male prison at Leavenworth, while fighting constantly for transfer and medical care. During these years, she attempted suicide on two occasions, which led to more punishment, in the form of solitary confinement. Hollander and her co-counselor, Vince Ward, released a statement Tuesday stating,
“Ms. Manning is the longest-serving whistleblower in the history of the United States. Her 35-year sentence for disclosing information that served the public interest and never caused harm to the United States was always excessive, and we’re delighted that justice is being served in the form of this commutation.”
Hollander, of Albuquerque, N.M., sets the standard for all American attorneys who went to law school to defend our nation’s Constitution, but, most importantly, our nation’s people. It is thanks to Hollander’s work that even cases that seemed unwinnable and went against public opinion were ultimately seen in a different, more equitable light. Her efforts remind us that the United States must stand for all of its inhabitants, even those detained on U.S. soil, if it is to live up to the great nation many of us still hope it can be. Thus, Nancy Hollander, the attorney who boldly defends the underdog—the scientist whom the press has spun into a spy, the man treated like a terrorist without a single charge, the whistleblower fighting to make us better through acknowledgement of our crimes—with unwavering commitment to justice above all else, is our Truthdigger of the Week.