Seen as both hero and traitor, the US army analyst turned data activist talks about fitting into the world since her prison release
Sun 7 Oct 2018
Perhaps the most revealing part of my conversation with Chelsea Manning is what she doesn’t say. What she can’t or won’t talk about. It’s not that she doesn’t have a whole lot to say – she does, particularly about technology and how it can be used against us. Her job as an intelligence analyst for the US army, using data to profile enemy combatants – to be targeted and maybe killed – gave her an acute understanding of its potential uses and abuses. She understood the power of Facebook to profile and target long before the Cambridge Analytica scandal erupted. “Marketing or death by drone, it’s the same math,” she says. There’s no difference between the private sector and the military. “You could easily turn Facebook into that. You don’t have to change the programming, just the purpose of why you have the system.”
She understands this world; the overlap between military and civilian technologies that has caught us all in its dragnet. It’s her role in it that’s more opaque. She seems, still, at the beginning of a process of understanding what she did, what it all means, where she fits in. How in 2010, then aged 22 and presenting as male, she downloaded and leaked, via Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks, 750,000 classified and sensitive documents that revealed America’s secret diplomatic cables and Iraqi and Afghanistan war logs. How she was caught, court martialled and sentenced to 35 years in prison. And how, in one of Barack Obama’s last acts as president, she was suddenly and unexpectedly granted clemency last year and freed.
It’s a story that is as complex, complicated, conflicted and unresolved as perhaps Manning herself. The meaning, the significance, the consequences of what she did are not yet in any way settled or even stable. She was the hero who blew the whistle on the US’s relationship with the rest of the world and its hypocrisy. Or the traitor who committed crimes under the Espionage Act and betrayed her country. For some people, it’s both.
Because Manning was the techie who turned. Turned the technology against the country that had developed it, turned its foreign policy inside out, turned herself into Chelsea and – an unforeseen consequence – turned WikiLeaks from a fringe actor into a new force in global politics. Before Manning, Assange was a leaking organisation without a significant leaker.
Going to WikiLeaks was “instinctual”, she says. “I had this problem reaching out to the Washington Post. There was this lack of understanding about the dangers of [unencrypted] plain text communications at the time.” And she can’t or won’t reflect on what the organisation has become, if or how it’s changed over time and what role she played in ushering in an era of weaponised leaks that has led us to where we are now with Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump-Russian collusion, an investigation that encompasses WikiLeaks’ pivotal role in the US election.