Chelsea Manning: ‘I struggle with the so-called free world compared with life in prison’
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.
Manning, now 34, snorts mirthlessly at this interpretation. “People tried to say, ‘Oh, this all happened because you were trans.’ It’s like, no; it’s because I was a data scientist who had way too much information and was actually trying to do my job, and realised that continuing on like this is not sustainable. We can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting different results.”
She is talking about the raw data it was her job to harvest and analyse in Iraq, and that, within weeks of arrival, she came to feel was being dishonestly reported to the American people by the military. Manning speaks quickly, in a way that seems linked both to her talent for processing large amounts of complex information and to a more basic need to scuttle past black spots of memory. She was in prison for seven years before President Obama commuted her sentence in 2017, a chunk of that time spent in Quantico military prison, in solitary confinement. She tried to kill herself twice during that jail term and a third time, in 2019, when she returned to prison, this time for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating Julian Assange. That refusal was an incredible piece of self-sacrifice, blowing a final hole in the idea that she was driven by mental turbulence, not principle. “I’m very frustrated by that even to this day,” she says, adding that there are a number of diagnoses on her Wikipedia page that are misidentified PTSD. “Gender dysphoria’s not on the radar any more; it’s been treated, or some would go so far as to say ‘cured’. All the other diagnoses were just untreated, unidentified, complex post traumatic stress syndrome. That is my sole diagnosis.”
Manning wrote the book to restore a sense of nuance to a story that, over the years, she feels has been seized on by one pressure group or another seeking to use her to fortify their cause. It has left her with a tendency to find a hidden agenda in even the blandest statement, which gives rise to occasionally comic misunderstandings. When I say the book is very good, she looks concerned and says, “I’ve spoken a lot about commodification in the digital age, and everything’s a product now, and everything has to be sponsored, from people on TikTok and Instagram, to the entirety of society where it feels like every single interaction you have has a monetary transaction or value to it.”
There’s a short pause. No, I – I just meant that I thought it was a good read. Entertaining. Manning looks fleetingly blank. “OK.”
The irony of making journalists sign NDAs to read the manuscript (it is watermarked on every page to discourage leaks) isn’t lost on her. She gives a whaddya-gonna-do shrug. “Ownership of something you can copy still seems absurd to me, especially in the NFT era. My publisher’s not happy with me for saying that. Which I understand. But I do find it a little silly.”
It is hard to imagine what Manning’s life consists of these days. Before the pandemic, she was doing speaking events mainly at the invitation of students, but lockdown put paid to that. She has some consulting gigs with tech and security firms, “on the AI side – nuanced and complex opinions on crypto-applications and post-crypto currency,” she says. She lives alone, in Brooklyn, where her social life revolves around the music scene – she has always been a big music person; as a teenager, Napster was her gateway to online culture.
Last August, she popped up as a guest DJ at Elsewhere, a huge club in Brooklyn where she wore light-up cat ears and played a set including Britney Spears remixes and the theme from Succession. She has, perhaps, the worst form of celebrity, one that guarantees intrusion and wild gossip – earlier this year, she was rumoured to be dating Canadian musician (and Elon Musk’s ex) Grimes, something she won’t dignify with comment – but one that doesn’t deliver any perks or income. “I’m not an actor or a movie star,” she says. “Even YouTubers make more money than me.”
Still, two years after her release from Fort Leavenworth, she had won some kind of equilibrium and was starting to rebuild a life. All that ended in 2019, when she was subpoenaed to testify in front of a grand jury about her interactions with Assange. She refused, and was sent back to prison. Given everything she’d been through, this was, surely, a very difficult decision to make? Manning looks indignant to the point of outrage. “Not hard at all.”
I’m amazed, I say, not least because in the book, she appears to be no fan of Assange’s, characterising his faction within WikiLeaks as the less “responsible” of the original cohort of hackers. (She won’t be drawn on her personal dealings with Assange, nor on the legal fight he currently faces.) “No,” she says. “The grand jury process is a screwed-up process and regardless of whether it’s activists on the frontline or if it’s journalists, I’m not going to participate in that.”
But the cost to you personally –
“Oh, when you’ve already spent seven years in prison, 18 months is just … ”
She fades out. Surely, I suggest, having already served time makes the prospect of a return to jail even worse, particularly in light of your PTSD? “No. I – ” Her voice trembles and her eyes fill with tears. “OK, I’m going to get real intense here.” Manning’s voice lowers, loudens and becomes very harsh, as if she is forcing out an unbearable truth. “I struggle every day with the world out here,” she says. There is a long pause. “I have a lot of trouble with this world, this so-called free world, compared with the life that I had in prison.”
Why? “I struggle with the fact that … I don’t know what tomorrow brings out here. I feel less supported than I did in both the military and in prison. In prison I know that I have housing; I know that I have healthcare; I know that I have food. I don’t feel as secure here. And people are so detached. There is no community. People don’t talk to each other. People don’t say hi to you. People are suspicious of each other.” Her voice rises to a peak. “There’s more community in a prison than there is out here! And that says a lot about how fucked-up our world is right now. I struggle with it every day.”
Manning was released from a detention centre in Virginia in March 2020, a year after she was imprisoned, when the grand jury’s investigation expired and her testimony was no longer required. To have that much fight in her, to remain true to her principles in the face of such cost, is admirable to the point of baffling. It stems from optimism, she says, and I believe her. “I know that community is possible, because I’ve seen it, and I’ve seen it in the worst places that you can possibly imagine. Whenever humanity is pushed to the edge, I see the best, so I know it’s there.”
If there is a strand unifying all the contrasts that have governed Chelsea Manning’s life, it is her dislike – consistent and to the point of perversity – of orthodoxies of any kind. She won’t be owned by a single group, no matter how sympathetic to her cause. During her trial, the old lefties and free-speech campaigners who turned up to support her pissed her off when they disrupted the courtroom and annoyed the judge. In the book, she calls out elements of the radical transparency crowd at WikiLeaks, including Assange, for being “troll-y” and “nihilist”. She breaks rank with elements of the trans community – at the time of her arrest, she was still living as a gay man – by deadnaming herself in the memoir. There is, she believes, too much emphasis placed on identity at the expense of other considerations. “That’s not how I think. I have things that I care about, I have positions that I hold, and I feel like especially in the online era, you find an identity and you fit your beliefs to your identity, which is not how I work at all.”
The fact is, she writes, she didn’t join the military to advance an ideological agenda, or to help the enemy, or to cause chaos for its own sake. She joined for the reasons so many people do: because she was lost, unemployed, directionless and wanted to impress her father, a US navy veteran who she claims bullied her relentlessly as a child for being a “sissy”. “Essentially: trying to get my father to respect me again. That was the largest part, I think.”
She also hoped the rigours of military life would quell her gender dysphoria; “thinking it’s better to try to tamp down on that, which is basically what most trans people did in the early 2000s.” And it did die down, under the weight of the crushing physical demands of basic training. Then training ended and “I was like, oh, crap. It’s still there.”
After acing the aptitude tests, Manning was posted to army intelligence and, at 22, found herself deployed in Iraq as part of the graduating class of the 2007 recruitment surge. The shock was immense. Along with other analysts, she was housed in a converted basketball court in the green zone, providing direct support to frontline troops by anticipating enemy movement. She was very good at her job. She was also horrified and depressed, fielding graphic raw images from the battlefield. One night, a clerical error made by a special operations unit – they used an old address for a target – resulted in the death of a group of Iraqi civilians. “I blamed myself in part because I left my desk to go eat. I shouldn’t have left.” If she hadn’t been absent, she says, “I could’ve solved this.” She felt powerless, and angry, and guilty. She wondered if there was anything she could do.
The assumption about whistleblowers is that the bravery it takes and the self-sacrifice it entails require a confidence bordering on narcissism. To call out systems as large as the US military, there has to be, surely, something wrong with you. The fact that Chelsea Manning was so young when she uploaded the incident reports and significant activity logs to WikiLeaks isn’t irrelevant; risk assessment at that age isn’t what it is a decade later. To Manning, analysing the data, precedent suggested that the consequences might not be too dire. Forty years earlier, when Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, exposing the US government’s lies about Vietnam, he escaped a jail term. More recently, Thomas Drake, a whistleblower who in 2006 communicated with journalists about inefficiency and fraud at the NSA, had been sanctioned but not imprisoned. Manning’s assumption was that she’d face dishonourable discharge. She believed it was worth it. As she writes in the book, when she left Barnes & Noble that day after uploading the files, it made her “feel like I’d done something, that I’d relieved my conscience a little. I felt a duty to my fellow humans to do this, to make the world understand more about what I knew was happening in Iraq and Afghanistan every day, to understand what the true casualty numbers were.”
Manning wanted to apprise the American public of several things: how badly the Iraq war was going; and that the secrecy around it was designed to save face, not a security measure to protect the national interest. A year later, similar concerns propelled her to leak a huge cache of diplomatic cables from the US Department of State. (That leak would reveal nothing so starkly as how porous and pathetic US government cybersecurity was that a low-ranking 22-year-old analyst could access and disseminate the data.) The question remains less one of whether or not Manning was justified in her actions as why, of the hundreds of intelligence and other officers with access to the same information, she was the one to break rank. There was in her background a “kernel” of belief in the theory of radical transparency, “but it was very specific to music. It was very Napster-era. It was around pirating music, or films.” Before joining the military, she’d engaged in some internet activism, targeting evangelical churches by trolling their discussion groups, but this was largely recreational at a time when early internet culture was, as she says, “a playground”, rather than the “toxic cesspools of extreme rightwing ideologies it became”.
She has vaguely anti-authoritarian roots on both sides of her family. Her mother, Susan, was Welsh, from a large, working-class family in Haverfordwest. Her father, Brian, is from a Catholic family from the midwest, with a strong libertarian streak. Manning’s parents met in a pub in Wales in the mid-1970s, where her father was stationed with the US Navy. They married and moved back to the US, winding up in Oklahoma where her father found a job as an electronic data processor for the Hertz Corporation.
It was a comfortable, middle-class home. It was also violent. Both Manning’s parents were alcoholics; her father frequently “beat the crap” out of her, she writes, sometimes for no apparent reason, but often triggered, Manning believes, by what he perceived to be his son’s effeminate behaviour. Her mother was gentler, but also zoned out on alcohol and “incapable of behaving like an adult. She never learned to drive or to balance a chequebook, and her alcoholism eventually made it even more difficult for her to function in the world.” There was at least one suicide attempt, when Manning found her mother passed out half-naked in the hallway. After her parents split up in her early teens, she followed her mother to Wales for a short, unhappy period before returning to the US. If there is a scorched-earth mentality in her thinking, it has been born of necessity. Less apparent is how she built and maintained her considerable confidence. At school, she was an academic high performer who felt cleverer than her classmates. After being introduced to computers aged six, she almost immediately started doing basic-level programming. Still, looking at the whole picture, I suggest, it wasn’t exactly a background to foster self-esteem.
“Well, it was very advantageous,” Manning says. “I was a middle-class white boy in Oklahoma.”
Right, but your memoir describes you as a child of alcoholics growing up in a violent home. “Very typical, though, in that region. But yeah, being trans in particular … ” She tapers off. “But for being trans, I would’ve been on the path to going to Harvard.”
Manning is resistant to narratives that dead-end in victimhood. She spent years in therapy fighting to recover from the guilt of “abandoning” her mother when she returned to the US from Wales. “I’ve come to recognise that I was in a co-dependent relationship and had to do something different.” Her mother died in 2020. She has no idea where her father is. “We tried to track him down for the book, but he’s very mercurial.” In her late teens, Manning says, her father kicked her out of the house and she lived in her car for a while, selling bootleg Adobe software out of a parking lot. It wasn’t long after that she joined the military. “When you’ve been through the things I’ve been through, most things don’t seem that insurmountable,” she says.
Politically, several important things happened in Manning’s childhood. In 1993, when she was five, the US government sent troops into a hostage situation in Waco, Texas, bungling the mission and killing 76 people, including 25 children. Manning’s father jumped instantly into the “government’s-going-to-take-your-guns mentality”, she says, a position she despises. “It’s an excuse, a rallying call for something deeper and much more sinister. A significant amount of the libertarian strain of American politics is deeply connected to this air of superiority among upper-middle-class white men.” Nonetheless, from a young age Manning learned to maintain a measure of scepticism in relation to the US government, one that she never entirely lost.
The other political influence during her formative years was the gay rights movement. As a 10-year-old, Manning kissed a boy called Sid. Sid kissed back, before calling Manning a faggot. “I didn’t even know what gay meant at that point,” she writes, “and I bet the kids calling me that didn’t really, either. It was just a bad thing, we all thought, the worst insult you could use. I just wanted the whole thing to go away.” Her gender dysphoria was so deeply suppressed at that point that she simply assumed, with a sinking heart, that she was gay in a state where “homosexual sex” would be a criminal offence until 2003. Five years later, while Manning was learning to be an intelligence analyst at Fort Drum, New York, the voters of California passed Proposition 8, a ballot initiative to outlaw gay marriage.
This was a huge moment for Manning in terms of both her mental health and her belief in systems of government. “My whole life, I’d been told that things were always going to get better,” she writes, “that the system was set up with checks and balances, that liberal society meant slow but steady ‘progress’ toward democratic inclusion.” The passing of Proposition 8 blew that vision apart. “It wasn’t just a repudiation of that promise. It wasn’t even just a national tragedy. It was a personal rejection of me, and millions of other queer people, as human beings.”
To Manning’s detractors, her leaking of the Iraq reports, and later the Afghan war logs and diplomatic cables, was an expression of monstrous arrogance; at best an overreaction to the normal chaos of war by a naive young recruit, at worst a bad-faith action designed to aid the enemy. After uploading the files, nothing happened for a long time, then everything happened at once. WikiLeaks released the reports to the Guardian, the New York Times, Der Spiegel and other media partners. The military began an inquiry. As Manning felt the net closing in, she worried about her fellow analysts coming under suspicion – she had acted entirely alone – and effectively confessed to an anonymous contact online, whom she suspected had links to the FBI and she imagined, correctly, would turn her in. Less than a week later, two agents from the Army Criminal Investigation Division turned up to question Manning, accompanied by civilians from the state department and the FBI. She was immediately arrested and transported from Iraq to Kuwait, where she was imprisoned, under canvas, in a makeshift jail made entirely of metal bars. In other words a cage, where she would spend several months. “A tyre cage, we called it. Built in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I remember because that was the only piece of writing on it. It was a brain-melting experience.” She was stripped down to the most basic shadow of humanity. “Food. Water. Cool. My reptilian needs were the primary driver.” Meanwhile the guards goaded her about her next move. “Maybe they’ll send you to Cuba, or Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti,” she recalls them saying. “We do bad things there.”
Instead, Manning was conveyed to Quantico, a military prison in Virginia that at first struck her as an improvement. “It’s funny because people say, ‘Your time in Quantico was very bad.’ But the initial thoughts I was having in Quantico were: ‘I’m in the United States! Hot and cold running water! Air-conditioning!’” The relief didn’t last long. Manning was held in solitary confinement, harassed constantly with rules – she wasn’t permitted to lie down during the day and any attempt to do so would result in barked orders to sit up again. She was on suicide watch, and as a result was denied pillows or bedding she might use to harm herself. She was not permitted to exercise in her cell or to meet other prisoners. She was entirely isolated in Quantico for nine months, an experience the UN later ruled was “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of article 16 of the convention against torture”. Meanwhile, military doctors diagnosed her with depression, anxiety and gender dysphoria, all of which were used by her defence team when, three years later, she finally came to military trial.
Of the 22 counts with which Manning was charged, she pleaded guilty to 10 and was found guilty on a further seven, among them six counts of espionage. She was sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment, escaping life without parole only because the judge rejected the government’s most serious accusation – that Manning had given information to the enemy. In the event, she was found not guilty of treason. The single note of relief for Manning was that, with the trial over, she could finally come out as trans without compromising her case. She could also start legal proceedings to compel prison authorities to permit her to have hormone treatment in jail. Pretrial, she had started signing some letters “Breanna Manning”. Now, in Fort Leavenworth, she decided“Chelsea” was the right name. “It was a neighbourhood in Manhattan full of dance clubs where queer people could feel totally at home and normal and welcome,” she writes. She put out a statement via her lawyer. Then she knuckled down to spend what she assumed would be the next 30 years in military prison.
In fact, when President Obama commuted Manning’s sentence in 2017 – he pointed to the apology she’d read out in court as evidence of her contrition – with time served she would end up spending another four years inside before release. Her experiences at Fort Leavenworth had been a combination of deep depression and suicidal thoughts – exacerbated, according to Manning, by the destabilising effect of the hormones the government allowed her to start taking in 2015 – and what she characterises as a surprisingly peaceable existence. An individual as birdlike as Manning taking female hormones in a male prison would, one imagines, have been at risk of attack. In fact, she says, she had almost no problems; a couple of fights, that’s it. “You have to remember I was pretty sociable in prison. People knew me and I got to know people.” She helped other prisoners with their legal problems. She became a popular inmate. “People stopped seeing me as a trans person; they saw me. I could hear it sometimes – oh, well, you’re different.” These days, Manning says, the fact of being trans “feels like such a minor thing in my life. Like: I went through this transition period and it was very difficult and I needed access to care, and once I got care I’ve been able to function as an adult and not really think about this stuff. It very rarely comes up.”
And so she tries, again, to rebuild a life for herself. The speaking income hasn’t really recovered post-Covid, but she is about to embark on a multi-city book tour and relishes the prospect of meeting and debating with people. She receives hundreds of letters a year, occasionally hateful, mainly admiring. Reading her book put me in mind of Regeneration, Pat Barker’s novel of the first world war and the best encapsulation of PTSD I’ve read. I ask if she has read it and she looks bemused, eyes skimming the room, before going off on a diatribe about the US military’s “psychology of lethality”.
I try once more to discover a shred of hesitation, doubt or regret at any of the events of the last 12 years. In your place, I say, given the extremes of your circumstance, a different personality would have gone into retreat. Manning looks taken aback that, analysing the data, anyone could reach this conclusion. “That’s not me!”