By Rashed Mian and Christopher Twarowski
Four years ago this summer, then as reporters for the alternative media outlet Long Island Press, we made the slow approach into Fort Meade in Maryland, the U.S. Army installation, with little clues as to what to expect.
As the world reeled from the leaks of whistleblower Edward Snowden, we had arrived there—ironically the home of the National Security Agency (NSA), whose covert mass surveillance of American citizens was the subject of those disclosures—to document the court martial of U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea, then-Bradley, Manning.
It was a moment we had been anticipating for quite some time. Before Snowden exposed the NSA’s massive surveillance network, it was Manning, in what stands as the largest leak of state secrets in U.S. history, who revealed lethal truths about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how America really felt about some of its partners abroad. Her disclosures—among these, cockpit footage of U.S. Apache gunships mowing down unarmed civilians and journalists—were arguably the first glimpses behind a carefully crafted veil of secret, U.S.-sanctioned obliteration. While Snowden quickly emerged as the controversial face of transparency in the public good, plastered on newspaper covers and news shows across the globe, Manning’s efforts were chiefly championed by a devoted core support network, a group of independent journalists and activists compelled to raise awareness about what her leaks revealed, and her abhorrent treatment as a military prisoner. We met some at Fort Meade, others within makeshift headquarters in Columbia, Md. and Washington, D.C., another outside the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, and covered their quest for Manning’s freedom—Alexa O’Brien, Adam Klasfeld, Kathleen McClellan, Jane Hamsher, Kevin Gosztola, and Nathan Fuller, among them.
Covering Manning’s trial, even for just a few days, was not only necessary, but we believed, a journalistic obligation. We were especially appreciative that several of the half-dozen or so journalists doing the same, from start to finish, agreed to share their personal stories with us. While it was not our intention to make our article a tale about the importance of the Fourth Estate, it became clear we had no other option. Here was a source of some of the most important revelations about our government’s shadowy operations since Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers. Manning faced a lifetime prison sentence for exposing government abuses, yet many of the very mainstream outlets that’d reported on documents she provided to Wikileaks had inexplicably decided day-to-day coverage of such proceedings was not of public interest. If the government wanted to normalize the criminalization of leaking, the incredulous attitude among some in the media would no doubt sow the seeds for a gradual decay of press freedoms.
To us, Manning’s plight was one of the most important stories, ever.
The U.S. Army intelligence officer was found guilty under the Espionage Act and received a sentence of 35 years in prison. She would go on to serve seven years behind bars until President Obama, in one of the last acts of his presidency, commuted her sentence. For her supporters, this meant a second chance at life for Manning, who on several occasions had attempted suicide in prison.
To give an idea of just how arduous her incarceration was, think about this: During her pre-trial imprisonment, Manning was held in solitary confinement for nearly a year, prompting a scathing condemnation from the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture. P.J Crowley, the U.S. State Department’s chief spokesman at the time, resigned after calling Manning’s treatment “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid on the part of the department of defense.”
Under those circumstances, it’s incredibly inspiring, then, to witness her transformation from military prisoner to transgender icon and human rights champion. Since her release, she’s represented the American Civil Liberties Union in New York City’s Pride Parade to champion LGBT rights and collaborated with a number of artists to raise awareness about transgenderism, prisoner treatment, and the dehumanizing aspects of incarceration—among these, an exhibition utilizing her DNA to create 3D-printed portraits.
Manning has also been very active on social media, using Twitter to bring attention to a host of issues, including the demilitarization of local police forces, LGBT issues, and government surveillance, often ending posts with an affirmative “we got this.” It’s surreal to scroll through Manning’s posts and marvel at her wit, humility, optimism, and how she so bravely brushes aside her detractors—all traits that laid dormant, at least to the public, while she served the longest prison sentence in U.S. history for a whistleblower.
— Chelsea E. Manning (@xychelsea) July 3, 2017
— Chelsea E. Manning (@xychelsea) June 25, 2017
😼 and i’d raise it again in a heartbeat to protect all of you 🌎🌍🌏👭👫👬❤️🌈 https://t.co/4vGR6iLPoY
— Chelsea E. Manning (@xychelsea) June 24, 2017
no 🧐😍💕 https://t.co/4drCuuyVt4
— Chelsea E. Manning (@xychelsea) July 9, 2017
— Chelsea E. Manning (@xychelsea) June 22, 2017
somehow, i dont believe pointing fingers and bashing people 😠😡🤬 is worth anything 😇 we should have hope and a vision 😍🌈 we got this 😎
— Chelsea E. Manning (@xychelsea) July 13, 2017
Manning’s exposure to the world, albeit in small doses over social media, couldn’t come at a better time. As the United States devolves further and further into a plutocracy, Manning’s visceral truths—both regarding her leaks and her personal voyage toward her own self-identity—is a welcome breath of fresh air. Although various outlets have contributed quality coverage of Manning’s post-prison life, no one summed up her reemergence in society better than Emily Dreyfuss of Wired, noting that Manning was stepping back into a world “she helped transform”:
“When Edward Snowden found evidence that the US was spying on its citizens, Manning’s experience proved instructive. Seeing how the inclusion of all raw material from the diplomatic cables Manning intercepted led to her conviction and long sentence, Snowden carefully sought out sources who could responsibly vet and reveal it. Like Manning, he contacted journalists to coordinate the release of classified information. But unlike with Manning, this time the media listened….
“Snowden’s bombshell megaleak about the extent of government surveillance came to the public not from WikiLeaks but from newspapers, making it much harder to disavow. On the other side of the interaction, reporters had learned that if the fourth estate was going to champion truth and free expression, it had to not just listen to whistle-blowers but learn how to protect and support them.”
That Manning is free continues to be a source of joy among many of her longtime supporters. And she’ll no doubt serve as an inspiration to many, especially the transgender community. While Manning will also go down as one of the most significant whistleblowers of any era, she’s slowly shedding that image, and finally has an opportunity to write her own story and share it with the world.