JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — Chelsea Manning, the Army private and intelligence analyst whose release of classified information to WikiLeaks sparked a worldwide controversy over the status of whistle-blowers and transparency in the military, had most of her 35-year prison sentence commuted Tuesday by President Obama, an act that will end her imprisonment on May 17, seven years after her arrest.
The debate over Manning’s motive, and the attention she received as a transgender military member, makes her perhaps the most notable recipient of a commutation during Obama’s term.
Here’s what you need to know about Chelsea Manning:
Manning, who was assigned male at birth and known then as Bradley, joined in the Army in October 2007 at the age of 19. According to information later provided as part of her court martial, Manning explained that “earning benefits under the GI Bill for college opportunities” was one of the motivators behind her enlistment.
She performed well on the Armed Services Aptitude Battery but struggled with Basic Combat Training, at one point injuring both her shoulder and foot. At one point, Manning was told she was in danger of being “out-processed” or dismissed from training but returned after recovering from her injuries. Ultimately, Manning needed six months to finish the training that typically takes six weeks.
Drawing on an expertise with and long interest in computers, Manning received training to be an intelligence analyst at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, then joined the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum in New York. A New York Magazine profile of Manning in 2011 claimed that Manning struggled emotionally while at Fort Drum, lashing out at fellow soldiers, and was seeing a mental-health counselor.
Despite hesitation from superiors who were reportedly uncertain she would be able to handle deployment, Manning was sent to Forward Operating Base Hammer, east of Baghdad, in October 2009. She worked there until her arrest in May 2010.
Release of Material to WikiLeaks
Manning reported that she first learned of WikiLeaks while at Fort Huachuca and that she was regularly visiting the website while stationed in Iraq, utilizing some of the leaked information to inform her work. As part of her role as an analyst, Manning frequently utilized records of notable incidents and events termed “Significant Activities” (SIGACTs).
While back in the U.S. on leave in January 2010, Manning said she “began to become depressed” at the military situation in Iraq and Afghanistan and felt that if the public had access to the information she possessed, that it “could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and … foreign policy.”
At first, Manning reached out to The Washington Post and The New York Times in an attempt to release SIGACT tables but was rebuffed. From there, she utilized an anonymizing network to submit the information to WikiLeaks, according to court documents. She would later submit additional materials, including diplomatic cables and a video of a July 2007 airstrike in Baghdad in which two Reuters photographers were killed and two children were wounded.
The video, which WikiLeaks renamed “Collateral Murder,” received widespread attention and Manning noted he “was encouraged by the response in the media and the general public.”
Trial and Imprisonment
In May 2010, Manning began an online friendship with a hacker named Adrian Lamo. In their internet exchanges, Manning discussed her troubles with the military and disclosed that she was responsible for providing hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks.
Lamo contacted the Department of Defense about the leak, and Manning was arrested in May 2010 and placed in a detention camp in Kuwait. In July, the military transferred Manning to a Marine Corps prison in Quantico, Virginia, where she stayed in solitary confinement and claimed she “was stripped of all clothing with the exception of my underwear” and that her eyeglasses were taken away, according to a statement from Manning released by her lawyers.
In 2013, Manning deferred a plea bargain and was arraigned on 22 charges, including espionage, theft of military records or property, and aiding the enemy — a capital offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, claimed she was emotionally distraught and said her clearance privileges should have been removed by superiors in the military who were aware of her struggles in the military. Coombs said Manning wrote a letter to a supervisor in which she came out as transgender and attached a photo of herself wearing a blonde wig. Manning maintained that her decision to release the government documents was a way to reveal war crimes.
“I understand that my actions violate the law. It was never my intent to hurt anyone. I only wanted to help people,” Manning said in a statement delivered by her lawyers. “When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty for others.”
During her court martial in Fort Meade, Maryland, Manning was acquitted of the charge of aiding the enemy, but was sentenced to 35 years in prison. In the military justice system, prison sentences longer than 30 years are eligible for parole review after 10 years. Manning, however, was credited 1,294 days towards her sentence and eligible to request a parole review after seven years.
One day after her sentencing, Manning revealed in a statement delivered by defense counsel that she wished to transition from male to female, and asked to be called Chelsea.
During an appearance on NBC’s Today, Manning’s lawyer read a statement in which Manning wrote that “I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female.”
“Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible,” she said. “I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility).”
In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Department of Defense officials for denying Manning “access to medically necessary treatment for her gender dysphoria.” The ACLU claimed that if left untreated, Manning could become suicidal. In February 2015, the Army allowed Manning to receive hormone treatment for her transition from male to female.
During her time in prison, Manning has struggled with her mental health. After a reported suicide attempt in July 2016, Manning was placed in solitary confinement, an environment her lawyers say exacerbated her mental stress. In September, Manning went on a hunger strike in protest of the Army’s refusal to give her access to hormone therapy. She ended her strike after five days when the Army informed her that they would allow her to move forward with her plans to undergo gender reassignment surgery.
In October 2016, Manning’s lawyers reported that she attempted suicide again.
“She has repeatedly been punished for trying to survive and now is being repeatedly punished for trying to die,” her attorney Chase Strangio said in a statement. “I worry about the sustainability of her current conditions and her ability to keep fighting under these relentless abuses.”
Concerned about Manning’s well-being, attorneys filed an application for clemency to be granted before President Obama leaves office.
“I have no confirmation that Chelsea’s request is on a short list,” said Strangio, Manning’s attorney. “But I encourage the president to act on Chelsea’s request for a commutation of her sentence. Her life depends on it and she has already served almost 7 year of her sentence — longer than any whistle-blower in United States history.”
In 2011, Obama said that Manning “broke the law,” noting: “We are a nation of laws. We don’t let individuals make decisions about how the law operates.”
A White House petition asking for President Obama to commute Manning’s sentence to time serve received 117,000 signatures. Manning, who corresponds with supporters online, tweeted about the potential for her clemency request.
Thank you all so very much. I’m totally honored. >hugs< https://t.co/IemOhE0G4s #timeserved #FreeChelseaNow
— Chelsea Manning (@xychelsea) January 11, 2017
President Obama granted a commutation on Tuesday of a bulk of Manning’s sentence.
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