When Chelsea Manning asked President Barack Obama to commute her prison sentence last November—after more than six grueling years behind bars—few thought she had much of a chance. The intense politics surrounding Manning’s conviction for the largest leak of state secrets in US history suggested that her freedom remained a long shot. “We didn’t really think it would work,” Nancy Hollander, a criminal defense lawyer who represents Manning, told me recently.
So it came as a shock on January 17 when Hollander fielded a call in her office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, from White House Counsel Neil Eggleston. The president had granted the commutation, Eggleston told her. Manning, who is now 29, would be released on May 17. “I screamed,” Hollander recalled, and then she ran down the hall to tell a colleague. “We jumped around and danced and hugged.”
In 2013, a military judge sentenced Manning to 35 years in prison, the longest punishment ever for a government whistleblower, for handing over a trove of classified and other sensitive documents to WikiLeaks, including US military battlefield logs from Iraq and Afghanistan and State Department diplomatic cables. In addition to embarrassing American officials, prosecutors said the revelations complicated US military operations and diplomatic work and put US soldiers at risk, although prosecutors acknowledged there was no evidence of any deaths resulting from the disclosures.
Manning had already been locked up for three years before her conviction, beginning with about two months in isolation in Kuwait and then nine months in solitary confinement in the Quantico Marine Corps brig, where she was put on suicide watch and stripped of her clothing at night. “We’re a nation of laws. We don’t individually make our own decisions about how the laws operate,” President Barack Obama said in April 2011, a year after Manning’s arrest, as protesters railed against the conditions she faced in detention. That month she was transferred to a military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where she has remained ever since.
After she was tried and convicted, Manning, who is slight and about 5-foot-3, came out as transgender. (She had grown up and joined the military using the name Bradley Manning, but privately she grappled with gender dysphoria, a mismatch between a person’s sex assigned at birth and their gender identity that can cause extreme distress.) The day after her sentencing in 2013, Manning announced, “I want everyone to know the real me,” in a statement read by one of her lawyers on the Today show. “I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female.” She also began battling for better treatment in prison and drew a fervent base of supporters, who saw her not only as a beacon for transgender rights, but also as a hero for helping show the effects of war on innocent civilians at the hands of the US military.
Few expected mercy for Manning. Obama had prioritized going after leakers—his administration prosecuted more of them than all previous administrations combined—and as his presidency wound down, he surely knew a commutation could be seen as a win for WikiLeaks, by then under fire for involvement in Russian hacking of the 2016 presidential election. Republican Sen. John McCain described the commutation as a “grave mistake.” Sen. Lindsey Graham said it was a “slap in the face” for other soldiers. Shortly after his inauguration, President Donald Trump called Manning an “ungrateful traitor” after she wrote an op-ed suggesting that Obama had compromised too much with his political opponents during his presidency.
Now, Manning faces a daunting challenge of another kind: adapting to life on the outside as a human rights advocate and a free woman.
Manning grew up in rural Oklahoma with her sister and two parents who were alcoholics. She was bullied at school because of her effeminate mannerisms. In 2007, about three years before the leak, she enlisted in the Army and was later deployed to Iraq, where she worked as an intelligence analyst. She decided to share hundreds of thousands of sensitive files, she explained, “out of concern for my country, the innocent civilians whose lives were lost as a result of war, and in support of…transparency and public accountability.”
But at her trial she was remorseful, noting that she’d been “dealing with a lot of issues” while in Iraq. Before the leak, Manning had sent an email to her supervisor with a photo of herself wearing makeup and a blonde wig. “This is my problem,” Manning wrote to him. “I thought a career in the military would get rid of it…But it’s not going away; it’s haunting me more and more as I get older.”
Inside the all-male military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Manning settled into a routine, the New York Times reported, waking up at 4:30 a.m. most mornings to apply her makeup and change into her uniform before the other inmates rose for the day. She worked in the prison wood shop and spent much of her free time reading, studying math or encryption, and writing. Those who know her explain she’s not always so serious. “She’s a total millennial,” says her lawyer Chase Strangio of the American Civil Liberties Union, one of her closest confidants. Though she doesn’t have internet access in prison, she started posting on Twitter in 2015 by dictating tweets to her supporters via phone. When they talk, Strangio says, she’ll ask for updates about Taylor Swift’s Instagram account or what celebrities were wearing at the Golden Globes.
But Manning has had to fight for her right to live as a woman. During her early days at Fort Leavenworth, Strangio says, she was optimistic that if she made a formal request for hormone therapy, she’d get it. “One thing people don’t understand about Chelsea is she is an incredibly patriotic person who has a tremendous amount of faith in our democracy, and…she was very confident they were going to provide her the treatment she needed,” Strangio says. She was wrong. Though military doctors diagnosed her with gender dysphoria and recommended she live and be treated as a woman, the Army denied her hormone therapy. Strangio helped her sue to get it—and she became the first person ever to receive treatment in a military prison for a gender transition. She also got permission to wear female undergarments and cosmetics, but the military, citing security risks, denied her requests to grow her hair long like other women prisoners. “She was just so devastated,” says Strangio, who is himself transgender. Every haircut was a painful reminder, he said, that “she is seen and treated as a man even though she’s a woman.”
“Hair is the most important signifier of femininity in American society,” Manning wrote to Obama as part of her commutation request in November. “[I]t is especially important to me as a person confined in an all-male environment, so not being given access to this, while receiving other treatment, has been a never-ending nightmare.”
In July, Manning tried to kill herself. Her mental health had deteriorated, her attorneys said, because of the military’s refusal to adequately treat her gender dysphoria. (It was her first suicide attempt in prison, though Strangio said she’d previously had suicidal thoughts linked to her arrest and inadequate treatment.) In October, prison officials punished her for the July suicide attempt by putting her isolation, where she reportedly tried to choke herself on a piece of clothing before guards stopped her. Strangio, based in New York, traveled down to the Kansas prison after both suicide attempts. While he felt that they had grown close—Manning called him regularly to talk about books, family, politics, and the Pulse nightclub massacre—the two had not yet met in person. “She hasn’t had many visits from family,” noted Strangio, who is 34. “A lot of the sustained visits she’s had over the years have been from lawyers.”
Manning and her lawyers began talking about a push for a commutation. “I was feeling that her life was in jeopardy and she wasn’t going to survive much longer,” Strangio says. “The years of trauma that were building up was such that another year seemed difficult to imagine.”
She had about 28 years remaining on her sentence. A UN investigator had described the conditions of her isolation at Quantico as “cruel, inhuman, and degrading.” At Leavenworth, she was disciplined when prison officials found toothpaste in her cell that had expired—they called it “medicine misuse.” Last September, she stopped eating to protest what she described as “constant, deliberate and overzealous administrative scrutiny” by prison officials and to call for better treatment for her gender dysphoria. The hunger strike led to a promise from the military that she would receive sex reassignment surgery. (She will not have the surgery before her release.) During her confinement in isolation in October, she appeared to experience disturbing hallucinations, according to a doctor who studies solitary confinement.
“I need help and I am still not getting it,” Manning wrote to Obama in November, pleading for a commutation. “I am living through a cycle of anxiety, anger, hopelessness, loss, and depression.” She added, “I have…been placed in solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure for an attempted suicide despite a growing effort—led by the President of the United States—to stop the use of solitary confinement for any purpose. These experiences have broken me and made me feel less than human.”
On January 11, NBC reported that Manning had made it onto Obama’s short list for commutations. Two days later, White House press secretary Josh Earnest mentioned her case during a press briefing, saying that unlike National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, she had apologized for her actions. “Chelsea Manning is somebody who went through the military criminal justice process, was exposed to due process, was found guilty, was sentenced for her crimes, and she acknowledged wrongdoing,” Earnest said. “Mr. Snowden fled into the arms of an adversary and has sought refuge in a country that most recently made a concerted effort to undermine confidence in our democracy.”
Her attorneys were still cautious, but “on the train home that night, I was just watching that press briefing over and over,” says Strangio. “I had this moment of sitting back and looking out the window at the city, being like, ‘Wow, Chelsea could actually be freed.’ I almost started crying.”
The next week, Obama’s last in office, the president commuted the bulk of Manning’s sentence. (He also granted 64 pardons and 208 other commutations for lower-profile offenders that day.) “It has been my view that…she took responsibility for her crime; that the sentence that she received was very disproportional—disproportionate relative to what other leakers had received; and that she had served a significant amount of time,” Obama said. (Manning’s sentence was 10 times longer than the next longest sentence ever imposed on a government whistleblower, according to the ACLU.)
Speaking generally about Obama’s philosophy toward commutations, Eggleston told the Marshall Project that the president tended to feel “very strongly about the idea of rehabilitation and second chances.”
“I really do believe that he saved her life,” Strangio says of Manning’s commutation.
After the announcement, Manning’s lawyers waited anxiously for their client to call. “Everybody started getting concerned because nobody heard from her,” says Hollander. (They later learned that Manning wasn’t able to immediately get to a phone; prison officials had moved her on the day of the commutation announcement, likely for security reasons.) The next day, Hollander and Strangio phoned Manning. “She was a little bit numb still,” Hollander says of the call. “It had been a hard night for her because she had been alone and hadn’t been able to talk to anyone. Imagine you get this news and then you can’t tell anyone.…[Strangio] and I were all excited, trying to get her more excited about it. She was just starting to process it at that point.”
After Manning is released on May 17, she plans to move to Maryland, where she lived with her aunt before joining the Army. “She doesn’t know every bit about what her life is going to look like,” says Strangio, “but one theme with Chelsea is always a commitment to advocacy—for the trans community and for her visions for justice more broadly.” That includes the importance of government transparency and net neutrality and privacy, according to Strangio. He has helped raise more than $115,000 as part of a “Welcome Home Fund” to cover Manning’s rent, utilities, health care, and other expenses during her first year out. “For the first time in her life, Chelsea will have the opportunity to live freely as her authentic self,” he wrote in the fundraising appeal. “We want her to have the tools to do that and to overcome the years of abuse she has experienced in custody.” While Strangio helps Manning get back on her feet, Hollander will continue to work on the long process of a legal appeal to overturn Manning’s conviction.
With her release approaching, “every day feels like it’s going in slow motion,” Manning tweeted in mid-April, soon adding, “You know you’ve been in prison for a while, when the prospect of freedom is nerve wracking.” Then, with just a few weeks to go, she wrote, “The nightmare will end, soon. Never stop dreaming =).”