Chelsea Manning shared secrets with WikiLeaks. Now she's telling her own story
In 2010, while working in Iraq, army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning provided hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic records about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to WikiLeaks in what's regarded as the largest leak of classified records in U.S. history. MANNING was sentenced to 35 years in prison, but was released after seven years, when President Obama commuted her sentence. Manning announced her gender identity as a women after her conviction in 2013 and began to transition. Her new memoir is titled Read Me Dot T-X-T, A Memoir.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our guest today, Chelsea Manning, is likely somebody you've heard of, regarded as a hero by many and a traitor by others. In 2010, while working as an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq, she provided hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic records to WikiLeaks in what's regarded as the largest leak of classified records in history. After she was convicted in a military court martial in 2013, she declared her gender identity as a woman and began to transition. Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison but was released after seven years, when President Obama commuted her sentence. She was later imprisoned again on a civil contempt charge for refusing to testify in a grand jury investigation of WikiLeaks but was released in 2020.
Manning has written a new memoir about her difficult childhood, her long struggle with gender dysphoria, her entry into the Army and the events that landed her in prison. She writes that when she joined the Army, she wanted to go to Iraq and was committed to the Army's mission, but she became disillusioned with what she saw and regards her decision to leak classified documents as a matter of principle. Chelsea Manning now describes herself as a transparency activist and politician. She ran for U.S. Senate in Maryland in 2018. She works as a security consultant and expert in data science and machine learning. Her new book is "REAME.txt: A Memoir." Chelsea Manning, welcome to FRESH AIR.
CHELSEA MANNING: Hey. How's it going?
DAVIES: Doing well. You know, a lot of people who don't live highly publicized lives become famous suddenly, and you became famous while you were in prison and had no control or even knowledge of the publicity around you. I mean, you were characterized by other people, many of whom had agendas, and we'll talk about this later. But I wonder if that's why you wanted to tell your own story in this book.
MANNING: You've got that right, you know? Throughout my life, especially over the last decade or so, I've kind of lost control of how I'm presented to the world. So I really came to want to write my version of events, write my story, you know, tell things from my perspective because I think it's kind of gotten lost in a lot of people projecting their sort of ideals or their fears or their anxieties onto me or whatever it is, you know, whereas I'm just kind of me, right?
DAVIES: All right. Well, let's talk about you, and let's begin where you do, in your childhood. You grew up in Crescent, Okla. Your dad met your mom in Wales, so she had family there. Both your parents were heavy drinkers, and that can affect families in lots of ways. What did it mean for you and your older sister, Casey?
MANNING: So my family has a history with alcohol, certainly. My parents, you know, they struggled with alcohol increasingly as I was getting older. So it was a little less bad in my younger years, and then as I got a little bit older, it progressively got worse for them. I would say that my sister kind of took up the mantle of being the sort of leader of the household eventually, you know, especially for - from my perspective. You know, she was the one who would make sure that I went to school. You know, she was the one who would look out for me, you know, whenever my parents weren't there.
DAVIES: You were raised as a boy. When did you become aware that you felt you weren't?
MANNING: Sure. I always figured that I was trans. I mean, I didn't have the language to describe my experience. I certainly knew something was different about me. And, you know, in a very strict sort of gender construct that exists in a place like central Oklahoma in the 1990s, you know, there really wasn't an alternative, but I always knew that there was something different about me. And my family noticed it, too. Like, it was just a very marketed difference about me and my personality and my sort of interests that, you know, was something that made me stand out.
DAVIES: And how did your parents react to it when they noticed it?
MANNING: Well, my father was never happy with it. So my father, obviously, was very upset with me whenever I, you know - 'cause, like, you know, I was a nerdy, kind of athletic, but small, you know, kid who, you know, was maybe a bit more on the femme side, you know, and sort of leaned towards things or - you know, I certainly admired my sister, and I wanted to be like my sister 'cause she was the older sibling. And I spent a lot of time wanting to be just like my sister, like, you know, like in almost every way.
DAVIES: You were a smart kid. You won science fairs and...
MANNING: I did.
DAVIES: ...Discovered computers early in the PC world. What effect did that have on your life and your experience? You really got into it, didn't you?
MANNING: Sure. You know, central Oklahoma being kind of hostile to me in general and feeling kind of uncomfortable as a kid, you know, the internet was very new. It was very sort of frontier in that time frame. While the first time I was on the internet was - it was so early that, you know, nothing was on it, right? It was like the - it was like 1993, 1994. So, you know, like, it was literally just, like - you know, not even companies, like, had their own homepage that looked any better than a Myspace in, you know, the mid-2000s. So later on, towards the end of the '90s, I started to notice the sort of communities that were forming and - you know, a mixture of video gaming, a mixture of a lot of interest in music, especially electronic music.
DAVIES: So it was a whole nother world you could inhabit. And you were good. You learned to code, right? This is sort of an early start on later directions, I guess.
DAVIES: Your parents split when you were 13, and your mom moved back to Wales, took you with her. And those - that's where you finished school, I guess, not - some not-easy years as you describe them. And then after graduating high school, you write that you came out as gay on Myspace. You knew that you felt an attraction to men. How did you understand your sexuality and gender identity then?
MANNING: You know, fluid. It's been complicated, right? So as a young person, I think it was very confusing, right? You know, so it was a time in which - it was always this sort of either-or, you know, or even earlier, like in Oklahoma, it was just like, you are attracted to the opposite sex, right? You know, that's it. Like, so, you know, I think that finally sort of experimenting and figuring out who I am in my late teens, you know, I also leaned again on the internet to sort of explore this. And, yeah, you know, I certainly would have identified in the mid-2000s as a gay guy. But, you know, like, I also got the sense that that wasn't quite where I was going to land, right?
DAVIES: You know, it's interesting. I mean, you describe your gender dysphoria as you move through this story of going into the Army and eventually leaking the documents and then dealing with the court martial. And how would you describe what it feels like, the dysphoria, or what it felt like?
MANNING: So I put in the book that it's very similar to having a toothache that doesn't go away. You know, it's like, you know, if you don't do anything about it, if you don't go see a dentist, you know, it just sort of gets worse and worse and worse as well. You get the sense of, like, oh, there's something not quite right. And then you - you know, if you don't seek treatment for it, it just gets worse, right?
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take a break here. Chelsea Manning's new memoir is titled "README.txt" She'll be back to talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Chelsea Manning. Her new memoir is titled "README.txt." You write that when you were enlisting in the Army, you actually wanted to go to Iraq to experience the fight firsthand, be there, smell it, even risk your life. Tell us a little more about this. Was this a patriotic sentiment, a life experience thing?
MANNING: I think it was me wanting to feel alive, almost. You know, I didn't feel like I had - as a teenager and as I was reaching my sort of young adult years, I had no sense of purpose or sense of identity, you know? I was just sort of lost and floating. And I was really hoping that, you know, the Army and my job would provide that for me. So I think that I really leaned into it, not having, really, anything else.
DAVIES: Right. And the recruiters were excited to get somebody walking in because they needed new troops then. You became an Army intelligence analyst. And you were deployed to Iraq in 2009. This is when it was a surge. And, you know, for people whose memories are fuzzy, this - the war had been going on now for six years. The invasion was 2003. And it was going badly. I mean, there was incredible civil strife in the country. You were assigned to Forward Operating Base Hammer, which was just outside of Baghdad. You were part of the intelligence unit, but you were - your work was directly related to assisting the U.S. troops and their commanders there, right?
DAVIES: Give us a sense of what you did and how it fit into the military's mission there.
MANNING: OK. So as an intelligence analyst, we have a very strange role in the military. It's very bottom-up. Commanders come and ask us questions. And they ask for frank answers. And they want - you know, so you have a more - for a junior enlisted person especially - yeah, which is unusual. It's unusual, but not unheard of for a junior enlisted person to interface directly with a staff officer, which is somebody who works directly for the commander or an actual commanding officer.
And our role is essentially to build products - charts, maps, graphs, pictures - out of all these different sources and materials, and sort of paint a picture for the commander to make decisions either operationally - like, things that are happening on a 24, 48, 72-hour timeframe - or much more broadly, like strategically, you know, what's going on in the whole area of operations over an extended period of time, what's been happening historically. And sort of educate or inform a commanding officer or, you know, staff officer. So that doesn't quite fit into the - what people typically think of in the military, as in, you're ordered to do X. And you do X and - or else you get in trouble, right? You know, our job is essentially to challenge officers even sometimes.
DAVIES: So you're giving them information on what areas are safe, what might be dangerous. These - this group or this individual might be a threat. They shouldn't be a threat. That kind of information?
MANNING: Or, you know, if we don't have that information, you know, what we need in order to obtain that information. So you know, we can also sort of provide feedback on, you know, where we need additional intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance support.
DAVIES: Were you looking at, like, videos of battles and, you know, searches and air attacks and that kind of thing?
MANNING: Sure. I mean, it was - I mean, we were in an operation center. So there were three screens in the operations center, which was a separate part of the facility. But it was, like, the main part. It was, like, this big room, almost like if you - you know, if you think of NASSA during a space launch, it's very similar. Like, you have three big, massive screens. And everybody's at their workstations. And, yeah, there was a constant feed of video information, battlefield data, on-the-ground radio traffic, etc. And, you know, we had access to all this. And it was flooding in constantly. And there's also a lot of historical information from that, you know? Sort of unfinished business was sort of everywhere because, you know, units came and went only after 12-month sort of cycles.
DAVIES: You know, what's interesting here is that, you know, you went to Iraq believing in the mission, wanting to help and make a difference. And then, within, you know, I guess - what? - a year or so, you were so troubled and disillusioned by what you saw that you were prepared to undertake this really risky thing of providing all kinds of documents, you know, to WikiLeaks, because you felt there was a story that...
MANNING: Well, I mean, I...
MANNING: I'm going to stop you there because I...
DAVIES: OK. Help us understand this. Yeah.
MANNING: I think what was bothering me was I had years - you know, I had years of training and years of sort of believing in something. But I did not know how different the way the war had been portrayed in this time frame compared to what I was seeing on the ground. And I wanted that discrepancy to be addressed somehow. And so it wasn't, like, an incident. It wasn't like, oh, this happened, and then I did this. And so what I really wanted was, I really thought, you know, The Washington Post would really do this.
And so I became sort of obsessed with this notion of - and, you know, whenever I wrote that file, readme.txt, I sort of imagined a sort of, you know, Woodward and Bernstein kind of article, you know? Like, I had a kind of cartoonish view of sort of, like, you know, how the media would treat this. And when I went on leave from Iraq, by that time, the discrepancy and the sort of weight of the job and the fact that, you know, it didn't matter - it became clear - after several sort of incidents that happened, it became clear that, you know, it didn't matter how good at my job I was or how hard I tried or how much work I did, nothing was going to fundamentally change in the direction of the war at that time.
DAVIES: Right. No, I know that when you decided to try to disclose this information, you first tried to get to really established news organizations, and that didn't work. But what I really want to understand is how your thinking changed. I mean, I guess the narrative of the war that the government was presenting was, look, we're there. We're trying to build democracy, establish the rule of law. If - you know, if we engage in battle, it's with people who are trying to undermine that. You write that when you got around to wanting to reveal information, you said, I wanted the world to understand the-seeing-the-Matrix feeling I had been experiencing. What were some of the things you had seen that just convinced you that this was a very different picture that people need to understand?
MANNING: I think that the most - and it's very difficult for me to describe this. You know, my job, essentially, sort of doing data analysis, was to do something called predictive analysis, right? And one of the most troubling things that I encountered was this notion that it wasn't just the enemy that was predictable, right? Our actions - if you fed the data into the machine, you could predict our behavior and then the reaction, the secondary reaction, the second- and third-order effects of that. And it painted this picture of a feedback loop where it was pretty clear that our reactions to the actions were causing, you know, things to get progressively worse, right? So we would just be sort of spinning our wheels more and more. You know, sort of like, you know, if you're stuck in a ditch and you run the engine and you try to go faster but you end up digging deeper - that was what was happening. And I kept seeing this again and again. And, you know, it was very clear that the approaches of counterinsurgency warfare were extremely self-destructive.
DAVIES: Yeah, you write at one point, it was we, meaning the American troops, who are actually creating the chaos a lot of times in neighborhoods and engendering more violence. You know, you tell a story of a joint special operations task force that was - wanted to take out a high-value target. And that you...
DAVIES: ...Played a role in kind of doing the research on this person that they needed to take out, giving - assembling all this information. Tell us what happened.
MANNING: So, yeah. So I spent a lot of time on this threat group, this particular threat group, and it produced a lot of updated work. You know, we sort of had been watching this for a while, since at least the mid-2000s. And so I managed to update the targeting packets, as they're called. And I - and finally, I - you know, and then, I, like, sort of had a certified finalized packet. And it was, like, a little bit on the back burner at this time. So we were focused on something else. And I guess CJSOTF, which is the Combined Joint Operations Task Force for - or Special Operations Task Force. They - while I was at lunch, my lunch, or really, you know, night - midnight chow, in that 45-minute period, you know, CJSOTF had announced that they were conducting operation in our AO. They're not from our area of operations. And so we went to - and then - while I was - all this transpired with me completely unaware. And it wasn't until I got back that, you know, the mission was already happening, right? They were already deployed to - they had used an old target packet from 2007.
DAVIES: Not the new material you had assembled? They...
DAVIES: It was out-of-date stuff.
MANNING: But, you know, they were already on the ground and already conducting this operation. It was a disaster. You know, there were - they had killed people. They had killed, you know, animals, pets, and not found anything. They had faced resistance. I mean, obviously, you know - and this is a sort of psychological thing, right? You know, it's like, oh, well, you know, well, why did they - why were they killing people who were fighting back? It's like, well, people are just invading their home, right, you know? So - and it's not uncommon to have, you know - a bit like Texas, it's not uncommon for Iraqis to have, you know, one sort of firearm or whatever. So it just became this bloody, ugly mess. And they left. You know, they - it was a dry hole, which is the term that we use, you know, whenever a mission doesn't find anything or is unsuccessful. And so they left the dry hole and returned back to wherever they went off to next, you know, 'cause they - I think they were mostly based outside of Iraq.
DAVIES: So this group of highly trained soldiers were going in to get this supposedly high-value target, this dangerous person. They had the wrong address because they used out-of-date information and just tore up a neighborhood, killed people and animals, and left pain, resentment towards the United States in their wake, right?
MANNING: Right. And all of this happened just because of, you know, I - you know, like, I would - like, if I had been there and - I feel really bad because, you know - and I reflect on this more than anything else, probably, from that time period, which is - you know, if I hadn't, you know, gone to lunch, if I had just stayed at my desk, maybe, you know, it would have transpired differently, right?
DAVIES: Right. But you prepared the right information. They just, for some reason, looked in the wrong file?
MANNING: Well, I mean, you know, I wasn't there. I wasn't at my desk. So, you know, if I had gotten the announcement, you know, then I would have been able to go to the operations center and say, hey, you know, like, it's this place. It's slightly - you know, it wasn't even that far. It was maybe, you know, the equivalent of two city blocks difference.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Chelsea Manning. Her new memoir is titled "README.txt." We'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our guest is Chelsea Manning, who served seven years in prison for leaking classified military and diplomatic documents when she was an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq. Manning announced her gender identity as a woman after her conviction in 2013 and began to transition. She's written a book about her experience. It's titled "README.txt: A Memoir."
So you decided you needed to share this information. And you had an awful lot of it. How...
MANNING: Not as much as I had access to, however.
DAVIES: OK. Well, that's one of the things I want to talk about, is the decisions you made to - on what to release. How secure was all this information, anyway?
MANNING: So this is not intelligence information. So it's a different category of information, much of it either classified at the secret level or below. And, you know, while I can't get into the specifics of the contents of it, even to this day, you know, that this kind of information is - you know, it's not intelligence information. It's historical data. It's what happened, right? It's the sort of what led up to the events that transpired, and on the broader scope, not just the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but what was transpiring on the sort of diplomatic front as well in the war on terror, specifically with the war on terror, 'cause all of this information is, you know - has to do with Iraq, Afghanistan, supporting Iraq and Afghanistan and the sort of expansion of that and sort of the broader context of that. And so the scale of this is, I think, significant. But, also, the scope of it is very narrow.
DAVIES: You know, I'm wondering, when you undertook this, what did you think the risks were if you were caught?
MANNING: So nobody had ever gone to prison for this before. That wasn't even on my radar at the time. And I'm an - I was an intelligence analyst. So my future opportunities were very broad and very wide, very...
DAVIES: You mean, within the military or without?
MANNING: Within the military and as a - potentially as a contractor or in other - for other companies and things - it's a very lucrative - it opens a lot of doors, and it's very lucrative. And I thought I was throwing that away. I thought I was going to lose my job. I thought I was going to have my career tainted. I thought I was going to lose my security clearance, be - potentially be discharged, you know, with a sort of a - you know, a less-than-honorable discharge and basically throw my - any future opportunities for a future career away. And...
DAVIES: If you were caught, you mean. Yeah.
DAVIES: And did you think you would be caught?
MANNING: I mean, I had a notion at some point, like, where, you know - I recognized that there was enough sort of forensic trail to at least identify the office that it came from. And I figured that I would have been in a round of maybe a dozen or so potential suspects. And I felt very uncomfortable with this because, obviously, I didn't want my colleagues to get in any kind of hot water either.
DAVIES: You uploaded some other stuff before you actually were found out - I mean, the - a very famous video of a helicopter attack in Iraq which - in which some civilians were killed - it came to be known as the Collateral Murder tape - and then some diplomatic stuff. But you weren't arrested, and it would take three years before you had your day in court at a military court martial. And you spent a lot of time in solitary confinement. I mean, your treatment was condemned by lawyers and eventually by a report by a United Nations official. You were first taken to Kuwait and kept in a cage - literally a cage, right? - for 59 days.
MANNING: Yes. It was a metal - sort of metal mesh box, like, stainless steel container in a tent with very little lighting. There were two air conditioners. One was always broken. And it was - I remember very distinctly that there was this little sort of sign inside of it that said, built in Fort Wayne, Ind. And I just - I'll never forget that. It's just - it was the only thing I could see every day.
DAVIES: Well, what did living in that cage do to your mental state?
MANNING: I deteriorated, and I deteriorated very quickly. I don't actually remember a whole lot. I definitely don't remember a full 59 days. It's very vague. It's very fuzzy. You know, I just remember being hot, being sweaty, being very confused and really started to feel like - you know, like I had lost touch with the rest of the world and that I had truly been forgotten about. At different points in that time period, I remember having the feeling like, oh, this is - I am dead. I am - like, I have already died.
DAVIES: After that, you were taken to the brig in Quantico, Va. - right? - again, kept in isolation. You write that the guards wouldn't even let you exercise in your cell. If you started doing situps or other things, they would stop you. And then you eventually are transferred to a military jail at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. And...
DAVIES: ...You - you've got a civilian lawyer. And, eventually, he made a priority of getting you out of solitary confinement. And you eventually joined the general population there. After so much time in isolation, what was it like adjusting to not having those restrictions?
MANNING: Right. So, you know, solitary confinement is a very - it's a very strange experience, you know, 'cause, like, there's not really anything to talk about, like, you know? And I - while I get into it a little bit in the book, there's just not a lot going on. And then, obviously, you have sort of a stimulus overload because having this access to so little stimulus in solitary confinement, you know, every - you know, like, you going to hear a whisper from across the other side of the building. You can hear footsteps. You can tell a person - who a person is based on their footfall. You can hear drips in the pipes. You just, like, become - you know, there's this super-heightened awareness of everything.
And the second that you are exposed to sort of stimulus again - like, seeing the sun and feeling the air and talking to people and having conversations with multiple people was very overwhelming. It took me several months to adjust. And the Army jail therapist walked me through sort of - and was - took a lot of care. Dr. Galloway took a lot of care in providing me the sort of help and support that I needed to readjust and become functional as a human again. I mean, I really - you know, I really - I became somebody who was unable to do anything apart from just say yes - yes, Sergeant, or, yes, Drill Sergeant or whatever. Like, it was very rote memory, military bearing kind of that I leaned on and depended on in that timeframe.
DAVIES: Let me just reintroduce you. We are speaking with Chelsea Manning. Her new memoir is titled "README.txt." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Chelsea Manning. She served seven years in prison for leaking classified military and diplomatic documents when she was an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq. Her sentence was commuted by President Obama in 2017.
You know, I want to address the contention of the government and some others that your disclosures harmed the United States and its allies or its sources in Afghanistan and Iraq. I mean, I think it's important to take that question seriously. Generally, what's your view of this?
MANNING: So I think that, you know, one of the most confusing things that gets brought up for me is the notion that, you know, there were - there is this allegation that just sort of swirls still to this day, mostly from journalists who ask questions about this time frame, who ask about redactions and names of sources, especially in context of Afghanistan. But we actually went through a court martial, and we went through the process of going through sort of the evidence. And, you know, we asked the government, obviously, you know, for them to back up their claims. And, you know, it appears that this was a mistake on the Department of Defense's part, that they reviewed larger tranches of information, as they - that's their language for it - you know, that I had access to, not necessarily things that I - that were actually published that would have had this information because it's a different category of information. So I think that this...
DAVIES: Oh, they assumed that everything you had access to was now available...
DAVIES: ...And therefore, sources would have been exposed. I see.
MANNING: Right. And so much of the trial was about, well, you know, this could have caused harm. This could have caused damage. This could have - it was a lot of hypotheticals, right? And - you know, and I don't disagree. If those - if that particular category of information had been released, it would have been - you know, it could have been very damaging. But, you know, it's just - I find it very curious that - you know, because they released this allegation, I think, in 2010, but by the time we got through the sort of - the evidence review phase of the trial, their claims just weren't there, and they sort of stepped back a little bit on their claims, at least in the court process.
DAVIES: You wrote that what you did was a selective disclosure, that there was a lot you saw and had access to that you would never reveal and still wouldn't. And on the file that you provided when you sent this stuff, there was a README file that explained the material a bit, and you wrote, it's already been sanitized of any source-identifying information.
DAVIES: I assume that was sanitized by the military. I mean, you didn't personally read hundreds...
DAVIES: ...Of thousands of documents, right? Are you generally comfortable with the way WikiLeaks handled this material?
MANNING: Well, it was published. Like, that's - that was my goal. It was - I didn't have a lot of time. It didn't have a lot of, you know - I didn't have a lot of options. And it very narrowly didn't happen at all because of just sort of logistical constraints and difficulties that I had. So, like, my goal was to have it published. And obviously, The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, El Pais - like, a lot of different outlets and news organizations took this and handled it well and published it. And, you know, I feel very comfortable with how this happened, yes.
DAVIES: So you were arrested in 2010. It took - what? - three years to bring your case to trial, nearly, I guess. It was a long time. And I will just say to listeners, there's a lot of fascinating stuff in the book about the preparation for the trial and the kinds of charges that they - that the government chose to include. And we can't cover all of that here. But you do tell us that, you know, that there were plea negotiations. I mean, you and your civilian attorney kind of considered this. How close did you come to a plea agreement?
MANNING: Well, basically, the government made it impossible. You know, they just sort of - one of the most frustrating things of the plea agreement process was that they essentially wanted me to perjure myself.
DAVIES: Yes, explain that. Yeah.
MANNING: So the government kept on trying to get me to plea to things that I didn't do. And we said, oh, well, you know, OK, like - or more specifically, things that never happened, right? They wanted me to add these things that they call a stipulation of facts, which is essentially a document that says that both parties agree that these are factual, that these were facts. And they wanted me to lie. And I just - I couldn't do that. And so we - it was impossible for us to - you know, even though, you know, I obviously did the disclosures and I wanted to take responsibility and we wanted to sort of narrow the scope of the damage, you know, for - you know, like, 'cause I definitely never imagined I'd be facing, you know, life without parole, you know, as a possibility, you know, and trying to negotiate with them was very difficult because they just would not give up on trying to get me to perjure myself.
DAVIES: The trial was long. Government presented 80 witnesses. And a lot of it was closed to the public and the press. Is that right?
MANNING: To this day. That is correct.
DAVIES: Yeah. Why was that? And what was the impact, do you think?
MANNING: Well, I can't say.
DAVIES: You can't say why. There were security issues that caused them to make it a closed hearing?
MANNING: Right. These are - the government tried as much as possible to - the government wanted the entire court martial to be behind closed doors. They repeatedly argued that this needed to be an entirely secret court martial.
DAVIES: By this point, you had access to media stuff. You weren't isolated. What do you - what impact do you think that the - so much of the trial being closed had on the media coverage?
MANNING: Well, it was always funny because, like, the things that ended up being brought up in court were always favorable to the government, and all of the things that were favorable to the defense were in closed court martial. So it was just very - you know, like, it was like, oh, this is a - OK, you're only getting a one side of the story here essentially is how I felt. And yeah, I think that the world would greatly benefit from having access to the closed testimony. That's my opinion. But, you know, again, I'm - you know, I'm a - I live in the U.S, and I - all of this would happen all over again if I talked about what happened in the closed sessions.
DAVIES: You know, the judge found you guilty on 17 of 22 charges, right? Then, there is the sentencing hearing at which it'll be decided what the sentence is, and, you know, a lot of factors come in here. And your attorney urged you to apologize to the government for the damage you had done. What was your opinion of that?
MANNING: You know, it was a bit frustrating because I had wanted to write my own sort of statement, which was a little bit more defiant.
DAVIES: 'Cause you didn't feel like you had caused damage, right?
MANNING: Well, I mean, certainly - I mean, like, the - our entire argument was that we hadn't caused damage, you know, which I feel was borne out in the evidence and in the testimony presented. And, you know, it was just - it was a very strange thing. But, you know, my lawyers kept on reassuring me. They kept on saying, oh, well, this is pro forma. This is how it's supposed to be. It was a very strange part of the process because that was, like, the one point in which, you know, my lawyers and I sort of had a very strong disagreement about, sort of the presentation of this. Like, I wanted, you know - and they told me that the judge would view me very harshly if I didn't go through this process and that it would risk me getting a longer sentence. And I didn't necessarily care all that much about, you know, the length of sentence at that point since it didn't seem to matter all that much. So it just - it was a very uncomfortable and very frustrating part of the court martial process.
DAVIES: Yeah, well, I've covered a lot of trials, and I know the general feeling is that a judge in a sentencing hearing like that, they'll have in mind what they think they're going to impose. And one of the things will be, did the defendant admit and take responsibility for their crimes? And if they don't, then there's X years that are going to go on. I imagine that's what your attorney was thinking. I'm going to read the statement that you actually did give, if you don't mind.
MANNING: I - well, I - you know, it's just that I - you know, I didn't write the statement. I didn't - I just sort of read it on a piece of paper. And, you know, it was the oddest part of this entire process - right? - you know, which was, you know, - 'cause I wanted to say what I eventually wrote in my - in the letter that I wrote to Obama in 2016 - right? - you know, for the commutation, which was, you know, like, I accept - I fully accept responsibility for this, and I'm willing to accept any punishment or any penalty whatsoever. And, you know, I think that they had, like, a sort of ethical - I think my lawyers sort of had an ethical obligation to sort of, you know, insist that I read the statement that I didn't write, by the way.
DAVIES: You were prepared to accept responsibility but not admit causing damage.
DAVIES: So what your statement finally did say - (reading) I'm sorry that my actions hurt people. I'm sorry I hurt the United States. I look back at my decisions and wonder how on earth could I, a junior analyst, possibly believe I could change the world for the better over the decisions of those with proper authority?
You put that statement in the book, and then, you say you think it still - that it hurt you.
MANNING: Oh, yeah. I think it hurt our court martial. I think it wasn't beneficial to us because it - one, it's - you know, it just wasn't a very - it wasn't very human. It wasn't very passionate. It wasn't the way I felt, you know, 'cause, like, I do feel like - you know, obviously, if I'm accused of something that - you know, that I did, then I will take responsibility for it. And I'm a very - I don't spend too much time worrying about the past. But yeah, I feel like it hurt me in the media as well because it was like - it's like, well, you know, like, you put on this big show, and then, you basically say the opposite. It was just very - it was very frustrating and very confusing. And it was a very uncomfortable moment for me in particular.
DAVIES: Let me take a - let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. We are speaking with Chelsea Manning. Her new memoir is titled "README.txt." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is Chelsea Manning. She served seven years in prison for leaking classified military and diplomatic documents when she was an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq. Her sentence was commuted by President Obama in 2017.
You know, you write that when the trial was over, your attorney wept and said he'd advised you to trust a system that had now given you a 35-year sentence. You said it was OK. You now had a finite number of years you could mark down.
MANNING: Yeah, I had numbers. I had numbers. That was the language we use in prison. You know, by this time, I had spent three and a - I had spent over three and a half years in prison. And, you know, I was pretty much on my way to institutionalization at this point. So imagining being out of prison was very difficult. And, you know, I was quite comfortable, you know, with sort of the outcome at that point because, like, I didn't - it was a number that I could count down. And I think that my focus shifted to quality of life as opposed to just trying to, like, you know, like, focus too much on, oh, my life is over, oh, you know. Like, it was just like, how - all right, well, how can I better myself? How can I, you know, learn? How can I expand? How can I grow as a human? Because I got to - you know, I got to make - I got to make the best that I can with what I got.
DAVIES: I mean, I love this moment where you're - 2017, you're - you see on television - nobody tells you - you're called away out of your cell. And then you see a television set Manning sentence commuted by the president. What a surreal moment.
MANNING: I didn't believe it. It wasn't even surreal. Like, it was just like, no. This is, like, I'm - this isn't happening.
DAVIES: Like somebody was playing a gag on you with a TV or something, or you just couldn't conceive of it.
MANNING: No. You know, I've had - throughout my life, I've had good things, just, you know, sort of be promised and then have the rug pulled out from underneath me so many times. I'm just very - I'm very distrustful of good things happening without an asterisk or a caveat.
DAVIES: You know, you mentioned in the book that you tried to kill yourself several times, all of them when you were in custody, in prison or in solitary confinement. I wonder, how are you today?
MANNING: I'm doing pretty good. You know, I finally got this book done. I finally - it's been a lengthy process to try to get this book written and released. The publication review process took some time as well. You know, I'm doing pretty good. You know, I have - I've been doing consulting, so I work as a security consultant. I was doing Twitch streaming during most of the pandemic. So I've been trying to get into the video gaming, the world of video gaming and doing interactive sort of, you know, content-based streaming. I have been, you know, speaking. I go around the country. I go to universities all over the country, and I speak upon more current issues, like artificial intelligence, the use and abuse of data science, the risks of data science in different fields. I talk on security issues. You know, I feel like my career is growing finally, you know, after a couple hiccups.
And yeah, I'm hopeful that I can, you know, start to settle down. And, you know, I - this is - I have lived in the apartment that I live in now for the longest period of time than I have ever sat still in my entire life, so - apart from prison. So I'm feeling pretty - I'm feeling pretty good - and my childhood home, obviously. But as an adult, you know, I've been living in Brooklyn. And I've been sort of figuring things out, you know. I'm trying to get my credit report to look a little shinier, that kind of thing.
DAVIES: One more personal question here. I mean, you're kind of a celebrity now. I mean, there's occasionally reporting about who you date. I won't ask you about it. I know you don't like to talk about that stuff. And I don't care.
MANNING: Yeah, I don't. My dating life is private and...
DAVIES: That's fine. But I'm wondering, are you recognized on the street?
MANNING: Absolutely. I...
DAVIES: What do people say to you?
MANNING: I - you know, people are mostly - I mean, America has - America in particular has a celebrity obsession, I think. They want to take a selfie. They want to chat with you about - they want to tell you their life story, you know, which is lovely, you know, to hear the first, you know, thousand times. The warmth of people is always - always comes through, which is always, you know, something that's fascinating. I often get asked, especially by older people in journal - like, more traditional journalists outlets, like, oh, do you face any hostility? It's like, no, I don't face hostility. I face a lot - I face a lack of sort of boundaries sometimes, like - and I knew that - and this isn't just in the United States. This is globally. Like, I was at a gas station - I was at a petrol station in - what is it? - east - it was Central Poland. I was on my way to, you know, do some volunteer work at the Ukraine-Polish border. And I got recognized in, like, a petrol station in Poland. And I was just like, gosh, like, there's literally nowhere I can go.
DAVIES: Well, Chelsea Manning, thank you so much for speaking with us.
MANNING: Thank you.
DAVIES: Chelsea Manning's new book is "README.txt: A Memoir." On tomorrow's show, we talk with New Yorker staff writer Hua Hsu about his new memoir. Hsu writes about his relationship with a college friend, an Asian American whose background and cultural tastes were quite different from his own, who was killed in a carjacking. The book is "Stay True: A Memoir." I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS THILE AND BRAD MEHLDAU'S "INDEPENDENCE DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.