Chelsea Manning became one of the most well-known whistleblowers in US history after releasing hundreds of thousands of classified documents. Now, freedom is in sight, after Obama commuted her sentence during his final days in office.
If there is one thing that both her supporters and her critics can agree on, it's that convicted whistleblower Chelsea Manning made her mark on history.
"Ms. Manning is the longest-serving whistle-blower in the history of the United States," her lawyers Nancy Hollander and Vince Ward said in a joint statement on January 17.
Close relatives of Manning described her as a lonely and emotional young man who had led a difficult life, including growing up with alcoholic, neglectful parents. In July 2013, the US soldier was sentenced to 35 years in a military prison for violating the Espionage Act and other offences.
In the final hours of his presidency, President Barack Obama commuted her sentence to seven years, most of which she has already served. The Democrat made the gesture three days before Donald Trump's swearing-in ceremony.
"Chelsea will walk out of Fort Leavenworth a free woman in four months, on May 17th," Hollander confirmed to the Chelsea Manning Support Network.
Obama defended the decision against conservatives who argued the pardon sent the wrong message to future would-be whistleblowers.
"The notion that the average person who was thinking about disclosing vital, classified information would think that it goes unpunished – I don't think they would get that impression from the sentence that Chelsea Manning has served," Obama said. The president argued that Manning had already paid her dues and that "justice has been served."
"A strong moral compass"
Manning is self-described trans woman, who was diagnosed with gender identity disorder while serving in the US Army. She requested people call her Chelsea the day after her sentencing.
Before this she was Bradley – a gay man who had served during the army's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT)" policy. DADT made it possible for gay men and women to serve in the military, as long as they kept their sexuality secret. It was repealed by US President Barack Obama in 2011, allowing gay military personnel to come out of the closet, if they choose to do so.
A US Army private, she was court-martialled for leaking more than 700,000 classified US government documents to the website Wikileaks in 2010. During the sentencing, Manning, a petite officer at 158 cm tall, "stood quietly and showed no emotion" despite the lengthy prison term being read out.
Whe she appeared in front of a military judge in August 2013, she said, "I want to start off with an apology."
Manning said she was sorry that her actions hurt people and the US, and that she understood what she was doing and the decisions she made. "However," she said, referring to the international fallout that followed Wikileaks' publication of the documents, "I did not fully appreciate the broader effects of my actions."
But in a televised appearance after the trial ended, David Coombs, one of her lawyers, said the defence referring to the stress she was under "was never an excuse" because her motivation in leaking the documents was driven by "a strong moral compass."
Manning leaked documents about Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a video, that document rape, torture, abuse and killings. Based on the war logs she provided Wikileaks, Iraq Body Count – a London-based monitoring group – says it has identified about 15,000 previously unknown civilian deaths.
"It's difficult to ever forget how important these documents are," Manning told Amnesty International in 2014, "once you realise that the co-ordinates represent a real place where people live; that the dates happened in our recent history; that the numbers are actually human lives."
Controversy and compassion
To some, Chelsea Manning is hero who has done the public a service and who was punished unfairly for it. Human Rights Watch has called the Espionage Act, under which she was accused, an "antiquated law [that] fails to protect both the public's right to information and the speaker's right to disclose matters of pressing public interest."
"The aggressive prosecution and harsh sentencing of Manning not only contrasts sharply with the total impunity of former senior US officials for torture and related abuses," Dinah PoKempner of Human Rights Watch said, "but it also far exceeds the sentences most democratic countries impose for public leaks of sensitive information."
Her opponents argued there was little reason to show sympathy to the whistleblower. "We ought not treat a traitor like a martyr," Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas declared on January 17. Cotton, a military veteran and ideological warrior of the Republican Party, said he failed to understand "why [US President Barack Obama] would feel special compassion for someone who endangered the lives of our troops, diplomats, intelligence officers, and allies."
When the news came out about Obama's decision, Julian Assange, Wikileaks founder and a vocal supporter, congratulated Manning's supporters. "Thank you to everyone who campaigned for Chelsea Manning's clemency," Assange tweeted from the Wikileaks account. "Your courage & determination made the impossible possible."
Assange, currently living in refuge at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, had promised he would agree to be extradited by US authorities if Manning were freed.
"I stand by everything I said, including the offer to go to the United States if Chelsea Manning's sentence was commuted," he said on Thursday during a webcast. The US has no public extradition ruling for Assange.
Assange has an extradition ruling against him from Sweden in connection to rape allegations from two women. His supporters say he sought asylum from Ecuador from US prosecution and not because of the Swedish case.
Lease of life
"[Commuting the sentence] could quite literally save Chelsea's life," said Chase Strangio, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's LGBT Project representing Manning. Strangio pointed out that Manning "has been subjected to long stretches of solitary confinement — including for attempting suicide — and has been denied access to medically necessary health care."
Manning was not permitted to grow her hair beyond military male standards nor allowed cross-sex hormones because she was in military prison. Civilian prisons, unlike military prisons, sometimes allow inmates to "live in their chosen gender," providing sex-change hormones or surgery.
Thanks to a lawsuit filed by Strangio, the military had relaxed its stance recently, allowing Chelsea Manning "to partly transition to life as a woman."
Chelsea Manning, whose Twitter feed was filled with well-wishers sending hugs, has addressed Obama's personal Twitter handle, thanking him for "giving me a chance."
AUTHOR: Melis Alemdar