It was May 2010, and I was following up on a remarkable story I’d heard in cryptic bits and pieces from Adrian Lamo, a former recreational hacker I’d once reported on extensively. Lamo told me he’d been contacted online by an Army intelligence analyst deployed to Iraq, and the soldier, mistaking Lamo for a kindred spirit, confided that he’d been providing the secret-spilling website WikiLeaks with a trove of material from a classified network. The leaks included a quarter million State Department cables—which WikiLeaks had not yet acknowledged having—and a shocking video of a U.S. Army helicopter attack in Baghdad that the site had already released under the title “Collateral Murder.”
Lamo considered the leaks reckless and dangerous, and decided to turn in the soldier, who I learned was a 22-year-old kid named Bradley Manning. By the time of that lunch, Lamo had already met once with law enforcement officials, and he was scheduled to meet with them again later that day to hand over the logs he’d kept of his chats with Manning. He’d agreed to give me a copy as well under embargo, if I showed up in person with a thumbdrive.
I hadn’t seen Lamo in years, and he was in a bad state, recently separated, living with his parents, and apparently hungry—he asked for a hot lunch and small talk before he’d detail his exchanges with Manning, or give me the chat logs. And so we ate, talked about the old days when Lamo effortlessly hacked the likes of Yahoo and The New York Times, back when he was as young and fearless as the soldier he was giving up.
In the end, I got the logs, and was on my way back to San Francisco by the time Lamo and the feds had their second meeting. I remember wondering on the drive what would become of the soldier Lamo had felt obliged to betray.
Now we know. On Tuesday, outgoing President Barack Obama commuted the sentence of the woman now named Chelsea Manning, who will be freed from the military prison at Ft. Leavenworth on May 17 after serving seven years on a harsh 35-year sentence.
The announcement comes just three days before Obama turns the White House over to Donald Trump, and follows a concerted online campaign that’s been pushing for Manning’s freedom since the day I reported her arrest. Most recently, an online petition urging clemency for Manning gathered over 100,000 signatures in about a month.
Manning became a WikiLeaks source in 2010, when her work as an intelligence analyst in Iraq led her to a crisis of conscience over America’s military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I started to question the morality of what we were doing,” she later told a military judge. “I realized that our efforts to meet the risk posed to us by the enemy, we had forgotten our humanity. We consciously elected to devalue life both in Iraq and Afghanistan. When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians.”
That point was underscored by her most plainly righteously leak, the “Collateral Murder” video that gave the public a gunner’s-eye-view of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack on a group of men mistakenly identified as insurgents. Two Reuters employees died in the assault, as did a Baghdad man who stumbled on the scene afterward and tried to rescue one of the victims by pulling him into his van. The man’s two children were in the van and suffered serious injuries in the hail of gunfire. Though the incident was already public, the Army had refused to release the video, which showed the consequences of urban warfare with more clarity than any report.
Other leaks were less focused. Manning gave Julian Assange databases of nearly 500,000 Army field reports from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, reports on prisoners held in Guantanamo, and, just as she’d told Lamo, 250,000 U.S. State Department diplomatic cables.
When Lamo lifted his embargo, another reporter and I broke the news of Manning’s arrest on the website of Wired magazine. Assange took to Twitter with a barrage of tweets disputing the story and attacking me directly. He denied knowing whether Manning was the source of the Collateral Murder video, and denied having a quarter-million diplomatic cables. He and others demanded that I publish the full logs of Manning’s chats, though Assange knew full well why I wouldn’t: Manning had told Lamo all about her struggles with gender dysphoria, and those personal disclosures were out-of-bounds. By her own account, her leaks were impelled by her moral compass and nothing else.
When Assange finally stopped denying that he had the Manning leaks, and starting releasing them, the disclosures made a sensation of his organization, which pulled in about $1.9 million in donations in 2010.
Manning became a hero and martyr of the anti-war movement, and she seemed to channel her more ardent supporters in her first clemency application in 2014, defending her leaks in a tone that approached defiance, and seeking a full presidential pardon. “If you deny my request for a pardon, I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society,” she wrote. The application was denied.
This time around, Manning asked only for Obama to shorten her sentence to time-served, and she wrote virtually nothing of her leaks, and much about her struggles in the Army, which began as a young private coming to terms with her gender dysphoria while serving in a military still guided by Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Her struggles only intensified after her court martial when Manning came out as a transgender woman, and took the name Chelsea, but her jailors refused to acknowledge her gender identity. She had to sue the Army to receive hormone therapy. Last year, she attempted suicide twice.
“I have served a sufficiently long sentence,” Manning wrote. “I am not asking for a pardon of my conviction. I understand that the various collateral consequences of the court-martial conviction will stay on my record forever. The sole relief am asking for is to be released from military prison after serving six years of confinement as a person who did not intend to harm the interests of the United States or harm any service members.
“I am merely asking for a first chance to live my life outside… as the person I was born to be.”
The WikiLeaks that Manning knew has all but vanished. Founded to challenge primarily “highly oppressive regimes in China, Russia and Central Eurasia,” the group’s major focus last year was the U.S. Democratic party, publishing thousands of emails stolen from the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Unlike the Manning leaks, the Democrats’ emails were published without redaction, as Assange deliberately left in details like the names, credit card and Social Security numbers of party donors.
To his credit, though, Assange, never stopped drawing the public’s attention to Manning’s situation, even offering last September to take her place in prison. “If Obama grants Manning clemency, Assange will agree to U.S. prison in exchange—despite its clear unlawfulness,” he tweeted last September. As of press time, though, Assange had not been sighted leaving the safety of the Ecuadorian embassy in London.