Chelsea Manning speaks from behind bars in new podcast

rainey 2023

Board President, Freedom of the Press Foundation

Amnesty International released a podcast with Chelsea Manning today. Listen here.

The words all belong to Chelsea, but you won’t hear her voice. She’s barred from recording interviews while in prison, a particularly challenging obstacle for a woman who has become a champion of free speech during her time behind bars. Amnesty used a voice actress to portray Chelsea’s story, and the result is a compelling, deeply human picture of one of the most influential whistleblowers of our generation.

Chelsea, who was sentenced to 35 years in prison for releasing documents to WikiLeaks, talks about her history – trouble with her family, her early interest in computers, and her decision to enlist in the military to serve her country. The podcast traces her life from early childhood to present day, providing intimate details of her life that haven’t been previously released.

Get Notified. Take Action.

Chelsea comes across as a person who faced great difficulties in her life, but was honed by these difficulties into a resourceful and deeply compassionate woman. She talks about how her time serving in Iraq made her keenly aware of the impact of U.S. engagements overseas:

These were real people living in real places. When we made mistakes planning operations, innocent people died. When we failed to see the small scale and the big picture as being connected, then our operations wouldn't flow very well and innocent people would get caught up in detention for weeks or years because of a minor mistake that we made.

Chelsea also details the brutality of her time in prison, including solitary confinement when she was first imprisoned, in conditions that have been condemned by experts worldwide as torture.

I lived in a small 8 by 6 feet cell - roughly 2.5 by 2 meters. I was in a cell-block with a bunch of other cells that were all empty. I was not allowed to talk to anyone else – even though there wasn't anybody near me. There were at least two Marines that watched me from behind a one-way reflective glass window at all times. I could see myself in the reflection of the window all day long. It was like a mirror right outside my cell.

I was not allowed to have anything in my cell that I wasn't actually using. I would turn in most of my clothes at night. If I wanted to use the toilet - I had to ask for toilet paper, and I would have to return it when I was done. It was the same with toothbrushes, books, and sometimes even my glasses. I was not allowed to lie down or sleep during the duty day from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m

The podcast includes details of how Chelsea’s legal team experienced her trial and sentencing, years of not quite fitting into the gender box she’d been assigned at birth, what her daily life is like today at Fort Leavenworth, and her continued struggle to be treated with dignity as a transgender woman serving time in a military prison.

Freedom of the Press Foundation is proud to join Amnesty International and other organizations around the world in calling for the release of Chelsea Manning.

Chelsea was charged under the Espionage Act – which has a maximum sentence of death – in order to send a message to future whistleblowers. During her trial, she was forbidden from discussing why she released documents to WikiLeaks or even what the ramifications of the leaks were on national security. We now know, with six years to look back, that the United States government has suffered no serious or lasting damage as a result of the disclosures. In fact, the American public has benefited tremendously from the journalism and public discussion that was instigated by the leaks. But Chelsea still faces decades in prison.

Whistleblowers like Chelsea are the final defense against a security state that has no meaningful oversight or limitations. These whistleblowers act as a fail-safe: when other systems break down, when courts fail to meaningfully restrain abuses and elected officials are either mislead or unwilling to deal directly with corruption or abuse, it is whistleblowers working with a view inside the system who have brought our government’s worst acts to the public’s attention. This was the case with Daniel Ellsberg, Thomas Drake, Edward Snowden, and many others. Rather than lock Chelsea behind bars, the U.S. government should recognize that whistleblowers are a symptom of a broken classification system, a federal government more interested in its image than its responsibility to govern, and the secrecy surrounding the human impact of America’s wars.

Freedom of the Press Foundation is proud to be fundraising to cover the costs of Chelsea Manning’s legal appeal. In 2013, Freedom of the Press Foundation published a leaked recording of Chelsea’s voice from her military trial. We also provided transcripts of her entire military trial. See the transcripts and read the story of how we pulled it off.

Donate to support press freedom

Your support is more important than ever.

Read more about Whistleblowers

11 years after Snowden revelations, government still expanding surveillance

New ‘spy draft law’ and ongoing retaliation against those who expose government secrets show there’s a long way to go in combating overreach

Assange decision should be wake-up call for US

America was once recognized as a leader in press rights. Now other countries question its commitment to the First Amendment

Five years after Assange’s UK imprisonment, his prosecution still threatens press freedom

Espionage Act charges against Assange would criminalize journalism, no matter how often the government calls him a hacker