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Reprinted from theintercept.com
EVER SINCE Chelsea Manning was revealed as the whistleblower responsible for one of the most important journalistic archives in history, her heroism has been manifest. She was the classic leaker of conscience, someone who went at the age of 20 to fight in the Iraq War believing it was noble, only to discover the dark reality not only of that war but of the U.S. government's actions in the world generally: war crimes, indiscriminate slaughter, complicity with high-level official corruption, and systematic deceit of the public.
In the face of those discoveries, she knowingly risked her own liberty to disclose documents to the world that would reveal the truth, with no expectation of benefit to herself. As someone who has spent years touting the nobility of her actions, my defenses of her always early on centered on the vital nature of the material she revealed and the right of the public to know about it.
It is genuinely hard to overstate the significance of those revelations: Aside from exposing some of the most visceral footage of indiscriminate slaughter by the U.S. military seen in decades, the leaks were credited -- even by harsh WikiLeaks skeptics such as New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller -- with helping to spark the Arab Spring. Even more significantly, revelations about how the U.S. military executed Iraqi civilians, then called in a bombing raid to cover up what they did, prevented the Iraqi government from granting the Obama administration the troop immunity it was seeking in order to extend the war in Iraq.
Though Manning's case has been somewhat colored by the changing perceptions over time of WikiLeaks, she actually first attempted to contact traditional media outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Politico with her revelations, only to be thwarted by a failure to get their attention. In the online chats that she had with a deceitful individual who thereafter became a government informant and turned her in, she said her motive in leaking was solely to trigger "worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms," adding: "I want people to see the truth " regardless of who they are " because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public."
In the wake of these disclosures, the U.S government -- as it reflexively does -- claimed that the release of the documents would endanger lives, and that those responsible for publishing the leaks had "blood on their hands." But subsequent investigations by the AP and McClatchy found those accusations utterly unfounded, and ultimately, even Defense Secretary Robert Gates ridiculed the hysteria driving the government's claims about the leak's harms as "significantly overwrought."
In sum, though Manning was largely scorned and rejected in most mainstream Washington circles, she did everything one wants a whistleblower to do: tried to ensure that the public learns of concealed corruption and criminality, with the intent of fostering debate and empowering the citizenry with knowledge that should never have been concealed from them. And she did it all knowing that she was risking prison to do so, but followed the dictates of her conscience rather than her self-interest.
BUT AS COURAGEOUS as that original whistleblowing was, Manning's heroism has only multiplied since then, become more multifaceted and consequential. As a result, she has inspired countless people around the world. At this point, one could almost say that her 2010 leaking to WikiLeaks has faded into the background when assessing her true impact as a human being. Her bravery and sense of conviction wasn't a one-time outburst: It was the sustained basis for her last seven years of imprisonment that she somehow filled with purpose, dignity, and inspiration.
The overarching fact of Manning's imprisonment was its enduring harshness. In 2010, during the first months of her detention in a U.S. Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia, I began hearing reports from her handful of approved visitors about the vindictive and abusive conditions of her confinement: prolonged solitary confinement, being kept in her cell alone for virtually the entire day, gratuitous, ubiquitous surveillance, and worse. When I called the brig to investigate these claims, I was startled when a brig official confirmed to me, in the most blase' tones, their accuracy.
That enabled me to report for the first time that Manning was being imprisoned "under conditions that constitute cruel and inhumane treatment and, by the standards of many nations, even torture." That report sparked a major controversy, ultimately culminating in the resignation of President Obama's State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley, after he denounced the treatment of Manning as "ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid on the part of the Department of Defense."
But that turned out to be only the beginning of the abuse she endured. Several months after my report, the New York Times reported that Manning was being subjected to deliberately humiliating rituals in which she "was stripped and left naked" in her cell "for seven hours," and "required to stand naked" outside her cell during inspection. It was back then, in 2011, that the first report of Manning's suicidal thoughts surfaced. Amnesty International denounced her detention conditions as a "breach of the USA's obligations under international standards and treaties," and ultimately called for protests to demand a cessation of the abuse.
It was nonetheless difficult to generate large amounts of public or journalistic support for Manning: Many on the right long viewed leakers as traitors and thus took glee in her suffering, while many liberals loyal to Obama literally mocked the abuse Manning endured. But ultimately, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture investigated the conditions of Manning's imprisonment and concluded in 2012 "that the U.S. military was at least culpable of cruel and inhumane treatment," and "that imposing seriously punitive conditions of detention on someone who has not been found guilty of any crime is a violation of his right to physical and psychological integrity as well as of his presumption of innocence."