The notorious transgender intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who joined the Army as Brad Manning, was released from military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, today. Transgender activists and civil libertarians celebrate, while supporters of military intelligence will be less impressed.
Here are five things to know about Manning’s release.
1. The crime.
In January 2010, Bradley Manning downloaded the 400,000 documents which later would become known as the Iraq War logs, along with the 91,000 documents known as the Afghan War logs. He smuggled the data through on a CD labeled “Lady Gaga.” After being turned down by The Washington Post and The New York Times, Manning sent the information to WikiLeaks in early February.
Beginning in February, WikiLeaks publicized the documents Manning sent, causing an uproar and giving the outlet the notoriety to push more classified information into the public eye. Manning was caught after contacting Adrian Lamo, a former hacker convicted in 2004. Lamo reported Manning to the authorities, and the leaker was arrested in late May 2010.
In June 2013, Manning was convicted of five counts of espionage and theft, along with other charges, but not of aiding the enemy, an official treason charge which can carry the death penalty. On August 21, she was sentenced to 35 years in prison, reduction in rank to private, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and a dishonorable discharge.
Outlets criticized the sentence as “unjust and unfair,” but in January, President Donald Trump declared Manning a “TRAITOR,” and there is reason to agree with the spirit behind that assessment. This was, after all, the largest leak of classified documents in U.S. history, even if Manning was not officially convicted of treason.
2. The gender identity.
Manning was born “Bradley Edward Manning” but identifies as a woman. The soldier enlisted in 2007 but was heavily bullied (another soldier said, “He was a runt, so pick on him. He’s crazy, pick on him. He’s a faggot, pick on him”) and applied for a discharge. In November 2009, Manning wrote to a gender counselor, saying she felt female and asking about gender surgery.
Because of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, Manning did not live as an openly gay man, but made no secret of his sexual orientation.
One day after being sentenced to 35 years in prison, Manning declared that he was really a girl. “As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female,” the private wrote in a statement read on the “Today” show. “Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible.”
She then asked that people refer to her “by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility).”
The convicted spy and thief then requested the military cover transgender “treatments,” including hormones and surgery.
3. The transgender activism.
Manning’s position in the military made her transgender identity particularly politically charged. Any “treatments” would have to be covered by the Army, so her requests pushed the U.S. military to change its policy towards individuals identifying as the opposite sex.
In April 2014, a Kansas judge granted Manning’s request for a legal name change. The Army stated that it would change her name, but regard her still as a male. Manning requested hormone therapy, which is provided in civilian federal prisons but not in military prisons. After rejecting a request to transfer Manning to a civilian facility, the Army allowed Manning to begin rudimentary treatment.
After the ACLU and Manning’s attorney David Coombs said she was not receiving treatment for her condition, Manning herself filed a lawsuit in federal district court. She sued to be allowed to grow her hair longer, use cosmetics, and to receive hormone treatments.
In February 2015, USA Today reported a memo in which the commandant of her prison approved hormone treatment for Manning. Since she remained a soldier, this decision was a first for the Army. On March 5, 2015, the U.S. Army Court of Appeals ruled that references to Manning would henceforth be either gender neutral or female.
In April 2015, Amnesty International posted a letter from Manning in which she wrote, “I finally began my prescribed regime of hormones to continue my overdue gender transition in February. It’s been such an amazing relief for my body and brain to finally come into alignment with each other.”
On September 13, 2016, the ACLU announced that the Army would grant Manning’s request for gender transition surgery, a first for a transgender inmate. In December, Manning’s attorneys reported that her military doctor, Dr. Ellen Galloway, refused Manning’s request to change the gender on her military records.
Manning’s prison term included two reported suicide attempts (in July and October 2016) and a hunger strike in September aimed at obtaining sex reassignment surgery.
4. Saved by President Obama.
On his third-to-last day in office, President Barack Obama commuted Manning’s sentence, along with the sentences of 209 other people. Even before the commutation, White House spokesman Josh Earnest had said Manning’s actions were not as “dangerous” as those of notorious leaker Edward Snowden.
Before Obama’s commutation, more than 117,00 people had signed a petition asking the White House to consider it. Snowden himself tweeted in Manning’s defense.
Mr. President, if you grant only one act of clemency as you exit the White House, please: free Chelsea Manning. You alone can save her life.
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) January 11, 2017
WikiLeaks had also tweeted that founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the U.S. if Obama granted clemency to Manning, but it seems Assange has reneged on that offer, if indeed he offered it.
“I think justice was finally done today,” Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, told NBC News. “Thirty-five years was not an appropriate sentence. Seven years is still too long, but at least Chelsea now will be able to return to her life, return to her family and to the people who love her.”
Many vehemently attacked Obama’s decision, however. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said “we ought not treat a traitor like a martyr.”
“When I was leading soldiers in Afghanistan, Private Manning was undermining us by leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks,” Cotton added. “I don’t understand why the president would feel special compassion for someone who endangered the lives of our troops, diplomats, intelligence officers, and allies.”
It wasn’t only Republicans attacking Manning. “There are very serious consequences when you release the kind of documents she did,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) told CNN. “At the end of the day, there was enormous damage done. You cannot ultimately put the United States at risk because of your individual actions… there have to be serious consequences.”
5. What happens now?
Even when Manning leaves the military prison in Leavenworth, she will remain an active duty soldier in the U.S. Army. When Obama commuted her sentence, it appears he removed the dishonorable discharge.
She will not be paid a salary, and it’s highly unlikely that she will be called to serve. But being placed on voluntary excess leave rather than being discharged makes her vulnerable to new military punishment or charges if she steps out of line, one of her attorneys explained.
“Chelsea is still subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ),” Coombs, Manning’s attorney, told NBC News. “She wouldn’t be charged again for the same offenses, but if she committed a new crime, the military would still have jurisdiction over her.”
Coombs explained, “You would want to be careful in terms of what you want to write or say if you’re still under military control. Let’s say you write something critical, now you run the real chance of being called on the carpet for that.”
This might severely limit Manning’s ability to advocate for transgender issues. Nevertheless, the transgender prisoner has advocated for liberal issues on Twitter. In March, when the Republican Congress’ bill to repeal and replace Obamacare failed in the House, Manning tweeted her approval, declaring, “Yay! … We want more healthcare, not less.”
— Chelsea E. Manning (@xychelsea) March 24, 2017
Her most recent tweet emphasized health care. “Now hunting for private #healthcare like millions of Americans,” Manning declared.
Two more days until the freedom of civilian life ^_^ Now hunting for private #healthcare like millions of Americans =P
— Chelsea E. Manning (@xychelsea) May 15, 2017
Nevertheless, USA Today reported that Manning will be eligible for health care and other benefits to soldiers. “Pvt. Manning is statutorily entitled to medical care while on excess leave in an active duty status, pending final appellate review,” Army spokesman Dave Foster said.
Reuters reported that Manning is leaving prison at a time when Americans are more accepting of transgender identity. But the issue is still contentious, and a majority of Americans agree that transgender people should not be able to use the bathrooms and changing rooms they prefer, and that doctors should be able to op out of performing transgender surgery.
Chelsea Manning will exit prison, but that will not make her popular. It will be interesting to see what Americans think of her, whether or not she stays in the public eye. LGBT activists and civil libertarians might support her, but social conservatives and people concerned about the privacy of U.S. intelligence secrets will continue to look askance at her.
Is Manning a traitor, as Trump declared? Even if she is, it is hard to see how President Trump could punish her after Obama commuted her sentence.