KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning, spared by presidential clemency from the rest of a 35-year prison term for giving classified materials to anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, stepped out of a military lockup Wednesday and into a future she said she was eager to define.
“I’m figuring things out right now — which is exciting, awkward, fun, and all new for me,” Manning said by email hours after being released from confinement at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, having served seven years behind bars for one of the largest exposing of classified information in U.S. history.
“I am looking forward to so much! Whatever is ahead of me is far more important than the past,” added Manning, 29.
Manning’s immediate plans, including living arrangements, remained unclear. The Oklahoma native had previously tweeted that she planned to move to Maryland, where she has an aunt, but her attorneys have cited security concerns in refusing to make public specifics about her release or where she was headed. The Army is allowing her to live where she pleases — still on active duty but under a special, unpaid status.
Manning relished her newfound freedom, posting on social media photos of her lunch — “So, (I’m) already enjoying my first hot, greasy pizza,” she declared of the slice of pepperoni — and her feet in sneakers, with the caption, “First steps of freedom!!”
Manning, who is transgender and was known as Bradley Manning before she transitioned in prison, was convicted in 2013 of 20 counts, including six Espionage Act violations, theft and computer fraud. She was acquitted of the most serious charge of aiding the enemy.
Manning, a former intelligence analyst in Iraq, has acknowledged leaking the materials, including more than 700,000 military and State Department documents, along with battlefield video. Manning said she wanted to expose what she considered to be the U.S. military’s disregard of the effects of war on civilians and that she released information that she didn’t believe would harm the U.S.
Critics said the leaks laid bare some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets and endangered information sources, prompting the State Department to help some of those people move to protect their safety. Several ambassadors were recalled, expelled or reassigned because of embarrassing disclosures.
President Barack Obama’s decision in January to commute Manning’s sentence to about seven years, including the time she spent locked up before being convicted, drew strong criticism from members of Congress and others, with Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan calling the move “just outrageous.”
On social media Wednesday, people either hailed her as a courageous hero or denounced her as a traitor.
Chase Strangio, one of Manning’s attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union, called her “a fierce advocate for justice.”
“We can all finally truly celebrate the strength and heroism she has shown in surviving and sharing her truth and life with all of us,” Strangio, who also is transgender, said in a statement that included Manning’s post-release comments. “Chelsea has emerged with grace, resilience, and an inspiring amount of love for others.”
Manning, who was arrested in 2010, filed a transgender rights lawsuit in prison and attempted suicide twice last year, according to her lawyers.
In a statement last week — her first public comments since Obama wiped away her remaining sentence — Manning thanked him and said letters of support from veterans and fellow transgender people inspired her “to work toward making life better for others.”
“For the first time, I can see a future for myself as Chelsea,” she said. “I can imagine surviving and living as the person who I am and can finally be in the outside world. Freedom used to be something that I dreamed of but never allowed myself to fully imagine.”
Her attorneys have said Manning was subjected to prison violence, and they argued the military mistreated her by requiring her to serve her sentence in an all-male lockup, restricting her physical and mental health care, and not allowing her to keep a feminine haircut.
The Department of Defence repeatedly has declined to discuss Manning’s treatment.
Manning will be on “excess leave” — meaning she is considered to be off-duty — while her court-martial conviction is under appellate review, an Army spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Jennifer Johnson, said.
Manning will be allowed to wear her preferred civilian clothing, including women’s attire, while on excess leave, Army spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said. She also is still legally entitled to military medical care and commissary privileges, according to the Army.
Manning remains subject to the military’s criminal code until her discharge from the Army and her excess leave status can be lifted if she is prosecuted for any violations, the Army said.
Department of Defence and Army policy also restricts political activities by all members of the armed forces, including Manning, until their service time is completed. Army regulations require that with any book or other publishable writings by Manning involving military matters, national security issues or subjects of significant concern to the Defence Department, Manning first must “consult with” a military public affairs office.
Pulse Films announced Wednesday at the Cannes Film Festival in France that Manning would be the focus of a documentary titled “XY Chelsea” and has granted filmmakers “unprecedented access.” It was not immediately clear how that would be affected by the Defence Department and Army restrictions.
The Army said that while Manning is being assigned to Oklahoma’s Fort Sill, she doesn’t need to report for duty there, meaning she has discretion about where she lives.
Associated Press reporters Robert Burns and Lolita Baldor in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.
Jim Suhr, The Associated Press