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Who Is Chelsea Manning And What Did She Do?

Some suggest she helped spark the Arab Spring.

18/01/2017 16:03 GMT

US Army Private Chelsea Manning will be free in May after her sentence for leaking classified information to anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks was commuted by President Barack Obama.

Debate still rages about the impact and validity of Manning’s decision to release the documents, with some seeing her as a legitimate whistleblower, while others believing she is a traitor who put American lives at risk. 

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Chelsea Manning pictured in 2010

Former Democratic Congressman, Dennis Kucinich, has campaigned for Manning’s release for several years. He told the BBC’s Today programme: “Chelsea Manning actually performed a public service in bringing to light criminal activity.

“The truth of the matter is that some things are inappropriately assigned national security status when public interest demands full disclosure.”

Here’s a look at the key elements of the case:

What Did Manning Do?

The now 29-year-old native of Crescent, Oklahoma leaked more than 700,000 classified Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and diplomatic cables in 2010 while working as an intelligence analyst in Baghdad. Manning also leaked a July 2007 video clip of a US helicopter crew killing at least nine men, including Saeed Chmagh and Namir Nour-Eldeen, Iraqi journalists with Reuters news agency.

Patrick Semansky/AP
Chelsea Manning, then-Army Pfc Bradley Manning, is escorted out of a courthouse in Fort Meade 15 June 2013

What Was Manning Convicted Of?

A judge convicted Manning, then known as Bradley, on July 30, 2013, of 20 counts, including six Espionage Act violations, theft and computer fraud and she was later sentenced to 35 years jail.

Manning was acquitted of the most serious charge of aiding the enemy, which carries a possible death sentence.

ALI KADIM/AP
The remains of the vehicle destroyed in the 2007 helicopter gunship attack, a video of which was part of the cache of material leaked by Manning.

US forces also fired upon a van that had arrived to help those injured. When ground forces arrived they found two wounded children hiding inside.

Although a Pentagon report concluded the troops acted appropriately having mistaken the camera equipment for weapons, the victim’s families called for another investigation which so far has yet to materialise.

KHALID MOHAMMED/AP
Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, died in the attack

International law expert, Mark Taylor, said in 2010 the evidence indicated there was a “case to be made that a war crime may have been committed”.

The footage can be watched below and has been split into six sections for ease of viewing (some viewers may find it upsetting).

As well as showing the world the brutal reality of military action in Iraq, Manning’s leaks have also been credited with helping spark the Arab Spring, the popular uprisings that spread throughout the Arab world in 2011.

Amongst the documents were diplomatic cables between US officials and the then-Tunisian President, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

In one document America’s ambassador to the country, Robert Godec, detailed the lavish lifestyle of the ruling family which was in stark contrast to that of the ordinary Tunisian.

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Former Libyan leader Moamar Kadhafi (R) and former Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali pictured in December 2003

Speaking of a dinner he and his wife attended, Godec wrote: “El Materi has a large tiger (”Pasha”) on his compound, living in a cage. He acquired it when it was a few weeks old. The tiger consumes four chickens a day.

“After dinner, he served ice cream and frozen yoghurt he brought in by plane from Saint Tropez, along with blueberries and raspberries and fresh fruit and chocolate cake.”

Pete Crowley was US Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs at the time of the leak and resigned after publicly criticising the Pentagon for the way they treated Manning.

Anis Mili / Reuters
Supporters of the Islamist Ennahda movement celebrate after elections held in the wake of the Arab Spring in Tunisia

He told the Today programme: “In terms of a spark, I don’t think [the leaks sparked the Arab Spring]. These were people who understood the oppression they lived under.

“I think you have to give the people in the Arab world credit for standing up to their governments and overcoming the barrier of fear.

“But there’s no question that when the Arab Spring got underway in a country like Tunisia, these documents did provide important validation but I don’t think Wikileaks per se sparked the Arab Spring.”

What Negative Effects Did Her Leaks Have?

Government witnesses testified the leaks endangered people who were named as information sources, prompting the State Department to help some of them move, even to other countries, for their safety. Several ambassadors were recalled, expelled or reassigned because of embarrassing disclosures.

During her trial in 2013, prosecutors showed that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula used material from the Apache helicopter attack in a propaganda video. Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden obtained and presumably read some of the leaked documents, the evidence showed.

Crowley said: “I don’t see Chelsea Manning as a whistleblower, I don’t think she had a full understanding of the thousands of documents that she provided to Wikileaks and Julian Assange.

Peter Nicholls / Reuters
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange makes a speech from the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy, in central London where he has been for four and a half years

“By the same token, when one looks with some perspective, the ultimate damage done to American national security was limited.

“That’s not to underestimate the fact that diplomatic cables compromised the names of individuals in autocratic societies that had consulted with American diplomats. Certainly there’s no doubt that some people came to harm and peril because of this compromise.

“[People dying as a result of the leaks] is quite likely, I can’t say for certain. Julian Assange has said a number of times that nobody came to harm but he can’t say that either.”

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The US Pentagon

What Were The Defence’s Main Arguments?

Manning’s defence during her trial produced evidence the Army disregarded Manning’s emotional turmoil over her gender identity and isolation in a military that barred homosexuals from serving openly.

The day after she was sentenced, Manning announced in a statement that she was a woman named Chelsea and demanded hormone therapy, which the Army eventually approved.

Crowley said: “Chelsea Manning was rightfully accused of placing real lives and real interests in jeopardy by compromising thousands of sensitive documents.

“By the same token she found herself somewhere she should not have been. She should not have been in a war zone, she probably should not have been in the military.

“She was struggling with her identity and the army had failed to institute appropriate network security to prevent this very type of compromise.”

Why Did She Do It?

Manning said she leaked the material to expose the US military’s “bloodlust” and disregard for human life, and what she considered American diplomatic duplicity. She said she chose information she believed would not harm the United States.

After her conviction, she apologised for unintentionally causing harm, but not for revealing U.S. secrets.

She said: “I am sorry that my actions hurt people. I’m sorry that they hurt the United States.

“I am sorry for the unintended consequences of my actions. When I made these decisions I believed I was going to help people, not hurt people. ... At the time of my decisions I was dealing with a lot of issues.”