President Barack Obama set a precedent with a fierce crackdown on whistle-blowers.
New York, US – Chelsea Manning is set to leave military prison this week.
The transgender whistle-blower is counting down the days to her release from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, on May 17. She will regain her liberty and the right, long denied, to grow her hair long.
In a statement, the 29-year-old said she will start “living as the person who I am”.
Manning will also rejoin a society that has swung right under President Donald Trump, who branded her an “ungrateful TRAITOR” in a tweet. America, it seems, is more hostile to whistle-blowers and transgender people now than when she was locked up seven years ago.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Manning’s lawyer and anti-secrecy activists lauded the detainee’s early release, but warned that returning to civilian life and coming to terms with her treatment at the hands of Pentagon lawyers will be a struggle.
Ann Wright, a retired US Army Reserve colonel and former state department staffer, who controversially resigned in protest against the invasion of Iraq in 2003, spoke of unyielding pressure on those who oppose the US government.
“There will be plenty of detractors who continue to berate her, call her a traitor and try every tactic to demean her and work on her psychologically,” Wright, now an anti-war activist, told Al Jazeera.
“If you do something like that, you will pay the rest of your life. There is virtually no whistle-blower who has come out of these things whole.”
Chase Strangio, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer (ACLU) for Manning, said his client wanted to put years of “drudgery and administrative violence” behind her. She needs time spent “healing and taking care of herself” back in Maryland, he added.
“She’s survived so many traumas and been physically removed from society for so long. But, at the same time as these risks, fears and concerns, there’s unbelievable hope and joy that finally she can celebrate her life outside prison,” Strangio told Al Jazeera.
Upon release, Manning will get access to more than $130,000 via thousands of small donations to a crowd-funding site. Manning will not sit for interviews, and will continue pushing for a more open government and LGBTQ rights, added ACLU’s Strangio.
There is ample evidence of hardship for anti-secrecy activists.
Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who downloaded thousands of files revealing mass public surveillance schemes and shared them with journalists, has ended up in Russia, where he was granted asylum.
Julian Assange, the founder of anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks, which published Manning’s documents, has been holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London since 2012, after taking shelter there to avoid extradition to Sweden over rape allegations, which he denies.
Whistle-blowing will not go away any time soon. Huge numbers of files can be easily copied to USB sticks in near-secrecy nowadays. A recent global ransomware attack, using a hacked and leaked US government-made spy code, amply demonstrated the reach of technology experts.
According to Peter Van Buren, a 24-year state department veteran, officials abuse their power and bully leakers to “scare people off”.
“Manning, along with Snowden and others who were prosecuted by [former president Barack] Obama’s administration, were designed as sacrifices,” Buren, who served in the same Iraqi base as Manning, told Al Jazeera.
“Their heads were put on sticks as a warning to other federal employees that the government would come after you and punish you well beyond what the law requires.”
Buren, who grew jaded with post-war reconstruction in Iraq and fell out acrimoniously with his bosses, lost his security clearance and faced other penalties from bosses for his criticism of reconstruction schemes, he says. In 2011, he published his warts-and-all account: “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People”.
Obama, a Democrat, declined to pardon Snowden. While Trump, a Republican, praised WikiLeaks for releasing emails between top Democrats during the 2016 election, his administration has since turned on Assange.
Last month, CIA Director Mike Pompeo called WikiLeaks a “hostile intelligence service” and denounced leakers that plague the US government. Attorney General Jeff Sessions later said arresting Assange was a “priority” for Washington.
“Obama went after whistle-blowers, the sources, themselves. If the Trump administration decides to prosecute Assange, that’s going up a notch, moving away from the primary source and after someone in the chain of journalism,” said Buren.
Matthew Hoh, a former state department official who served in Iraq and resigned from his post in Afghanistan in 2009 in protest at US policy there, said he feared the Trump administration would pay little heed to diplomatic niceties.
“We really have someone here who would violate the diplomatic standing of the Ecuadorian Embassy and send in the police to yank out Assange and drag him to a secret prison for ever,” Hoh told Al Jazeera. “We’re in a very dangerous place.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Amnesty International warns that leakers and rights campaigners take ever-greater risks nowadays. The UK-based rights group’s report, Human Rights Defenders Under Threat, found that some 281 activists were killed globally in 2016, up from 156 in 2015.
Salil Shetty, Amnesty’s secretary-general, praised the bravery of Manning and Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani education activist who was shot by a Taliban gunman in 2012, and others. He lauded “ordinary people who refused to accept the status quo and stood for what is right”.
Manning has served nearly seven years behind bars after being convicted of leaking more than 700,000 classified documents, videos, diplomatic cables and battlefield accounts to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks in 2010, the biggest such breach in US history.
Among those files was video footage of an Apache helicopter killing 12 civilians in Baghdad in 2007, along with sensitive US diplomatic cables, intelligence assessments of Guantanamo detainees being held without trial and files from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The disclosures embarrassed the US and hurt ties with allies, prompting Obama’s White House to crack down on leaks and prosecute more whistle-blowers than were tried under all of his predecessors’ administrations combined.
Manning, formerly known as US Army Private First Class Bradley Manning, said she leaked the files in the interests of transparency and accountability. She was jailed for 35 years in 2013 – the longest ever sentence for a US whistle-blower.
The former US Private was born male but revealed after being convicted of espionage that she identified as a woman. In jail, she described suffering in solitary confinement and being forced to keep short hair in line with the rules of an all-male lockup.
Last year, she twice attempted suicide and also went on a hunger strike, which she ended after the military agreed to provide her with transition treatment to assist her with gender-related stresses.
Her case became a focus of debate over state secrecy, transgender rights and mental health in prison.
Critics said Manning’s leaks hurt the US and exposed its global web of spies and informants to arrest and assassination.
But some 117,000 people petitioned the White House for her release. Obama granted Manning clemency in January, saying she had taken responsibility for her crime and her sentence was disproportionate to those received by other leakers.
Republicans criticised the commutation as a dangerous precedent. House Speaker Paul Ryan called it “outrageous”. Senator John McCain said the decision was “a grave mistake that I fear will encourage further acts of espionage”.
Anti-secrecy campaigners say Manning will continue to struggle with such critics. For Buren, disillusioned government and military staff who rebel against bosses must be prepared for emotional and financial upheaval.
“I liken it to a divorce,” Buren said.
“The worst that happened to me was I lost my job. But for people who went to prison, were driven into substance abuse, broken marriages or thoughts of taking their own life, they can’t ever get past it. I don’t think you can ever forgive the government for what they did to you.”
For Wright, there is a route back. Whistle-blowers always have a whistle to toot.
“People around the world want to hear from whistle-blowers and if Manning wants to speak, she will not have a moment to herself,” said Wright. “She has become an international figure on national security and transgender rights. Her voice will be very important.”
Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl