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Chelsea Manning, Soldier Behind Historic Classified Leak, Released From Prison

After former President Barack Obama commuted her sentence in a controversial final move.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
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Washington is swirling with stories of intelligence leaks these days, now mostly thanks to President Donald Trump. But Trump deals with his own leaky White House, another convicted leaker, responsible for one of the largest classified intelligence document dumps in history, quietly walked free from prison on Wednesday.

Chelsea Manning, the former U.S. Army intelligence officer, was convicted in 2013 to 35 years in prison on multiple criminal counts, including violating the Espionage Act. While working at the Pentagon, Manning leaked 750,000 documents and videos to Wikileaks, putting the then-obscure transparency group on the map.

As one of his final acts in office, former President Barack Obama commuted Manning’s sentence to just seven years, a move many saw as a tacit acknowledgement the administration excessively prosecuted leakers during his term. The move sparked outrage from Republicans, who said Manning endangered the lives of U.S. troops and undermined U.S. foreign policy abroad.

She was also the target of one of President Donald Trump’s infamous Twitter rants. “Ungrateful TRAITOR Chelsea Manning, who should never have been released from prison, is now calling President Obama a weak leader. Terrible!” Trump tweeted on Jan. 26, just days after he first stepped into the White House. He appeared to be responding to an op-ed Manning wrote that same day.

Manning didn’t hide her excitement upon being released from the military prison at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. “After another anxious four months of waiting, the day has finally arrived,” she said in a statement on Wednesday. “I am looking forward to so much! Whatever is ahead of me is far more important than the past. I’m figuring things out right now — which is exciting, awkward, fun, and all new for me.”

She also took to Twitter to showcase her first moments after prison:

 But the journey’s not over for her yet. The Army will keep her on active-duty status (albeit unpaid) while she and her lawyers keep appealing her court-martial to get her name cleared. The Army said she will continue to receive healthcare benefits as an active-duty service member.

And then there’s the psychological issues, human rights lawyers say. “She has experienced trauma over the past seven years of her confinement and the trauma from those experiences won’t just evaporate the day she walks out of prison,” said Chase Strangio, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who worked on Manning’s case.

Though Manning changed her name and announced she was a woman while imprisoned, the Army refused to transfer her to an all-female prison. Human rights groups like Amnesty International charge she was mistreated in prison, in part due to her identification as transgender. She attempted to commit suicide twice last year.

Manning asked in 2013 to be recognized as female. While in prison, she was one of the first U.S. service members to receive military transgender health care benefits.

“Chelsea has already served the longest sentence of any whistleblower in the history of this country. It has been far too long, too severe, too draconian,” Manning’s lawyers Nancy Hollander and Vincent Ward said in a joint statement. “President Obama’s act of commutation was the first time the military took care of this soldier who risked so much to disclose information that served the public interest.”

Photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer