US soldier Chelsea Manning, born Bradley Manning, has been released from Fort Leavenworth military prison in the Kansas where she had been serving a 35-year sentence for leaking classified documents and cables to Wikileaks. She was arrested in May 2010 at a US army base outside Baghdad, was charged in March 2011 ”with 22 counts relating to the unauthorised possession and distribution of more than 720,000 secret diplomatic and military documents.” She was also charged with aiding the enemy, but was acquitted of that charge. After her trial and conviction she was sentenced in August 2013. Her reasoning for releasing the documents was to “spark a debate” about the role of the military and United States foreign policy. She later apologised for “hurting the US” and she was wrong when she thought “she could change the world for the better.” In November 2016 she asked President Obama to reduce her sentence and said that she took “full and complete responsibility” for her actions and was not asking for a pardon. President Obama agreed and as one of his last acts as President of the United States, he commuted her sentence to the six-years she has served, announcing in January this year that she would be released in May. Today, she has been released.
President Obama’s decision was criticised by many Republicans. The Republican Senator John McCain – who lost the Presidential race to Obama in 2008 – called it a “grave mistake.” Today, President Trump has branded Chelsea Manning an “ungrateful traitor” and said that she should never have been released from prison. This reinforces many people’s concerns – especially those of Chelsea herself – that President Obama was her last hope of freedom for a long time for following the election of Donald Trump in November last year she could not expect clemency from him or his administration. Ironically, President Trump was today was defending President Obama from accusations that he was “weak” from Chelsea Manning herself. He wrote on Twitter: “Ungrateful TRAITOR Chelsea Manning, who should never have been released from prison, is now calling President Obama a weak leader. Terrible!”
Mr Trump’s comments follow a column Chelsea wrote for The Guardian newspaper last week, her first since her sentence was reduced. She had said that President Obama had had “very few permanent accomplishments” but qualified that by saying that the reason was because he met with “unparalleled resistance from his opponents, many of whom wanted him to fail.” She continued in the column:
“The one simple lesson to draw from President Obama’s legacy: Do not start off with a compromise […]
“They won’t meet you in the middle. Instead, what we need is an unapologetic progressive leader.
“Our opponents will not support us nor will they stop thwarting the march toward a just system that gives people a fighting chance to live.
“Our lives are at risk – especially for immigrants, Muslim people and black people.”
Chelsea Manning announced the day after being sentenced to 35 years in a military prison that “I am Chelsea Manning. I am female,” and announced her desire to undergo gender reassignment treatment and live life as a woman. She said that she had felt female since being a child and didn’t want to live the lie of living as a man anymore. She said that she hadn’t announced it until after the sentencing so that it did not overshadow the trial, although her gender identity played a key role in her defence. Chelsea’s lawyer David Coombs said that her ultimate goal “is to be comfortable in her skin and to be the person that she’s never had an opportunity to be.” In 2014 a military judge granted her the right to use the name Chelsea Elizabeth Manning and was later approved for hormone therapy. However, she spent long periods in solitary confinement in the all-male military prison, and had to fight for the right to progress towards actual gender reassignment surgery. She went on hunger strike more than once before the Army agreed to provide her with the surgery – though this has yet to be performed. She is expected to complete her gender reassignment upon release. During her time in prison, the US Department of Defence lifted the ban on transgender men and women serving in the military. Chelsea herself later said that she lived as a woman secretly while in the US Army and still known as Bradley Manning.
Chelsea now that she is a free woman wishes to settle down in Maryland where she has lived before. On her release she said last week: “For the first time, I can see a future for myself as Chelsea. I can imagine surviving and living as the person who I am and can finally be in the outside world.” Just this Monday she tweeted: “Two more days until the freedom of civilian life ^_^ Now hunting for private #healthcare like millions of Americans =P”. Upon release, Chelsea will remain a US soldier while her original conviction remains under appeal and, therefore, will still have the benefits of Army healthcare although she won’t be paid. If the appeal is denied she is likely to be dishonourably discharged at some point upon which she will become a regular civilian.
Upon her release today, Chelsea Manning posted her first tweet as a free woman. Along with the photo above she simply said: “First steps of freedom!!” She issued a brief statement through the American Civil Liberties Union in which she said she was focusing on the future, which she said was “far more important than the past.” She added:
“After another anxious four months of waiting, the day has finally arrived. I am looking forward to so much!
“Whatever is ahead of me is far more important than the past. I’m figuring things out right now – which is exciting, awkward, fun, and all new for me.”
I have always had mixed feelings about Chelsea Manning and her crimes. While I accept that Governments need a degree of secrecy in order to protect its intelligence sources and military assets around the world, I also believe that that secrecy should be a last resort and not become routine. The scale of Ms Manning’s release of confidential material to Wikileaks was astronomical and included some material that could genuinely have put people’s lives in risk, yet her draconian sentence of 35 years was extreme. It was the longest sentence ever imposed in the United States for leaking documents and would have been worse had she been convicted of the more serious charge of aiding the enemy for which she was acquitted. Like Manning herself I would not have supported her being given a pardon. She didn’t want a pardon and accepted that she had committed a crime and that she was “hurting the US” as she herself said. Nevertheless, her treatment in Fort Leavenworth was unacceptable. She was treated as a male prisoner although the Army eventually accepted her gender assignment. She was isolated in solitary confinement several times and attempted suicide on more than one occasions. She also went on hunger strikes in order to force the Army to grant her wish to begin the long process of gender reassignment surgery – which again they eventually agreed to.
Had President Obama not commuted her sentence, it is likely that Ms Manning would have eventually killed herself – whether intentionally or not. Had she not killed herself she would have faced life in a military prison until possibly 2045. She certainly wouldn’t have been released under Trump’s administration, given his comments about her today. Her only hope would be a future President commuting her sentence or pardoning her and I really don’t believe that Ms Manning could have survived on just that hope. President Obama was right to commute her sentence. I was surprised that he commuted it to time served, with a delay of a few months before she was actually released – which is normal in commutation cases to allow time to arrange details such as where she will live. I never expected him to pardon her completely, but I did expect she would have to serve some more time in prison. That said she spent seven years in custody and in Fort Leavenworth which I’m sure must feel like many more under the circumstances she was dealing with. Today, former President Barack Obama said “justice has been served.”
Chelsea Manning will hopefully find that life after prison is a good one. She can now live the life of the woman she has always wanted to be but which has been denied her by her birth gender. She will pursue her plans for gender reassignment surgery and I imagine will find herself in demand with the media and others who will want to know her story. I wish her all peace and happiness in her new life.
Update: Friday 19 May 2017
Following her release from military prison on Wednesday, Chelsea Manning yesterday issued a first post-prison photograph of herself (above). She posted the photo on Instagram with the message: “Okay, so here I am everyone!!” Before this we mostly only knew her from her Army photo when she was still Bradley Manning and the black-and-white old photo of her sitting in a car wearing a wig and makeup. This new photo shows Chelsea in a relaxed and confident pose, seemingly at peace with herself. She still has the regulation two-inch hair imposed on her while in prison but, as Ed Pilkington in The Guardian says, ”in other regards she had thoroughly thrown off the military custodial yoke. She looked relaxed in a low-cut open-topped black and white ensemble set off by a slash of bright coral lipstick.” No doubt over the coming weeks and months we will see lots more of Chelsea. She will be in great demand to speak of her experiences during the last few years.
- Chelsea Manning Leaves Prison, Closing an Extraordinary Leak Case – nytimes.com – 16 May 2017 – by Charlie Savage
- Chelsea Manning to Be Released Early as Obama Commutes Sentence – nytimes.com – 17 January 2017 – by Charlie Savage
- Chelsea Manning: Wikileaks source celebrates ‘first steps of freedom’ – bbc.co.uk/news – 17 May 2017
- Chelsea Manning: Wikileaks source and her turbulent life – bbc.co.uk/news – 17 May 2017
- Trump brands Chelsea Manning an ‘ungrateful traitor’ – bbc.co.uk/news – 17 May 2017
- Chelsea Manning released from military prison – theguardian.com – 17 May 2017 – by Ed Pilkngton in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
- Chelsea Manning prepares for life after prison: ‘I can see a future for myself’ – theguardian.com – 9 May 2017 – by Ed Pilkington
- Chelsea Manning: to those who kept me alive all these years, thank you – theguardian.com – 13 February 2017 – by Chelsea Manning
- Chelsea Manning was transgender ‘in secret’ while serving in US army – theguardian.com – 8 December 2014 – by Martin Pengelly in New York
- ‘Here I am!’ Chelsea Manning shares first photo after prison – theguardian.com – 18 May 2017 – by Ed Pilkington in New York
- LINK & PHOTO ADDED 12 JUNE 2017 – The Long, Lonely Road of Chelsea Manning – nytimes.com – 12 June 2017 – by Matthew Shaer