Chelsea Manning: ‘I can dish it out as much as I can take it’


On the road to Baltimore it occurs to me that I have never lunched with someone who has been on a full-blown hunger strike. Chelsea Manning, the former US army intelligence analyst who leaked the biggest cache of classified material in American history, not only carried out that protest from jail; her fast also achieved its aim. After five days, the US army acceded to Manning’s demand for gender-transition surgery. Manning, whose 35-year jail sentence for espionage was commuted by Barack Obama shortly before he left office in 2017, had surgery soon after her release.

Any notion that this might be an awkward encounter is quickly dispelled with Manning’s breezy arrival. We are meeting at the Rec Pier Chop House, an Italian restaurant in the Sagamore Pendry hotel on the edge of Baltimore’s historic inner harbour. Although the nearby waterfront is enjoying a bustling sunny afternoon, the establishment is almost empty.

A slight young woman dressed in jeans and a light-blue cardigan suddenly comes into view, offering a confident handshake. Manning, 34, has been out of jail for almost three years (she was reimprisoned for several months in 2019 after having refused to testify against WikiLeaks, the outlet for her 2010 mass data dump). 

Manning was raised in an ultra-conservative small town in Oklahoma, where homosexuality was criminalised until 2003. Now she considers Maryland her home state — although she lives in a two-bedroom flat in Brooklyn, New York.

She is estranged from her father, a former naval intelligence officer, who had a troubled relationship with the teenage Bradley (her “dead name”). Her mother, an alcoholic, died in her native Wales a few years back. That left a Maryland-based aunt as the only senior family member who was sympathetic to the young Manning’s gender dysphoria.

Last night, Manning gave a talk at an activist community centre in Baltimore, and is booked on a train after lunch on a tour to promote her memoir, README.txt. Do her events attract hecklers, I ask. “Not about the intelligence leaks,” Manning replies. “But I get occasional attacks for being transgender. Honestly, I’m so used to it that it washes over me.” 

Having last night read her often highly disturbing memoir, I want to know what effect living in Wales had on Manning’s outlook. She spent three formative teenage years in Pembrokeshire with her ailing mother, before returning on a fruitless quest to live with her father. She jumps on the question. “Everything was very gender-segregated in Oklahoma,” she says.

“If you were having a dance, all the boys would be on one side and all the girls on the other. Wales was a lot more mixed and intermingled and I learnt how to be creative with school uniforms, for example. But being an outsider in a fairly isolated place, there was no way that I didn’t stick out, especially with the ‘war on terror’ backdrop, ‘Yanks go home’ etc. I was 13 and I had nothing to do with the Bush administration. I was never going to fully assimilate.”

With almost no one other than us to serve, the waiter is hovering impatiently. We put him out of his misery. “I’m starving,” Manning says. We both go for the crab cake eggs benedict and she adds a side of Old Bay chips, Chesapeake Bay’s crab-seasoned version of salty crisps — “You can’t come to Maryland and not eat those,” she says. A glass of wine, I suggest. “Yes, but not during the day.” She orders a Coke. I take a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. I also order a side dish of jumbo shrimps.

I say that perhaps the lack of friction over Manning’s multiple breaking of the Espionage Act reflected America’s latent rejection of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where she was stationed for several months — the source of much of her leaked material. By contrast, the debate over transgender rights remains bitterly divisive.

“Maybe,” she says. “The trans community is about survival and I’m optimistic we can get through this.” So JK Rowling will ultimately be on the losing side of this argument? “I only follow the debate here in America,” she replies tactfully. “I can’t comment on Rowling or what is happening in the UK.”

I say that her life would surely have been very different had she been a dysphoric teenager in today’s America, even in Oklahoma. In what in retrospect turned into a dress rehearsal for her future as an intel analyst and super-leaker, Manning’s suppressed identity in 1990s and early-2000s Oklahoma led her increasingly on to the internet, to chat rooms filled with “tinkering hackers”.

“I don’t know. Oklahoma hasn’t progressed very much,” she says. “I think the best thing, which is what I did, is to leave. I understand people don’t want to leave where they’re from. I chose to flee the Bible Belt heartland.” 

Rec Pier Chop House
Sagamore Pendry Hotel, 1715 Thames St, Baltimore, MD 21231, US

Crab cakes benedict x2 $60
Jumbo Gulf shrimp $24
Old Bay chips $6
Pellegrino $8
Coca-Cola x2 $10
Glass of Sauvignon Blanc $13
Espresso $6
Total (inc tax and service) $160.01

I say that she must feel a level of security today that she never had before — after all her years in the Bible Belt, then seven years in military prison, often in solitary confinement, including several suicide attempts. Not to mention her marathon journey to gender transition. “I knew what tomorrow brought in the military and prison and what the expectations were,” she replies. “I had food, housing, access to healthcare. Out of prison they’re not guaranteeing it and that’s scary.” 

I find this hard to believe. For the first time Manning has financial security, freedom and fame, and is running her own business advising companies on how to protect their network security (about which she surely knows a lot). What is the worst that can happen? “Right now, all the geopolitical scenarios — critical scenarios, pandemics, supply chain failure.”

No, no, I interrupt. I meant what is the worst that can happen to you personally? Manning starts to talk about climate change and a flood in her Brooklyn neighbourhood last year. I point out that everyone faces these threats. “Well, I’m a part of humanity,” she replies. But surely your life is now on firmer ground?

“There’s one thing I’ve noticed that’s different about me,” Manning replies after a pause to reflect on what I am trying to get at. “People do try to insult me and get under my skin. I was in prison, so I can dish it out as much as I can take it. At the same time, when I see someone picking on someone else, I lose it. I feel hurt and I want to intervene whenever I see my friends being attacked or themselves becoming bullies . . .”

She has become estranged from a number of former allies, notably Glenn Greenwald, the lawyer-journalist who helped both Edward Snowden and Manning disseminate their leaks. “Glenn and I had a falling-out because of this cynicism — winning an argument matters more than being ethical or moral,” she says. “It’s not just him, it’s the culture. I know from direct experience what these so-called physicians of the zeitgeist will do to get traffic.” 

We have each already chomped most of the way through our generous entrées. I suggest Manning take one of the forbiddingly large jumbo shrimps on the side dish between us. “Mmm, I’m not feeling it,” she says after giving them a glance.

Isn’t it the nature of the internet to bring out the worst in people? Perhaps, she replies, but it has entered our lives so suddenly that people have not trained themselves to cope. “Imagine someone from the 15th century is suddenly given a Snickers bar,” she says. “The sugar and taste would overwhelm someone in that era. The same thing happened with the internet. We are living through the McDonaldisation of information consumption.” 

I point out that Manning herself was a troll — during her army days, she disrupted Christian evangelical websites — and has in fact said that she felt most herself when she was anonymous. Trolls are not exactly the heroes of our age. “I’ve been there,” Manning concedes. “Humans crave connection — even negative connections. And you thrive off of that if it’s a need you’re not getting in your life. It’s less ideological and more about the edginess.”

Manning is, of course, also one of the biggest whistleblowers in American history — an act for which she deliberately chose not to be anonymous. In total, she leaked some 750,000 documents on America’s conduct of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as thousands of diplomatic cables. Millions watched a leaked army video that WikiLeaks titled “Collateral Murder”, which showed two US helicopters firing on defenceless Iraqis in 2007, killing 11, including two Reuters staff; they mistook the photographer’s camera for a weapon.

Although the US military court acquitted Manning of the most serious charge of treason, much of America still thinks of her as a traitor. Having read her partly redacted memoir, I have little doubt that Manning believes she was doing America a good turn, rather than trying to aid the enemy.

Her rationale was that the US forces were doing terrible things in Iraq, such as killing the wrong people because of clerical errors over Baghdad street addresses. This was fanning the terrorist problem that America was supposedly trying to defeat. Americans needed to know about it.

I understand her motivation, I tell Manning. Would she concede, however, that some things need to be kept secret, and that no system can survive if every employee draws their own line on what should and shouldn’t be classified? 

“I can’t even talk about the stuff that I uploaded, let alone talk about what wasn’t uploaded,” Manning replies. “As absurd as it sounds, I can’t talk about whether the information I released was true or accurate. They blacked out portions of the book.”

She insists that in her trial the US military could not come up with specific examples of Afghan or Iraqi informants who had been killed because of her leaks, since she was careful not to include their names. OK, I reply, what would happen if someone like you today released thousands of US cables about America’s “sources and methods” in helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia? Wouldn’t that be good for Vladimir Putin?

“Ukrainians are a great example of the distributed intelligence collection system that I’m talking about, which is transparent,” she says. “I mean, they are sharing vital on-the-ground info on fucking Telegram [a Russian messaging site]. Yes, Russians can see that too, but it is happening so fast they have no idea. That’s what I mean.”

I still cannot grasp what kind of secrecy rules, if any, Manning believes would be justified, so I keep pressing. We have opted against dessert. I order a double espresso and Manning gets a refill of Coke. Manning’s argument is that most secrets are heavily overvalued and much of what is classified ceases to be useful within hours — yet it remains locked up for 30 years or more. The game today, she says, is to verify information, not to steal secrets.

“The Russians are spending way more on spreading disinformation than on trying to obtain secrets,” she says. “That’s the shift we’re having. I would argue that one of the reasons for the success of the Ukrainian distributed groups is that they were able to verify their information very quickly. I pay an enormous amount of attention to that.” 

We are exchanging our somewhat animated remarks in a spirit of radical transparency. Were there anyone sitting nearby — and the restaurant remains largely empty — they would hear every word we are saying. I point out that a lot of people still think Manning’s massive data leak was driven by her personal identity travails. Prosecutors insinuated that she was driven by inner turmoil rather than high principle. Was that also why she was given such an unusually steep jail sentence? 

“My inclination is that this came more from the terror that hit the bureaucracy, especially as my sentence came after Snowden’s 2013 disclosures,” Manning says. “People often ask ‘when did you become disillusioned?’ I was surrounded by disillusioned people in Iraq every day. People act like I was sitting there alone. They don’t see the jadedness, the despair, the loneliness and the anxiety, the depression, the fear that everyone else I worked with was feeling . . .”

Yet you were the only one to leak. “Yes,” says Manning. “But I know for sure other people were thinking about it.”

Manning has a train to catch soon and I have not yet asked her about jail. I decide not to raise the delicate question of her suicide attempts. One of the things she wrote about that struck me vividly was the degree to which the prison authorities went out of their way to segregate the races. How did that work?

“The US army is very diverse — it’s easily the most mixed workplace I’ve ever been in, so it didn’t make sense,” Manning says. “The inmates generally didn’t care. It was pretty clear it was the prison encouraging it. The army is more diverse than the navy and the air force. There was way more natural segregation in prison because of your branch of service than your skin colour.” 

It sounds to me like a microcosm of US history, I suggest. Split the races and hope they will feel more antagonism towards each other than against the system. Manning agrees. What life lessons did she take from prison?

Manning tells me she only has five minutes left. Her minder, who she is keen for me to know is supplied by the publishing house, not the government (her clarification is unnecessary), is waiting at the entrance. She mentions a fellow inmate who took his life.

“The cruelty of the guards to this one guy to the point where he said ‘I can’t take this any more’ . . . he was someone I knew.” Manning’s voice is cracking and she has teared up. “This is how it happens. The institution can set you up for suicide. It deliberately breaks you down and crushes your soul to the point where they know it will cause you self-harm and they take away the things that protect you. It’s the sickest, cruellest and most frightening thing I’ve encountered.” 

Not wanting to end on such a bleak note, I ask whether she took anything good from jail — apart from being let out 31 years early. Manning is by now on her feet and moving rapidly towards the exit. I keep pace. “When things are really truly bad, every single time I see the best in humanity,” she replies. “I don’t know what it is. There’s something inherently good about us that happens when things are darkest.” All right, I’ll take that, I say — although I have little choice as she has already vanished. 

Edward Luce is the FT’s US national editor

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