(CN) — With light rain overhead Wednesday morning, WikiLeaks source Chelsea Manning walked out of the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, into a new era of classified-document leaks.
Seven years ago, the former intelligence analyst had been on leave when she used public WiFi at a Barnes & Noble near her aunt’s house in Maryland to send WikiLeaks a trove of files. The 22-year-old had been stationed in Baghdad, serving an Iraq War effort whose body count her disclosure of 482,832 incident reports helped to illuminate.
Providing an intimate look at U.S. statecraft, warfare and detention at Guantanamo Bay, Manning’s diplomatic files in particular have been credited with sparking an Arab Spring that began weeks after WikiLeaks unleashed “Cablegate.”
The rolling revolutions across the Middle East fizzled out by the time Manning’s trial kicked off at a crawl in 2013. Facing charges that could have led to life imprisonment, the WikiLeaker known then to the world as Bradley waited until after sentencing to reveal her transgender status.
Manning fought to be treated as a woman for the better part of her detention in an all-male prison, filing a federal lawsuit to procure hormone therapy and the right to grow out her hair during what could have been a decades-long stint behind bars.
Had Manning accepted the terms of a plea bargain before trial, it could have been even longer.
“The ultimate sentence was better than what they were offering,” defense attorney David Coombs said last year in an exclusive interview.
The retired lieutenant colonel declined to get into specifics at the time but revealed on his blog Wednesday that he rejected a 40-year deal, five years higher that what Manning was dealt by the sentencing judge.
Instead of celebrating his good judgment, Coombs questioned his faith in military justice today.
“When the judge announced that Manning would be going to prison for 35 years, I was stunned,” he wrote. “But mostly, I felt a great deal of guilt for having told Manning, for three years, to trust the system.”
For Coombs, the system’s “grievous wrong” required executive action to correct.
President Barack Obama had just three days left in office this year when he sharply reduced Manning’s sentence. From prison recently, Manning voiced gratitude.
“For the first time, I can see a future for myself as Chelsea,” she said in a statement.
“I can imagine surviving and living as the person who I am and can finally be in the outside world. Freedom used to be something that I dreamed of but never allowed myself to fully imagine. Now, freedom is something that I will again experience with friends and loved ones after nearly seven years of bars and cement, of periods of solitary confinement, and of my health care and autonomy restricted, including through routinely forced haircuts.”
Manning’s struggle for health care in prison paralleled — some say, helped catalyze — a broader acceptance of the transgender community in the armed services and civilian life alike.
Two years after her sentencing, Obama’s Defense Secretary Ash Carter shelved what he called the military’s “outdated” bars to transgender enlistment, regulations that would have prevented Manning from ever being deployed.
Chase Strangio, an attorney who led Manning’s medical-rights suit, commented that these battles have “transformed law and society for the better.”
“The urgency of those fights for so many in our communities will continue, and Chelsea’s past and future work will no doubt be a critical force in moving towards a more just society for everyone,” Strangio said in a statement.
While appealing her Espionage Act and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act convictions, Manning can collect the benefits of an active-duty soldier.
Seven months from today, the former soldier turns 30; the U.S. military she served meanwhile remains locked in some of the same battles.
As the Pentagon pushes for its escalation more than 15 years later, the Afghanistan War has become the longest conflict in the nation’s history. Manning laid its civilian toll bare in an Apache airstrike video that WikiLeaks published under the name “Collateral Murder.”
And despite Obama’s pledge to close the military prison from the start of his presidency, Guantanamo Bay remains open as well. Manning is responsible for disclosing profiles of its detainees, likened at her trial to “baseball cards.”
President Donald Trump, who called Manning an “ungrateful traitor,” has continued a hardline approach toward Guantanamo, Afghanistan and, more prominently of late, leakers, as he scrambles to keep his White House’s own secrets.
By now, even the military has abandoned Trump’s claim that Manning betrayed the United States.
Col. Denise Lind, the presiding judge at Manning’s trial, acquitted her of aiding the enemy.
Maj. Ashden Fein, the lead prosecutor in Manning’s court-martial, called this verdict a “just result” in a 2015 interview with Courthouse News, his first since the Manning trial’s conclusion.
Manning’s lead appellate attorney Nancy Hollander has emphasized meanwhile that she is still readying her appeal targeting the constitutionality of the Espionage Act, designed by Woodrow Wilson to clampdown on dissent during World War I.
“Chelsea has already served the longest sentence of any whistleblower in the history of this country,” she said. “It has been far too long, too severe, too draconian.”
Falling into wide disuse before the Obama presidency, the Espionage Act does not distinguish between classified disclosure in the public interest and leaks for personal gain.
Since sending a note to WikiLeaks in January 2010, five months before her arrest, Manning has been consistent about her attempt at “removing the fog of war and revealing the true nature of 21st century asymmetric warfare.”
She reiterated these concerns on Nov. 8, in the opening of a last-ditch effort for her release.
“Three years ago I requested a pardon related to my conviction for disclosing classified and other sensitive information to the media out of concern for my country, the innocent civilians whose lives were lost as a result of war, and in support of two values that our country holds dear—transparency and public accountability,” Manning wrote in a 6-page letter to Obama.
Three days shy of Trump’s inauguration, Obama weathered criticism from Republicans — and many Democrats — in granting the commutation.
“Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence,” Obama noted at the time, with some understatement.
Manning survived multiple suicide attempts and a nine-month stint of pretrial solitary confinement, and is expected to retreat quietly with her family in Maryland.
In a recent Facebook Live interview, Manning’s lawyers said their client has no current plans beyond recovery post-incarceration, but the ACLU’s director Ben Wizner predicted that the vocal whistleblower would eventually embrace her newfound celebrity.
“I would be shocked if she retreated entirely from public view and public life,” he said.