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Web Bonus: Chelsea Manning on Fighting for Trans Rights, Dismantling the Prison System & More

Web ExclusiveMarch 27, 2018
Media Options

Extended interview with freed Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who is now running for U.S. Senate in Maryland. Manning spent seven years in military prison for leaking a trove of documents about the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Related Story

StoryMar 27, 2018“We Cannot Wait for Change”—Freed Whistleblower Chelsea Manning on Iraq, Prison & Running for Senate
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Amy Goodman, with Juan González, with Part 2 of our exclusive conversation with Chelsea Manning, Army whistleblower, transgender activist, spent seven years in military prison after leaking a trove of documents about Iraq and the Afghan wars and the State Department to WikiLeaks in 2010, now running for the U.S. Senate in Maryland. The primary is in June.

I want to turn to some of the establishment today and what they had to say about you. This is in the midst of you being held in solitary confinement. I want to turn to John Bolton, who the president has named to be his next national security adviser. He was interviewed about your case in the 2012 BBC film WikiLeaks: The Secret Life of a Superpower.

RICHARD BILTON: What do you think of Bradley Manning?

JOHN BOLTON: I think he committed treason. I think he should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

RICHARD BILTON: What does that mean?

JOHN BOLTON: Well, treason is the only crime defined by our Constitution, and it says treason shall consist only of levying war against the United States or adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. And he gave our enemies a lot of aid and comfort.

RICHARD BILTON: So what should happen to him?

JOHN BOLTON: Well, he should be prosecuted. And if he’s found guilty, he should be punished to the fullest extent possible.

RICHARD BILTON: And what is that?


RICHARD BILTON: You think he should be killed.


AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that Manning should be killed? “Yes,” Bolton says. He is going to be the next national security adviser for President Trump. April 9th, he apparently takes the position.

CHELSEA MANNING: I mean, is there a question with that?

AMY GOODMAN: How do you feel about that? Do you feel threatened?

CHELSEA MANNING: No. I mean, well, yes, I feel threatened, but as any other person should feel threatened. You know, are these positions surprising? No. You know, anybody who challenges these people, anybody who challenges their power, is a threat to them. And so, yeah, they’re going to go after people, and they’re going to say that everybody deserves the death penalty. I mean, it’s going to be this expanding, broadening net, you know. John Bolton, as U.N. ambassador, bolstered the neoconservative movement in building, you know, the—this was during the time of the CIA and expanding into torture. Like, they’re trying to cover themselves up, and they’re trying to protect themselves, and they’re trying to—of course they’re going to—they’re going to claim that anybody who challenges them is a traitor. Everybody who goes against them is against, you know, the state. And anybody who’s against them is worthy of, you know, going away.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to Vice President Pence, just last year, describing you as a traitor on Fox News.

VICE PRESIDENT-ELECT MIKE PENCE: Private Manning is a traitor and should not have been turned into a martyr, as Senator Cotton said. Private Manning’s actions compromised our national security, endangered American personnel down range, compromised—compromised individuals in Afghanistan who were cooperating with our forces, by leaking 750,000 documents to WikiLeaks.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to Vice President Pence?

CHELSEA MANNING: I mean, this is surprising? I mean, these are—again, I’m challenging these people. These people need to be challenged. And these are—they just say these words. At the end of the day, they just keep saying these things, about all kinds of people. You know, words like—words like “hero,” words like “traitor” have lost their meaning. You know, everybody is a traitor in this world—you know, James Comey, Hillary Clinton, you know, Donald Trump, like everybody. It gets to the point where, you know, it’s almost—it’s almost like it’s not about—like anybody who I disagree with becomes this label. And that’s the problem with the establishment, is that anybody who’s not the establishment is a threat and has violated this or violated that, you know, whether it’s immigrants, whether it’s the impoverished, whether it’s—you know, whether it’s—just so many of the most vulnerable people are getting called all kinds of different words—”criminals,” “illegals.” You know, like this is the language of power. So, is it surprising that the language of power would be used against somebody who actually challenges it?

AMY GOODMAN: Chelsea, one of the issues that we’ve covered for years, when you were in prison, was your battle against the prison authorities around their treatment of you as a trans woman. Talk about what happened, how they treated you and the whole issue of healthcare for trans prisoners around the country.

CHELSEA MANNING: Right. So, systems, like prison and the military and police, treat trans people—I mean, governments do this as a whole. They treat us as an administrative problem, to be solved somehow. And it’s at the whim of some—you know, usually some authority or some legal position that we have our entire lives be policed. You know, there’s what uniforms you wear, what type of clothing you have access to, how much healthcare you get. And these are all determinations that are being made arbitrarily, whether it’s, you know, giving us healthcare and telling us which types of healthcare are available or, you know, what that is. So, the problem is, is that these are systemic problems.

And one of the more deeper systemic problems is the fact that trans people are disproportionately imprisoned. You know, we’re one of the most targeted groups, usually for petty offenses, like sex worker-related offenses and just the—we’re policed based on gender and how we look and how we act—you know, the walking while trans, if you will. And we need to stop—like that needs to be more of a focus, is: Why do we have so many trans people in our prison system? Why do we have so many people who are trans in jail? And, you know, why don’t we focus on dismantling the prison system, that is—in which we’re placed in these situations?

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain your own experience, what you were fighting for? You were held in an all-male prison. Is that right? At Fort Leavenworth.

CHELSEA MANNING: Right. And most trans people are held in one of—that differs from their true gender.

AMY GOODMAN: You were fighting for hormone therapy. Talk about that battle and ultimately winning it.

CHELSEA MANNING: I mean, well, I barely won it. You know, I got access to hormones. But, I mean, it was arbitrary. It was based on some signature, you know, and only after a major lawsuit. You know, it wasn’t really a victory, in the sense of, you know, I get access to something, but I had to fight for it. I had to fight tooth and nail for it. And so many people still have to fight to get just basic access, basic access to healthcare, especially in prison.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the clothes you were forced to wear in prison, and also the length of your hair, and why this mattered so much to you?

CHELSEA MANNING: Well, because, I mean, I couldn’t grow my hair. So, I’ve always wanted to grow out my—I’ve always wanted to grow out my hair. It’s always been shortly cropped, but I was kept at a military standard. But it was also the notion of like an institution telling me, “Hey”—you know, because it was like this notion of like, “Yeah, we know you’re pretending to be a woman. So we’re giving you some things, because we’re legally required to do so. But we’re going to make it—we’re going to do everything that we can, in other regards, to make sure that you’re not treated as who you actually are.” So, it’s this notion of value. Like I value who I am, and I value my identity, and as all of us should. And we should be able to defend ourselves and fight back. And that was what drove me, day to day, while I was in these circumstances, and, you know, the clothing and whatever.

But yeah, like, you know, and a lot of this is stuff in the past for me. You know, a lot of this is things that—where I’ve come from. But, you know, I’m more focused on what—I’m more focused on what’s facing us today—


CHELSEA MANNING: —what we’re facing right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, certainly, that would be something that trans prisoners are faced with and that you—


AMY GOODMAN: —would, hopefully, make a difference in, if you became senator of the United States.

CHELSEA MANNING: I mean, I’m hoping to get trans people out of prison. That’s the objective. It’s not about making conditions better. It’s not about making more or better prisons. It’s about making—closing them down and releasing people. So, we should be releasing trans prisoners.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You’ve talked about you looking to get criminal justice reform, anti-military—

CHELSEA MANNING: Not reform, dismantling the criminal—we need to restructure and dismantle the criminal justice system.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Dismantling the criminal justice system and ending the military involvements around the world, and also immigration. Could you talk about some of the other issues that you would consider—you’d want the voters to consider when they vote for you?

CHELSEA MANNING: Healthcare. We need to have basic access to healthcare for everyone. And we shouldn’t have our healthcare policed by the state, either. You know, we’ve seen this in—we’ve seen people like go, who are free to go to hospitals, because of who they are or what their background is or what their legal status is. So, we need to remove—we need to provide healthcare for everybody. It should be free. It should be accessible. It should be—and there should be a doctor-patient relationship that is unaffected by—you know, the state should not be intervening into the—you know, into who you are and why. You know, you should just be getting access.

AMY GOODMAN: Healthcare for all.

CHELSEA MANNING: Healthcare for all, but unconditionally. It’s not—you don’t have to fill out forms or get—or have the state police you based on—you know, like you should feel safe to go to a hospital or to get healthcare.

AMY GOODMAN: Your comments on the current #MeToo movement in this country, what it has meant. Does it give you strength, just the organizing of people?

CHELSEA MANNING: Well, you know, it’s a large movement that has a diaspora of people that have different positions. I’m more focused on getting solidarity among people that’s not necessarily based on a particular issue. I believe that the way in which we can fight back against these institutions of power is to focus on the institutions of power, not focusing on the symptoms, if you will. We need to deal with the systemic problems that underlie why—you know, like it’s—why are people that do these things being placed in these positions in the first place? Why do we have a system and a structure that placed them there and allowed them to fester for years? And it’s—and why are they continuing to be able to defend themselves, you know, whenever there’s overwhelming evidence that these things are happening. And so, you know, the systems of accountability are not working. And certainly, you know, we can’t depend on government to do that and the court system to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you abolish the NSA? Your state, Maryland, the state you’d represent as senator, represents the largest intelligence agency in the world—


AMY GOODMAN: —far, far larger, for example, than the CIA—the National Security Agency, where you were actually court-martialed.

CHELSEA MANNING: Right. You know, and the National Security Agency collects an enormous amount of data and information. But it’s more of these policing agencies that I’m focused on. You know, ICE is—ICE has more law enforcement power than any other federal law enforcement agency. And it’s only a matter of time. And we’ve already seen people who are assisting, you know, people crossing the border and assisting people that, you know, be arrested and charged with federal offenses. They’re going to expand the net of their federal law enforcement powers over the next few years. They’ve already said that they’re going to do this. ICE didn’t exist 15—or ICE didn’t exist 18 years ago. It’s a brand-new institution. It didn’t exist whenever I was a teenager. It should go away. We don’t need ICE. We don’t need a lot of these gigantic, you know, police agencies that are singularly focused on deporting people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you—it’s been a year and three months now since President Trump was inaugurated. You were arrested, tortured, and then, eventually, had your sentence commuted under President Obama. And now we have President Trump. I’m wondering how you see how the country has changed since Trump came into office, and what your candidacy would represent in terms of a resistance to that.

CHELSEA MANNING: Right. You know, we often personalize—you know, administrations allow us to personalize these systemic problems. Oh, it’s Bush, it’s Obama, it’s Trump. These are systemic problems that both political parties that are in power have bolstered and maintained—you know, the whirling death machine, if you will, of power. And, you know, it’s always about tweaking. It’s always about like either being aggressive with it or having a more law-and-process approach. Whenever the real—the real problem is that none of these systemic problems ever get addressed, because of the entrenchment of the establishment.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But yet, you’re running in the Democratic primary, right?


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Against Ben Cardin.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We should primary. You know, Ben Cardin is an establishment Dem. He’s an establishment Democrat. He’s been doing that—you know, he’s been in Maryland politics for 40 years. All these problems have been built over more than—even more than 40 years. So, we need to start pushing back against these people. We need to start pushing back against the establishment. The establishment and the systemic problems need to be addressed.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your activism around anti-fascism, and also how you’re going to conduct your campaign? The primary is coming up soon. It’s in June. What are you going to do to run throughout Maryland to get your name out there and your positions out there, throughout the state? Not that your name isn’t known, but as a senator for Maryland.

CHELSEA MANNING: So, yeah, so I’ve been—I’ve been, you know, meeting with activists and organizers locally. I’ve been more on a listening tour, because I want to hear their—what they have to say, what their positions are, what the concerns are, and—before I started to publicly, you know, like roll out there. Obviously, you have to file pretty early in the Maryland primary. So, a lot of the work is going to come over the next few months. And being on this program is a part of that. So, I would say that my activism and who—and like how I’m running are hand in hand. I mean, I’m running as an activist. Like this is—like, I’m not running to have a career as a senator. I’m here as a continuation of my career as an activist who pushes against these systemic problems and these systemic structures. You know, I’m not willing to get entrenched into the circle of lobbying and the network of, you know, revolving-door politics.

I mean, I’ve already been excluded. You know, the language that they use excludes me, by default. You know, the I’m not—you know, I’m inexperienced, or I’m—you know, think about that for a second, inexperienced. Like what—like Ben Cardin has been in politics, Maryland politics, for 40 years. He’s been behind a desk that whole time. What experience can he bring to the table? I mean, I have life experience. I’ve been out there. I’ve been homeless. I’ve been to prison. I’ve been to war. These are what I consider experience. So, we need to start pushing back. And the way we do that is by focusing on the systemic problems, like the criminal justice system, immigration and healthcare.

AMY GOODMAN: What would you do with the prisons of the United States?

CHELSEA MANNING: We need to start closing them. We need to start closing prisoners—we need to start releasing prisoners and then closing prisons down. No more of—we should put a moratorium on construction, first off, and then start closing prisons.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of immigration, what would you do?

CHELSEA MANNING: Abolish ICE. Abolish the CBP.

AMY GOODMAN: And our borders?

CHELSEA MANNING: I mean, borders are imaginary lines. They’re something that we draw, you know, through the middle of a desert. We invented the border. It wasn’t there previously. People should be able to move freely about the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you specifically, as, you know, an intelligence expert, when you heard about Cambridge Analytica—now, the FTC, for example, the Federal Trade Commission, is investigating Facebook—when you heard about Cambridge Analytica, what, gathering information on millions of Americans without their knowledge, like 50 million Americans, your thoughts?

CHELSEA MANNING: It’s unsurprising. The corporate world has become an extension of the surveillance state. But it’s become this private interest surveillance state, where if you have enough money, you can learn as much about these people as possible. And their mission, of course, has been to—I mean, brazenly—manipulate people. I mean, now, how well they do that is, I guess, going to be the focus on the investigation. But that’s their stated goal. Is it surprising that they’re under investigated—that they’re under investigation for doing what they claim to do?

AMY GOODMAN: What was your response to Pence saying you endangered people, you know, presumably referring to the redacting of names in the documents that came out in WikiLeaks?

CHELSEA MANNING: I mean, the government’s been using all of this rhetoric for seven years. And for three-and-a-half years, they said it, and then they went—they had to deal with a courtroom, and they couldn’t bring—they couldn’t bring a shred of evidence to the courtroom. Instead, they merely said, “Oh, could have.” It was all hypotheticals. So, these are just talking points. They’re just hot air. It’s been continuing.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read from BuzzFeed. “In the seven years since WikiLeaks published the largest leak of classified documents in history, the federal government has said they caused enormous damage to national security. But a secret, 107-page report, prepared by a Department of Defense task force and newly obtained by BuzzFeed News, tells a starkly different story: It says the disclosures were largely insignificant and did not cause any real harm to US interests.” Chelsea Manning?

CHELSEA MANNING: I mean, that’s what we’ve been saying this whole time. You know, they agreed with us. But instead, during the trial, they said “could have.” It was all about maybe. You know, what crime is it where you could have? You know, if I threw this rock, I could have broken a window. You know, and, of course it wasn’t going to cause any damage.

And the whole notion of national security, it’s a word that gets—it’s a phrase that gets used a lot in politics. But do you know what the definition of “national security” is? The definition of “national security” is that—anything of and relating to the national defense, meaning the military, or foreign relations, meaning the State Department. Anything can be construed as being national security. Those are—that’s an incredibly broad definition. And “interests” is—what is “interests”? Interests is whatever they want. So, if it’s whatever these institutions want, and it’s against their interests, which is against our interests, as people, then it’s a threat to national security. So, in a sense, everyone who goes against them is a threat to national security.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m wondering—subsequent to your revelations, there was the revelations of Edward Snowden, the enormous impact it had on the American public in terms of understanding the surveillance state. Your advice to other people who are in network securities in other parts of the world in terms of potentially being whistleblowers, and the importance of being a whistleblower—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —when you believe that something is unjust or is wrong, that an institution that they’re associated with is committing? What would be your advice to potential whistleblowers?

CHELSEA MANNING: You know, you’re in a better position to understand what the issue is and what you have to do. I can’t give people specific advice. What I can say is that there’s a lot of—and a lot of people in government and a lot of people in these positions already know that there are no safe channels to go through. Like we’ve had—you know, like I have a friend of mine, you know, Jesselyn Radack, who’s been on this show a lot, who has defended people, who have gone through the proper channels, from prosecution and from being targeted. The Insider Threat Program, whenever you—whenever you raise a concern, you are automatically listed under the Insider Threat Program as a potential threat, and placed under surveillance, under electronic surveillance or surveillance by your supervisors. That said, there are no safe channels. You have to make a decision as to what to do. And that’s my advice.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you concerned you’re being surveilled, monitored today?


AMY GOODMAN: You any more than anyone else?

CHELSEA MANNING: I mean, it depends on the focus or the day. But, I mean, that goes for all of us.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Michael Ratner, the late Michael Ratner, one of the founders of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who appeared on Democracy Now! in 2013, shortly after attending part of your court-martial, when you accepted responsibility for leaking information when leaking documents to WikiLeaks.

MICHAEL RATNER: It was one of the more moving days I’ve ever spent in a courtroom. You’ve heard from Bradley Manning once before, which was when he testified about the torture that happened to him. I was crying through that. This was amazing. I mean, he actually didn’t stand; he sat at the defense table. And he read his 35-page statement, which, sadly, we do not have a copy of, even though there’s nothing classified about that statement. And hopefully we’ll get it, because that is something that should be taught in every school in America.

He went through each of the releases that he took responsibility for, that you mentioned on the air, and he told us why he did it. And in each case, you saw a 22-year-old, a 23-year-old, a person of incredible conscience, saying, “What I’m seeing the United States do is utterly wrong. It’s immoral. The way they’re killing people in Iraq, targeting people for death, rather than working with the population, this is wrong.” And in each of these—each of these statements tells you about how he was doing it politically.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the late Michael Ratner, one of the founding attorneys of the Center for Constitutional Rights, in 2013, coming from your trial and coming on Democracy Now! the next day. Your thoughts on what Michael said? And would you do this again, if you had the chance?

CHELSEA MANNING: Look, I can’t go back and change history. I can’t reflect on every single moment that I’ve gone through my entire life. And I reflect a lot on all kinds of decisions throughout my life, mostly to do with relationships that I’ve had and jobs that I’ve held in the past and decisions that I’ve made, especially in regards to college. Should I have stayed in college? Should I have stayed at Starbuck’s?

That said, this couldn’t have happened any other way. It happened because of who I am and the values that I have and the time that I had and the means, the technology, that was available. And also, it almost didn’t happen. You know, I tried to—I tried to reach out through conventional journalists, if you will. And, you know, the technical complexities, they just couldn’t work around.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, wait for one second. Could you explain exactly what you did, for people who aren’t familiar with your course? When you were in Iraq, you got a hold of these documents. You saw what you described as the horror documented in the government’s own pages, and wanting to get it out, coming back to the United States. It wasn’t WikiLeaks you went to first.

CHELSEA MANNING: Right. Of course not. I mean, you know, they weren’t a thing yet. There weren’t a name. And, I mean, like I ran out of time. I didn’t have a whole lot of time. I had about 12 days, and three of those days were taken out by a snowstorm.

AMY GOODMAN: Before you were going back to Iraq.


AMY GOODMAN: So you turned to The New York Times. You tried to reach out to them.

CHELSEA MANNING: Well, I reached out to The Washington Post first.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did you—

CHELSEA MANNING: But, I mean, this is—a lot of information, I’m saving for my book. So…

AMY GOODMAN: So, The Washington Post, you called them?

CHELSEA MANNING: I’m saving a lot of these details for the book. But, yes, I did reach out to The Washington Post.

AMY GOODMAN: And they didn’t want the documents, or they did?

CHELSEA MANNING: I mean, it’s technology. Technology is the problem. You know, SecureDrop is something that came out of all of this. It’s now possible to reach out to The Washington Post and use these tools. They weren’t—they had—there’s a lot of detail, and I’m saving a lot of this for the book.

AMY GOODMAN: But they couldn’t do it. They—

CHELSEA MANNING: Yeah. It’s a mostly technical problem, you know, technical problems and sort of an understanding. Like journalists didn’t really have an understanding as to the technical problems of the time.

AMY GOODMAN: Why you couldn’t just send it to them—


AMY GOODMAN: —by regular email.


AMY GOODMAN: Why Washington Post, did you go to?

CHELSEA MANNING: All the President’s Men.

AMY GOODMAN: Exposing Watergate.

CHELSEA MANNING: Well, that was my reference, was a movie. So…

AMY GOODMAN: And why The New York Times? And what did they say?

CHELSEA MANNING: New York Times because it’s a big name. Same thing, technical problems. I mean, I’m not going to—I’m saving a lot of that for the book.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, WikiLeaks, which wasn’t very well known at the time, what, had released Sarah Palin’s email or something.

CHELSEA MANNING: Right, but they knew the—I mean, the key here—I mean, it wasn’t just—you know, there was a number of people associated with the organization then. And it was very small. But, I mean, they had the technical means. They had all of the technology, and they understood it. So, it was just—and I ran out of time. You know, I ran out of time. I had to go back. And I—

AMY GOODMAN: And, ultimately, they would, The New York Times, is that right? And The Washington Post would publish some of the documents that you had procured in Iraq.

CHELSEA MANNING: Right. I mean, is this surprising?

AMY GOODMAN: If you were a senator of the United States, and even as not as senator of the United States, as an activist, what are you pushing for when it comes to the military?

CHELSEA MANNING: We spend 600—we spend almost $600 billion a year on our defense budget. And there’s various other portions that go into the paramilitary portions of our government. We need to spend this money somewhere else. It needs to be—you know, we have other issues. We don’t need to have 800 bases all across the world. We don’t need to have the—we already have the largest system in the world. We don’t need more. And they’re always asking for more. Isn’t that funny? Like, it’s already the largest. We’re already spending $600 billion a year. And yet, you know, it’s on boondoggle projects, like the F-35, you know? We’re going to stop that. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that defense funding bills for more stuff don’t happen.

AMY GOODMAN: What gives you hope, as we wrap up this interview?

CHELSEA MANNING: What gives me hope is the people I have to my left and right, the people that I’m in solidarity with, when I’m—especially when I’m doing activism, and especially whenever I’m in these meetings, the people who have been with me this whole time, the people who are fighting with me and the people that I know will be by my side, whatever happens.

AMY GOODMAN: Chelsea Manning, thanks so much—


AMY GOODMAN: —for joining us. Chelsea Manning, Army whistleblower, transgender activist, spent seven years in the military, after—in a military prison, after leaking documents about the Iraq and Afghan wars and the State Department to WikiLeaks in 2010, now running for the U.S. Senate in Maryland. The primary is in June. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, the whole broadcast of Democracy Now! today, you can go to democracynow.org. Thanks so much for joining us.

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“We Cannot Wait for Change”—Freed Whistleblower Chelsea Manning on Iraq, Prison & Running for Senate

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