By Anna Landsverk
In his last full day in office, former President Barack Obama issued over 60 pardons and hundreds of commutations for U.S. prisoners on Jan. 19, 2017. Among them was controversial military prisoner and former Private First Class Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, shortening her 35-year sentence to the seven years she has already spent in the court process and prison system.
Manning, who released thousands of pages of confidential military communications and files online on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the torture facility of Guantanamo Bay, was charged with a wide variety of crimes in her sentencing trial in 2013. However, the court did not convict Manning of the most serious crime, aiding the enemy, which could have resulted in the death penalty.
Manning illegally obtained secret military documents while stationed in Iraq, then released them with conditions to international media organization Wikileaks, which specializes in publishing classified documents from anonymous sources around the world. Some of the documents leaked by Manning include the Afghan War Diary, the Iraq War Logs, the so-called “Cablegate” of U.S. State Department cable communications, the Guantanamo Bay files and videos of two controversial airstrikes.
For many, Manning became a symbol for the treatment of whistleblowers and other informants who release confidential or classified information. Her situation has been further complicated by her gender identity; the day after her formal arrest, Manning announced publicly that she is a transgender woman, and therefore she wanted to be referred to as Chelsea instead of her birth name Bradley.
For me, the Manning case is very tricky to balance. To start with, I have no military experience or background, so I cannot say whether the documents she released were a genuine threat to U.S. and international intelligence agents. I was also relatively young at the time of Manning’s arrest in 2010, so I was not following the case as it played out and was not aware of the shift in attitudes about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan because of the leaks.
On the other hand, Manning’s treatment during her arrest, detainment and prison sentence are definitely concerning to me. Not only did Manning attempt suicide twice during her detention, she was also put in solitary confinement on suicide watch in a six-foot-by-12-foot cell. There, she was ordered to strip naked for a full night and a morning inspection, and she had to sleep in only her boxers from July 2010 to April 2011 so she could not harm herself with her clothing. She was allowed limited hours to sleep and had guards checking on her every five minutes.
Manning was also not given access to hormone therapy until 2015, despite having her gender dysphoria confirmed by two military specialists. She was not allowed to grow her hair out and was housed in an all-male military prison. This had an extremely negative effect on her already tenuous mental state and drew criticism from the public, particularly from LGBTQ+ and civil rights groups, who argued Manning’s initial conditions were inhumane.
Now Manning’s situation has improved somewhat, and she has become the first transwoman to ever receive hormone therapy in a military prison. She was also authorized to undergo gender reassignment surgery, another first for a transgender inmate. Many of her official communications still list her name as Bradley and refer to her with male pronouns, but documents within the prison are all listed under her preferred name and pronouns.
After she was granted her commutation by Obama, Manning lashed out at him, writing a piece for The Guardian criticizing his “temporary” legacy and his failure to take a harder line on progressive issues.
This actually angered me. Seeing as she had just been given 30 years of her life back, it was very surprising to me that Manning would turn around and lament Obama’s actions in such a public way. Obama’s last-minute commutation saved her from an experience that no doubt would have been far worse under President Trump. Trump called for Manning to receive the death penalty when her trial was first publicized in 2012 and 2013, and he has recently called her an ungrateful traitor on Twitter.
While Manning has several important landmark achievements to her name—becoming an internationally recognized whistleblower, being credited with the start of 2010’s “Arab Spring” and providing a very public face for transgender people in the military—she also cannot seem to shy away from controversy and at times counterproductive statements for the causes she represents. The documents Manning leaked are out there forever, for better or for worse, but hopefully the complex gray areas of Manning can fade into the background and not sully the progress made for trans people, for the military and for the accountability of the international war community.