Chelsea Manning leaves prison to a US more accepting of transgender identity

May 17, 2017 - 6:34 AM
Chelsea Manning is pictured in this 2010 photograph. (US Army/Handout/Reuters)

NEW YORK — Chelsea Manning, the US Army soldier responsible for a massive leak of classified material, will walk out of prison on Wednesday after seven years to find a country that has grown more accepting of her transgender identity but less enamored with the cause that led to her incarceration.

In 2010, the former military intelligence analyst, then known as Private First Class Bradley Manning, provided thousands of secret documents to WikiLeaks, an international organization that publishes such information from anonymous sources. It was the most sweeping breach of its kind in US history.

After Manning’s 2013 conviction, the soldier was sentenced to 35 years in prison. But former President Barack Obama, during his final days in office, commuted the remaining 28 years on the sentence.

After being convicted of espionage, Manning said she identified as a woman and began her transition, even as the US Army kept her in the men’s prison, requiring a male haircut. Her lawyer said she twice tried to commit suicide and faced long stretches of solitary confinement and denial of health care.

While Manning was in prison, the US Defense Department last year lifted a long-standing ban against transgender men and women serving openly in the military. This freed 7,000 active and reserve transgender members to tell the truth about their gender identity, according to Pentagon estimates.

Although transgender people still complain of widespread discrimination in education, employment and medical care, awareness of the issue has exploded since Manning went to jail. Celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox have become part of the mainstream.

Manning, 29, is likely to become a transgender advocate after her release from the US Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, said Chase Strangio, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who has represented Manning.

“She is someone who is driven by a sense of justice. And I don’t see her fading into a private life,” Strangio said, listing transgender youth, prisoners and women of color as potential causes.

Still, Manning faces a difficult transition to freedom, Strangio said. Social conservatives reject expansion of transgender rights, and many national security experts revile her for providing more than 700,000 documents, videos, diplomatic cables and battlefield accounts to WikiLeaks while serving as an intelligence analyst in Baghdad.

Manning said she disclosed classified information “out of a love for my country” to expose truths about the civil war in Iraq.

“Chelsea is going to come out of prison a public figure, a polarizing figure, a person who has a lot of recognition and that people project a lot onto, but who has very few resources herself. And so she’s going to have a lot to navigate,” Strangio said.

At the same time, the reputation of WikiLeaks has declined as part of the ebb and flow of public perceptions of national security, said Robert Deitz, who previously served as general counsel at the National Security Agency, senior counselor to the director of the CIA, and other national security positions.

“Public perception of intel changes according to what’s going on in the world,” Deitz said, noting an increase in prestige after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and a decline after robust surveillance led to concerns about privacy.

WikiLeaks also published emails in the weeks leading up to the November 8 presidential election that US intelligence agencies have concluded were hacked by Russian intelligence from the Democratic National Committee as part of a campaign by Moscow to influence the election.

On April 13, Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo called WikiLeaks a “hostile intelligence service.”

Deitz said Manning was getting off lightly and should have served the full 35 years.

“She did enormous damage to the intelligence community,” Deitz said. “People need to take responsibility for their actions. When you put people’s lives in danger, I don’t care how high-minded you think you are. You should face up to what you did.”