After 7 years in prison, Chelsea Manning is free — and already using social media to tell her story.
The former army intelligence analyst was convicted after handing over a trove of sensitive documents to WikiLeaks in 2010. Previously known as Bradley Manning, Chelsea came out as transgender after receiving her sentence of 35 years behind bars, but former president Barack Obama drastically altered her fate.
Just three days before leaving office, Obama pardoned a huge portion of her sentence — which initially would have seen her leave prison in 2045. Instead, she walked out of her Fort Leavenworth, Kentucky prison free on Wednesday.
The documents Manning leaked included incident logs that exposed abuse of detainees and video footage of an American helicopter killing nine men, including two Reuters journalists, content that seemed to intentionally disparage the U.S. military. But she also fed Wikileaks information that made foreign sources on the ground — sources who had aided U.S. military — vulnerable in dangerous countries. Despite prosecutors not being able to prove her leaks cost a single life, many view Manning as a traitor whose decision put the lives of patriots in peril.
Despite that, some supported Obama's decision, citing Manning's two attempted suicides while behind bars and her repeated public apologies. Manning's sentence was the harshest ever given to a leaker.
"I take full and complete responsibility for my decision to disclose these materials to the public," Manning wrote at her court martial. "I have never made any excuses for what I did. I pleaded guilty without the protection of a plea agreement because I believed the military justice system would understand my motivation for the disclosure and sentence me fairly. I was wrong."
Before Obama pardoned Manning, the WikiLeaks Twitter account had promised to extradite Julian Assange in exchange for Manning's clemency, a deal it doesn't seem keen on honoring.
Once behind bars, Manning's story became iconic in the LGBT community. She cited her distress amidst fighting a war while dealing with her own gender transition as a cause for her decision. Her choice to come out while imprisoned in Kentucky was met with cheers for her bravery. She also pushed the military to provide her with sex reassignment surgery, which had never been an option to military prisoners before.
With Manning free, there's plenty of speculation about what she is going to do. Most observers, including her lawyer Chase Strangio, believe she'll become an trans activist. The fact that some of her first steps after being freed were to post on Instagram seem to support the possibility of a future in the public eye.
"I don't imagine her living a private life," Strangio told The Daily Beast. "I imagine her being incredibly engaged on issues that she cares about—particularly on issues of trans justice."