'We need to start pushing back': Chelsea Manning on war, freedom and her political plans

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Chelsea Manning addresses a crowd. Photo: Roger Jones/Flickr

Almost one year has passed since Chelsea Manning was released from the U.S Army prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Manning, the most famous Army whistleblower, served seven years of a 35-year sentence for leaking hundreds of thousands of classified records about the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The day after receiving that sentence in 2014, she released a statement that read in part: "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." President Barack Obama commuted her sentence before he left office, and she has not wasted any time, announcing a run for the U.S. Senate seat in Maryland.

Appearing on the Democracy Now! news hour, she talked about her newfound freedom: "It's overwhelming. I wake up some days, and I'm not sure that this is actually happening. I'm seeing more and more of the world and how it's become the world I feared a decade ago."

A decade ago she was known as Pvt. Bradley Manning, working as an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq, where she had a front-row seat to the war: "These were real people in real places, not just dots on a map," she said. "These are people's lives and emotions. We're in their home … I couldn't separate my work from my emotions anymore."

Manning continued: "I went to my housing unit at night, and I couldn't sleep. I would look at the news -- it was almost like a glossing over of what had happened in Iraq, what I was seeing on the ground … I was very worried about that disconnect."

Chelsea Manning amassed a trove of hundreds of thousands of classified, digital records of the U.S. wars: field reports from soldiers detailing everything from thousands of civilian deaths to torture and summary executions, along with thousands of diplomatic cables. After encountering technical hurdles in getting the material to both The Washington Post and The New York Times, she turned to what was at the time a little-known website designed to securely and anonymously receive leaked documents: Wikileaks.

On April 5, 2010, Wikileaks released the first of Chelsea Manning's leaks: a grainy video called "Collateral Murder." The video was shot from the onboard camera of an Apache helicopter gunship, and captured the helicopter's attack on a group of civilians on the ground in Baghdad, as the soldiers laughed and cursed. All 12 men were killed, including videographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh, two employees of the Reuters news agency. Manning said of the "Collateral Murder" video, on Democracy Now!: "This is not unusual. This is not a freak incident. This is what war is."

More leaks followed, with many of the world's most prominent newspapers and magazines partnering with Wikileaks to produce scores of in-depth, impactful stories based on the leaks.

Manning had confided details of the leak to someone via an online chat, and that person reported her to U.S. authorities. She was arrested, beginning an ordeal of imprisonment and military prosecution that the UN special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, said constituted "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" that "could constitute torture."

Manning was held in a cage in Kuwait, then moved to a Navy brig in Quantico, Virginia, where she continued to be held in solitary confinement. She described solitary as "a practice that needs to be ended everywhere. Nothing justifies doing this to any human being."

In prison, she fought for trans rights, suing officials for access to hormone treatments. In 2016, she wrote a letter to President Obama from the all-male prison at Fort Leavenworth where she was being held, appealing for a commutation of her sentence. "I am merely asking for a first chance to live my life," she wrote, "as the person I was born to be."

Chelsea Manning is now embarking on that life. Part of that is running in the June primary against Sen. Ben Cardin to be the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. "Cardin has been in Maryland politics for 40 years," she says. "He's been behind a desk that whole time. What experience can he bring to the table? I have life experience. I've been homeless. I've been to prison. I've been to war."

Reform is not in her vocabulary. Manning is calling for the abolition of prisons, the elimination of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, for universal health care and more. "We need to start pushing back. And the way we do that is by focusing on the systemic problems," she said.

Chelsea Manning ended her first campaign video last January with the hashtag that has come to signify her optimism and determination: #WeGotThis.

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,300 stations. She is the co-author, with Denis Moynihan, of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times bestseller. This column originally appeared on Truthdig.

Photo: Roger Jones/Flickr

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