Chelsea Manning

U.S. Army whistleblower
Chelsea Manning


What would you do if you thought the army you served in was carelessly killing innocent civilians, and illegally torturing others? It’s a tough question.

Chelsea Manning chose to reveal the truth to the whole world.
Chelsea Manning Overview ‧ read
Her disclosure of hundreds of thousands of confidential military and U.S. state documents landed her 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 thousands of classified files? Here’s our biography of Chelsea Manning, with all the answers.

Transatlantic childhood

Born in 1987 as Bradley 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 had drunk 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.

Manning joins the U.S. Army

Manning enlisted in the U.S. Army in September 2007, after being persuaded by her father. 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.

Top secret security clearance

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 feeling 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 published Manning’s leaked files between February 2010 and April 2011. They included:
  • A Baghdad airstrike 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.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said the disclosures revealed “intimate details” about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Those details included evidence of torture and thousands of civilian deaths.

Manning arrested and charged

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. Liza Goitein of the Brennan Center for Justice said:
“This will discourage the average whistleblower, that reveal[s] corruption or wrong-doing and who ensure[s] accountability in the system. This will shoot down the least offensive, and the most valuable leaks.”
Manning received a 35-year prison sentence.

Bradley Manning becomes Chelsea Manning

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.

Imprisoned but not silenced

While being imprisoned, Manning was interviewed by magazines, contributed to The Guardian and joined Twitter in April 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.

At present, Manning continues to earn a living as a public speaker.

Shining the light of truth

Opinion is divided on whether Chelsea Manning is a hero or a traitor. Either way, her 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.

There can be little doubt about the honor of Manning’s intentions, either. She has apologized for the damage her disclosures caused, but said: “I believed I was going to help people, not hurt people.”

That’s the way whistleblowing goes. Some truths are difficult to swallow, but the torture and killing of innocent people should never be ignored. Chelsea Manning paid a steep price for leaking classified files, but the reverberations of her actions continue to make the world a better place.