On Wednesday, some time after dawn, the security gates at the US disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, will be thrown open and a slight 5ft 2in woman will walk out into the open air and freedom.
For, release from military incarceration will mark a colossal turning point. Having been arrested seven years ago when she was an unknown, lowly and outwardly male soldier, she will emerge into an entirely new life as a civilian, a celebrity, and an openly transgender woman.
The day will be momentous in ways that go far beyond its huge personal ramifications for its subject. Manning’s discharge, a partingof President Obama as one of his final acts in office, will bring to an end one of the more shameful chapters in US military history.
It began with the humiliating breach that saw vast quantities of state secrets downloaded by a relatively junior army private from supposedly secure intelligence databases on to a Lady Gaga CD. It passed through theof the perpetrator in the military brig in Quantico, Virginia, by the UN as a form of torture. And it was capped by the imposition of the longest prison sentence ever recorded in the US for an official leak: 35 years in military prison.
Now Manning, her punishment foreshortened, has the chance to put all that behind her. “I’m looking forward to breathing the warm spring air again,” she told the Guardian from her prison cell as she prepared for release.
“I want that indescribable feeling of connection with people and nature again, without razor wire or a visitation booth. I want to be able to hug my family and friends again. And swimming – I want to go swimming!”
Manning’s release will be greeted with rejoicing by public figures who haveout in her over the years, from Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers to Michael Stipe of REM and the designer Vivienne Westwood, among many others. But no one carries as much weight as an empathizer of Manning’s spell in the whistleblowing wilderness than Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who followed her into the abyss and who has paid a similarly heavy price in the form not of imprisonment but of exile.
Snowden, speaking from asylum in Russia, told the Guardian that in his opinion the timing of the soldier’s release was apt, given the ominous noises coming out of the White House in the week of the firing of the FBI director James Comey. “With a president who offers democracy nothing but contempt and a Congress that represents party over public, whistleblowers have never been more important,” he said.
Snowden lamented what he called the “draconian sentences” handed down to Manning and others like her, that “weaken democracy’s safeguard of last resort, the free press, by cutting off its most reliable source of critical truths”. He praised her as a “citizen who, knowing the costs, left behind the safety of silence to speak a truth that saved lives”.
Despite the hardship Manning has endured over the past seven years, Snowden said he draws solace from the worldwide campaign for her freedom that will culminate with her release this week. In a comment that might be said to contain more than a grain of wistfulness, given his own state of limbo, he said: “I’m grateful that Chelsea will finally have a chance to enjoy the freedoms she gave so much to defend. Courage to her – and volume to her voice.”
Manning hasthat she intends to live in Maryland after her release, a move that will bring her story full circle. It was in early 2010, at a branch of the Barnes & Noble in suburban Maryland, barely 20 miles away from the Pentagon, that she used the bookstore’s open public wifi network to upload to WikiLeaks what she later at her trial as some of the “more significant documents of our time”.
Manning was on leave from duty in Iraq at the time and staying with her aunt in Potomac. She had brought with her from the US forward operating base Hammer outside Baghdad a camera memory stick carrying hundreds of thousands of secret documents that she had downloaded from intelligence databases initially onto that infamous Lady Gaga CD.
As Manning had been poring through those classified databases in her work as an army intelligence analyst, she had grown increasingly disturbed by what she was reading, material that she believed pierced through the fog of war and“the true nature of -21st-century asymmetric warfare”. Other documents she transmitted to WikiLeaks exposed civilian casualties from US attacks as well as evidence of corruption, censorship and other nefarious behavior on the part of Iraqi government forces and other US allies.
David Coombs, the lawyer who represented Manning at trial, spent three intense years preparing her defense and got to know her very well. He said that he came to appreciate the motives that drove her to commit a massive leak of classified information.
“I can understand how Chelsea Manning was the person who did this,” Coombs said. “She is caring, intelligent, she sees that we don’t always do the right thing and that we could be better – and that if people are informed, maybe they would make better decisions.”
He added: “This was not someone trying to harm America or the war effort, but a person who was hoping that this would spark a debate.”
By the time Manning had completed the dump of data to WikiLeaks, she had effectively put into the public domain a vast mountain of previously secret digital information. The trove included war logs fromand , more than 250,000 US from around the world, and official files on 765 detainees.
The single element that probably had most impact was footage of an aerial attack by a US Apache helicopter in Baghdad in which two Reuters staffers and other civilians were killed. WikiLeaks published the video in April 2010 under the title ‘’, causing an international outcry.
When a collective of international news organizations led by the Guardian began publishing stories on the back of Manning’s leaks, the global reaction was immediate, and highly divided. There were those, like the current deputy National Security Advisor to President Trump, KT McFarland, who called for the source of the leaks to be.
Then there were those like Hillary Clinton who were fork-tongued in their response. The then US secretary of state, embarrassed by the unveiling of hundreds of thousands of intimate diplomatic cables, insisted publicly that the leak “puts people’s lives in danger, threatens our national security and undermines our efforts to work with other countries”., though, she spent hours on the phone with foreign diplomats reassuring them that no one was in peril.
Seven years later, Manning’s leaks continue to evoke sharply differing opinions from informed observers. Micah Zenko, an expert onpolicy at the Council on Foreign Relations, is skeptical of their long-term significance. They provided fascinating detail and color, he said, “but I do not think they had a lasting, strategic impact, except on officials and diplomats themselves who now assume everything can leak.”
David Hearst, chief editor of the London-based news and opinion site Middle East Eye, is convinced that Manning’s leaks have had a far more substantial legacy. He points to embassy cables whose revelations helped to spark the Arab Spring by exposing for instance the nepotism of theZine al-Abidine Ben Ali and the suppression of popular movements in Bahrain.
“WikiLeaks undermined key US allies in the Middle East by opening a window on how the US really sees and reported on its closest middle east allies and how they see each other, in turn undermining them further in the eyes of their people,” Hearst said. “The disclosures confirmed the existence of US war crimes in Arab eyes, such as the Apache helicopter tape, and provided Arab youth with a unifying message that acted as an accelerator for the Arab spring uprising.”
A third attitude prevalent among conservatives and parts of the military is that the leak, irrespective of its content, was an act of treachery that Obama was wrong to have rewarded with this week’s release. “It was a breach of the fundamental trust between fighting men and women on which the military depends,” said David French, a former major in the US army who now writes for the National Review. “Obama doesn’t understand that – to grant early release breaks the faith.”
Amid such diversity of views, one thing is certain: the US government responded to Manning’s act with the severity of a category five hurricane. Coombs recalls the feeling of having virtually the entire US national security apparatus bear down on them, with the army, Pentagon, Department of State and the intelligence services all piling in to prosecute the soldier. “They were pushing every legal extreme in order to obtain an outcome that would give them the greatest chance at a lengthy sentence.”
Coombs and his client fought back as best they could. In the most memorable moment of the trial at Fort Meade in Maryland, the lawyer taped out on the floor of the court the precise measurements of the isolation cell in Quantico in which Manning had been penned for months, and placed inside the outline her actual prison mattress to illustrate the draconian conditions of her confinement. “We couldn’t bring the courtroom to Quantico, so laying it out inside the court was the next best thing,” Coombs said.
Coombs and Manning succeeded in rebuffing the most serious charge, aiding the enemy, which was an important victory. But they couldn’t prevent the final outcome of the trial landing like a body blow. “The sentence was deflating,” Coombs said.
Jesselyn Radack, a human rights lawyer who defends whistleblowers, said the 35-year sentence was wholly out of kilter with previous cases. “The sentence was radically harsher than the treatment of any of the other whistleblowers that have been prosecuted in recent times,” she said.
The prison term left Manning facing decades in captivity, a grim prospect starkly compounded by the fact that she would be in a male-only institution even though since childhood she had privately identified as a woman. The day after the sentencing, Coombs went onshow and announced that Manning was a transgender woman and was determined to transition, and within hours of that statement the US military gave its considered reply: .
“Chelsea’s captors took a blatantly anti-constitutional anti-trans position,” said Chase Strangio, the ACLU lawyer who has represented Manning in her battles over gender transition while inside military lock-up. “Even in 2013 it was pretty clear that they couldn’t just announce they were going to withhold all care.”
Not for the first time, the US government underestimated the doggedness of Chelsea Manning and her supporters. Over the past four years, with the help of the ACLU, she has managed to push the military into the 21st century.
She won the right to, a first for a military prisoner. Last year she broke further ground when she was that she could have gender reassignment surgery while in Fort Leavenworth.
But she also had to endure the daily struggle of being in an all-male environment in which she was obliged to undergo a forced haircut every two weeks to keep her within male military grooming standards. At times the denial of treatment sapped at her confidence andeven her survival.
“There was a hopelessness. She was never going to get the treatment she needs,” Strangio said. “Chelsea was punished not once but twice with solitary confinement for trying to take her own life for reasons directly related to the denial of her care.”
If gender transition has been Manning’s overwhelming priority in her years of captivity, transition in more ways than one will likely remain a dominant theme when she walks out of those Fort Leavenworth gates. Her battle to live as a woman will continue, coupled with the arguably even greater transition of the return to civilian life.
“Chelsea has been through years of institutional life of one sort or another, with a lot of trauma. Nothing is going to be easy,” Strangio said.
Manning’s aunt Debbie, with whom she was staying in Maryland when she uploaded the files to, said that now was Chelsea’s chance to put her difficult childhood and troubles with the military behind her and finally achieve her dream of going to college. “She’s extraordinarily gifted intellectually and will make a real contribution to society.”
Debbie, who has rarely spoken in public, also had a stern word for military chiefs. She told the Guardian: “I hope that these past few years have caused the army to think seriously about its treatment of Chelsea before and after she was deployed and make sure that other emotionally challenged soldiers are given proper treatment and are not sent into global hot spots when they are in serious need of psychological counselling.”
On the up side, the minute Manning steps out into the blazing sunlight of freedom she will find herself surrounded by a family of like-minded people who will understand her journey and her challenges. As Strangio put it: “She’s going to get the benefits of a beautiful and vibrant community, people who she can hug and touch and talk to, there’s going to be a huge amount of support.”
“Touch is so important,” Chelsea Manning agreed when she talked to the Guardian, after seven long years having been deprived of it. Not to forget swimming. There will be plenty of time for swimming.