After seven years in prison, Chelsea Manning was released early Wednesday morning from the Fort Leavenworth disciplinary barracks in Kansas.
“I can confirm Manning has been released from The United States Disciplinary Barracks, Ft. Leavenworth,” an US Army spoke spokesman told reporters.
In a statement earlier this month, Manning thanked President Barack Obama, who commuted her sentence in January, three days before he left office. She also thanked her lawyers and supporters.
“For the first time, I can see a future for myself as Chelsea,” she said. “I can imagine surviving and living as a the person who I am can finally be in the outside world.”
“I watched the world change from inside prison walls and through the letters that I have received from veterans, trans young people, parents, politicians and artists,” Manning continued. “My spirits were lifted in dark times, reading of their support, sharing in their triumphs, and helping them through challenges of their own. I hope to take the lessons that I have learned, the love that I have been given, and the hope that I have to work toward making life better for others.”
Manning, who has been nominated three times for a Nobel Peace Prize, was convicted under the Espionage Act in 2013 and sentenced to 35 years in prison, more time than anyone has ever received for disclosing classified information in the history of the United States.
After enlisting in the US Army in the spring of 2007, Manning was trained as an intelligence analyst and later served at a forward operating base near Baghdad. It was there that she was first diagnosed by a clinical psychologist with gender dysphoria, a rare condition among transgender men and women marked by severed psychological distress. Her service took place a time when the Pentagon viewed transgender people as unfit and mentally ill. Gays and lesbians were also not permitted to serve openly.
Roughly five months after arriving in Baghdad, Manning downloaded and began leaking more than 725,000 secret US government documents to WikiLeaks, including diplomatic cables, battlefield reports, and five Guantanamo Bay detainee profiles.
Following her arrest for the leaks, Manning was detained in a Marine Corps brig for 11 months of her pretrial confinement. Her treatment, which included extended periods of solitary confinement, was deemed illegal by a military judge. When she arrived at the brig, she told the staff that she was “always planning” to kill herself, “but never acting.” Last year, she tried to take her own life twice; the military punished her for it, subjecting her to further periods of isolation.
At her court martial, Manning said she leaked the documents because she felt that the military had become “obsessed with capturing and killing human targets on lists.” She was intensely disturbed by the “seemingly delightful bloodlust” of helicopter pilots recorded during a 2007 US airstrike in Baghdad—a video which would WikiLeaks would later edit and publish under the title “Collateral Murder.” The pilots, she said, were like children “torturing ants with a magnifying glass.” They appeared not to value human life, she said, referring to the victims as “dead bastards.” Two war correspondents working for Reuters were killed in the first attack and during the second, two Iraqi children, aged 6 and 9, were seriously wounded.
Ultimately, Manning was charged with leaking only portions of 227 documents pulled from a classified computer network. Although she was branded a traitor by the government in the press, she was acquitted of aiding the enemy. She was convicted for violations of the Espionage Act and sentenced to 35 years behind bars.
Despite the unprecedented severity of her sentence, the overall risk posed by Manning’s disclosures was moderate to low, according to a classification review conducted by the Defense Intelligence Agency. She embarrassed the State Department by releasing its diplomatic cables, but there’s no evidence it caused any lasting harm. One concern was that confidential sources who’d passed the US government information might be harmed. But the Associated Press, which conducted an unofficial review of the cables in 2011, was unable to locate anyone who’d been threatened.
While publicly the Obama State Department maintained that Manning had done “significant damage” to the country, privately the opposite was asserted. The impact of the leaks was “embarrassing but not damaging,” a US official, who’d was briefed on the government’s internal review, told Reuters in 2011. In fact, 44 of the 116 diplomatic cables Manning was charged with disclosing were subsequently declassified by the State Department.
Manning displayed surprising faith in the military justice system: She pled guilty without the protection of a plea agreement and even refused to allow her defence attorney to speak directly to the media. Out of concern for the fairness of her court martial, she did not reveal herself publicly as transgender until the day after she was handed her 35-year sentence.
At the end of the trial, Manning openly took responsibility for what she had done. “I’m sorry that my actions her people. I’m sorry that they hurt the United States,” she said. “I understand that I must pay the price for my decisions and actions.”
While great attention was paid to the potential damage caused by Manning’s disclosures, the release of the Iraq and Afghan war logs (as WikiLeaks calls them), drove resentment of the US military’s ongoing conflicts in the Middle East to new heights, fuelling anti-war demonstrations across the Western world. She has also been credited with provoking awareness and public discourse about Pentagon’s maltreatment of transgender service members and veterans, who studies show are twice as likely to exhibit suicidal behaviour.
“President Obama’s act of commutation was the first time the military took care of this soldier who risked so much to disclose information that served the public interest,” Manning attorneys Nancy Hollander and Vincent Ward said in a joint statement last week. “We are delighted that Chelsea can finally begin to enjoy the freedom she deserves. And we thank the many, many people and organisations who have supported her and continue to support her as we fight in her appeal to clear her name.”
Chase Strangio, her lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the transition to life outside detention would not be easy. “Like far too many people in prison, particularly transgender women, Chelsea Manning has had to survive unthinkable violence throughout the seven years of her incarceration. Finally, she will be leaving prison and building a life beyond the physical walls of the many sites of her detention.”