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Chelsea Manning
Activist and whistleblower Chelsea Manning ahead of the publication of her new book, 'README.txt'Matt Barnes

An interview with Chelsea Manning: ‘We’re facing some very tough decades’

Following the publication of her new memoir, README.txt, the activist speaks to Dazed about her experiences in solitary confinement, the future of the internet, and whether humanity will survive the coming century

Chelsea Manning is an American hero. Chelsea Manning is a misguided idealist. Chelsea Manning is a dangerous traitor. Depending on who you ask and how much they know about her, she is a trans icon; an introverted loner; a good-time-gal who enjoys DJing at queer parties, or a symbol of just about any cause you could care to name: the peace movement, freedom of speech, direct action, radical transparency, anti-imperialism. Few figures in our lifetime have had so much meaning projected onto them, or been turned into such an abstraction. Denied a voice at the time she was under the most scrutiny, it was easy for her opponents to mould her into whatever suited their purposes, and even those who supported her often betrayed a misunderstanding of her character and motives. But with the publication of her new memoir, README.txt, Manning is finally defining herself on her own terms.

A former intelligence advisor for the US military, Manning is one of the most famous whistleblowers in American history. In 2010, she leaked hundreds of thousands of classified documents concerning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which brought to light civilian deaths and human rights violations on a staggering scale – following their publication, independent watchdogs estimated that the US military had killed around 10,000 more civilians than it had previously admitted. By way of punishment, she was demonised in the press; publicly denounced by both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and eventually imprisoned for seven years.

It’s difficult to overstate the cruelty with which she was treated. At the beginning of her incarceration, in Kuwait, she was locked in a steel cage in sweltering heat for 59 days. Upon her return to the US, she was kept in solitary confinement for a further 11 months, where she was woken every day at 5am and not allowed even to lean on anything until after 8pm – if she even sat down for a moment, she would immediately be ordered to stand back up. A UN report later concluded that she had been subjected to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of article 16 of the convention against torture”. After her conviction, she took the military to court – and carried out a five-day hunger strike – to demand her right to transition while in prison.

All of which makes for an appalling, inspiring and wildly compelling story. But rather than focusing solely on these events, README.txt offers a full and expansive account of Manning’s life, one which is often harrowing but funny and poignant too. In the early sections, she recounts her experiences growing up in Oklahoma with a physically abusive father and alcoholic mother; her early forays into gender experimentation when, at the age of five, she would sneak into her older sister’s room to try on her clothes; and later, the year she spent as a homeless drifter on the margins of Chicago’s queer scene. By taking this approach, the book provides an illuminating context for her decision to leak the documents: across a lifetime, we see her ideology taking shape, from her early interest in the free information and open source movements to her gradual but swift disillusionment with the US military.  

Prior to interviewing  Manning last week, I’d imagined that someone who had survived government torture might carry a trace of that with them – a kind of ashen, haunted quality. But Manning isn’t like that at all: she is disarmingly warm and vivacious, animated in discussion and generous with her time. In both her writing and in person, she bears no hint of self-pity or bitterness – emotions to which she would be profoundly entitled. We spoke about the Obama years, the future of social media, the ways that her ideology has shifted since her release from prison and the small matter of whether there exists any hope for the world.

README.txt is a memoir that encapsulates almost your entire life. Why did you decide to take that more expansive approach?

Chelsea Manning: From my perspective, that period of time was a very narrow snapshot. I have an all-encompassing life and it was really important to explain how I’ve come to be today. The only way I could do that was to tell the whole story – not just the events of 2010 to 2017, but my childhood, teenage years and my later development. Without that, I’m just some person who pops up out of a vacuum.

People wanted me to write a thriller-type story, but I didn’t have any interest in doing that – mostly because I’m not a fan of the genre. I am a fan of young adult fiction and I feel like that’s what my story is: it’s like a real-life young adult novel. I was only 22 when all this went down.

Throughout the book, the internet is portrayed as a source of community, consolation and freedom. How do you think it has changed in your lifetime? 

Chelsea Manning: Anonymity is no longer as easily available. If you are a nobody, then it may come from obscurity, but it’s not as easily attainable. There’s more of an electronic trail of your activities, there are more forms that you have you enter your details into, there are more businesses that are online, and there’s much more social media. These centralised platforms weren’t really a thing until later on in the early 2000s, with MySpace and the rise of algorithmic curation shaping the internet in a very different way than what I experienced.

“[My] real radicalisation didn’t really happen until I was in prison... I saw the evil and the pointlessness of it, and it always struck me that the inmates were the most stable and sane people there” – Chelsea Manning

At one point you write about the time you doxxed an evangelical far-right organisation. These days, you mostly hear about doxxing being used as a tool for evil – as a way of targeting trans people, for example. So I found it surprising to learn that there was also a culture of using it for progressive ends. Has that now been fully captured by the right?

Chelsea Manning: I don’t think so, but they’ve had the most resources, so they have the loudest voice. There’s an incentivisation for people to turn to the right: even if they don’t necessarily believe in these things, it’s a way of getting attention online. If there’s anything I’ve learned about right-wing online culture in the last five to six years, it’s that people want a reaction. I experienced this myself as a trollsy [sic] teenager: I was often lonely and I wanted a connection with someone. Even if that reaction was negative, it was at least a reaction.

When you have the social reinforcement of engaging with somebody, even in a negative way, you start to attach value to that. Today, that pattern of reinforcement sends you down a right-wing pipeline but in the early internet culture, it didn’t really seem political at all. The biggest political view that I encountered or cared about in the 2000s was that big companies shouldn’t have proprietary software or that downloading music shouldn’t be criminalised.

I found this book to be an incredibly damning indictment of both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. How do you feel about looking back on that administration now? I think what happened to you really undermines the way that liberals typically conceive of that time.

Chelsea Manning: I think it does. There was the espousing of certain values, but when push comes to shove, they were essentially just crystallising, continuing and even expanding upon the policies which are associated with the Bush administration. The war on terror was renamed, but they were still expanding it.

They were also glossing over the awful things that happened during the Bush administration. Obama had eight years to close Guantanamo Bay and ended up not doing that. It’s still open to this day, even though it has been long forgotten about. In this post-COVID, post-Trump era, I don’t hear anything in the media about it, despite the fact that there are still people there. Today, the US is still having to grapple with the fact that, after eight years of what was viewed as a progressive administration, the only long-lasting accomplishment was the restructuring of our privatised healthcare system. Obama’s progressive accomplishments, apart from a few proclamations by executive order, were almost entirely undone by the Trump administration within a short amount of time.

The chapters of the book which depict your period of solitary confinement are harrowing to read. What was it like recounting such a traumatic time?

Chelsea Manning: It was a very painful part of the book for me to write. But also, there’s surprisingly little to talk about. It took me several weeks to remember as many details as possible because it was such a monotonous and boring time – the monotony is the problem.

At the same time, there is hyper-awareness that comes with sensory deprivation over long periods of time. Something as simple as a guard walking would become this extremely recognisable thing, where I could tell who a person was based on their footfall from 50 metres away. The amount of detail that comes into play – drips coming through the wall or the air pressure changing throughout this building – becomes extremely granular. There was this cartoon drawing of an alien on the floor, and I looked at it every day. I remember that so vividly because it was what I saw for 300-odd days.

Since leaving prison, has your ideology changed at all? Is the commitment to transparency and freedom of information still a key belief for you?

Chelsea Manning: The environment has changed. While I still care about those things, they’re not as much of a problem anymore. We are now in the era of radical transparency.  Every single day we have access to an enormous amount of information – we’re drinking from a firehose. Often the bad actors are no longer even trying to hide the bad things that they’re doing. Instead, there are just conspiracy theories and five or six alternative versions of events. As opposed to transparency versus secrecy, today it’s more about misinformation and disinformation versus verifiable, accurate information. It’s about who is the arbiter, who is the filter, and how we determine these things.

When it comes to my political views, the real radicalisation didn’t really happen for me until I was in prison. I was just so taken aback by the experience of being incarcerated, and seeing this world that people on the outside don’t like to think about too much. I saw the evil and the pointlessness of it, and it always struck me that the inmates were the most stable and sane people there.

Would you say you’re a prison abolitionist now?

Chelsea Manning: Yeah, I am very sceptical of the way the American carceral system works, because I don’t understand the point of it – and I’m saying that as somebody who would have never questioned it otherwise.

“There’s a danger and a short sightedness in assuming that technology companies like Twitter, Apple and Meta are still going to have the same amount of power and influence in 20 years time. Their longevity is really called into question by the decline of social media in recent years” 

In terms of activism, what issues are you focusing on today?

Chelsea Manning: I focus a lot on ethics, technology and the pitfalls of various types of technology and machine-learning. I have a background in data science and I’m an advocate for encryption, trying to create enclaves of anonymity and different ways of being able to communicate. I also care a lot about labour issues and organising – I certainly consider myself an advocate and ally for unions, and people who are having workplace issues.

On that note, what do you make of what’s happened to Twitter in the last couple of months?

Chelsea Manning: Twitter is an interesting case, because it isn’t really known for being a revenue-generating company. So shareholders obviously had an interest in forcing Elon Musk to buy it. From a CEO perspective, he’s having to make some tough decisions in terms of pairing things down, because it’s bleeding money. He’s doing it in a very uncomfortable and reckless seeming way, but at the same time, if somebody had come in from a different industry, they would probably be making similar decisions.

Twitter has been viewed by some segments of society as a public square, but I don’t think it has that primacy, and I think that idea will be challenged over the next few months or years. Technology changes; it is temporary; you can’t depend on this stuff or view it as a reliable infrastructure. I think that there’s a danger and short-sightedness in assuming that technology companies like Twitter, Apple and Meta are still going to have the same amount of power and influence in 20 years’ time. Their longevity is really called into question by the decline of social media in recent years. Social media companies are essentially peaking: their user bases aren’t growing and they’re not expanding. They are built on continuous growth and use cycles, but they have run out of market share to penetrate.

I’ve seen that recently you’ve been out and about DJing at queer parties. After everything you went through, I’d like to know: are you having a good time?

CM: I am having fun, although I’m a bit overwhelmed at the moment because I’m trying to do too many things at once. Video-game streaming is something I’m hoping to return to now that the book tour is about to wind down.

Generally, I like to enjoy life and to invigorate myself with art, culture and having friends and a support network around me. I like queer spaces, and I like being in trans spaces in particular. I consider myself as one of the crowd. I don’t view myself as this iconic figure but I’m glad that I can do the things that I’ve always wanted to do.

A lot of the reporting at the time of your trial portrayed you as this strange, introverted figure. But from reading the book, it seems like going out and having fun has always been important to you.

Chelsea Manning: I’m an extrovert, I don’t know where the idea that I’m introverted has ever come from. If you’re around any of my friends, they’ll tell you, ‘Chelsea never shuts up.’

One of the most bizarre and frankly alienating things that I experienced was the notion, which the media latched onto, that I was a loner – somebody who was angry, obsessed or upset. That was just never who I was: I was bubbly, I was into pop culture, I liked parties, I was a clubber, I was really into music and I DJed. Reading those articles, I would think, ‘who is this person they’re talking about?’

The experiences you were subjected to were so terrible but at the same time your actions had a profound impact.  Would you do things any differently? Do you regret leaking the documents?

Chelsea Manning: No, I don’t usually think of it like that. Things happened very fast, based on decisions I made in a very narrow period of time. I don’t know how I would think or feel today if I had made different decisions – I would have to be a completely different person. One of the things that I’ve had to learn, especially through surviving imprisonment and being made houseless, is that you only ever have control over certain things – and the past is not one of them.

What, if anything, gives you hope for the world?

Chelsea Manning: It’s a tough question because I don’t have a lot of immediate optimism. I recognise that we have some big issues going on, whether it’s the climate; the rise of authoritarianism and the far right, particularly in the US and parts of Europe, or the normalisation of misinformation and disinformation. This deterioration is going to continue as the pressure from climate change continues to mount. It’s going to cause a lot of social upheaval, a lot of migrations, and a lot of different issues that are going to affect hundreds of millions of people. 

So it’s a very pessimistic outlook for the near term but broadly, I think that we’ll figure it out. We have gone through major crises before, and while we may have missed the boat on preventative measures,  I think that survival and recovery are within humanity’s capability. The ecology of the planet has also been through a lot in the last few billion years, so I think that it will be survivable. Hopefully, by the end of the century, and within my lifetime, things will start to turn around. But we’re facing some very tough decades. I would not be betting a lot of eggs in the basket of this generation experiencing the best of times, but I do think that this is something which can be overcome.

README.TXT by Chelsea Manning is out now