“We Cannot Wait for Change” — Freed Whistleblower Chelsea Manning on Iraq, Prison and Running for Senate

Fifteen years ago this month, the US invasion of Iraq began. Today we spend the hour with the war’s most famous whistleblower, Chelsea Manning, in her first live television interview. While serving as an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq, Manning leaked a trove of documents in 2010 about the Iraq War to WikiLeaks. She also leaked diplomatic cables, as well as information on Guantánamo and the US War in Afghanistan. It would become the largest leak of classified data in US history. Manning was caught and eventually sentenced to 35 years in prison — the longest sentence ever given to a whistleblower in the United States. Last year, President Obama granted her clemency in one of his final acts in office. She had written to the president requesting what she described as a “first chance at life.” Since her release, Manning has emerged as a leading activist for trans rights and greater transparency. She has been featured in the pages of Vogue, where she was photographed by Annie Leibovitz, and was named 2017 Newsmaker of the Year by Out magazine. In January, she announced her bid for the US Senate in Maryland, challenging Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, who is seeking a third term.

TRANSCRIPT

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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Fifteen years ago this month, the US invasion of Iraq began. Today we spend the hour with the war’s most famous whistleblower, Chelsea Manning, in her first live television interview. Manning served as an intelligence analyst in the US Army, based in Iraq. In 2010, while on leave in the United States, Chelsea Manning, then known as Bradley, made a decision that would change her life and the public’s understanding of the US War in Iraq.

After first approaching The New York Times and The Washington Post, Manning decided to leak a trove of documents about the Iraq War to WikiLeaks. She also leaked diplomatic cables, as well as information on Guantánamo and the US War in Afghanistan. It would become the largest leak of classified data in US history. Over the next year, WikiLeaks would team up with major news organizations to break countless stories based on Manning’s leaks. The documents exposed how US-backed forces were involved in torture, summary executions and war crimes in Iraq.

But Manning was soon caught. On May 27, 2010, Manning was arrested at Forward Operating Base Hammer, outside Baghdad. She was initially held in a cage in Kuwait. Then she was moved to the Marine Corps base at Quantico in Virginia, where she was held in a tiny cell in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. The United Nations said her prison conditions violated the UN Convention Against Torture. On August 21st, 2013, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison — the longest sentence ever given to a whistleblower in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: The next day, Manning issued a statement through her lawyer announcing she was transgender. She said, quote, “As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female.”

Manning would battle with military officials for years in an attempt to receive the proper healthcare, including hormone therapy. She would stage hunger strikes and twice attempted suicide.

Then, in 2017, a shocking development occurred. President Obama granted her clemency, in one of his final acts in office. She had written to the president requesting what she described as a, quote, “first chance at life.” Chelsea Manning was finally released from Fort Leavenworth in Kansas on May 17th last year.

Since then, she’s emerged as a leading activist for trans rights and greater transparency. She has been featured in the pages of Vogue magazine, where she was photographed by Annie Leibovitz, and was named 2017 Newsmaker of the Year by Out magazine. In January, she announced her bid for the US Senate in Maryland, challenging Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, who’s seeking a third term. And today she joins us here on Democracy Now! for her first live television interview.

Chelsea Manning, welcome to Democracy Now!

CHELSEA MANNING: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, it has been 10 months, but how does it feel to be free?

CHELSEA MANNING: It’s overwhelming. I wake up some days, and I’m not sure that this is actually happening. You know, sometimes I wake up in the morning, and I have to figure out where I am, because now I’m traveling all the time, and I’m not staying in one spot. And it’s both — you know, initially, it was very inspiring and wonderful. But now, as I’m seeing more and more of the world and how it’s become the world I feared a decade ago, now it’s just — it’s overwhelming.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And can you go back to when you heard the news that President Obama had granted you clemency? Had you had any expectations of the possibility of that?

CHELSEA MANNING: It was very hard for me to acknowledge that this was happening. I’m writing a book, so it’s like — a lot more of the details are going to be in the book. But I couldn’t process it. It was very difficult for me to process that this was actually happening. I mean, when you’re in prison, you know, with a 35-year sentence, and you’re only seven years into it, you don’t think that miracles are going to happen. You know, it takes a couple years, but you just — you expect that tomorrow is going to bring the same thing. So, you know, like having a sudden change and a sudden shift in my entire life outlook was very difficult for me to process.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, let’s go to President Obama speaking at his final press conference as president in 2017.

CHELSEA MANNING: Right.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, first of all, let’s be clear: Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence, so the notion that the average person who was thinking about disclosing vital classified information would think that it goes unpunished, I don’t think would get that impression from the sentence that Chelsea Manning has served. It has been my view that given she went to trial, that due process was carried out, 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, that it made sense to commute, and not pardon, her sentence.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, there was the letter that you had sent to the president, a very long, thoughtful, detailed letter about your life and your career and what you suffered while you were in solitary confinement, as well. That must have had a big impact on his decision, as well. I’m wondering your thoughts about that?

CHELSEA MANNING: I’m not going to speculate on the reasons. I did write that letter. I wrote that letter in summer of 2017 [ 2016 ], not long after some bad things happened to me. And I was just in a very emotional state, so I just poured out this letter. And I gave it to my lawyers, and I said, “I’m going to ask for a commutation.”

And I asked for a commutation because the goal was not, at this point, to try to — you know, I had a court-martial appeal, and it dealt with a lot of legal issues, but, just as a human being, to like just live my life again, especially because I hadn’t lived my life before. I mean, I had, you know, been homeless before. I enlisted in the — you know, I had been homeless for a period of time before I enlisted in the military. And I spent about a year working two jobs and trying to go to college, before going into the military. And then I was in the military for three — I was in the military doing intelligence work for three years. And then I’m just in prison for the next seven years. So, I haven’t really lived, you know, what I thought life would consist of.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Chelsea, we’re going to talk about your life before you were in prison, during imprisonment —

CHELSEA MANNING: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — and then this big decision that you have made to run for senator from Maryland, the very place where you were court-martialed and where you were held in jail during that court-martial —

CHELSEA MANNING: Correct.

AMY GOODMAN: — and what that all means, in a moment. Chelsea Manning is our guest for the hour, Army whistleblower, transgender activist, spent seven years in military prison after leaking a trove of documents about Iraq and Afghanistan and the State Department to WikiLeaks in 2010, now running for US Senate in Maryland. Back with her in a minute.