Four summers ago on a military base in Maryland, not far from the headquarters of the National Security Agency, a handful of people crowded onto a small patch of shade, draining the last of their water bottles, unwilling to move from the spot. They waited for a court martial to resume, for what they thought was their last chance to hear the words of a young woman, one they feared they may never hear from again. I was with them, killing time while the clock ran down on the trial of Chelsea Manning.
As soon as her sentence was known — 35 years for her act of whistleblowing, which she never contested was a violation of the law, but for which she would be punished severely — another clock began ticking. How long could Manning survive in prison? And as a transgender woman in a men’s military prison? She was denied control over her appearance as a woman, denied access to medical and psychological care. At the prison in Fort Leavenworth, Manning took up a fight not only for her freedom, but for her life.
This past November, Manning formally requested that President Barack Obama commute her sentence to time served. “The Army kept me in solitary confinement for nearly a year before formal charges were brought against me,” she wrote. “It was a humiliating and degrading experience — one that altered my mind, body and spirit. I have since been placed in solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure for an attempted suicide despite a growing effort — led by the President of the United States — to stop the use of solitary confinement for any purpose.”
She appealed not for absolution for her actions, but for dignity. “I am merely asking for a first chance to live my life outside the [U.S. Disciplinary Barracks] as the person I was born to be,” she wrote.
Now, days before leaving office, Obama has granted her request. Manning will leave prison on May 17th, 2017.
When I interviewed Manning this past September, it did not feel like this day could ever come. We exchanged messages just before she found out she would be sent to solitary confinement. For days I did not know where she was. Only when she was released from solitary did I learn what had happened to her.
It was difficult to believe she wasn’t being made an example of; it seemed that in an age of attacks on whistleblowing and transparency, her case was used to send a message. So it appeared not so long ago as if she would remain in prison, that she might soon be subject to whatever a Trump administration might do with her. It seemed to those close to her that it was unlikely she could survive.
But over the last few weeks, something shifted. Reading back now the words of those who followed her case closely, who knew what she was up against, their pleas for her freedom give some indication of what may come next.
“Defending Manning and her leaks are not just a matter of goody-two-shoes principle but immense real-life consequences,” wrote Chase Madar, author of one of the first books on Manning’s case. “The U.S. invasion of Iraq was simply not possible but for government secrecy, distortion, and lies. The architects of that dishonest war have escaped the slightest punishment, yet an on-the-ground private who tried to share her knowledge of that bloodbath is the one being severely punished.”
I would not have gone to Manning’s trial at all if it were not for the work of Alexa O’Brien, an independent journalist who spoke passionately about the need for public attention to her trial, at which all recordings were forbidden. Few media attended regularly, but O’Brien was there the whole time. She wrote last week, “Manning was a humanist soldier trapped between the cynical realities of warfare, her youth, and her characteristic earnestness — clinging onto the exigent hope that sanity and common sense would triumph if buttressed by knowledge and deliberation.”
“An act of mercy by the Executive,” she concluded, “might evidence its display in our own imperfect experiment in self government.”
Mercy has prevailed. Perhaps a reckoning with our “imperfect experiment,” if we have ever needed one more, will also follow. And while I cannot imagine what those first days in May after Manning is released will be like for her, it is enough, for now, to know she will have them.