Ever since Chelsea Manning was revealed as the whistleblower responsible for one of the most important journalistic archives in history, her heroism has been manifest. She was the classic leaker of conscience, someone who went at the age of 20 to fight in the Iraq War believing it was noble, only to discover the dark reality not only of that war but of the U.S. government’s actions in the world generally: war crimes, indiscriminate slaughter, complicity with high-level official corruption, and systematic deceit of the public.
In the face of those discoveries, she knowingly risked her own liberty to disclose documents to the world that would reveal the truth, with no expectation of benefit to herself. As someone who has spent years touting the nobility of her actions, my defenses of her always early on centered on the vital nature of the material she revealed and the right of the public to know about it.
It is genuinely hard to overstate the significance of those revelations: Aside from exposing some of the most visceral footage of indiscriminate slaughter by the U.S. military seen in decades, the leaks were credited — even by harsh WikiLeaks skeptics such as New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller — with helping to spark the Arab Spring. Even more significantly, revelations about how the U.S. military executed Iraqi civilians, then called in a bombing raid to cover up what they did, prevented the Iraqi government from granting the Obama administration the troop immunity it was seeking in order to extend the war in Iraq.
Though Manning’s case has been somewhat colored by the changing perceptions over time of WikiLeaks, she actually first attempted to contact traditional media outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Politico with her revelations, only to be thwarted by a failure to get their attention. In the online chats that she had with a deceitful individual who thereafter became a government informant and turned her in, she said her motive in leaking was solely to trigger “worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms,” adding: “I want people to see the truth … regardless of who they are … because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”
In the wake of these disclosures, the U.S government — as it reflexively does — claimed that the release of the documents would endanger lives, and that those responsible for publishing the leaks had “blood on their hands.” But subsequent investigations by the AP and McClatchy found those accusations utterly unfounded, and ultimately, even Defense Secretary Robert Gates ridiculed the hysteria driving the government’s claims about the leak’s harms as “significantly overwrought.”
In sum, though Manning was largely scorned and rejected in most mainstream Washington circles, she did everything one wants a whistleblower to do: tried to ensure that the public learns of concealed corruption and criminality, with the intent of fostering debate and empowering the citizenry with knowledge that should never have been concealed from them. And she did it all knowing that she was risking prison to do so, but followed the dictates of her conscience rather than her self-interest.
But as courageous as that original whistleblowing was, Manning’s heroism has only multiplied since then, become more multifaceted and consequential. As a result, she has inspired countless people around the world. At this point, one could almost say that her 2010 leaking to WikiLeaks has faded into the background when assessing her true impact as a human being. Her bravery and sense of conviction wasn’t a one-time outburst: It was the sustained basis for her last seven years of imprisonment that she somehow filled with purpose, dignity, and inspiration.
The overarching fact of Manning’s imprisonment was its enduring harshness. In 2010, during the first months of her detention in a U.S. Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia, I began hearing reports from her handful of approved visitors about the vindictive and abusive conditions of her confinement: prolonged solitary confinement, being kept in her cell alone for virtually the entire day, gratuitous, ubiquitous surveillance, and worse. When I called the brig to investigate these claims, I was startled when a brig official confirmed to me, in the most blasé tones, their accuracy.
That enabled me to report for the first time that Manning was being imprisoned “under conditions that constitute cruel and inhumane treatment and, by the standards of many nations, even torture.” That report sparked a major controversy, ultimately culminating in the resignation of President Obama’s State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley, after he denounced the treatment of Manning as “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid on the part of the Department of Defense.”
But that turned out to be only the beginning of the abuse she endured. Several months after my report, the New York Times reported that Manning was being subjected to deliberately humiliating rituals in which she “was stripped and left naked” in her cell “for seven hours,” and “required to stand naked” outside her cell during inspection. It was back then, in 2011, that the first report of Manning’s suicidal thoughts surfaced. Amnesty International denounced her detention conditions as a “breach of the USA’s obligations under international standards and treaties,” and ultimately called for protests to demand a cessation of the abuse.
It was nonetheless difficult to generate large amounts of public or journalistic support for Manning: Many on the right long viewed leakers as traitors and thus took glee in her suffering, while many liberals loyal to Obama literally mocked the abuse Manning endured. But ultimately, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture investigated the conditions of Manning’s imprisonment and concluded in 2012 “that the U.S. military was at least culpable of cruel and inhumane treatment,” and “that imposing seriously punitive conditions of detention on someone who has not been found guilty of any crime is a violation of his right to physical and psychological integrity as well as of his presumption of innocence.”
All of the controversy generated by those reports ultimately compelled the Obama administration to transfer her from Quantico to a more professionalized but still harrowing prison, in the middle of Kansas, on a military base at Fort Leavenworth, as she awaited her trial. While her imprisonment then became more normalized, her heroism multiplied to entirely new levels.
In July 2013, Manning was convicted of multiple counts of “espionage” for her whistleblowing (though she was acquitted of the most serious charge she faced: the treason-equivalent of “aiding the enemy”). On August 21, she was sentenced to 35 years in prison. On August 22 — the very next day — she issued her statement identifying herself as Chelsea Manning, a trans woman, and demanded that she receive from military authorities the medical therapy she needed to complete her transition:
Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility).
It is hard to describe the courage and determination that required. Less than 24 hours after she learned that she had been consigned to spend the next 35 years in the custody of a military prison, she publicly identified as the trans woman she is and demanded the medical therapy to which she was legally and ethically entitled.
To truly grasp the bravery that required, it’s necessary to understand her situation at the time. In 2015, I visited her at Fort Leavenworth. To get there, one must fly to Kansas City, then drive more than an hour into the woods of Kansas, in the proverbial middle of nowhere. One arrives at a sprawling, completely militarized base, Fort Leavenworth, where it was quite difficult to gain access. Upon entering, one drives another 15 to 20 minutes deep into the military base to arrive at the military brig, which itself is a labyrinth of cages and security measures that must be navigated in order to finally meet her somewhere in the bowels of that prison.
In sum, it’s almost impossible to be more isolated, more cut off from society, than Chelsea Manning was. Coming out as a trans person, and embarking on the transition process, is extraordinarily difficult even under the best of conditions. Trans people still face incomparable societal hurdles — including an epidemic of violence — even when they enjoy networks of support in the middle of progressive cities. But to do that while in a military brig, in the middle of Kansas, where your daily life depends exclusively upon your military jailers, is both incomprehensibly difficult and incomprehensibly courageous.
Manning’s struggles in prison, including her suicide attempts and grotesquely cruel punishments for them, were publicly reported. Although the military prison begrudgingly gave her some of the therapy she sought, authorities also imposed petty restrictions, including a refusal even to let her grow her hair and a failure to provide much of the support that was needed.
As one of the few people on the list of approved visitors, I spent many hours on the phone with her during this period. Her experience both in prison generally and transitioning specifically was filled with completely gratuitous challenges and difficulties caused by malicious or ignorant prison authorities.
But what is ultimately most striking about Chelsea Manning is her unyielding persistence. In the most humble yet determined tones, she insists on following what she knows is the right path regardless of the risks and costs to her. And in doing so, far beyond the initial acts of whistleblowing, she became a hero to LGBTs around the world, and so many other people, by demanding the right to be who she is, and to live freely, even under the most oppressive conditions.
This is not a case where I feign journalistic objectivity or neutrality. I regard Chelsea Manning as one of this generation’s greatest heroes, as well as a valued friend. While her release today is somewhat bittersweet — How can one forget the grave injustice that she spent almost all of her 20s in prison for having done something that merited our collective gratitude, and the abuse she continually endured? — I am thrilled that she will finally live as a free woman, and incredibly excited about what she can achieve, how she can inspire people, now that she is finally released.
Ultimately, what makes Chelsea Manning unique is not so much her political heroism but rather the way she has personally navigated her life after that. As I recounted in the letter I wrote in support of her clemency petition, she is the single most empathetic and compassionate person I have ever met. When I would speak to her, it was difficult for me to contain my anger and resentment over the abuse she had suffered and continued to suffer. Yet she never displayed or even seemed to share any of that anger, instead often defending even those who wronged her by empathizing with their own predicaments and mitigating their behavior.
To be sure, her transition back into freedom is not going to be easy. She’s been imprisoned since she was 22 years old. She knows that she is a controversial and polarizing figure and is unsure what life outside of Fort Leavenworth has in store for her. It will naturally be a huge adjustment in all sorts of ways.
But Manning is one of the most intelligent, engaging, and inspiring people one could ever hope to meet. There is a massive amount of admiration and support for her all over the world, as evidenced by the incredibly successful fundraising campaign to ease her transition out of prison. No matter where I have spoken in the world, the mere mention of her name prompts sustained standing ovations for her. All of that — her seeing how much love and gratitude there is for her — will undoubtedly strengthen her in whatever she chooses to do.
It is rare, especially lately, to find inspiration in any political stories. But the last decade of Chelsea Manning’s life, and the potential it now holds for the future, is one of those cases. One shouldn’t idealize what happened to her: There is a lot of injustice, harm, and outrage in her story. But the way she has inspired so many, and the fact that today she is truly free, is a cause for real celebration, and a valuable reminder of how human beings, through pure acts of conscience and determination, can singlehandedly change the world for the better.