I was constantly confronted with these two conflicting realities — the one I was looking at, and the one Americans at home believed. It was clear that so much of the information people received was distorted or incomplete. This dissonance became an all-consuming frustration for me.
In December 2009, I began the process of downloading reports of all our activities from Iraq and Afghanistan.
These were descriptions of enemy engagements with hostile forces or explosives that detonated. They contained body counts, coordinates and businesslike summaries of confusing, violent encounters. They contained, in their aggregate force, something much closer to the truth of what those two wars really looked like than what Americans were learning at home. They were a pointillist picture of wars that wouldn’t end.
I burned the files onto DVDs, labeled with titles like Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Manning’s Mix. I later transferred the files to a memory card, then shattered the discs with my boots on the gravel outside the trailers. On my next leave, I brought the documents back to America in my camera, as files on an SD memory card. This was every single incident report the U.S. Army had ever filed about Iraq or Afghanistan, every instance where a soldier thought there was something important enough to log and report. Navy customs personnel didn’t blink an eye. No one cared enough to notice.
Uploading the files directly to the internet wasn’t my first choice. I tried to reach traditional publications, but it was a frustrating ordeal. I didn’t trust the telephone, nor did I want to email anything; I could be surveilled. Even pay phones weren’t safe.
I went into chain stores — Starbucks, mostly — and asked to borrow their landline because supposedly my cellphone was lost or my car had broken down. I called The Washington Post and The New York Times, but I didn’t get anywhere.
I recalled that in 2008, during intelligence training, our instructor — a Marine Corps veteran turned contractor — told us about WikiLeaks, a website devoted to radical transparency, while instructing us not to visit it. But while I shared WikiLeaks’ stated commitment to transparency, I thought that for my purposes, it was too limited a platform. Most people back then had never heard of it. I worried that information on the site wouldn’t be taken seriously.
The website was the publication of last resort, but as the weeks went by and I got no response from traditional newspapers, I grew increasingly desperate. So, on the very last day of my leave, I went to a Barnes & Noble with my laptop.
Sitting at a chair in the bookstore cafe, I drank a triple grande mocha and zoned out, listening to electronic music — Massive Attack, Prodigy — to wait out the uploads. There were seven chunks of data to get out, and each one took 30 minutes to an hour. The internet was slow, and the connection was bad. I began to worry that I wouldn’t be able to complete my work before the store closed. But the Wi-Fi finally did its job.
The fallout was instant and intense. The documents proved, unambiguously and unimpeachably, just how disastrous the war still was. Once revealed, the truth could not be denied or unseen: This horror, this constellation of petty vendettas with an undertow of corruption — this was the truth of the war.
The disclosures became a flash point for a larger argument about how the United States should engage internationally, and how much the public deserved to know about how their government was acting in their name. I had changed the terms of the debate and pulled back the curtain. But while all that was happening, I knew nothing about it. I was in a cage.
Everyone now knows — because of what happened to me — that the government will attempt to destroy you fully, charge you with everything under the sun, for bringing to light the ugly truth about its own actions. What I was trying to do had never been done before, and therefore the consequences were, at the time, unknowable.
Daniel Ellsberg, who had disclosed the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, avoided prison because of illegal evidence-gathering by the Nixon White House (which had ordered a break-in of his psychiatrist’s office, in search of information that might discredit Mr. Ellsberg).
Nobody had gone to prison for this sort of thing; I hadn’t heard of Mr. Ellsberg at the time, but I was very aware of Thomas Drake, a National Security Agency whistle-blower who had been prosecuted under the Espionage Act. He’d faced charges that carried a 35-year prison sentence, but shortly before trial he’d cut a deal that left him with only probation and community service.
I certainly weighed the potential consequences. If I was caught, I would be detained, but I figured at most I was going to be discharged or lose my security clearance. I cared about my work, and it was frightening to imagine losing my job — I had been homeless before enlisting — but I thought that if I was court-martialed, it would damage only the government’s own credibility. I never really reckoned with the notion of a life spent in prison, or worse.
The details of what happened to me are, by now, well known. I was held for several months in a cage in Kuwait. I was sentenced to 35 years in a maximum-security prison, where I spent seven years, much of it in solitary confinement. During that time, I came out as transgender and transitioned. Denied gender-affirming health care, I went on a hunger strike. I attempted suicide twice.
But even in prison I remained active. I began writing
a columnfor The Guardian. I drafted a bill, “Bill to Re-establish the National Integrity and to Protect Freedom of Speech, and the Freedom of the Press,” which I proposed on Twitter and sent to members of Congress. It was meant to outlaw some of the most egregious ways that the Espionage Act and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act had been used against me, so that others wouldn’t be put in such a bind for wanting to do the right thing. It also included fixes to the Freedom of Information Act and would give stronger federal protections to journalists. It was a pipe dream and was treated as such.
On Jan. 17, 2017, President Barack Obama commuted my sentence, and I was released. Everyone expected me to be in shock at being out, to kiss the ground or something. It did feel surreal to be free, but it also felt as if what I’d been dealing with for the previous seven years would never be over. It certainly isn’t over now. I can never leave it behind.
This was my first time as a free woman. I had spent several years transitioning, so I felt comfortable in the way my body moved and felt. Even in prison, with restrictions on hair length and clothing, people had begun to accept me as a woman. They treated me as a human being. But now I needed to navigate a larger world with this new identity.
I emerged from prison a celebrity. I had been made, without consultation, into a symbol and figurehead for all kinds of ideas. Some of that was fun — Annie Leibovitz
photographed me for Vogue’s September issue. Some of it — the C.I.A. director pressuring Harvard to uninvite me from a visiting fellowship, Fox News seizing upon my very existence as a cheap way to rile up its viewers — was much less so.
The main upside to my notoriety has been that I can do important work. Activism quickly became almost a full-time job. I went to the Pride parade in New York City; I ran for Senate in Maryland; I protested the Trump administration’s policies on immigration and refugees, and President Donald Trump’s reinstatement of the ban on transgender personnel in the military. The political moment into which I emerged is one in which we are figuring out what got us here as a country.
What I did during my enlistment was part of a deep American tradition of rebellion, resistance and civil disobedience — a tradition we have long drawn upon to force progress and oppose tyranny. The documents I made public expose how little we knew about what was being done in our name for so many years.
Despite becoming notorious for my acts of divulgence, I am still, in many ways, bound to secrecy. There are things the media has made public about this story that I can’t comment on, confirm or deny. Certain details remain classified. I am limited to some degree in what I can put on the record.
Some people have characterized me as a traitor, which I continue to reject. I have faced serious consequences for sharing information that I believe to be in the public interest. But I believe that what I did was my democratic and ethical obligation.
Chelsea Manning is an American activist and the author of the forthcoming memoir “README.txt,” from which this essay has been adapted.