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Chelsea Manning: Surviving Prison Took Priority Over Personal Reflection

Chelsea Manning’s first interviews with news media offered a grand opportunity to tell her story. But exclusive interviews from ABC News and the New York Times were presented with a frame that much of the public has come to expect from establishment media.

While in military prison at Fort Leavenworth, the United States Army whistleblower was not permitted to conduct interviews with media for publication. She chose to grant interviews to these particular media outlets after her release from prison on May 17. Journalists from ABC News and the Times both spent time shadowing her as she becomes acclimated to life post-incarceration.

The Times interview contains several important details that color in aspects of Manning’s story, which were not previously shared. On top of that, for those recently introduced to her case, there is no substitute for hearing details straight from the subject herself. Manning can take comfort in knowing that a wide audience will be reached with this interview.

In contrast, while a wide audience can see her for the first time on television, the ABC News interview appears to take a more head-on and sometimes aggressive approach.

The full interview Manning did for ABC News has yet to air on “Nightline,” but a featurette to promote the upcoming interview aired last week on “Good Morning America.” Juju Chang interviewed her.

Chang suggests Manning has “become a beacon for anti-secrecy rights and transgender rights, a hero to many. But critics say she betrayed her country plain and simple.” The first question was, “So many people call you a traitor. Many call you a hero. Right. Who is Chelsea Manning?”

It was as I predicted at Shadowproof in the week before her release. This use of buzzwords is lazy on the part of media, and a reflection of how little Chang probably knows or does not know about Manning’s case. (In fact, ABC News was not an outlet that invested in regular coverage of Manning during her court-martial.)

Manning responds with one of the better possible answers. “I’m just me. It’s as simple as that.”

After the answer, Chang adds, “Yet the story she’s sharing this morning for the first time is far more complex.” That is true, but ABC News shirked from breaking it out of a conventional frame.

The segments grows offensive as Chang asks Manning if she feels she owes the American public an apology. It is a crude question because Manning has no blood on her hands. Chang and ABC News would never try to hold a former official from President George W. Bush’s administration accountable in this manner. They were, unlike Manning, responsible for lying America into a war in Iraq that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. They destroyed a country and helped create the conditions for the rise of the Islamic State.

Manning does not reject the question. She coolly answers, “I’ve accepted responsibility. No one told me to do this. Nobody directed me to do this. This is me. It’s on me.”

It is on her, and it is to her credit. As I wrote in a piece for The Nation (before she came out as Chelsea Manning), she is a classic whistleblower who had concerns about the effects of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Manning describes getting all this information on “death, destruction, mayhem,” and she “stopped seeing just statistics and information.” She “started seeing people.” She says counterinsurgency warfare is not simple. It does not break down as good versus bad people. “It is a mess.”

With wars involving insurgencies in Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, her evolution as someone working as a U.S. intelligence analyst, who was involved in helping the military pursue high-value targets, should be of more significance to the establishment media. It gives her credibility to speak about the impact on her conscience—the moral injury that led her to feel the necessity to take action.

One of the more heartrending moments in the ABC exclusive comes when Manning’s voice cracks as she thanks former President Barack Obama for giving her a chance. It is genuine. However, the way this question is asked is telling.

Chang does not say, “What did you think when President Obama commuted your sentence?” It is framed under the pretense of Manning being indebted to Obama for her freedom.

Yet, Obama didn’t commute her sentence in a vacuum. A vast grassroots movement mobilized to convince the Justice Department that Manning did not deserve to remain in prison. She was punished enough after six years of incarceration.

Journalist Matthew Shaer’s piece for the New York Times Magazine is far more empathetic. Still, the editors frame the story as follows: “Her disclosure of classified documents in 2010 ushered in the age of leaks. Now, freed from prison, she talks about why she did it—and the isolation that followed.”

It asserts her case marked a “new era in which leaks were a weapon, data security was of paramount importance, and privacy felt illusory.” This is the view of a U.S. security professional. What about what it meant for employees in government, who feel the government hides too much from Americans and they could release actual documents to expose abuses of power?

Manning was, of course, asked if government should keep anything secret. She makes it clear that troop movements and nuclear information should be secrets.

“Let’s not hide missteps. Let’s not hide misguided policies. Let’s not hide history. Let’s not hide who we are and what we are doing,” she further answers.

Few people who are champions of government transparency hold a view that governments should not have secret information. WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange does not even hold this view. But the media relies on this line of questioning as a crutch, to compensate for a general inattentiveness to the finer details related to government secrecy and whistleblowing in the digital age.

Perhaps, one of the most significant details from the interview is what Manning says when asked what lessons she learned.

“I’ve been so busy trying to survive for the past seven years that I haven’t focused on that at all,” Manning states. She describes how the world has actually shaped her through a kind of feedback loop.

She has a 300-page memoir in the works and will appear in a documentary from Laura Poitras called “XY Chelsea.” Either may be where Manning delves into more specifics about the timeline of decisions and events that took place in the past seven and a half years. But it could also be several years before that all crystallizes into a form that she is able to share with the public.

Additionally, as Manning reveals, after Lauren McNamara, a transgender friend and online confidante, testified during her trial, she could no longer pretend to be a man. It pushed her to come out as a woman a day after she was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

She tried to come out as a woman when she arrived at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. “I had told the detention center when I got there that I was trans,” according to Manning. “‘I’m a woman,’ I said matter-of-factly. They laughed.”

“Being exposed to so much death on a daily basis makes you grapple with your own mortality,” Manning confesses, as she recalls during her two-week leave in Maryland how she found the courage to go out in public in a blond wig.

Manning snapped a selfie of her wearing a blond wig that media (including Shadowproof) have used profusely. It deeply bothered her that this photo was all over the internet because it did not represent what was happening in Leavenworth. The military would not let her grow her hair and be herself: a woman.

She discusses her suicide attempts at Leavenworth. She was put in solitary twice. She notes the impact it had on her as she gradually forgot about the world outside. It also likely compounded post-traumatic stress disorder she suffered from as a result of deployment to Iraq and her detention at the Quantico Marine Brig (which has since been shut down).

Did Manning’s struggles with gender identity have any bearing on her decision to release important documents to the world?

“What I can tell you is that my values would have been the same. The things I care about would have been the same,” Manning tells Schaer.

Ever since it was revealed that Manning was gay, or that she struggled with gender identity, or that she was a woman, it was suggested that Manning was a damaged person, who was acting out by releasing around a half million documents for attention. Her agency as a whistleblower was diminished because of her personal struggles.

Manning’s words make it abundantly clear. The information she revealed to the public had a definitive impact on her heart and soul. Choosing to forget what she read or witnessed as an intelligence analyst was not a choice she could make because it hurt her psychologically to hold it inside and do nothing. She should be recognized as a person of conscience rather than a damaged human, who unfortunately made a series of bad decisions driven by the fact that the military would not allow her to be Chelsea Manning.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."