Chelsea Manning was responsible for the largest leak of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain. The former U.S. Army soldier, who served as an intelligence analyst in Iraq in 2010, leaked videos depicting airstrikes in which U.S. soldiers fired upon and killed several civilians, including two Reuters journalists. This video, known as “Collateral Murder,” was just the beginning. Manning went on to release over 251,000 diplomatic cables and more than 482,000 Army reports, collectively referred to as the “Iraq War Logs” and “Afghan War Diary,” through WikiLeaks and its media partners between April 2010 and April 2011.
After being identified as the source of the leaks, Manning was arrested in May 2010 and faced 22 charges, including theft, espionage, and aiding the enemy, which carried the possibility of a death sentence. In February 2013, she pleaded guilty to 10 charges. The trial for the remaining charges commenced on June 3, 2013, ten years ago. On July 30, Manning was convicted of 17 of the original charges, excluding aiding the enemy. She received a 35-year sentence at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, a maximum-security military facility. However, on January 17, 2017, President Barack Obama commuted her sentence, resulting in nearly seven years of confinement dating back to her arrest. Manning was released on May 17, 2017.
Since her release, Manning has engaged in speaking engagements about data leaks and her experience as a trans person, and has authored a memoir titled “README.txt,” wherein she candidly recounts her military experiences and the motivations behind her actions. In the book, she expresses her desire to challenge the simplified narrative of war prevalent in society, where questioning the established viewpoint is often perceived as disloyalty.
Manning’s sentiments in her book echo those expressed in a document she wrote in January 2009, also titled “Readme.txt.” In that document, she referred to the leaked materials as one of the most significant documents of our time, capable of revealing the true nature of 21st-century asymmetric warfare by dispelling the fog of war.
During her service in Iraq, Manning experienced an incident that deeply impacted her. The Iraqi Federal Police arrested 15 detainees for printing anti-Iraqi literature. Manning was tasked with identifying the “bad guys” but discovered that the detainees had actually exposed corruption within the Iraqi cabinet. When she reported her findings to her commanding officer, he dismissed her concerns and ordered her to assist the Iraqi police in detaining more individuals. This experience led Manning to realize that she was actively participating in something that contradicted her personal values.
The leaked documents exposed various aspects of U.S. activities abroad and shed light on issues within the military, particularly regarding mental health. Manning faced adversity during her service, enduring bullying and struggling with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that made it difficult for her to serve openly as a gay man. Furthermore, she grappled with gender identity disorder. During her trial, Manning’s defense argued that her superiors failed to provide adequate counseling and discipline and neglected to revoke her security clearance.
A report by the Department of Defense, published in June 2017 following a request by investigative reporter Jason Leopold, stated that the leaks had no significant strategic impact on U.S. war efforts. Manning’s lawyers also contended during the trial that the government exaggerated the harm caused by the document release, suggesting that Manning was being exploited to gather evidence against Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. Manning was later asked to testify in a U.S. case against Assange, but she refused, leading to her being found in contempt of court on March 8, 2019, and subsequently jailed until March 12, 2020.
Chelsea Manning’s actions have evoked divergent perspectives, with some considering her a hero and others branding her a traitor. Regardless, her actions have ignited vigorous debate and controversy, pushing the boundaries of whistleblowing, government transparency, and national security. Additionally, Manning’s struggle for gender-affirming surgery while in military custody has served as an inspiration for transgender individuals and advocates, shedding light on the challenges faced by the transgender community within the military and society at large. Manning’s unwavering resilience and determination in asserting her rights have contributed to the ongoing discourse surrounding transgender rights.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Manning revealed that she rarely faces hecklers regarding the intelligence leaks, but occasionally experiences attacks related to her transgender identity. She expressed her resilience, stating that she has become accustomed to such criticism and that it no longer greatly affects her.
On speaking about her past, Manning wrote in February 2023: “People still come up to me and talk about the stuff from 2010 as if it has any bearing on my current life. But I’ve moved on; in my daily work, in my personal life, it almost has no bearing whatsoever”.
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