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Chelsea Manning: Whistleblower

Chelsea Manning's decision to leak thousands of documents to WikiLeaks landed her in jail for 7 years...and protected the rights of millions of people around the world.

By Tim Travers Hawkins, CC BY-SA 4.0,

In her request for a presidential pardon Chelsea Manning wrote to President Obama:

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 free society.

When she decided to leak thousands of U.S. military documents to Wikileaks, Chelsea Manning made a decision that would change not only her life, but that of all those who care about truth, transparency and holding governments accountable. Rather than being hailed as a whistleblower for leaking information showing evidence of war crimes committed by the U.S., Manning spent nearly three years in military pretrial detention, at times in solitary confinement, was put on a disorienting reverse sleep cycle and generally mistreated.

Born in 1987 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Manning enlisted in the U.S. Army in September 2007. In October 2009 she was deployed to a military base near Baghdad in Iraq, and worked in intelligence supporting the war on terror. Shortly after her deployment she was awarded the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and promoted from Private First Class to Specialist.

It was in Iraq that Manning had access to the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, used by the US Departments of Defense and State to transmit classified information, and the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System, another network used to share sensitive classified information. In the course of her work she became disenchanted with the U.S.'s involvement in the War on Terror. Assigned to investigate 15 Iraqis her division had helped capture in late 2009, she realized that the individuals were not Al Qaeda, as they had been led to believe. When she tried to speak about it with a superior officer, she was told to "shut up". From that point on, she says, she saw things differently. Manning said it seemed that her government was "obsessed with capturing and killing people".

So, in a bid to open a public discussion over the military's role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Manning downloaded government documents with the intention of making them public. Thomas Drake, a former NSA official who was indicted in 2010 under the Espionage Act, said that Manning believed the US was involved in illegal activities and wanted expose this fact.

Sometime between the end of 2009 and the start of 2010 Manning downloaded what would later be called the Iraq War Logs, a selection of 400,000 documents, as well as the Afghanistan War Logs, another 91,000 documents. Between February and April 2010 Manning shared them with Wikileaks.

She was arrested on 27 May 2010 on her army base in Iraq. Two years later Manning was charged with more than 20 offenses, including violating the Espionage Act and aiding the enemy. One of the items that she leaked was a 2007 video of a U.S. Army Apache helicopter strike in Baghdad. The video shows a group of civilians being shot at while members of the helicopter crew are heard saying they encountered a firefight and that one of the people is shooting. The video shows that neither statement is true. Two of the dead were Reuters employees. One had been carrying a camera that a soldier identified as a gun. None of the material she shared was classified as top secret, and some of it, including the Apache video, was not classified at all. According to Manning, she only intended to share documents that would embarrass the US government, rather than endanger national security.

When her military court trial began in June 2013, Manning was facing a maximum sentence of 90 years in jail. On 30 July 2013 Manning was convicted of six accounts of violating the Espionage Act, along with 14 other charges, and sentenced to 35 years in jail. She was acquitted of the most serious charge of aiding the enemy. While serving time at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, Manning continued to raise her voice by writing from prison, publishing articles for the Guardian, Medium and other outlets about same-sex marriage, transgender issues and, most recently, intelligence legislation.

On 17 January 2017 President Obama commuted Manning's 35-year sentence to seven years, and she was released on 17 May 2017.


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