“We Cannot Wait for Change”—Freed Whistleblower Chelsea Manning on Iraq, Prison & Running for Senate
Chelsea ManningArmy whistleblower and transgender activist who spent seven years in military prison after leaking a trove of documents about the Iraq and Afghan wars and the State Department to WikiLeaks in 2010. She is now running for the U.S. Senate in Maryland.
Fifteen years ago this month, the U.S. invasion of Iraq began. Today we spend the hour with the war’s most famous whistleblower, Chelsea Manning, in her first live television interview. While serving as an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq, Manning leaked a trove of documents in 2010 about the Iraq War to WikiLeaks. She also leaked diplomatic cables, as well as information on Guantánamo and the U.S. War in Afghanistan. It would become the largest leak of classified data in U.S. history. Manning was caught and eventually sentenced to 35 years in prison—the longest sentence ever given to a whistleblower in the United States. Last year, President Obama granted her clemency in one of his final acts in office. She had written to the president requesting what she described as a “first chance at life.” Since her release, Manning has emerged as a leading activist for trans rights and greater transparency. She has been featured in the pages of Vogue, where she was photographed by Annie Leibovitz, and was named 2017 Newsmaker of the Year by Out magazine. In January, she announced her bid for the U.S. Senate in Maryland, challenging Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, who is seeking a third term.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Fifteen years ago this month, the U.S. invasion of Iraq began. Today we spend the hour with the war’s most famous whistleblower, Chelsea Manning, in her first live television interview. Manning served as an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army, based in Iraq. In 2010, while on leave in the United States, Chelsea Manning, then known as Bradley, made a decision that would change her life and the public’s understanding of the U.S. War in Iraq.
After first approaching The New York Times and The Washington Post, Manning decided to leak a trove of documents about the Iraq War to WikiLeaks. She also leaked diplomatic cables, as well as information on Guantánamo and the U.S. War in Afghanistan. It would become the largest leak of classified data in U.S. history. Over the next year, WikiLeaks would team up with major news organizations to break countless stories based on Manning’s leaks. The documents exposed how U.S.-backed forces were involved in torture, summary executions and war crimes in Iraq.
But Manning was soon caught. On May 27, 2010, Manning was arrested at Forward Operating Base Hammer, outside Baghdad. She was initially held in a cage in Kuwait. Then she was moved to the Marine Corps base at Quantico in Virginia, where she was held in a tiny cell in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. The United Nations said her prison conditions violated the U.N. Convention Against Torture. On August 21st, 2013, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison—the longest sentence ever given to a whistleblower in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: The next day, Manning issued a statement through her lawyer announcing she was transgender. She said, quote, “As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female.”
Manning would battle with military officials for years in an attempt to receive the proper healthcare, including hormone therapy. She would stage hunger strikes and twice attempted suicide.
Then, in 2017, a shocking development occurred. President Obama granted her clemency, in one of his final acts in office. She had written to the president requesting what she described as a, quote, “first chance at life.” Chelsea Manning was finally released from Fort Leavenworth in Kansas on May 17th last year.
Since then, she’s emerged as a leading activist for trans rights and greater transparency. She has been featured in the pages of Voguemagazine, where she was photographed by Annie Leibovitz, and was named 2017 Newsmaker of the Year by Out magazine. In January, she announced her bid for the U.S. Senate in Maryland, challenging Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, who’s seeking a third term. And today she joins us here on Democracy Now! for her first live television interview.
Chelsea Manning, welcome to Democracy Now!
CHELSEA MANNING: Thanks for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: So, it has been 10 months, but how does it feel to be free?
CHELSEA MANNING: It’s overwhelming. I wake up some days, and I’m not sure that this is actually happening. You know, sometimes I wake up in the morning, and I have to figure out where I am, because now I’m traveling all the time, and I’m not staying in one spot. And it’s both—you know, initially, it was very inspiring and wonderful. But now, as I’m seeing more and more of the world and how it’s become the world I feared a decade ago, now it’s just—it’s overwhelming.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And can you go back to when you heard the news that President Obama had granted you clemency? Had you had any expectations of the possibility of that?
CHELSEA MANNING: It was very hard for me to acknowledge that this was happening. I’m writing a book, so it’s like—a lot more of the details are going to be in the book. But I couldn’t process it. It was very difficult for me to process that this was actually happening. I mean, when you’re in prison, you know, with a 35-year sentence, and you’re only seven years into it, you don’t think that miracles are going to happen. You know, it takes a couple years, but you just—you expect that tomorrow is going to bring the same thing. So, you know, like having a sudden change and a sudden shift in my entire life outlook was very difficult for me to process.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, let’s go to President Obama speaking at his final press conference as president in 2017.
CHELSEA MANNING: Right.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, first of all, let’s be clear: Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence, so the notion that the average person who was thinking about disclosing vital classified information would think that it goes unpunished, I don’t think would get that impression from the sentence that Chelsea Manning has served. It has been my view that given she went to trial, that due process was carried out, that she took responsibility for her crime, that the sentence that she received was very disproportional—disproportionate relative to what other leakers had received, and that she had served a significant amount of time, that it made sense to commute, and not pardon, her sentence.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, there was the letter that you had sent to the president, a very long, thoughtful, detailed letter about your life and your career and what you suffered while you were in solitary confinement, as well. That must have had a big impact on his decision, as well. I’m wondering your thoughts about that?
CHELSEA MANNING: I’m not going to speculate on the reasons. I did write that letter. I wrote that letter in summer of 2017 [ 2016 ], not long after some bad things happened to me. And I was just in a very emotional state, so I just poured out this letter. And I gave it to my lawyers, and I said, “I’m going to ask for a commutation.”
And I asked for a commutation because the goal was not, at this point, to try to—you know, I had a court-martial appeal, and it dealt with a lot of legal issues, but, just as a human being, to like just live my life again, especially because I hadn’t lived my life before. I mean, I had, you know, been homeless before. I enlisted in the—you know, I had been homeless for a period of time before I enlisted in the military. And I spent about a year working two jobs and trying to go to college, before going into the military. And then I was in the military for three—I was in the military doing intelligence work for three years. And then I’m just in prison for the next seven years. So, I haven’t really lived, you know, what I thought life would consist of.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Chelsea, we’re going to talk about your life before you were in prison, during imprisonment—
CHELSEA MANNING: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —and then this big decision that you have made to run for senator from Maryland, the very place where you were court-martialed and where you were held in jail during that court-martial—
CHELSEA MANNING: Correct.
AMY GOODMAN: —and what that all means, in a moment. Chelsea Manning is our guest for the hour, Army whistleblower, transgender activist, spent seven years in military prison after leaking a trove of documents about Iraq and Afghanistan and the State Department to WikiLeaks in 2010, now running for U.S. Senate in Maryland. Back with her in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: “That’s Not My Name” by The Ting Tings, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guest for the hour is the—well, the most famous whistleblower to come out of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Her name is Chelsea Manning. She spent seven years in prison. But before we talk about her time in prison and her attempt to become senator from Maryland today, let’s go back in time. Where were you born, Chelsea? Tell us where you grew up, and then, ultimately, why you decided to join the military.
CHELSEA MANNING: Right. So, I was born in central Oklahoma. My parents lived sort of between the South, the Southwest, and we spent a period of time in Arizona. But I mostly spent, up until my teenage years, my time in just, you know, rural Oklahoma. And when my parents had several disputes, and they finally divorced in whenever I was 12 or—I was about 12 or 13 when my parents divorced. And I left to go to the United Kingdom with my mother. My mother is British. And I went to school there for four years. And after my mother had some health problems come up, I decided to move back to the U.S. and live with my father.
But not long after I moved in with my father and got a job as a programmer at a software development company, my father kicked me out of the house. There was a dispute with his new wife, and I had to like leave. And so I moved to Chicago, where I spent the next six months living homeless. It was summer 2006, and I lived homeless in Chicago, mostly spending time in central and western parts of Chicago.
And then I moved—then my aunt tracked me down. My aunt lived in Maryland, on my father’s side of the family, tracked me down, found me and invited me to live with her. And I did. I took up that offer and spent a year in—you know, I spent the next several years of my life in Maryland. But I tried working two jobs, service jobs, barely making minimum wage, trying to go to college, all at the same time. You know, I was busy 100 hours a week. And I just kind of burned out.
And I was also dealing with who I am, because I knew—I always knew I was trans, and dealing with like who I was in terms of like my gender, because I had all these gender feels that I couldn’t really explain. But as I got older, it was becoming clear that this was more of something that was coming up. So then I—
AMY GOODMAN: When you say you always knew you were trans—
CHELSEA MANNING: Well—
AMY GOODMAN: —going back to what age? And what did that mean?
CHELSEA MANNING: I knew I was different. I didn’t know—I didn’t have a language to describe that. I didn’t know—I didn’t know what was going on with me. I just always knew that I was different. Everybody treated me differently. I was always very feminine. I was always very effeminate. I couldn’t meet expectations for people. So, it was very overwhelming for me to try to live life not knowing what—you know, I thought something was wrong with me. I thought something was like very wrong with me. But it’s just—I was trying to live a life that wasn’t me. It wasn’t my life. It wasn’t who I am. But I—
AMY GOODMAN: Did you tell your parents about this from an early age?
CHELSEA MANNING: I did. And, you know, it was just—I was always told like that’s not how—like “You can’t be a girl, you’re not a girl.” And it was just very—it was very difficult for me to grasp this, but I just knew that in order to make my parents—you know, in order to make my dad happy, I just sort of went along with it. And school also, you know, socialized me to like be in this—to do boy things, to like do sports. And it was just a—it was a very self-conscious life, you know, always measuring how much I’m passing as a boy throughout my life.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, and was joining the military part of that? Was it pressure from your father to get some structure and organization in your life?
CHELSEA MANNING: Yeah, those are the words he used. Those are the exact words. And he said—he said to me, “You know, you should join—you should enlist in the Navy or the Air Force.” And the Iraq War was going on, and it was on television every night. And I didn’t really have strong opinions about it until the surge started happening. I just felt, you know, my life is kind of in a dead-end. I was just homeless. I’m living, you know, with my aunt. I’m living with a family member. I’m 20 years old—I was 19 years old at the time. And then, you know, it was very—it became this like notion of like I can do something, I can do something to help people, I can do something about this. And so I jumped into enlisting very quickly. It was about a five-day period.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, you’ve also talked about that, from an early childhood, you had a fascination with computers, and you started programming at the age of 10.
CHELSEA MANNING: Yes.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Talk about the attachment to computers. And also, would you—did you consider yourself a hacker back then?
CHELSEA MANNING: I mean, you know, the term “hacker” is kind of loaded. I use it like—I mean, I’m a programmer, I’m a developer. I work on—I also do network security work. You know, it’s not the big scary H-word, you know, “hacker,” like this nefarious actors sitting behind a screen trying to get your credit card information. Just more curiosity, driven by the—you know, just the freedom that the information networks give you as a human being.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you went to Arizona to train?
CHELSEA MANNING: I did. That was three or—I barely remember that period. It was very fast-paced.
AMY GOODMAN: Fort Huachuca?
CHELSEA MANNING: Yes. It was very fast-paced. I went—you know, I went through basic training, went to Fort Huachuca for intel school. And then, next thing I know, I’m doing this work.
AMY GOODMAN: In Iraq?
CHELSEA MANNING: I was stateside for a year, before Iraq. And a lot of that was pre-deployment preparation.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about your experience in Iraq then.
CHELSEA MANNING: Just a very—you know, I came into this with a very—you know, I’m a problem solver. I’m a—as an analyst, I solve math problems. You know, I took a statistical approach to my work. I did statistical predictive analysis, basically what people would now call AI, the sort of AI sector, you know, grew up working with big data. And I did this regularly.
But whenever I got to Iraq, I just like—I was just this like data—it was just this constant, you know, drinking-from-a-firehose sense of like all these things happening around me. And they were happening here, right in front of me, and so it was no longer a math problem. You know, these were real people in real places. You know, they weren’t just dots on a map. They were lives. These are people’s lives and emotions and all of the things that are attached with that. And we’re in their home. You know, they live here. And we’re doing all of this stuff, and we’re just like viewing it as like an academic problem, as a math problem. And I couldn’t—you know, I couldn’t separate my work from my emotions anymore. I became emotionally invested.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’ve always been fascinated by, given the enormous complexity of the American military machine and the data and the secrecy of the American military, that you, as a private, would have access to quite an enormous amount of documentation and records of the military. Could you talk about the level of security clearance that you went through, and also the unit that you were working with, in terms of how many other privates had access to this kind of information?
CHELSEA MANNING: I mean, there’s this notion of like, you know, rank in the military is very important. But in the intelligence field, it’s more about your ability. You know, they even, at times, discourage you from wearing rank, so that the command structure can take you more seriously, they’re not blinded by rank. So, as an enlisted person, you’re afforded more privileges as an analyst than—you’re kind of seen almost a peer to officers, but you’re still—you know, like you’re in support of them.
And, you know, like I—and I really took my job seriously. I tried to do the best work that I could. So I was afforded even more, you know, leeway and access than the average person, just based on what I’m doing. And there was always this phrase, like mission critical, mission critical. Everything you’re doing is mission critical. So, it bumps you up to the top of the priority list. So I got training. I got access to databases. And I performed. You know, there’s a focus on delivery and on results, 24 hours, 48 hours, 72 hours, etc.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about your decision to try to make the information you were seeing in Iraq public, something that we were not seeing here.
CHELSEA MANNING: That was the problem. It was this—I went at home at night, and I’m over—or not home, but to my housing unit at night, or daytime, because I worked the night shift. And I would—I couldn’t sleep. And I would look at the news. And, you know, it was almost like a glossing over of what had happened in Iraq. In 2010, it was less about what had happened and more about—and more about this like—it was almost like, “Oh, let’s forget about all the bad things that have happened, because it’s working out in the end.” But like what I was seeing on the ground was not that. And I was very—I was very worried about that and that disconnect.
AMY GOODMAN: So, in April 2010, WikiLeaks makes international headlines when it publishes a video that you had leaked. The chilling video footage is taken from a U.S. military helicopter. It shows U.S. forces indiscriminately firing on Iraqis in the New Baghdad neighborhood of Baghdad, the Iraqi capital. The dead included two employees of the Reuters news agency, photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and his driver Saeed Chmagh. It became known as the “Collateral Murder” video. This is a clip.
U.S. SOLDIER 1: There, one o’clock. Haven’t seen anything since then.
U.S. SOLDIER 2: Just [expletive]. Once you get on, just open up.
U.S. SOLDIER 3: I am.
U.S. SOLDIER 4: I see your element, got about four Humvees, out along this—
U.S. SOLDIER 2: You’re clear.
U.S. SOLDIER 3: All right, firing.
U.S. SOLDIER 4: Let me know when you’ve got them.
U.S. SOLDIER 2: Let’s shoot. Light ’em all up.
U.S. SOLDIER 3: Come on, fire!
U.S. SOLDIER 2: Keep shootin’. Keep shootin’. Keep shootin’. Keep shootin’.
U.S. SOLDIER 5: Hotel, Bushmaster two-six, Bushmaster two-six, we need to move, time now!
U.S. SOLDIER 2: All right, we just engaged all eight individuals.
AMY GOODMAN: Minutes later, the video shows U.S. forces watching as a van pulls up to evacuate the wounded. They again open fire from the helicopter, killing several more people and wounding two children inside the van.
U.S. SOLDIER 3: Where’s that van at?
U.S. SOLDIER 2: Right down there by the bodies.
U.S. SOLDIER 3: OK, yeah.
U.S. SOLDIER 2: Bushmaster, Crazy Horse. We have individuals going to the scene, looks like possibly picking up bodies and weapons.
U.S. SOLDIER 3: Let me engage. Can I shoot?
U.S. SOLDIER 2: Roger. Break. Crazy Horse one-eight, request permission to engage.
U.S. SOLDIER 6: Picking up the wounded?
U.S. SOLDIER 3: Yeah, we’re trying to get permission to engage. Come on, let us shoot!
U.S. SOLDIER 2: Bushmaster, Crazy Horse one-eight.
U.S. SOLDIER 3: They’re taking him.
U.S. SOLDIER 2: Bushmaster, Crazy Horse one-eight.
U.S. SOLDIER 7: This is Bushmaster seven, go ahead.
U.S. SOLDIER 2: Roger. We have a black SUV—or Bongo truck picking up the bodies. Request permission to engage.
U.S. SOLDIER 7: Bushmaster seven, roger. This is Bushmaster seven, roger. Engage.
U.S. SOLDIER 2: One-eight, engage. Clear.
U.S. SOLDIER 3: Come on!
U.S. SOLDIER 2: Clear. Clear.
U.S. SOLDIER 3: We’re engaging.
U.S. SOLDIER 2: Coming around. Clear.
U.S. SOLDIER 3: Roger. Trying to—
U.S. SOLDIER 2: Clear.
U.S. SOLDIER 3: I hear ’em—I lost ’em in the dust.
U.S. SOLDIER 6: I got ’em.
U.S. SOLDIER 2: Should have a van in the middle of the road with about 12 to 15 bodies.
U.S. SOLDIER 3: Oh, yeah, look at that. Right through the windshield! Ha ha!
AMY GOODMAN: Just a small excerpt from the “Collateral Murder” video, as it was so called, released by WikiLeaks in 2010, that showed this group of people killed—I believe it was 12 in all—two of them from Reuters. Namir Noor-Eldeen was an up-and-coming videographer, 22 years old. His driver, Saeed Chmagh, was a father of four. Reuters attempted to get this video for several years. It was only, Chelsea, when you had this released that they were able to see what happened to their staff.
CHELSEA MANNING: Yeah. The video stands on its own. It explains an enormous amount of not just this moment, but of what the reality of warfare looks like. And, I mean, I’m going to talk about this more, in much greater detail, in my book. But it’s clear in this video. It doesn’t need an explanation. You just have to watch it.
AMY GOODMAN: And what was it like for you the day—do you remember the day you first saw this video? Where were you sitting?
CHELSEA MANNING: I mean, it was among hundreds of other similar ones. It’s just that there’s more—there was more information about the aftermath of this incident because there was an investigation following it. But—
AMY GOODMAN: Because the Reuters journalists were killed?
CHELSEA MANNING: I mean—yeah. So, apart from that, it’s just routine—it’s just a routine incident. Just another day.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And was part of your decision to try to get this out that there were so many of these—I mean, this is a publicized incident, but there were so many others that never got any kind of publicity outside of Iraq at all, if even in Iraq. Part of that, your sense that this needed to get out to the world?
CHELSEA MANNING: Right. And I’m going to talk more about that in my book, but yeah. I would say that the video stands on its own. And, you know, I can try and explain it, but—and, yeah, this is not—this is not unusual. This is not a freak incident. This is what war is, in a nutshell.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, WikiLeaks releases the video. From that point, when was it that you got arrested in Iraq?
CHELSEA MANNING: Oh, it was a few months later. I was busy. I was working a lot.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what happened to you when you were arrested, where you were taken.
CHELSEA MANNING: I’m going to explain a lot more of this in my book. So, I’m in the process of writing a book right at the moment. And a lot of—you know, there’s a lot of information that I was exposed to, and a very overwhelming time for me. And I’m also dealing with my—you know, who I am. So, there’s a lot going on, which I’ll be able to get into far more detail in my book.
AMY GOODMAN: When you were taken to Kuwait, describe the place you were kept.
CHELSEA MANNING: So I got taken to Kuwait after CID detained me in 2010.
AMY GOODMAN: CID stands for?
CHELSEA MANNING: Criminal Investigation Division. So, it’s the U.S.’s FBI, internal investigations division—or the military’s or the Army’s, in particular, U.S. Army intelligence, Criminal Investigation Division. I’m sorry. It’s just a big cage, a big metal cage. And I was staying there. And it was—you know, I lost the sense of who I was. I lost a sense of time. I lost a sense of location. I lost a—you know, I had been in this cage for about, I believe, 60 days, but I didn’t really know. Like I didn’t have access to a calendar. After about 20 or 30 days, I mean, like I just became so depressed and so overwhelmed that I just gave up. And—
AMY GOODMAN: A cage in solitary. No one else was there?
CHELSEA MANNING: Well, yeah, that’s the thing, is I was alone in a tent. So this was a cage inside of a tent. And I just—the only people I’m interacting with are staff, and they’re not talking to me. It was Navy personnel.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the CID folks, when they first arrested you, they say, “We know—we know what you’ve done,” or we—did they ask you to talk to them, explain whether you were doing it by yourself, or what? Or did they not talk to you at all?
CHELSEA MANNING: No, they didn’t talk to me at all. I mean, they gave me a form to sign, and then I’m detained. That’s all that consisted of. And, you know, I’m going to get a lot more into the details of what happened in my book.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re held there for how long in this cage, under a tent, by yourself, in Kuwait?
CHELSEA MANNING: I was held in there—I don’t know. It feels—it feels like forever. But, you know, it was about—I believe it was 59 days, was the total.
AMY GOODMAN: And then you were moved to Quantico.
CHELSEA MANNING: Yeah, I was moved to Quantico. And that was like the first time that I had a grounded sense of where I am, access to the outside world. I visited my lawyer—I mean, my lawyers came to visit me. I hired a civilian attorney. And I saw my family for the first time.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re held in a cell in solitary confinement 23 hours a day?
CHELSEA MANNING: Yeah. And, you know, by this point, being in solitary confinement had become normal. So, it was over 11 months altogether, if you include both Quantico and Kuwait, that I was held.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to read from the letter you sent to President Obama about that period of time. You said, “The Army kept me in solitary confinement for nearly a year before formal charges were brought against me. It was a humiliating and degrading experience—one that altered my mind, body and spirit.” And you went on to say, “These experiences have broken me and made me feel less than human. I have been fighting for years to be treated respectfully and with dignity; a battle I fear is lost. I do not understand why.”
CHELSEA MANNING: Is there much more to say than that?
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to Atul Gawande. First, I want to turn to—in March 2012, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, criticized the condition of your detention, telling The Guardian_, “I conclude [that] the 11 months under conditions of solitary confinement (regardless of the name given to his regime by the prison authorities) constitutes at a minimum cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of article 16 of the convention against torture. If the effects in regards to pain and suffering inflicted on Manning were more severe, they could constitute torture.” And then, Atul Gawandehealth, practicing surgeon in Boston, staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, studied the effects of solitary confinement on prisoners.
DR. ATUL GAWANDE: The science of what happens to people deprived of social contact is they have to fight for their sanity. And many lose their sanity. That reality, that we are social beings in our physiology, led me to ask the question: Is solitary confinement, the way we’re practicing it now, torture? And you can’t read the cases—and I describe the cases of both hostages and people who are in prisons—and conclude that, number one, those experiences are different. They’re the same. Number two, you can’t conclude that it’s not torture.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Dr. Atul Gawande. “You cannot conclude it’s not torture.” Did you feel like you were tortured, Chelsea?
CHELSEA MANNING: I didn’t know what was happening to me. I don’t know what it—I still struggle with what it feels like to be in that situation. You know, I’m in a lot—I’m still in a lot of therapy. And I got out of this. I mean, I’m functional. I’m able to go out into the world again, and I’m thankful for that. And that, in alone, is, I’ve been told, an accomplishment.
And, you know, this is a practice that needs to stop. It’s a practice that needs to be ended everywhere, you know, regardless of what you think the circumstances—what justifies the circumstances. Nothing justifies doing this to any human being.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you—on the one hand, here was the U.S. government putting you on trial, and at the same time you were getting thousands and thousands of letters of support from people who felt that what you had done was courageous and heroic. Could you talk about all the letters that you got and the support from the outside?
CHELSEA MANNING: I’m still trying to get an exact number from the government. And it’s somewhere—it’s probably—I mean, I’ve heard estimates between 200,000 and 300,000 letters, of pieces of mail, people sending to me over a 7-year period. So, yeah, it was very overwhelming. And once I started to get it—I didn’t get mail while I was at Quantico, but once I got into general population at Fort Leavenworth, I was able to read the mail. And it was—prison support, for anyone, is valuable. You know, I keep telling people, you want to write prisoners, because we get them, we read them, and it means a lot to us. You know, you can’t forget about people that are in prison, because we feel forgotten.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to this discussion. Our guest for the hour is Chelsea Manning, Army whistleblower, transgender activist and candidate for the U.S. Senate for Maryland. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga. In fact, Lady Gaga, Chelsea Manning, was what you wrote on the CD that you used to take the information in Iraq that you felt the public should know about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
CHELSEA MANNING: Yeah. Well, I talk more about that in my book.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you comment on why Lady Gaga was important?
CHELSEA MANNING: Yeah, there’s a very—there’s a very lengthy explanation. But I can’t give it to you in three minutes.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Chelsea, you’re running for Senate right now—
CHELSEA MANNING: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —from the state of Maryland.
CHELSEA MANNING: Yes. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: The state of Maryland, that is the place where you were court-martialed, at Fort Meade, National Security Agency, where you were jailed during that court-martial. You were jailed—where was it, the local jail?
CHELSEA MANNING: I was held at the Howard County jail. So, this was a county jail, a standard, good old-fashioned jail in Howard County, Maryland. There’s a federal contract to hold some federal detainees there. And actually, the majority of the population there often are ICE detainees.
AMY GOODMAN: So you met ICE detainees?
CHELSEA MANNING: I did not. I saw them. I was separated. But ICE—you know, it was clear that there were far more, and I was—you know, it was a world that I just wasn’t paying attention to, that I didn’t notice. And I just realized, “Oh, I am here with people who haven’t been charged with anything at all.”
AMY GOODMAN: You know, when we were covering your trial, it was very difficult. We hadn’t heard your voice in three years.
CHELSEA MANNING: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Very difficult, when we were able to surreptitiously get audio of you giving your statement in the courtroom.
CHELSEA MANNING: Right. You know, and all that is in the record. It’s all—all that is available. I mean, I’m really more—I’m really here to discuss, you know, like my policies and positions, because, you know, like I was held in prison. I was held in prison in Maryland, but I lived in Maryland prior to going into confinement. And seeing—and, like, is it a surprise that a national security apparatus and a criminal justice system would try to block access to a record of trial or access to a trial or access to somebody like me, who stands up and says, “I need to do something”? You know, I think that—and I’m still driven to stand up and do something. And that’s one of the reasons why I’ve decided to run in Maryland, you know. And I can—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, can you talk about that, about your decision to run for political office?
CHELSEA MANNING: Right. You know, it was—I thought I was done. I thought, “OK, like I can go home now.” But I don’t feel like it’s this—I mean, in this environment, in this place, this time that we’re in is what I feared when I—because I saw, you know, and I realized it’s expanded more and more, that it’s not just the military, it’s not just the intelligence community. It’s not—it’s police. It’s the justice system. It’s immigration. Like all these systems are overlapping, and they’re suffocating people, deliberately and methodically, over decades. And this has been a continuing—you know, like people have been building this whirling death machine of power for decades now.
And you can focus in on a particular war or a particular moment or a particular controversy, but it’s the overwhelming awe of the giganticness of this system that has driven me to try to fight back. And we need to start—you know, like we don’t need to fix these systems, we need to stop them. We need to push back on them, whether it’s immigration or whether it’s the military or whether it’s the intelligence apparatus, because they’re all a part of the same system. And people are suffering. And we can’t wait. We can’t wait anymore. We can’t wait for change.
AMY GOODMAN: So talk about what that would mean if you became senator for Maryland. Would you pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, for example?
CHELSEA MANNING: That’s not a power that I would have. But that’s a position—
AMY GOODMAN: Would you vote to call for that?
CHELSEA MANNING: That’s a position—that’s a position that I already hold. You know, I already hold that we should be—we should be—you know, we have the largest and most powerful military in the world. We have the largest prison population per capita, if I’m not mistaken, per capita. But, I mean, we have 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. And it’s always—and we have the largest and most sophisticated intelligence apparatus in the world. And yet, these systems, they always want more, more, more. They’re continually expanding, continually being built. And instead of slowing it down, you know, instead, like it’s tweaks about like how big it should be or how much power we should give them, between one administration or one political agency or political party to the next.
And we can’t—we need to roll these systems back. And, you know, whether it’s U.S. troops or ICE agents, or whether it’s police, we’re in a military—we’re in a domestic military occupation in many, you know, of the most vulnerable communities in America. I’ve seen what an occupation looks like. And I walk down some streets in Brooklyn, in Oakland and in Baltimore, in particular, and we’re living under the thumb of this enormous machine. And we need to stop it.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And some might say, though, that this is your first run for office. You’re running for U.S. Senate. Why not pick a lower post where you might get experience in governing? Why the decision to run against Ben Cardin for the U.S. Senate?
CHELSEA MANNING: This isn’t about experience in government. The fact that the establishment has become this thing where you have to have so many years, and it’s this process, and—you know, like I’m standing on the merit of my own positions and my own—you know, I already have a record. I already have experience. I’ve seen. I’ve been homeless. I’ve been to war. I’ve been to prison. I’ve seen the way—the other side of government. And I’ve been a part of government before, you know, from being in the military.
And I’m standing on the merit of my own positions, being that we should stop these systems, that we should roll them back. We need to start defunding, dismantling and, you know, pushing back against this gigantic, whirling death machine that we call the government and we call the state. And it’s at all levels—you know, local, state, federal and, beyond that, the supernational agencies.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about Trump’s trans policies. President Trump signed this memorandum banning most transgender people from serving in the U.S. military. The new policy, signed just last Friday, comes after Trump announced unexpectedly on Twitter last July he was banning all transgender people from U.S. military service. The White House spokesperson, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, issued a statement on the measure, saying, “the accession or retention of individuals with a history or diagnosis of gender dysphoria—those who may require substantial medical treatment, including through medical drugs or surgery—presents considerable risk to military effectiveness and lethality. This new policy will enable the military to apply well-established mental and physical health standards … equally to all individuals,” she said. So, Chelsea Manning, you’ve been through this in the military in prison. You were demanding healthcare change for trans prisoners. And now this latest statement from the president?
CHELSEA MANNING: Well, this isn’t about trans—this is about trans people in the military. And the reason why we keep having these orders is, and why they keep coming, you know, whether it’s the Muslim ban or anything else, is they’re trying to make it OK to be hateful to minority groups. They’re picking—you know, and they’re picking policy positions to do it, and they’re picking orders to do it, because it sends a signal, you know, from the highest office in government, that it’s OK to hate trans people, it’s OK to hate Muslim people, it’s OK to hate immigrants, it’s OK to hate people. You know, that’s the signal. That’s the underlying undertones of these kinds of things. It’s not about the policy positions. This has nothing to do with trans people in the military, and everything to do with sending a signal.
And it’s the same with the bathroom bills. You know, like, we didn’t—trans people, we’ve been using bathrooms for decades. We didn’t just come out of nowhere and start using bathrooms. You know, like these so-called debates are a distraction to the underlying message, which is that it’s OK to hate people, when it’s not.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been using the hashtag #WeGotThis. Who’s the “we,” and what do you got?
CHELSEA MANNING: We is us. It’s whoever we are. It’s solidarity. We is solidarity, in a word. I used this word, and I used this phrase, in prison, whenever I was overwhelmed, when I was in—you know, I was facing insurmountable odds, and I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. But I just kept going. I kept fighting. I kept fighting, even though it looked like it was futile.
And that’s how I feel now. You know, we keep fighting, and we can’t see the end of it, but we can continue to push forward, even if we don’t have—you know, even if we can’t see it, we actually do have this. We do got this. And, you know, it was a mantra that I used to repeat to myself while I was in prison, but it’s still something that I keep saying and keep saying. And, yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m wondering—we talked earlier about all the support you got from the general public when you were imprisoned. What about the soldiers, both once you’ve been—when you were in custody and also since you’ve come out, veterans of the war? Have any of them approached you or talked to you about—saw your actions as courageous actions?
CHELSEA MANNING: I mean, I’ve had thousands of veterans come up to me, you know, over the years, write to me. You know, I think—you know, it’s very difficult to talk about a sort of particular one group of people, because it just fills—I mean, there’s a diaspora of people. And again, you know, like I’m—it’s just—it’s overwhelming to have all these people come up to me and say “thank you.” And I can’t even tell for what anymore. Sometimes they have to tell me what. But I just—I’m more focused on fighting the battles that are in front of us. You know, the past is in the past, and I really want to move forward.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for spending this hour with us.
CHELSEA MANNING: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to ask you to stay for a few minutes after for a post-show interview, a web exclusive. And I want to particularly ask about your time in prison and the healthcare issues you think, the policies around trans prisoners, that have to be changed. One of the issues you deal with, if you were senator from Maryland, are those kinds of issues. Chelsea Manning, Army whistleblower, transgender activist, who spent seven years in military prison after leaking a trove of documents about Iraq and Afghan wars to WikiLeaks in 2010, now running for the U.S. Senate in Maryland. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks for joining us.