The Private Goes Public
The meaning of Chelsea Manning.
By Sam Slovick
September 12, 2013
If you’re former Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who helped leak more than 700,000 military and state department records—including video of an Apache helicopter gunship killing civilians and journalists—you have the biggest coming-out party in history.
“I am Chelsea Manning. I am female,” Manning wrote in a statement released to NBC’s Today show shortly after she was sentenced.
With those seven words, Manning transformed herself from someone who might be dismissed as a confused kid acting out (she had been showing signs before all this) or a possible shrinking violet (she apologized during the hearing for any harm she may have caused the U.S.) into a warrior princess now fighting for transparency within the military-industrial complex and LBGTQ rights.
Yes, by doubling down on her dissidence, Chelsea is now waving the stars and stripes as well as the rainbow flag, demanding a pardon, on moral grounds, outmaneuvering her persecutors, all the while becoming a new icon to the LBGTQ community—the very community she will be walking into with open arms as soon as she’s out of prison, which will be sooner than the scalp hunters expected or wanted.
In other words, Manning is crazy all right, crazy like a fox. She’s positioned herself at the center of a global platform—the newly renamed Private Manning Support Network—that raised the money for her legal defense and recently launched a crowdsourcing project to pay for her family in Wales to visit. Moreover, she may become just the second person in U.S. history to complete a gender transformation while incarcerated.
Chelsea Manning either hit a psychiatric wall or staged a breakdown while she was stationed in Iraq in 2009. Let’s say it’s the latter and that on May 7, when Army witnesses say they found her in the fetal position in a storage cupboard with a knife and the words “I want” carved into the vinyl chair she was sitting on, is when she began laying the groundwork for her master plan.
She rousted herself enough to punch intelligence analyst specialist Jihrleah Showman, a woman, in the face. For that, she was rewarded with a brigade psychiatrist recommending then-Private Bradley Manning be discharged for “occupational problem and adjustment disorder.” Manning’s supervisor promptly removed the bolt from her gun and relinquished her to supply-office duty. Oddly, her security clearance remained intact.
Maybe, as the story goes, Manning actually did come unglued behind a breakup with her boyfriend and subsequently leaked thousands of classified documents in a kind of adolescent tantrum. But a trail of breadcrumbs suggests other possibilities.
The trail starts when Manning, the son of a Navy veteran skilled in computer programming, showed up while on leave in January 2010 at a “hackerspace” in the basement of the computer science building at Boston University. According to leftist blog Empty Wheel, Manning was in Boston looking for encryption software and had already scraped massive amounts of data without being caught.
Manning met mathematician Eric Schmiedl while in Boston. She emailed Schmiedl on May 19, confessing that she was the source of the Baghdad airstrike video. Ten days before she contacted Schmiedl, Manning hit up gay novelist Jonathan Odell on Facebook, saying that she had been involved in some “very high-profile events, albeit as a nameless individual thus far” and wanted to talk to him.
In other words, her operation was already up and running and looking for distribution.
Working more as a smooth operator than a confused kid, Manning contacted high profile “gray hat” hacker Adrian Lamo on May 21, disclosing that she had set up Twitter and YouTube accounts under the name Breanna. Giving a digital birth to her female self, Manning wrote to Lamo, “I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me … plastered all over the world press … as [a] boy.”
Two days later, Lamo turned her in. Was Manning actually falling apart or setting up a gender-dysphoria defense knowing the leaks would be traced to her?
Well, no. But maybe as she set about sabotaging her Army career while outing some of the military’s dirty secrets, she started to focus on what would “get rid of it,” and then some. Such as positioning herself as a hero by exposing the oppressive hetero-normative policies of the Department of Defense.
Contacting a high-profile hacker like Lamo, who had been arrested in 2003 after hacking The New York Times, Yahoo! and Microsoft, would clearly set off some big alarms. She knew most of the documents she leaked were not breaking news— the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners and misrepresentation of the civilian death toll in the Iraq War were well known by then. Though there were predictable headhunters, including Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) calling for the death penalty, even former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress the leaks were “significantly overwrought, causing no serious damage, though embarrassing and awkward.”
There’s a chance Manning calculated prison might be a better place to “get rid of it” than the military. At least she wouldn’t have to participate in gunning down civilians and journalists in prison. Was this a case of moral conscience intersecting with self -interest?
Judge Denise Lind sentenced Manning to 35 years at Ft. Leavenworth with three-and-a-half years granted for time served and consideration for the abusive treatment she suffered in a Marine brig at Quantico. When measured against the 10 years given to Abu Ghraib’s sadistic shot caller, Charles Graner, who served six and a half, Manning’s sentence seems severe at first. It was, however, only 10 more years than Manning’s proposed plea and it was far less than the headhunters were howling for.
Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, says Manning could be out in seven years on parole. He’s filed for a presidential pardon. Manning’s statement said, “If you deny my request for a pardon, I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society.”
Chelsea went to jail and everybody else went back to business as usual with the full impact of Manning’s leaks still unknown. The New York Times recently reported that some cables included in a trove of State Department messages leaked to WikiLeaks in 2010 included information about Syria’s procurement of deadly chemical weapons—very possibly part of Manning’s doc dump.
In her statement to the Today show, Manning said she wanted everyone to now “the real me.” And that she wanted to begin hormone therapy ASAP. The statement was signed “Chelsea E. Manning.”
The Army maintains it isn’t going to give Manning, who won’t be dishonorably discharged until her time is served, hormone therapy or any other special consideration. Coombs says he will file legal action to get the therapy. Meanwhile, the LGBTQ community has a new high-profile advocate for prison reform.
Either way, it all works in favor of Manning maneuvering her way out of the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., so she can slip into something more comfortable, like a federal prison for her government-sponsored hormone replacement treatment and, presumably, gender reassignment surgery (GRS).
As the legal petitions pile up, at some point in the foreseeable future an accredited doctor is likely to certify Manning as transgender and she’ll begin hormone treatment somewhere in the federal prison system. Or, less likely, Ft. Leavenworth will begin to accommodate military personnel with gender dysphoria and provide them with hormone therapy.
Manning will ultimately be released from prison as Chelsea Manning, a trans-woman who has paid her debt to society. During her time in jail, the contributions her leaks made to transparency, public awareness and truth will continue to seep to the surface. The truth always comes out in time, like everything (and everyone) else.