Chelsea Manning is one of the most dynamic and controversial personalities of our time. She is criticised and admonished by some as a traitor who compromised the safety and reputation of her country’s soldiers and diplomats. To others, she is one of the most prominent whistleblowers of modern history, one who exposed human rights abuses and unethical practices in the United States (US) Armed Forces and US State Department, while simultaneously inspiring journalists, activists, civil servants, and the LGBT community.
Below is a timeline and commentary on Manning’s story from a young soldier to explosive whistleblower and history maker to a world-famous political prisoner.
It should be noted that throughout the saga, Manning’s gradual personal identification as a trans woman was highlighted by the media. Born a man – as Bradley Manning – Manning was diagnosed with gender identity disorder while in the Army. Manning underwent gender transition surgery and presently identifies as a woman – as Chelsea Manning. While this plays a role in the usage of pronouns in the article, this was a matter of personal choice for Manning, and must, therefore, be respected. What is important for the rest of the world is not Manning’s gender; what is important are the files she leaked, the abuse she faced while she was detained, and the debate over whether she is a patriot or a traitor.
Notable leaks by Chelsea Manning
- The Baghdad airstrike video – 2007 video of US military helicopters firing at unarmed civilians and journalists.
- The Iraq War Logs – nearly 400,000 field reports describing the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the subsequent US conduct during the war.
- The Afghanistan War Diary – 91,000 US military logs regarding the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan and the war thereof.
- The United States diplomatic cables leak – Nearly 260,000 diplomatic cables. At that time, it was the largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain.
- The Guantánamo Bay files – 779 secret documents describing the inhuman treatment of detainees at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp.
- The Granai airstrike video – 2009 video of the airstrike by US Air Force which led to the death of 86 to 147 Afghan civilians.
Chelsea Manning timeline
October 2007: Bradley Manning joins the US Army. He is 19.
October 2009: Manning is deployed to Iraq. There, he finds the Baghdad airstrike video. The video shows two American helicopters firing on a group of ten men in the Amin District of Baghdad in July 2007. The group includes Reuters journalists and Iraqi civilians.
November 2009: Wikileaks releases 570,000 intercepts of pager messages sent on 9/11 (the 11 September 2001 attacks). The leaks are heavily publicised and catch Manning’s attention.
January 2010: Manning downloads hundreds of thousands of files which contain sensitive military information relating to US involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Following the 9/11 attacks, the US had invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.) The files Manning secretly downloaded contain information regarding US conduct during these wars. The files are broadly classified as the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs. They are smuggled through military security on a CD-RW named “Lady Gaga”. Manning takes two weeks’ leave and returns to the United States via Germany.
During this time, Manning wrote a message intended for The Washington Post. It read:
“Items of the historical significance of two wars Iraq and Afghanistan Significant Activity, Sigacts, between 0001 January 2004 and 2359 31 December 2009 extracts from CSV documents from Department of Defense and CDNE database. These items have already been sanitised of any source identifying information. You might need to sit on this information for 90 to 180 days to best send and distribute such a large amount of data to a large audience and protect the source. This is one of the most significant documents of our time removing the fog of war and revealing the true nature of 21st century asymmetric warfare. Have a good day.”
February 2010: Failing to elicit an enthusiastic response from The Washington Post and The New York Times, Manning passes the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs to Wikileaks.
March – April 2010: Back in Iraq, Manning downloads 250,000 diplomatic cables; these are also sent to Wikileaks.
April 2010: WikiLeaks posts the Baghdad airstrike video. The video, named “Collateral Murder”, goes viral, Wikileaks becomes a global topic of discussion, Manning’s leaks begin to make headlines around the world.
May 2010: Manning is arrested in Kuwait, detained, and subsequently charged with leaking classified information. It is gradually revealed that Manning was detained in inhuman conditions, with allegations of torture, abuse, and long periods of solitary confinement finding their way into the mainstream media. Manning’s detainment raises concerns in the US and around the world.
July – October 2010: Wikileaks publishes the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs. Soon, the diplomatic cables procured by Manning are also leaked by Wikileaks. The leaks are initially covered by Britain’s The Guardian, America’s The New York Times and Germany’s Der Spiegel before making their way into international, national, and local news outlets around the world. The leaks cause a global uproar unlike anything before; America’s foreign policy and military conduct are questioned.
January 2011: Amnesty International denounces Manning’s treatment by US authorities. Amnesty’s spokesperson says “The conditions inflicted on Bradley Manning . . . amount to inhumane treatment by the US authorities [and] appear to breach the USA’s human rights obligations.”
April 2011: The Guantánamo Bay files are released. These are 779 secret documents relating to detainees at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp established in 2002 after its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The files reveal American treatment of the detainees, and details about the detainees themselves.
December 2011: Manning’s court-martial begins. Manning is ultimately charged with 22 specified offences, including communicating national defence information to an unauthorised source, aiding the enemy, violating the Espionage Act, stealing US Government property, and charges related to the failure to obey lawful general orders. Manning pleads guilty to ten of the offences.
March 2012: The United Nations says Manning has been ”subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” and that “imposing seriously punitive conditions of detention on someone who has not been found guilty of any crime is a violation of his right to physical and psychological integrity as well as of his presumption of innocence.”
February 2013: Manning pleads guilty to leaking military information. Manning is subsequently given a three-decade prison sentence, slated for release only on 2045.
August 2013: Reporters Without Borders condemns the prison sentence. The organisation says:
“Following the targeting of Edward Snowden, the disproportionate sentence for Manning hits hard at whistleblowers and shows how vulnerable they are … The [US] Army is sending a clear message to them and to all journalists who dare to report whistleblowers’ disclosures: the United States will strike back severely at anyone who uncovers information of public interest concerning the exercise of official powers.”
January 2017: US President Barack Obama commutes all but the last four months of Manning’s remaining sentence. The commutation comes only three days before Obama’s term ends. She was duly freed on 17 May 2017.
Chelsea Manning’s leaks shook the tectonics of global diplomacy and military involvement. It also precipitated a massive debate on whistleblowers and the techniques they use to leak the truth to the public. Chelsea Manning, along with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden are the main focus of such debates.
Manning is criticised by some as an embittered traitor who brought shame and danger to her nation; she is praised by others as a courageous whistleblower whose leaks enabled a certain degree of reforms in the US military, led to increased opposition to the wars in the Middle-east, and precipitated the Arab Spring.
Manning’s patriotism and methodology may be questionable; what is unquestionable is her mark on modern history.
NOTE: The article was updated on 17 May 2017, the date Manning was released.