Chelsea Manning’s disclosure of hundreds of thousands of confidential military and U.S. state documents resulted in a 35-year prison sentence. Yet without her whistleblowing, the world might never have known what really happened in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
But how did a soldier who barely passed basic training end up with access to a trove of classified files?
Born in 1987 as Bradley Edward Manning, Chelsea Manning started her life in Oklahoma City but later spent several years of her childhood in Wales, the home country of her mother, Susan Fox. Fox had met Manning’s American father, Brian, while he was stationed in Wales with the U.S. Navy.
According to Manning’s sister, Casey, their mother was an alcoholic and drank continuously throughout her pregnancy with Manning. Manning is thought to suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome, which can cause low body weight and other developmental problems. However, a school friend described Manning as “very political, very clever, very articulate.” Manning also had a keen interest in computers and set up a gaming and music website in 2003.
Manning came out as gay in 2005, at the age of 18, while living in Oklahoma. But she was forced back into the closet for the next phase in her life.
Top security clearance in the U.S. Army
Manning enlisted in the U.S. Army in September 2007 under her father’s persuasion. She began basic training in Missouri a month later but was seriously bullied.One of Manning’s fellow soldiers recalled: “The kid was barely five foot. … He was a runt, so pick on him. He’s crazy, pick on him. … The guy took it from every side. He couldn’t please anyone.”
Manning came close to being discharged from the army six weeks after enlisting but restarted training in January 2008.
After finally making it through basic training, Manning moved to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, where she trained as an intelligence analyst. She also received TS/SCI security clearance, which gave her access to a massive amount of classified material.
Now that she was able to use her aptitude for computing, her performance improved. Manning received two medals: the Army Service Ribbon and the National Defense Service Medal.
In Iraq and in crisis
Manning was deployed to Iraq after completing her training. She arrived in Baghdad in October 2009. Her security clearance again gave Manning access to confidential information, via the Army’s SIPRNet (Secret Internet Protocol Router Network) and JWICS (Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System). After 30 days of active service, Manning received the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal. She was also promoted to specialist.
Around the time of her promotion, Manning wrote to a counselor in the U.S. Still living as a man at this point, Manning discussed identifying as female and gender reassignment surgery. She also felt strongly opposed to the kind of war she was involved in: “I was a *part* of something. … I was actively involved in something that I was completely against.”
Release of material to WikiLeaks
According to a published chat log between Manning and Adrian Lamo—the ex-hacker who later reported her to the authorities—Manning first got in touch with WikiLeaks around November 2009. By January 2010, she had already downloaded thousands of sensitive and classified war documents with the intention of leaking them. Manning told Lamo:
“Hilary [sic] Clinton, and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning, and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy… everywhere there’s a US post… there’s a diplomatic scandal that will be revealed…”
WikiLeaks, founded by Julian Assange, published Manning’s leaked files between February 2010 and April 2011. They included:
- A Baghdad air-strike video, which WikiLeaks named “Collateral Murder.”
- The Afghan and Iraq War Logs, two series of classified military reports that totaled over 400,000 documents.
- U.S. State Department cables, the biggest set of confidential documents ever released publicly. There were 251,287 in total.
Some of the details about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars included evidence of torture and thousands of civilian deaths.
Prison sentence and gender reassignment
Manning was arrested over the leak on May 27, 2010. She was charged with various offenses, including violation of the Espionage Act. She pleaded guilty to 10 of the 22 charges, but said she had leaked the documents to “show the true cost of war.”
The U.S. government’s use of the Espionage Act against a non-spy was strongly criticized by civil-rights advocates. Manning received a 35-year prison sentence.
The day after her sentencing on August 22, 2013, Manning announced her transition from male to female: “I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible.”
Manning legally changed her name to Chelsea in April 2014 and began hormone therapy in February 2015.
“My days here are busy and very routine,” Manning told Amnesty International. “I am taking college correspondence courses for a bachelor’s degree. I also work out a lot to stay fit, and read newspapers, magazines and books to keep up-to-date.”
Release from prison and Senate candidacy
In May 2017, after serving seven years, Chelsea Manning was released from federal prison, her 35-year sentence having been commuted by President Barack Obama to time served.
In 2018, Manning launched a campaign for the U.S. Senate, challenging Maryland incumbent Ben Cardin for his seat in the Democratic primary. Cardin would go on to win re-election, but Manning finished second out of eight Democratic candidates with 5.7% of the vote.
In February 2019, Manning was served a subpoena to testify against WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. She refused and was found guilty of contempt and held for 28 day in detention, 22 hours a day in isolation. In May 2019, she again refused to testify and was sentenced to 60 days in prison. She was held prisoner until March 2020. After she attempted suicide, a judge ordered her release, arguing that her detention no longer served the purpose of coercing her to testify.
Chelsea Manning’s whistleblowing revealed uncomfortable truths about how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were being run. Manning forced accountability on a military that prefers to play by its own secret rules. She helped uncover war crimes, political plots, and corruption, while standing by her principles.
At present, Manning continues to earn a living as a public speaker.