Chelsea Manning is finally free to speak. After serving seven years of a 35-year sentence for the largest leak of classified intelligence in U.S. history, the former Army private finally left the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, on May 17th. Her sentence had been commuted by President Obama just days before he left office.
A little over one week after leaving Leavenworth, she sat down with Matthew Shaer of the New York Times magazine to tell her side of the story, one that has been silenced for the last seven years, as Manning was forbidden to talk to reporters while behind bars.
Manning has been painted as both a hero and a traitor in the press over the past few years – but as she has previously said about the information she disclosed to WikiLeaks in 2010, the truth is much more complicated. “I’ve been so busy trying to survive for the past seven years that I haven’t focused on that at all,” she told Shaer when asked about what she’s learned from her actions and their ripple effect on issues of security, transparency and international relations.
“From my perspective,” she added, “the world’s shaped me more than anything else. It’s a feedback loop.” Below, a few revelations from Shaer’s interview with Manning.
She had a tumultuous childhood.
Manning grew up in Crescent, Oklahoma, and said that she knew from an early age that she was different. At age 5, she told her father, Brian Manning, that she wanted “to do girl things,” to which she says her father responded with a long, awkward lecture about the physical differences in boys’ and girls’ “plumbing.”
“I didn’t understand how that had anything to do with what you wore or how you behaved,” she told Shaer. She came out to a straight male friend in elementary school who was kind and understanding, but said she was still bullied constantly as a kid.
Manning told the New York Times that his mother, Susan, once swallowed an entire bottle of Valium when Manning was 12, and her older sister, Casey, had to drive their unresponsive mom to the emergency room. (Manning said her father was too drunk to drive at the time, so sat in the passenger seat; Brian could not be reached for comment.)
After her parents divorced, she spent four years with Susan in her home country of Wales, before returning to Oklahoma City in 2005 to live with her father and stepmother. Manning’s stepmother “felt that I was unclean,” she said.
In 2006, she moved in with her aunt in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and found a bit of stability there. A year later, toward the end of 2007, she enlisted in the Army in hopes it would help her “man her up.”
She began to question her role in the war after being deployed to Iraq.
Manning went to intelligence school at Fort Huachuca in Arizona in 2008, the same year she first heard about WikiLeaks. Shortly afterward, when she was stationed at Fort Drum in upstate New York, Manning was tasked with sifting through files, photos and videos known collectively as “SigActs,” or significant actions, which detailed confrontations the U.S. military had taken part in.
However, it wasn’t until she was deployed to Iraq in October 2009 that she really began to recognize the actual human toll that the Army was taking. “At a certain point, I stopped seeing records and started seeing people,” she said. Ideas about possibly getting the classified information out there began to take hold.
“There are plenty of things that should be kept secret,” she said. “Let’s protect sensitive sources. Let’s protect troop movements. Let’s protect nuclear information. Let’s not hide missteps. Let’s not hide misguided policies. Let’s not hide history. Let’s not hide who we are and what we are doing.”
Prior to a two-week leave back home to the States, she downloaded nearly every SigActs report from Afghanistan and Iraq, burned them onto a CD-RW, and then uploaded the disk onto her personal laptop.
The leaked documents were originally intended for The New York Times or The Washington Post.
Manning wanted to get the information out, but failed to get a response from The Times, and was frustrated by her interaction with The Post. So on February 3rd, 2010, she sent the SigActs files to WikiLeaks. She received no response.
Her correspondence with former hacker Adrian Lamo, in which she once wrote, “Living such an opaque life, has forced me never to take transparency, openness and honesty for granted,” ultimately led authorities to her in May of that year. She faced 22 charges, including “aiding the enemy,” a capital offense that could have resulted in the death penalty. She was spared that conviction, but told Shaer, “I still worry about how that charge can be misused.”
Manning came out as a transgender woman in August 2010; the name “Chelsea” came from a Sims character.
Though Manning had initially decided not to come out as transgender during the court-martial, she ultimately decided to do so after listening to her transgender friend Lauren McNamara testify at the sentencing hearing. “I was tired of pretending,” she told Shaer.
She subsequently wrote a statement which she released to the Today show through her attorney, David Coombs, in August 2010: “As I transition into the next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am female.” She chose the name “Chelsea” from a character she used as a child for the Sims video game.
She attempted to take her life twice over the course of her seven years behind bars.
Manning was first brought to Camp Arfijan in Kuwait, where she was held in a metal cage. “I was afraid I was going to be in that little cell or something like that little cell for the rest of my life. And that bad things were going to happen to me,” she said. After one week of being held in Kuwait without any information, she fashioned a noose out of bedclothes and attempted to hang herself. “I kind of knew it wasn’t going to work,” she added. She was subsequently diagnosed with anxiety, depression and “probable gender identity disorder” and transferred to a Marine base in Quantico, Virginia.
The second time Manning attempted to take her life was at the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, where she was transferred to in 2013. One of her closest friends there, Anthony Raby, recalled how he was passed a note during embroidery shop that turned out to be Manning’s suicide note. Raby alerted a guard and the staff found Manning in her cell after trying to hang herself. She was taken to the hospital and survived – but was sentenced to two weeks in solitary confinement for the attempt.
Of what it’s like to be in solitary, Manning told Shaer, “You start to forget about the world outside – it’s not relevant or relatable anymore. The darkest part of solitary confinement is that you start to forget about cars, and jobs, and families, and weather, and politicians, and all the things that make up a society.”
She learned about her commutation on January 17th from watching CNN.
Manning’s attorneys applied for a commutation of her sentence in November 2016, but she said she didn’t want to get her hopes up because “it was so hard for me to process and deal with” the possibility of her filing being denied. But on January 17th, 2017, mere days before the end of Obama’s presidency, she was in wood shop when a team of security personnel entered the room and told her to come with them.
She told Shaer she was convinced she was being put back in solitary, but the lead officer said she was being taken into Protective Services. On her way there, she passed by a common room with a TV tuned to CNN, a banner scrolling across the screen: “Manning’s sentence commuted.”
At present, Manning is shopping around a 300-page memoir with the help of an agent, and will appear in a documentary titled XY Chelsea this fall. In looking back on all the circumstances that led to her final arrest and incarceration, Manning said she didn’t like to think in hypotheticals.
“What I can tell you,” she said, “is that my values would have been the same. The things I care about would have been the same.”