Pvt. Chelsea Manning, the former Army intelligence analyst convicted in 2010 of giving WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic cables, battlefield reports, Guantanamo Bay documents, and classified videos, was released this morning from the Fort Leavenworth military prison — roughly 30 years ahead of schedule.
That’s because on January 17, a few days before leaving office, then-President Barack Obama commuted Manning’s 35-year sentence down to just seven years. That cleared the way for her to be freed now, not in 2045, as her initial sentence called for.
It was a stunning move that infuriated both Republicans and Democrats, including then-President-elect Donald Trump, who in a tweet said “she should never have been released.” That means her actual release will almost certainly spark even more attention — and even more controversy.
Manning’s saga won’t end with her release. Her impact on the United States, and the way it conducts itself at home and abroad, will be felt for years to come. The secret documents she helped make public showed abuses by the US government in terms of how it treated prisoners and how it, in many cases, overstepped boundaries in the name of counterterrorism.
The “War Logs” — leaked incident reports from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan — showed there were more casualties on the battlefield than the United States was reporting.
US officials said the most damaging releases were the cables that showed the private stances of US allies. In many cases they differed from their more public pronouncements, embarrassing important friends of the United States.
The upshot is that Manning will remain among the most simultaneously revered and despised figures in the recent history of American foreign policy.
Manning changed the way Americans see their government
At the time of her sentence — the longest ever imposed for a leak conviction — Manning was known as Bradley when she leaked the documents to WikiLeaks and transitioned to life as a woman in an all-male prison.
The decision to release her early freed the Pentagon from having to decide how far to go in helping Manning. The military gave Manning access to hormone therapy, but balked at letting her grow her hair out or pursue gender-affirming surgery.
In 2010, she gave many of the materials she stole to an obscure anti-secrecy group known as WikiLeaks, which started publishing the documents and videos on its site and proceeded to make almost all of them public. The move put WikiLeaks on the map and made its founder, Julian Assange, a global celebrity.
The materials she leaked included videos and highly classified cables showing deadly mistakes made by US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and Washington’s failure to keep proper tabs on its allies in the counterterror fight. The documents also revealed an array of sensitive diplomatic secrets. Among the findings:
- US leaders didn’t investigate “hundreds” of reports of abuse, torture, rape, and even murder by Iraqi police.
- Task Force 373, an elite military unit, had a very secret mission: “the deactivation of top Taliban and terrorists by either killing or capturing them.” At the time, the Pentagon was trying to keep that mission under wraps.
- A 2007 US Army helicopter attack killed 12 people, including two Reuters journalists, an incident WikiLeaks calls “Collateral Murder.” A military official told Reuters they were not aware that the journalists were among the group of people. The Army thought it was just engaging insurgents.
- Saudi Arabian leaders asked the United States to use its military against Iran. Animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran is well known, but these cables showed Saudi leaders privately advocating for America to strike its adversary.
- Yemen’s president secretly allowed the United States to conduct counterterrorism operations inside his country even as he railed against them in public.
Manning later said she released the documents and videos because she was unhappy with the conduct of the American military and the country’s diplomats. She also said she purposely held on to some of what she took to avoid disclosures that could threaten the safety of US troops or American national security.
In May 2010, Manning was arrested in Iraq for giving the documents to WikiLeaks. Her military court martial began in June 2013. That July, she was convicted by a military judge on 17 of 22 charges including “violations of the Espionage Act, for copying and disseminating classified military field reports, State Department cables, and assessments of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.”
In August, she was sentenced to 35 years in prison. She then appealed her conviction in May 2016 with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union. And, of course, Obama commutated her sentence in January 2017.
Manning’s supporters celebrated her as a whistleblower and a hero of the anti-secrecy movement. Most Americans, though, were unhappy with Obama’s ultimate decision to reduce her sentence. In a YouGov poll, only 33 percent agreed with the commutation, including a surprisingly small 49 percent of Obama’s own Democrats.
Trump, unsurprisingly, was among the critics. On January 26, he expressed his displeasure at Obama for commuting the sentence and at Manning for criticizing Obama in the Guardian even after she learned of her imminent release.
Ungrateful TRAITOR Chelsea Manning, who should never have been released from prison, is now calling President Obama a weak leader. Terrible!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 26, 2017
Trump wasn’t alone. House Speaker Paul Ryan called Obama’s commutation “outrageous.” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it was “a grave mistake.”
Despite her time in prison, Manning will for now continue to officially be a member of the US Army. Because she appealed her court martial conviction — the one that put her behind bars in the first place — she will remain in the military until a decision on that appeal is handed down.
Her critics won't be happy to learn that she will receive military health care and other benefits while she waits, though she won’t receive a paycheck. She also "will not be required to report to a duty station or perform military duties," according to US Army spokesperson Valerie L. Mongello.
In a statement released via the ACLU, Manning said that “for the first time, I can see a future for myself as Chelsea. I can imagine surviving and living as the person who I am and can finally be in the outside world.”
The Manning controversy won’t end with her release
Manning, like Edward Snowden, is at once a poster child of the “insider threat” phenomenon and the civil liberties movement.
Both Manning and Snowden are insider threats because they posed a danger to the information security of their respective organizations. Many organizations protect themselves from outside hackers. But it turns out people who work at certain organizations can pose security threats to it too, just like Manning at the Army or Snowden at the NSA.
According to an IBM study, 55 percent of cyberattacks were carried out by someone on the inside, whether on purpose or by accident. Companies and governments are now more aware of the threat insiders pose to their organizations.
Also, the private sector now knows that its customer base craves more privacy. Google, Facebook, and Apple have all taken steps to increase the security of their platforms and the privacy of its customers.
There was one recent example of the new ground the privacy/national security debate plays on.
In the San Bernardino terrorism case, the FBI asked Apple to unlock the iPhone of Syed Farook, one of the terrorists. Apple CEO Tim Cook called it a “chilling” request and demurred. Apple and the FBI then went to court in 2016 in one of the most high-profile encryption cases ever. A third party eventually unlocked the phone, leading the FBI to drop its push.
That the case was even heard was already remarkable. Indeed, it is hard to imagine Apple standing up to the FBI in such a big way were it not for the civil liberties debate kicked into high gear by Manning and Snowden.
Meanwhile, the debate will continue to rage about Manning’s effect on US foreign and national security policy.
At Manning’s sentencing hearing in August 2013, then-US Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy said “some foreign government officials, business leaders, educators, and journalists” did not feel comfortable speaking with US diplomats after the disclosures because they feared their conversations would eventually become public.
He had a point. The United States had to put a temporary halt on an intelligence-sharing system put in place in 2006 to address pre-9/11 coordination failures.
After the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, some of the incident reports on Afghanistan released by Manning were found in the al-Qaeda leader’s Pakistani compound.
It is unlikely citizens without security clearances will ever know the full impact of what Manning’s leak did to US policymaking at home and abroad. But a few things are known.
During Manning’s hearing, Brig. Gen. Robert Carr, the leader of the military task force charged with studying the impact of the leak, said he could not find any specific examples of anyone who died because of the document dump. "I don't have a specific example," he said to a court in Fort Meade, Maryland, according to the Guardian.
At the time, unnamed State Department officials who were at the hearing said the leaks were “embarrassing but not damaging.”
That was not the official line, though. Then-State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley said that “from our standpoint, there has been substantial damage” to national security.
A lot has changed since Manning entered prison. WikiLeaks has drawn widespread scorn because of suspicions that it had worked with Russian intelligence to publish hacked emails in a way that would ensure maximum damage to Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the White House. Assange is currently hiding in plain sight at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid a Swedish rape charge.
Manning’s treatment by the US government, meanwhile, may have a chilling effect on other would-be leakers. Beyond the length of her sentence, Manning reportedly had a bad experience in prison. In a statement she wrote to Obama to reduce her sentence, she described her time at Leavenworth.
“I need help,” she wrote. “I am living through a cycle of anxiety, anger, hopelessness, loss, and depression. I cannot focus. I cannot sleep. I attempted to take my own life.” Manning attempted suicide twice, most recently last October. She was put in solitary confinement after her first attempt in early July.
Her experience, paired with Trump’s continuing tough talk about finding and punishing government leakers, could make others think twice about trying to follow in her footsteps.
If you see her as a hero, that would be bad news for the country. If you see her as a traitor, that would be an unmitigated victory for the rule of law. The debate about Manning, and those who might follow in her footsteps, won’t be ending anytime soon.