Chelsea Manning: ‘I struggle with the so-called free world compared with life in prison’
Nihilist, anarchist, idealist, troubled young transperson crying out for help: when a 22-year-old US military analyst leaked hundreds of thousands of classified documents, everyone thought they knew why. They were wrong, she says. This is what really happened
by Emma Brockes — Sat 22 Oct 2022
Chelsea Manning: ‘I’m not an actor or a movie star. Even YouTubers make more money than me.’ Photograph: Camila Falquez/The Guardian. Dress: Balenciaga Photograph: Camila Falquez/The Guardian
Chelsea Manning’s memoir opens like a Jason Bourne novel with a scene in which the then 22-year-old, on the last day of two weeks’ military leave, tries to leak an enormous amount of classified data via a sketchy wifi connection in a Barnes & Noble in Maryland.
Outside, a snowstorm rages. Inside, Manning, a junior intelligence analyst for the US army, freaks out as the clock ticks down. In 12 hours, her flight leaves for Iraq. Meanwhile she has half a million incident reports on US military activity to upload from a memory stick to an obscure website called WikiLeaks.
The military would later argue she didn’t have the clearance even to access these files – “exceeded authorised” as Manning puts it, in army parlance – but the fact is, she says, “It was encouraged. I was told, ‘Go look!’ The way you do analysis is you collect a shit-ton of data, a huge amount, in order to do the work on it.”
Everything about Manning on that afternoon of 8 February 2010 – her name, her gender, her anonymity, her freedom – is provisional and shortly to change. Three months later, she’ll be in a cage in Kuwait. Three years after that, she’ll be starting a 35-year prison sentence at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Meanwhile, the wider consequences of her actions that day will, depending on your view, topple governments; endanger lives; protect lives; uphold democracy; compromise global diplomacy; change the world in no measurable way whatsoever; or – Manning’s least favourite interpretation – boil down to a cry for help from a troubled young transperson seeking the care she required.
Today, sitting across the table from me in an office in Brooklyn, Manning is tiny, fierce, dressed all in black with long blond hair, and vibrating with enough nervous energy to power the lights.
“Are we recording?” she says as her eyes skim the room. For the space of our 90-minute encounter, she will seem only partially present, each question yanking her back to some unseen site of contest where she must defend herself against endless and wide-ranging charges.
The memoir is called README.txt, a misleadingly clunky title (it refers to the file name she used for the leaks) for a highly entertaining book that, while telling the story of why and how Manning leaked the data, gives equal space to her origins in Oklahoma, a complex and traumatic family story creating the conditions for all her subsequent decisions.
It’s a terrific read, full of unexpected turns and details that counter many of the assumptions made about Manning at the time. In the wake of her arrest, she was characterised by the US government as, variously, a nihilist, an anarchist, an idealist and an ideologue. Three days into her trial in 2013, Edward Snowden leaked classified National Security Agency (NSA) documents revealing how the US government spied on its own citizens, something, Manning notes drily in the book, that only damaged her image further.
“I support Ed generally, but on a personal level, the timing was difficult for me,” she writes. Snowden emerged as the grownup, the credible whistleblower to Manning’s loose cannon, “hero” to her “bad leaker”.
Compared with Snowden, Manning was young, inexperienced and, because she was in prison, unable to defend herself in interviews. When, at the end of the trial, a photo surfaced of Manning wearing a blond wig and eye makeup, it delivered to her critics a further made-for-TV narrative: she had a secret she couldn’t tell, so she told a nation’s secrets.
. . . And both an inspiration & challenge to Quakers & other people of faith.
Thank you to the Times for implicitly acknowledging this. And to Obama for commuting her prison sentence.
Chelsea Manning: ‘I’m Still Bound to Secrecy’
By Chelsea Manning
Ms. Manning is an American activist and the author of the forthcoming memoir “README.txt,” from which this essay has been adapted.
It is not possible to work in intelligence and not imagine disclosing the many secrets you bear.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when the idea first crossed my mind. Maybe it was in 2008, when I was learning to be an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army and was exposed to sensitive information for the first time. Or maybe the germ of the idea was planted when I was stationed at Fort Drum, in upstate New York. I was tasked with transporting a cache of classified hard drives in a large box in the summer heat, and I began to imagine what might happen if I screwed it up and left the box unattended. If someone managed to get ahold of a stray hard drive, what ripple effects might it cause?
I knew the official version of why these secrets had to be kept secret. We were protecting sources. We were protecting troop movements. We were protecting national security. Those things made sense. But it also seemed, to me, that we were protecting ourselves.
While I felt that my job was important, and I took my obligations seriously, a part of me always wondered: If we were acting ethically, why were we keeping so many secrets?
The monthsI spent in Iraq in 2009changed the way I understood the world. Every night, I woke up in the desert at 9 p.m. and walked from my tiny trailer to the Saddam Hussein-era basketball court that the military had converted into an intelligence operations center.
CNN Rush Transcript [text may not be in its final corrected form] from August 12 on the content and the significance of the retrieved TOP SECRET documents (emphasis added):
Erin Burnett (CNN-OutFront): In all, 11 sets of classified documents, four of them, according to this receipt, marked top secret. Four of them marked top secret, and one with that special designation of the highest classification were taken from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago. All in, the FBI collected more than 20 boxes.
Evan Perez is OUTFRONT in Washington.
Burnett: Evan, it’s pretty incredible, right? It’s been a year and a half of negotiations. They sent back 15 boxes. Oh, you got everything. It turns out no. Oh, no, now you’ve got everything. And now another 15 boxes with all of this list.
What more are you learning about what the FBI took and why?