Her disclosure of classified documents in 2010 ushered in the age of leaks. Now, freed from prison, she talks to Matthew Shaer about why she did it - and the isolation that followed.
On a gray morning this spring, Chelsea Manning climbed into the back seat of a black SUV and directed her security guard to drive her to the nearest Starbucks.
A storm was settling over Manhattan, and Manning was prepared for the weather, in chunky black Doc Martens with an umbrella and a form-fitting black dress.
Her legs were bare, her eyes gray blue. She wore little makeup: a spot of eyeliner, a smudge of pink lip gloss.
At Starbucks, she ordered a white chocolate mocha and retreated to a nearby stool. Manning has always been small (she is 5 feet 4 inches tall), but in her last few months at the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, she jogged religiously, outside in the prison yard and around the track of the prison gym, and her body had taken on a lithe sharpness, apparent in the definition of her arms and cheekbones.
She looked healthy and fit, if a little uneasy, as people who have served long spells in prison often do.
She had been released only eight days earlier, after serving seven years of a 35-year sentence. Her crime, even in hindsight, was an astonishing one: handing WikiLeaks approximately 250,000 American diplomatic cables and roughly 480,000 Army reports from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Collectively the largest leak of classified records in American history, the disclosures cleared a path for Edward Snowden and elevated the profile of Julian Assange, then little-known outside hacker circles. “Without Chelsea Manning,” P.J.
Crowley, an assistant secretary of state from 2009 to 2011, told me recently, “Julian Assange is just another fringe actor who resents what he sees as American hegemonic hubris.”
To an extraordinary extent, Manning’s actions, in the words of Denver Nicks, the author of a book on her case, represented the “beginning of the information age exploding upon itself”, a new era in which leaks were a weapon, data security was of paramount importance and privacy felt illusory.
In January 2017, after being locked up at five different facilities, in conditions a United Nations expert called “cruel” and “inhumane,” Manning had received a surprise commutation by President Barack Obama.
Four months later, she was free, trying to adjust to life in a world she helped shape. Finishing her coffee, she fished her iPhone out of her purse and asked her security guard for a lift back to the apartment where she was staying while in Manhattan.
The one-bedroom was furnished sparsely, with a wide glass table and a tan couch, opposite which Manning had set up an Xbox One video game console.
The art was of the anodyne motel variety — an old masters-esque tableau, a canvas of a zebra standing in a forest. We were many floors up, suspended in the storm clouds, and through the window I could see the spires of the skyscrapers on the other side of the Hudson River.
Manning, who is 29, tapped an unplugged microwave next to the door and asked me to place my laptop inside: The Faraday cage in the microwave would block radio waves, she explained.
But the unplugged microwave was already full of devices, including two Xbox controllers. “You can put it in the kitchen microwave,” Manning said; then, intuiting the strangeness of the request, she added with a shrug, “You can’t be too careful.”
She recalled that she last gave an in-person, on-the-record interview to a journalist in 2008, on the occasion of a marriage equality march in New York.
For almost a decade after that, barred by prison officials from communicating directly with the public, she remained silent as her story was told in books, an opera, an off-Broadway play and countless magazine articles, almost all of them written before Manning had come out as transgender.
“It wasn’t the whole story,” she told me, “my whole story.”
Absent her own voice, a pair of dueling narratives had emerged.
One had Manning, in the words of President Donald Trump, as an “ungrateful traitor.” The other positioned her as transgender icon and champion of transparency — a “secular martyr,” as Chase Madar, a former attorney and the author of a book on her case, recently put it to me.
But in Manning’s presence, both narratives feel like impossible simplifications, not least because Manning herself is clearly still grappling with the meaning of what she did seven years ago. When I asked her to draw lessons from her journey, she grew uneasy. “I don’t have. ... " she started. “Like, I’ve been so busy trying to survive for the past seven years that I haven’t focused on that at all.”
But surely, I pressed, she must have some sense of the impact she had on the world. “From my perspective,” she responded, “the world’s shaped me more than anything else. It’s a feedback loop.”
As far back as Manning can remember, to her earliest days in Crescent, on the far edge of the Oklahoma City metro area, she suffered from a feeling of intense dislocation, something constant and psychic that she struggled to define to herself, much less to her older sister, Casey, or her parents, Brian and Susan.
During one of our interviews, I mentioned that I heard a clinical psychologist compare gender dysphoria to a “giant, cosmic toothache.” Manning flushed. That was it exactly, she agreed: “Morning, evening, breakfast, lunch, dinner, wherever you are. It’s everywhere you go.”
At the age of 5, Manning recalled, she approached her father, an information technology manager for Hertz, and confessed that she wanted to be a girl, “to do girl things.” Brian responded with a lengthy and awkward speech on the essential differences in “plumbing.”
But Manning told me, “I didn’t understand how that had anything to do with what you wore or how you behaved.”
Soon she was sneaking into her sister’s bedroom and donning Casey’s acid-washed jeans and denim jackets. Seated at the mirror, she would apply lipstick and blush, frantically scrubbing off the makeup at the slightest stirring from downstairs.
“I wanted to be like [Casey] and live like her,” Manning said.
When she was still in elementary school, she came out as gay to a straight male friend. The friend was understanding; the other kids at school, less so. Manning tried, unsuccessfully, to retract her confession, but the teasing continued. “I would come home crying some days, and if my dad was there, he’d say: ‘Just quit crying and man up.
Like, go back there and punch that kid in the face,'” she said. It was the late 1990s, when the trans movement was very much on the fringes of American society.
“The closest I came to knowing anything was from the portrayal of drag queen-style cross-dressing on sensational TV shows” like Jerry Springer’s, Manning told me.
She spent more time inside, on the computers that her father was always bringing home, playing video games and dabbling in basic code.
Her parents had issues of their own. When Manning was about 12, Susan swallowed an entire bottle of Valium. Casey called 911, only to be told that the nearest ambulance was a half-hour away.
Casey loaded her mother into the car; Brian, who Manning says was too drunk to drive, sat shotgun, leaving a terrified Chelsea in the back to make sure her mother kept breathing. She told me the incident was formational.
“I grew up very quickly after that,” she said. (Brian could not be reached for comment.)
In Susan’s native Wales, where Manning moved with her in 2001 after her parents split, Chelsea says she took over full control of the household, paying bills and handling much of the shopping.
There was freedom there, too: She could buy her own makeup at the convenience store, wear it for a few hours in public and jam it into a waste bin on her way home.
She passed many evenings on her computer, in LGBT chatrooms. Her worldview shifted. While in Crescent, Manning had imbibed her father’s conservative politics — “I questioned nothing,” she told me.
But at Tasker Milward, a school in the town of Haverfordwest, she studied the civil rights movement, the Red Scare, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. In a term paper for a history class, she expressed skepticism about the rationale for the American invasion of Iraq.
When Manning returned to the United States in 2005 to live with Brian and his new wife in Oklahoma City, she was a changed person, if not a wholly transformed one: She wore eyeliner and grew out her hair and dyed it black.
“I thought, Maybe I want to just eradicate this gender thing and be gender neutral, like androgynous,” she told me.
"She found a job at an internet startup and, through a matchmaking site, met her first boyfriend, who lived 70 miles away in the town of Duncan. But her stepmother, Manning said, forbade her from setting foot in the kitchen: “She felt that I was unclean.”
Manning confided to no one what she was increasingly coming to understand: that she wasn’t gay, wasn’t a cross-dresser. She was a woman.
In the summer of 2006, she and her boyfriend parted ways, and she lit out from Oklahoma for good, all her belongings piled high in the cab of her red Nissan pickup truck.
A spell of itinerancy followed — out to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to work at a pizza parlor; up to Chicago to work at Guitar Center; east to the suburbs of Washington to live with her aunt, with whom she enjoyed a connection she never shared with her parents.
She did four sessions with a psychologist, but got no closer to unburdening herself than she had with friends or family members. “I was scared,” Manning said. “I didn’t know that life could be better.”
Brian Manning had often fondly recounted for Chelsea his days in the military: It had given him structure and grounding, he said.
Manning hadn’t been ready to listen then. Now she was. Enlisting might be the thing to “man her up,” to rid her of the ache. Besides, while her ideas about American foreign policy had become more nuanced, she still considered herself a patriot — in the Army, she could use her analytical skills to help her country.
“I remember sitting in the summer of 2007 and just every single day turning on the TV” and seeing the news from Iraq, she told me. “The surge, the surge, the surge. Terrorist attacks. Insurgents. ... I just felt like maybe I could make a difference.”
That fall, Manning reported for basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in the Missouri Ozarks; within a few days, she had suffered injuries to her arm. “The drill sergeants were acting like I was malingering or something,” she said.
“But I was like: ‘No, I’m not trying to get out of anything. I just really can’t feel my right hand.'” A soldier who spent time with Manning in Missouri later recalled for The Guardian that Manning was routinely called a “faggot.” “The guy took it from every side. He couldn’t please anyone. And he tried. He really did,” the soldier said.
The Army, in need of more bodies to fight the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, allowed Manning another shot at boot camp. In 2008, she graduated to intelligence school at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, which to her felt like a kind of community college.
There, she was trained to sort what the military terms SigActs, or significant actions — the written reports, photos and videos of the confrontations, explosions and firefights that form the mosaic of modern war. Manning told me she fit in well with the intelligence types at Fort Huachuca, who shared her intrinsic geekiness.
“There were more like-minded people there,” she said, adding, “It wasn’t ‘Rah, rah, you need to do this.’ They encouraged us to speak up. They encouraged us to have opinions, to make our own decisions.”
At her first official duty station, Fort Drum in upstate New York, Manning was charged in part with helping to build a digital tool that would automatically track and sort SigActs from Afghanistan, where Manning’s unit initially expected to be deployed.
For hours a day, she watched spectral night-vision video and read reports from distant battlefields. Already, she was being exposed to the bloodshed that would serve as inspiration for her leaks.
But she was handling the material at a spatial and emotional reserve: She remained, she told me, “eager” to get to the front lines. “I was hungry."
Through a gay dating site, she met a bookish Brandeis student named Tyler Watkins. She started driving to visit Watkins in the Boston area, where she became a regular at Pika, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology co-op, and visited Boston University’s Builds, a hub of the local hacking community.
At the Pika gatherings, she found friends that approached coding the same way she did: as outlet, pastime and calling. She often stayed up late into the night talking. Yan Zhu, then an undergraduate student at MIT, remembers Manning as “obviously intelligent,” if “nervous.”
It was clear to Zhu that Manning was “haunted by something.” But she never had a chance to find out what: That fall, Manning’s unit was deployed to Iraq.
In October 2009, Manning hopped a Black Hawk from Baghdad to Forward Operating Base Hammer, 30 miles east of the city.
In the cabin, strapped into the chopper’s jump seats, she began putting names to places that had long been digital abstractions.
“I had seen imagery for nine or 10 months prior,” Manning recalled, “I knew the landscape so well from the air that I recognized these neighborhoods, and it woke me up to see people walking around and to see people driving and to see the buildings and the trees below.”
Ringed by desert, the low-slung buildings of FOB Hammer baked in the summer and coursed with mud in the fall.
Every night, Manning rose from her bunk at 9 p.m., dressed in standard-issue visual camouflage and grabbed her rifle. After quickly eating dinner for breakfast, she walked to a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF, to report for duty.
Manning’s SCIF was a glorified “plywood box” with lousy airflow, situated on a basketball court. She sat at the free-throw line, in a reclining office chair, where she spent her overnight shift facing three laptop computers.
Manning’s isolation took on a new form: Hidden away in the darkened SCIF, she would work for eight hours at a stretch, sifting through reports filed securely by American troops in the field, making sense of the raw data for senior-level intelligence officers. She remained sealed off from actual conflict, though she could hear the shudder of car bombs and sometimes ran into soldiers, dazed and dusty, on their way back from a firefight.
At that early juncture, Manning told me, she was too busy to give much thought to the larger import of what she was seeing. “Doing my job, you couldn’t even really read all the files,” she said. “You have to skim, get a sense of what’s relevant and what’s not.”
Still, to an extraordinary extent, she had a more comprehensive view of America’s role in Iraq than the infantry in the field did — often, literally, a sky-level view — and as October ground into November, she found herself increasingly dismayed by a lack of public awareness about what seemed to be a futile, ceaselessly bloody war.
“At a certain point,” she told me, “I stopped seeing records and started seeing people”: bloody American soldiers, bullet-ridden Iraqi civilians.
On rare reprieves from the SCIF, Manning accompanied senior officers to meetings with the Iraqi military and the Iraqi federal police, sit-downs that further entrenched her disillusionment.
“There would be these tea sessions, where you’ve got the Iraqi federal police in their blue uniforms, you’ve got Iraqi Army in, like, the old chocolate-chip camouflage and the Americans in our smeared green digital camouflage,” Manning said — everyone speaking in different languages, frequently at cross-purposes. “I’d come in thinking things would be black and white. They weren’t.”
Manning told me she heard the name WikiLeaks for the first time in 2008, at a computer security training course at Fort Huachuca.
By the end of 2009, she had started logging on to internet relay chat conversations devoted to the site. (IRC, a semisecure protocol, was then the preferred method of communication for hackers.)
Initially, she was an observer: She was intrigued by the work that Assange and his team were doing, if not quite ready to endorse their argument for total transparency. She told me that she believed then, and believes now, that “there are plenty of things that should be kept secret.”
“Let’s protect sensitive sources. Let’s protect troop movements. Let’s protect nuclear information. Let’s not hide missteps. Let’s not hide misguided policies. Let’s not hide history. Let’s not hide who we are and what we are doing.”
She was edging closer to acting but said nothing about the IRC channel to her friends at FOB Hammer, nor about her own personal tumult.
She was now fighting to keep what amounted to two life-altering secrets. She couldn’t discuss her identity openly: The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was still in effect, and it would be years before transgender people were allowed to openly enlist. “I binge watched TV shows on the internet,” she said.
“I was smoking heavily. I was drinking an enormous amount of caffeine. I was going to the dining facility and eating as much as I could. Just any little tiny escape or way to feel like I’m not there anymore.” Her boyfriend was little help: Manning could feel him slipping away. “I was in denial about it, but I had a sense ... that I was being forgotten,” she told me.
Manning had a two-week leave coming up. She planned to spend time in Boston, trying to patch things up with Watkins, and in the suburbs of Washington with her aunt.
She dreamed about using the occasion to come out to her family and friends as trans. “I kept having this moment in my head,” she told me, “where I just yell it at the top of my lungs.” But she knew, in her heart, that she’d never be able to go through with it.
Before leaving FOB Hammer, Manning downloaded, from the government’s Combined Information Data Network Exchange, almost every SigActs report from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and burned a compressed version of the data onto CD-RW discs, one of which was labeled “Lady Gaga.”
She did it in full view of her fellow soldiers. But what she did next violated the most important precepts she was taught at Fort Huachuca, along with the oath of enlistment she swore in 2007: She uploaded the contents of the discs onto the personal laptop she planned to take home to the United States. She had not decided what she would do with the data.
Days later, Manning put on a blond wig and ran in a low crouch from the side door of her aunt’s house, out of view of the neighbors, and drove to the train station.
She wore a dark coat and, under it, business-casual womanswear she bought at a local department store; she claimed it was for her friend who needed it for a job interview.
In Washington, she went to a Starbucks, ate lunch at a busy restaurant and wandered through the aisles of a bookstore; later, she climbed back on the Metro and rode it aimlessly around.
She took great pleasure in being seen as she knew she was and comfort in how easily she passed — rarely did anyone give her a second glance.
“Before I deployed, I didn’t have the guts,” Manning, who was then privately referring to herself as Brianna, told me. But her time in Iraq was changing her. “Being exposed to so much death on a daily basis makes you grapple with your own mortality,” she went on. She no longer wanted to hide.
The expedition was the high point of a disappointing two-week leave. The Army had bumped up her departure from FOB Hammer, and her family hadn’t had time to readjust their schedules: Manning’s aunt was on a trip abroad, and her sister had just had her first child — it would be tricky to carve out time for Chelsea.
Manning took a train up to see Watkins at his home in Waltham, in Massachusetts, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that he didn’t really want her there, so she cut her stay short by three days.
At that point, it would have been possible for Manning to return to Iraq with the files unshared — her actions had been illegal, if reversible. But Manning told me that being in the United States had prompted an epiphany.
At home, she says, she realized how invisible the wars had become to most civilians, whose awareness of Iraq extended as far as the occasional newspaper article or chyron on cable news. “There were two worlds,” she said.
“The world in America, and the world I was seeing [in Iraq],” She went on, “I wanted people to see what I was seeing.”
A blizzard hit Washington. Manning’s aunt still wasn’t back from vacation. Alone, Manning transferred parts of the files to a small memory card and prepared an anonymous text file she wanted to accompany the information.
“This is possibly one of the more significant documents of our time removing the fog of war and revealing the true nature of 21st-century asymmetric warfare,” she wrote. “Have a good day.”
Manning told me her decision to provide the information to WikiLeaks was a practical one.
She originally planned to deliver the data to The New York Times or The Washington Post, and for the last week of her leave, she dodged from public phone to public phone, calling the main office lines for both papers, leaving a message for the public editor at The Times and engaging in a frustrating conversation with a Post writer, who said she would have to know more about the files before her editor would sign off on an article.
A hastily arranged meeting with Politico, where she hoped to introduce herself to the site’s security bloggers, was scrapped because of bad weather.
“I wanted to try to establish a contact in a way that it couldn’t be traced to me,” Manning told me. But she was running out of time. She describes a clearheaded sense of purpose coming over her: “I needed to do something,” she told me. “And I didn’t want anything to stop that.”
On Feb. 3, 2010, Manning signed onto her laptop and, using a secure file-transfer protocol, sent the files to WikiLeaks.
BACK AT FOB Hammer, time sped up; everything seemed to be happening at once.
Manning had been away two full weeks, and there was a lot to catch up on — “I had to triple my work,” Manning told me. There had been no sign that WikiLeaks received her files, nor any indication that the Army knew anything was amiss.
She remembers being in a perpetual state of heightened anxiety. She slept less, smoked more.
In mid-February, on break from the SCIF, she noticed an interesting thread on the WikiLeaks IRC channel, where participants were discussing the financial crisis in Iceland — a collapse that Manning, reading through the library of secure diplomatic cables available to her as an analyst, concluded was roiling onward because of the inaction of the United States and what she described as diplomatic bullying by the Netherlands and Britain.
“From my perspective, it appeared that we were not getting involved due to the lack of long-term geopolitical benefit to do so,” she would later testify.
Following the same steps as before, she leaked several diplomatic cables pertaining to the Iceland crisis to WikiLeaks; this time, within hours, WikiLeaks published the documents.
Manning was thrilled: If the cables had reached WikiLeaks, the much larger leak of SigActs had almost certainly made it, too.
Around this time, Manning had several IRC conversations with a person whom Manning identified in her online address book as “Nathaniel Frank,” after the author of the book “Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America.”
Frank was almost certainly Assange, although Manning declined to discuss the matter with me — the bulk of the chats are classified and could be used in future legal actions against Assange.
Manning followed the transmissions of the SigActs and the Iceland cables with a leak that was harder to ignore.
Published by WikiLeaks under the title “Collateral Murder,” the 3-year-old video, captured by a camera mounted on an American helicopter, showed two gunships approaching a group of men in an area where there had been reports of small-arms fire.
The helicopter crew repeatedly requests permission to engage — “Let us shoot!” a voice is heard saying — before receiving it and opening fire.
In total, at least a dozen people were killed in the 2007 strike, including several civilians and two staff members of the Reuters news agency.
Manning says she knew that Reuters, under the Freedom of Information Act, had asked the United States government for a copy of the video but never received it.
This was symptomatic, she said, of the worst impulses of a government obsessed with blanket classification. “It makes sense to keep some information secret for a few days, maybe a few years,” she told me. “The problem is, more and more, everything is secret by default.”
In long chat threads, Manning’s relationship with Frank deepened. She warmed to the role of truth-teller, handing over a small library of Detainee Assessment Briefs, or DABs, from the American holding facility at Guantánamo Bay.
“Living such an opaque life, has forced me never to take transparency, openness and honesty for granted,” she wrote the former hacker Adrian Lamo, whom Manning had reached out to as a confessor and who was, unknown to Manning, already working with government investigators.
Privately, however, she was coming apart.
Army investigators looking into her case would later detail several episodes of what they termed “bizarre behavior,” including blank stares and an incident in which Manning was found on the floor of a supply room, having carved the words “I WANT” into a nearby chair.
She recalled that the unit, as a whole, was “on edge,” breaking out into verbal arguments and brawls. Their deployment was coming to an end, “and that’s when people start getting sick of each other and the personal animosity breaks out.”
In April, Manning emailed an Army superior a photo of her as Brianna that she took in Washington while on leave. “Now I knew who I was,” Manning told me.
“But the people I’m around the most didn’t.” She titled the email “My Problem.” The issue of her gender identity was “not going away,” she wrote. “Now, the consequences of it are dire.” (Manning said her captain confirmed receipt of the email but “swept it under the rug.”)
Manning told me that she had resolved, in May, to go public with her role as whistleblower, even as she was wrestling with how to express her gender identity. She was never able to settle on an approach.
At the end of May, she was summoned to a conference room, where two agents from the Army Criminal Investigation Division were waiting. Manning was terrified, but she tried not to show it: “I was focused inward at that time: who I am, what my values are,” she recalled. She retreated “inside [her] head.”
Days later, she was shackled, flown to Camp Arfijan in Kuwait and locked in a large steel cage. Kneeling down, she read the engraved words on the bars: Made in Fort Wayne.
Seven years later, it remains difficult to overstate the impact of the Afghan and Iraq war logs, or the later publication of the diplomatic cables.
“The material touched on virtually every relationship the United States had around the world,” Crowley, the former State Department official, says of the cables.
Repercussions came swiftly: Carlos Pascual, the United States ambassador to Mexico, resigned over cables in which he cast doubt on the effectiveness of the Mexican war on drugs, a revelation that poisoned Pascual’s relationship with the Mexican president.
Ambassador Gene Cretz was recalled from Libya after his cables detailed the peculiar workings of the regime of Col.
Moammar Gadhafi, including a squad of female Ukrainian bodyguards. The release of cables regarding the Tunisian strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali are often credited with helping to inspire the uprising in that country.
The Afghan and Iraq documents brought home, in exactly the way that Manning had hoped, the messiness of the two conflicts.
The Guardian wrote in an introduction that the release of the material from Afghanistan revealed a war in stark contrast with the “tidied up and sanitized ‘public’ war, as glimpsed through official communiqués as well as the necessarily limited snapshots of embedded reporting.”
American officials, caught off guard by the leaks, were furious. Elizabeth Dibble, a State Department official, later testified that the release of the cables prompted “horror and disbelief that our diplomatic communications had been released and were available on public websites for the world to see.”
The issue of whether American interests had been adversely affected by the release of the cables remains a charged one.
In the full text of the Afghan war logs that appeared on the WikiLeaks site, Assange made only partial redactions, leaving intact the names of some of the Afghans who had collaborated with coalition forces.
(He showed what CNN later described as a “much heavier hand in redacting” names from the Iraq war logs.)
In 2010, Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, said that “we know for a fact that people will likely be killed because of this information being disclosed.”
Subsequent reviews by The Associated Press and McClatchy found this risk to be “overstated,” and at Manning’s sentencing, government witnesses testified that no American deaths could be attributed to the leaks.
Still, Crowley said, a lack of evidence of fatalities was not the same thing as a lack of damage: “She burned a number of intelligence sources,” he said.
“She placed Afghans in danger who were telling us what the Taliban was doing in their villages.”
In her cage in Kuwait, Manning registered none of the fallout. “I was completely isolated,” she said.
At a certain point, she concluded, “I’ve been forgotten about, and I’ve just disappeared.”
She figured that Lamo had turned her in, but she wasn’t sure if word of her involvement in the leaks had been made public.
It was the start of the hot season in Kuwait, and dust swirled in from outside, lodging in her teeth. Her only human contact was with the guards who brought her meals.
“I had told the detention center when I got there that I was trans,” Manning told me.
“'I’m a woman,’ I said matter-of-factly. They laughed.”
In utter isolation, Manning found herself consumed with rage and sadness.
Officials observed what Manning’s attorney called an episode of “yelling uncontrollably, screaming, shaking, babbling, banging your head against your cell and mumbling.”
Manning told me: “I was afraid I was going to be in that little cell or something like that little cell for the rest of my life. And that bad things were going to happen to me.”
After a week, she fashioned a noose from bedclothes and made what she told me was a “halfhearted attempt” at suicide. “I kind of knew it wasn’t going to work.”
It got the staff’s attention, and according to a medical evaluation later obtained by Manning’s legal team, a military doctor would diagnose anxiety, depression and “probable gender identity disorder.”
She was given an antidepressant, which made her nose bleed and caused serious nausea. She couldn’t eat. Her skin eventually turned sallow.
In late July, four days after the Afghan logs appeared in The Guardian and other papers, Manning was shackled and loaded onto a chartered military flight.
She said that previously guards had told her she would be “whisked away to a Navy cruiser” for months; now her escorts said she was going to Guantánamo. Halfway through the flight, the story changed a final time: She was going to the brig at the Marine base at Quantico, in Virginia.
It was there, on arrival, that she learned the world knew who she was. “So you’re Manning!” a heavyset Marine said with unnerving enthusiasm.
Manning was all over Fox News, he added.
In transferring Manning to Quantico, the government said it was providing Manning with facilities better-suited to her fractured mental state.
But a 2011 military investigation, undertaken in part as a response to Manning’s treatment, would reveal the opposite: At Quantico, Manning spent 23 hours a day in a 6-by-8-foot cell, for nearly nine months, much of it on Prevention of Injury, or POI, status, in conditions that a United Nations special rapporteur later said could qualify as torture.
While on POI watch, Manning wore what’s known as a “suicide smock,” a white nylon garment that is all but impossible to twist or rip into a noose. She had no pillow, no sheets. She was required to give regular verbal confirmation during the day that she was OK. (After the investigation, the military ordered that Quantico’s whole pretrial confinement area be shut down.)
When I asked Manning this spring to describe those conditions, she answered in the present tense.
“Emotions can be more intense,” she said. “There isn’t any release for them. A mean comment by a guard” — commonly a gibe about her gender — “can set you off.
Completely off. I know I have stood in a cell at times, locked down with nowhere to go, pacing with anger and frustration. It just stews inside of you, and you’re helpless,” she went on.
“I just start yelling, at no one in particular, or singing at the top of my lungs.”
But Manning could occasionally receive outside visitors, and her aunt came to the brig.
“Even though it was behind a Plexiglas window and we couldn’t talk without recording equipment around,” Manning told me, “it was one of the most powerful meetings I’d ever had.” They whispered to each other.
“We love you,” her aunt told her. “We miss you.” They made plans to hire an independent attorney, eventually selecting David Coombs, a forceful lawyer in his early 40s who had served more than a decade in the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps.
Word of Manning’s treatment in Kuwait and Quantico had begun to filter out, reaching legal eminences like Laurence Tribe and Kwame Anthony Appiah, who signed an open letter criticizing what they described as “conditions that are illegal and immoral.”
In the spring of 2011 the government transferred Manning again, this time to the Midwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility at Fort Leavenworth.
In Kansas, she was released into general population; it was, Manning recalled, “an utter shock to the system, because I had been in shackles everywhere I went or in a small room or a cage.”
At the facility, inmates weren’t required to work, so she spent her time in the library, helping Coombs and his assistants prepare her case. She faced a staggering number of violations, 22 in all, from circumventing security mechanisms to aiding the enemy, an offense that carried with it the possibility of life in prison.
For two months that spring, with Manning moved to a civilian prison outside Fort Meade, in Maryland, Coombs sparred with government lawyers, highlighting what he termed the general “lawlessness” of Manning’s unit and the poor security protocols in place in her SCIF.
He eventually argued that Manning’s gender dysphoria — and the inability of the Army to provide treatment — might have affected Manning’s mental capacity and judgment. A few days later, the judge found Manning guilty on all but two counts.
Manning was spared a conviction for aiding the enemy and avoided a life sentence. Manning told me that she was relieved, and not only for the obvious reasons: She worried that an aiding-the-enemy charge would set a frightening precedent for the prosecution of whistleblowers. “I still worry about how that charge can be misused,” Manning said.
She herself had resolved not to make her own gender identity public during the court-martial, worried that it would complicate an already unwieldy trial.
But listening to the testimony of Lauren McNamara, a transgender friend who testified at the sentencing hearing, she found she had reached a breaking point.
“I was tired of pretending,” she told me. She wrote a statement identifying herself as Chelsea, a name she used as a child for her handle on the “Sims” video game. On Aug. 22, Coombs appeared on NBC’s “Today” show.
The co-host Savannah Guthrie read from the statement: “As I transition into the next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me.
I am Chelsea Manning. I am female.” Manning didn’t see the segment or the reaction to it. She was on a plane, on her way to the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth.
The USDB lies at the far northern end of Fort Leavenworth, not far from the headquarters of the 40th Military Police Internment and Resettlement Battalion.
The maximum security complex, with its 515 beds, is reserved for the military prisoners serving the longest sentences, housing offenders like Robert Bales, the Army staff sergeant convicted in 2013 of slaughtering 16 Afghan civilians.
For almost the entirety of her time there, Manning lived on the second floor. Her cell was narrow and small; there was a cot, a toilet, a mirror and a sink.
The one window faced north, affording her a view of the surrounding landscape. In the vacuum of prison, the weather became theater: The snow that piled up against the cyclone fencing. The forked lightning that spidered the sky, sending deer and rabbits skittering for cover.
At Manning’s court-martial, Coombs had introduced as evidence the photo his client emailed to a superior in 2010.
The image was later distributed to the news media, and by the fall of 2013, it had appeared alongside hundreds of articles on Manning’s transition. To Manning, the idea that it should come to define her was painful.
“It was just so far from her experience at Leavenworth,” Evan Greer, a trans activist and friend, told me. “And I think some people saw that image, that luscious wig, and figured she was given that kind of freedom behind bars.”
In reality, every aspect of Manning’s appearance was being governed by Army rules, from her briefs to her hair, which she was required to wear, per Section 670-1 of Army regulations, in a “neat and conservative style.”
Manning was in a position that can be difficult for nontrans people to understand: She had come out as female but was still being addressed and treated as if she were male — often pointedly, by the Leavenworth staff.
Vincent Ward, one of Manning’s attorneys, recalls observing the way the prison guards treated his client.
Ward, a former military lawyer, said he knew “who these people were. I knew the personality types. From the minute that you walked in, you could sense the bullying, the smirks, the comments.”
It is a kind of isolation that can induce drastic action: Clinical psychologists who work with trans prisoners have documented high levels of suicide and depression in inmates not given appropriate medical treatment. In worst-case scenarios, prisoners have tried to alter their own genitalia by hand.
To friends and the members of her legal team, Manning spoke regularly, and with despair, of feeling “poisoned” by the testosterone in her body and of a ghostlike invisibility: If people couldn’t see her as she actually was, what use was living?
On entering the USDB in 2013, Manning requested access to the regimen of estrogen and anti-androgen drugs prescribed to people undergoing a male-to-female transition.
She was refused: The Army did not yet sanction hormone therapy for soldiers, let alone for prisoners. Manning’s treatment would be limited to antidepressants and counseling sessions with a psychotherapist.
“Permitting Mr. Manning to live as female, much less begin to feminize his body, will create operational challenges as the inmate population respond to these changes,” prison administrators wrote in an internal memo later obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The prison was unbending in its stance for nearly a year. Meanwhile, one of Manning’s lawyers — Chase Strangio, who himself is trans — grew increasingly worried that his client might try to hurt herself again; eventually, he filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense.
The suit cited a clinical evaluation from the psychologist Randi Ettner and said Manning was “experiencing significant distress and is at high risk for serious medical consequences, including self-castration and suicide.”
In the summer of 2014, the Army agreed to send women’s underwear to Manning’s cell — a first for any branch of the military. (A civilian judge in Leavenworth County had granted Manning’s request to change the name on her birth certificate to Chelsea Elizabeth Manning.)
Hormone therapy followed in early 2015, with the drugs distributed in pill form from a medical dispensary near the cafeteria.
To Manning, the early stages of hormone therapy were deeply fulfilling: Her skin softened, her body hair thinned.
But with the welcome physical changes came unnerving intellectual ones. “I’d built all these defenses and walls around my emotions over the years, since being a teenager,” Manning told me.
“When my testosterone levels plummeted, I suddenly became more vulnerable emotionally. I could no longer just hide my emotions: I had to deal with them, usually right there and then.”
And the emotions often came faster than Manning could process: “Good ones, like confidence, and a sense of connection with my friends, mixed in with a lot of bad ones, like doubt, loneliness, uncertainty and loss.”
For support, Manning spoke regularly to others in the trans community: Strangio and Annie Danger, a trans artist and activist. Danger listened as Manning experimented with her voice, “putting it in different pitches in an effort to find out what felt right,” Danger told me.
“I tried to talk her through that searching process, that evolutionary process, which can be so important. You’re literally finding your voice.”
At the USDB, Manning’s days took on a mundane, lulling rhythm. Most mornings, she woke up at 4:30 a.m. and, shrugging off the green sheets, dressed in the light of the bare bulb that hung above her bed: the white sports bra; the oversize prison uniform that hung, scarecrow-like, off her thin frame; the Army-issue boots.
“OK,” she would say, examining herself in the mirror. “You can do this.” After a quick breakfast in the cafeteria, it was down to the prison wood shop, where she and a crew of inmates built, from scratch, the furniture sold at the base commissary.
On the invitation of another prisoner, she joined a weekly Dungeons & Dragons game, playing as Esvele Dundragon, a female noble.
Manning told me that even as she transitioned, she never felt physically threatened by the other prisoners, as she did the staff.
“Of all the people in my entire experience” in government custody, she said, the ones “who have been consistently good to me were the other inmates — like, I’m not saying they were excited or happy or approved of me or anything.”
Manning says she counted a handful of inmates among her close friends, among them Clint Lorance, an Army platoon leader convicted of second-degree murder for ordering his men to open fire on three unarmed Afghan civilians.
“Remember that all these folks were active military before they were incarcerated,” David Hammond, a lawyer assigned to Manning by the Army’s Defense Appellate Division, said in describing the dynamic to me. “The discipline carries over.”
In April 2014, the Army denied Manning’s clemency application, choosing to uphold, in full, her 35-year sentence.
There remained the distant possibility of a presidential pardon or commutation, but Manning had no reason to expect one: The White House had condemned the leaks, as had the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.
The best option, Manning knew, lay in the formal appeal. But Manning’s fight with the prison authorities was grinding into its third year, and she was tired. Her hair was still being cut to male standards. The guards were relentless.
“If you were trying to get them to be more gender neutral, they would make a point of being very gender specific,” Manning said.
And a request for sex reassignment surgery had been met with silence. (According to Manning’s lawyers, the Army approved the surgery last September, but set no timeline for its completion.)
The USDB, in her mind, was “creating, often deliberately and knowingly, situations that cause high levels of stress on any given number of people. This breaks people down. Good people break down.”
In July 2016, one of Manning’s closest friends at the USDB, Anthony Raby, was seated at a bench in the embroidery shop, sewing name tapes for Army recruits, when a fellow prisoner dropped a note onto his table. “It’s from your girlfriend,” the man said. Raby didn’t have to ask who the man was referring to.
A former Army specialist serving three decades for the rape of a young child, Raby had first met Manning in 2013, shortly after her arrival at the USDB. It was his first encounter with a transgender person; he recalls thinking Manning resembled a “sad, strange little man.”
In a letter from the USDB, Raby wrote: “The idea that someone could believe they were a gender other than what they were born was akin to believing a chicken was a hat. I just didn’t understand. However, as a Christian, I fully believe in showing everyone love and compassion, so we talked.”
Raby admired Manning’s intelligence, her wit, her unapologetic weirdness. “I’m all right with the weird,” Raby wrote.
Manning visited his cell frequently to talk or vent or cry — taking care not to stay too long and violate the prison policy of one person to a unit.
Raby, more than anyone else at the USDB, seemed to understand the toll that incarceration was taking on Manning. “Prison isn’t the best place for anyone who actually has actual emotions besides hate, anger, bitterness, apathy or indifference,” he wrote.
Now his worst fears were confirmed. Unfolding the note, which was folded and sealed shut with spare adhesive from a stamp book, Raby read the header: “Chelsea E. Manning, re: My Final Letter.” He scanned the first page. Manning wrote that she would kill herself after the base’s Fourth of July fireworks display came to a close. The fireworks had ended at 10 p.m. It was already 12:25 a.m.
Raby notified a guard in the embroidery shop and handed over Manning’s letter. “About 1 a.m., I heard an announcement over the guard’s radio about an alert in Manning’s housing unit,” Raby told me. “I was pacing like a madman, sure they had not gotten to her in time.”
Not wanting to aggravate the staff, Raby struggled to keep his composure. Around 3:30 a.m., he was approached by an Army investigator: Manning was alive.
Officials have declined to provide details about the incident, and Manning told me she only remembers waking up in an ambulance.
But people with knowledge of the situation said Manning tried to hang herself and was recovered by guards, breathing but unresponsive. Manning told me that in the days leading up to the suicide attempt, she felt unusually low and alone.
She had been determined to push through to the end of the long weekend, when her psychologist would be back on base. “I didn’t make it,” she said.
In early September, she embarked on a hunger strike to protest what she called the “constant and overzealous administrative scrutiny by prison and military officials.”
She ended the hunger strike when the prison vowed to provide her with sex reassignment surgery, an unprecedented accommodation.
By the end of September, Manning was sentenced to an additional two weeks in solitary, with one week suspended. Her crime was conduct that threatens the orderly running of the barracks — her suicide attempt.
If prison, as Manning has said, made her feel like a ghost — alive in her supporters’ thoughts but unable to be with them physically — then her time in solitary was akin to erasure.
Isolation “changes you; it makes you angry,” she said. “You start to forget about the world outside — it’s not relevant or relatable anymore. The darkest part of solitary confinement is that you start to forget about cars, and jobs, and families, and weather, and politicians, and all the things that make up a society.”
Manning again tried to kill herself, but a guard spotted her before she lost consciousness. A week later, she was returned to general population. She was beside herself with anger and fear. She was also, she told me, most likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder — from Iraq, from Quantico.
It was during her second stretch in solitary that Manning experienced an episode that the Army has no record of, and that, on the heels of the suicide attempts, seems to be indicative of severe mental anguish.
In a legal brief, Manning details a vivid kind of fever dream that she still puzzles over — hearing “several reports of suppressed or silenced shots from a pistol” and listening as a group of strangers described their plans to remove her from the USDB.
She refused to leave her cell, she says, and the next morning, the staff carried on as if nothing had happened.
To Manning’s attorneys, it was obvious that their client was running out of time. “Chelsea needs help, and she’s not getting it,” Strangio told me this winter.
He viewed a commutation application, filed in November, as Manning’s best hope. In the petition, Manning’s lawyers appended a letter from Manning. “I am not Bradley Manning,” she wrote. “I really never was. I am Chelsea Manning, a proud woman who is transgender and who, through this application, is respectfully requesting a first chance at life.”
On the afternoon of Jan. 17, Manning was in the prison workshop, covered head to toe in wood shavings. She remembers looking up to see a team of security personnel enter the room. “I’m like, Oh, God, I’m in a lot of trouble,” Manning told me. “I don’t even know what the hell I’ve done now.” The prison’s head of security told her to come with them.
“Am I coming back?” she asked. No, she was told.
She grabbed her belongings and followed the guards to the Special Housing Unit. Assuming she was going back to solitary, she started to take the shoelaces out of her boots. The lead officer shook his head: She was headed for Protective Custody. In the common area, a television was playing CNN. She saw the banner on the screen: Manning’s sentence commuted, it read.
Manning told me she went numb. She never let herself think about a commutation, lest she be thrown back into a deeper darkness.
“It was so hard for me to process and deal with it,” Manning recalled. Obama later addressed the decision with an implicit rebuke to Snowden and Assange.
“Let’s be clear: Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence, so the notion that the average person who was thinking about disclosing vital classified information would think that it goes unpunished, I don’t think would get that impression from the sentence that Chelsea Manning has served,” he said.
Four months later, on the morning of May 17, Manning was marched out the front door of the USDB and loaded into a Ford Explorer.
The driver steered the SUV up a short slope and onto the curved road that winds south, past the gates of the overgrown USDB cemetery, where 14 executed German prisoners of war were buried in 1945.
A constellation of brick buildings appeared in the distance. Close to 1 a.m., the Explorer drew to a halt in a parking lot, where Strangio and Hollander were waiting. Manning was so eager to hug the two attorneys that she clocked Strangio in the face with her elbow.
The week I spent with Manning in New York felt like a moment of suspended animation: the days between all the chaos of her life before and whatever was going to come next. In her final months at the USDB, Manning put together 300 pages of memoir, and she’s acquired an agent to shop the draft around.
This fall, she will appear in a documentary called “XY Chelsea,” produced by Laura Poitras.
Her attorneys, meanwhile, continue to work on her appeal. Even if she is exonerated, it is hard to know how comfortable her life will be in the years to come, given that some of the nation will never likely reconcile itself to what she did.
But she is determined not to dwell on her reputation, and for that week in Manhattan, she seemed happy being free.
We trudged, unnoticed, through busy city streets, ordered chicken nuggets at McDonald’s, ate in restaurants and cafes and went to a weekend screening of “Alien: Covenant.”
On the way into the theater, the man collecting the tickets asked to check Manning’s bag. I held my breath, thinking she would be recognized.
But kneeling, Manning unzipped the main compartment, revealing her laptop. She was waved through: The famous whistleblower and former military prisoner had become just another Sunday evening theatergoer.
It occurred to me that if Manning sometimes seemed to have difficulty interpreting the effect her actions had on the world, it was in part a result of the extraordinary isolation she had experienced even before her arrest, in her childhood in Crescent, when she longed for a solution for her pain.
Later, in solitary in Kuwait or Quantico, or in the special housing unit at the USDB, that isolation had been made physical: The “feedback loop” she had spoken of to me had been torn. Now she had the ability to live publicly and openly as she always knew she was, and she was adjusting to the idea, sinking into it as if it were a cold pond.
More than once, as we walked the streets of New York, I felt I was in the presence of someone coming fully alive for the very first time.
Manning told me she understood that her identity and the actions that led to her arrest have long been tangled up in the public imagination, sometimes in uncomfortable ways: An appellate brief filed last year by Manning’s legal team implied that the Army’s inability to treat Manning’s gender dysphoria was a contributing factor in the leaks.
Manning didn’t want to discuss “hypotheticals,” what would have happened if circumstances were different, but she was adamant on one thing: “What I can tell you,” she said, “is that my values would have been the same. The things I care about would have been the same.”
One morning, at the end of an interview, Manning handed me a white envelope. Inside was a note from a 14-year-old trans boy.
“I just wanted to say that I’m glad you’re gonna be free in a few months,” the boy had scrawled in pen, “and that I’m proud of you (is that weird thing to say?). You’re an inspiration.”
Manning placed the note back in the envelope. If she was being honest, she said, she never particularly wanted to be a role model. I asked if Manning’s life would have been different if she’d had such a person. She stared down at her hands. “I don’t know how,” she said finally, “but it would have been better.”
A couple of days later, we spent an hour sitting on a park bench. The skies were bruised, but the air was warm and fragrant.
A flock of pigeons nearby. Manning cooed at them. She told me that at Leavenworth, not long before she learned of her commutation, a robin had alighted at her window, a small messenger from the world outside. Hadn’t it been a sign? She had taken it as one.
Matthew Shaer is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, based in Atlanta. He has written for Harper’s, Wired, The Atlantic and Smithsonian magazine, where he is a correspondent.
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