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Chelsea Manning and the price of knowledge

The whistleblower’s harrowing memoir of her clash with the US military shows that information does not necessarily effect change.

By Megan Gibson

In README.txt, a memoir by the whistleblower and activist Chelsea Manning, there is a chasm between knowing something to be true and really knowing it. There is knowing, for example, that the US’s war in Iraq was being callously fought. Then there is seeing grainy leaked footage from two Apache helicopters in Baghdad in which US soldiers shoot and kill men on the ground, including civilians and two Reuters journalists, wounding children in the process, all while calmly chatting. Or there’s knowing that the US government treats certain prisoners it views as particularly threatening, like the captives in Guantánamo, inhumanely. Then there is living through nine months of solitary confinement in a Virginia military prison, a stretch of time so long that human rights groups have said it amounted to torture. Crossing the threshold of knowledge – from grasping something intellectually to truly understanding – is a recurring theme in Manning’s affecting account.

In 2010, Manning – then a 22-year-old junior military analyst known as Bradley serving in Iraq – was arrested and later convicted after leaking nearly half a million classified documents about the US’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thanks to intense coverage by the global media, that much is widely known; Manning’s memoir is an attempt to complete the story, offering readers a more thorough understanding of what she did and why. 

The book spans Manning’s troubled childhood in Oklahoma and lonely teen years in Wales (her mother is Welsh), before moving on to her time in the US military and in prison: “the institutions that both shaped and ruined me.” The military in particular proves an inhospitable environment for Manning, who is grappling with lifelong gender dysphoria and feels boxed in by the US military’s oppressive “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. But she enjoys her work as an intelligence analyst and looks forward to the prospect of serving in Iraq. Yet it is during Manning’s first and only tour of Baghdad that she crosses that bridge between knowing and understanding. Though she felt comfortable wading through classified reports detailing operations on the ground during her intelligence training at a base in upstate New York, the reality of Iraq – witnessing first-hand the dehumanising treatment of local civilians – is a shattering experience. Manning becomes disillusioned with the military, its objectives in the war and the lengths it goes to hide its actions from the American people.

“It’s not possible to work in intelligence and not to imagine disclosing the many secrets you bear,” Manning writes early on in the book. One catalysing moment comes when she realises the arbitrary nature of many decisions to classify – or declassify – information. After witnessing her superiors declassify a report detailing months of US military actions in Iraq, seemingly on a whim, in order to hand it to the local press, she realises that “the classification system doesn’t exist to keep secrets, it exists to control the media”. That revelation, coupled with the growing sense of horror with the daily death and carnage, prompts Manning’s decision to share what she knows. It wasn’t a decision she particularly wrestled with: “Lots of people wonder whether my later disclosures were an unforeseeable event, or whether the real surprise is that many other people didn’t also make these kinds of disclosures. I wonder too.”

[See also: The dark side of DNA editing]

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Yet Manning’s initial leak was both carefully deliberated over and haphazardly executed: she knew she wanted to “complicate the retrofitted, sanitised version of the war that was spreading like wildfire”, yet she didn’t have a high-profile contact in the media whom she could easily leak to. While in the US on leave from Iraq, her attempts to connect with the New York Times and the Washington Post go nowhere; the day before she has to travel back to Iraq, she is prevented from visiting Politico’s office by a severe snowstorm. She resorts to uploading hundreds of thousands of classified documents – reports of significant activities, known as SIGACTs, from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – over a shaky internet connection in a Barnes & Noble bookshop to a website she’d only recently learned of: Wikileaks.

The documents were uploaded via an online form on the website; later someone at the organisation – she never learns who it is but suspects it might be Julian Assange or Daniel Schmitt – corresponds with her online about subsequent leaks. Shortly after the explosive first batch of war logs from her initial leak is published – in partnership with the Guardian, New York Times and Der Spiegel – Manning is arrested and imprisoned in solitary confinement in Kuwait. The book’s description of these leaks and the fallout is notably vague in places; some paragraphs are redacted altogether, blacked out on the page. In a note from Manning at the beginning of the memoir, she writes that while she is committed to transparency, there are some things she is no longer willing or able to talk about. “I have already faced serious consequences for sharing information I believe to be in the public interest; I am uninterested in facing them again.”

The bulk of Manning’s memoir recounts those consequences and they are harrowing: months of solitary confinement, which throw her into mental and emotional turmoil, prompting several suicide attempts; a gruelling court martial; convictions of more than a dozen charges, including espionage, and a prison sentence of 35 years.

Manning seems to gain some measure of peace after her sentencing when she legally changes her name to Chelsea. In a sharp contrast to a childhood spent bullied or her time closeted in the military, she is able to live openly as a woman in prison, even eventually accessing hormone therapy – albeit after engaging in a hunger strike – which ameliorates some of the more severe aspects of her gender dysphoria. She ultimately earns the respect of many of her fellow inmates, Manning writes; they use the pronouns “she” or “her” in reference to her or call her “Chelsea”. There is a particularly touching moment when she visits the prison barbers – fellow inmates – for the mandated biweekly haircuts, meant to keep prisoners’ hair no longer than two inches. To compensate, they offer to pluck her eyebrows into a more “feminine shape”.

Manning does however continue to struggle both with her transition – she campaigns to be allowed access to gender reassignment surgery – and with shaping the public narrative over her actions. She realises that the government and media have seized upon her gender identity to portray her as unstable (“‘nut and sluts’ is the term for how the government often tries to portray leakers,” she writes, “as being crazy, drunk, or sexually off in some way”). She is able to rally enough public support to put pressure on the government to free her; the book closes with Manning’s early release from prison in 2017 after Barack Obama commutes her sentence in one of his final acts in office, a seemingly happy ending.

Yet there’s a curious disclaimer at the beginning of README.txt. “The public release clearance of this publication by the Department of Defense,” it reads, “does not imply Department of Defense endorsement or factual accuracy.” This note, coupled with Manning’s own omissions, tells us that there is still much the public does not know. Moreover, well-known leaks such as Manning’s have not significantly impacted US policy. Guantánamo Bay is still open, and civilians are still being killed by US forces abroad; whistleblowers continue to be prosecuted.

“Everyone now knows – because of what happened to me – that the government will attempt to destroy you fully,” Manning writes, for the crime of “bringing to light the truth about its own actions”. What we can do with the information, though, is less clear. For if Manning’s story proves anything it’s that knowledge is not always power.

Chelsea Manning
Bodley Head, 272pp, £20

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[See also: Jonathan Coe’s Bournville: Britannia chained]

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