The 39-minute video became known as Collateral Murder. In July 2007, two American Apache helicopters launched 30mm cannon fire at a group of Iraqi men in Al-Amin al-Thaniyah, New Baghdad. When US intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning first came across the file, it had been labelled, she tells us in this gripping memoir, as training material “for how to defend soldiers accused of rules-of-engagement violations – messy situations”.
This was something worse than a messy situation. “You can hear the American soldiers say that the group is shooting at them, though the visual evidence contradicts this,” writes Manning, recalling how she first saw the film on screen at her workstation at Forward Operating Base Hammer, near Baghdad. “What they’ve mistaken for an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] is in fact a Reuters’ photographer’s camera.” Seven men died outright, others were wounded, some fatally, in those first moments. Manning heard an officer gloat: “Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards.”
Then, as an injured man tries to crawl away, a van of Iraqis pulls up. “Good Samaritans trying to help,” writes Manning. A helicopter shoots again using shells that can pierce armour, hitting two children in the van. “Well, it’s their fault for bringing kids into a battle,” one soldier says.
Manning never does explain quite how this chronicle of murderous incompetence was supposed to work as a training video.
The intelligence analyst’s leak of this gunsight footage triggered her arrest, court martial and, in 2013, 35-year jail sentence. At the time of her 2010 arrest, she was a he – a gender dysphoric army intelligence officer called Bradley Manning (though Chelsea never uses what she calls that “deadname” in her book). She had disclosed in a chatroom to an online friend, the late hacker Adrian Lamo, that she had leaked not just the Collateral Murder video but also hundreds of thousands of sensitive US government documents to WikiLeaks. Those leaks followed discussions on an encrypted chat client called Jabber with an anonymous hacker whom Manning suggests was most likely Julian Assange or Daniel Schmitt. Many of these documents were later published in the Guardian, New York Times and Der Spiegel.
What Manning didn’t know at the time was that Lamo was reporting to the army’s Criminal Investigation Command, possibly because he cut a deal with the FBI to work as an informant. Lamo betrayed Manning, who was hauled back to the US and wound up in jail awaiting trial, often in solitary confinement, in circumstances that critics charged amounted to torture and prompted Manning to twice attempt to kill herself.
The most serious offence she was charged with was aiding the enemy. US politicians made hay from this unproven, indeed outrageous claim. “There is nothing laudable about endangering innocent people,” said then secretary of state Hillary Clinton, “and there is nothing brave about sabotaging the peaceful relations on which our common security depends.” Many of the leaked documents showed US officials disparaging ostensibly friendly nations, though the leaks were never shown to have endangered anyone nor undermine US relations with any country.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee simply said Manning should be executed for what she did. She wasn’t: her sentence was commuted in 2017 by Barack Obama in one of his last presidential gestures. The ex-president emerges as a dubious figure. “My revelations brought to light Obama’s use of drone strikes in Yemen and the increasing restriction of the press’s access to information,” says Manning. One question remains. She never found out why he saw fit to overturn the sentence.
After jail she went on to stand for the Senate, became a transparency activist and Guardian columnist, and now lives in Brooklyn, working as a security consultant and data science expert.
Manning has also written this book, which reveals her as a doughty soul with the right stuff. It takes extraordinary qualities to do some of the things she recounts in this book – fighting prison transphobes, returning to mental health after several attempts to kill herself, but most of all taking on the US establishment on two fronts. Manning fought for her right to have hormone treatment while in jail at the same time as preparing her case against being convicted as a traitor.
“What I did during my enlistment was an act of rebellion, of resistance, and of civic disobedience,” she writes. She felt it her duty to reveal to Americans “how our conduct abroad stood in stark contrast to our own stated principles”.
I’ve never quite understood why Manning enlisted or why the army saw fit to put a potentially high-risk person with a burgeoning hacker sensibility on the front line of, if not battle, then the intelligence war.
Her early Oklahoma years helps explain why she joined up at least. “My childhood,” she writes, “now feels like it was lived under rigid cis gender sensibilities.” Almost comically so. Dad banned his son from watching his favourite movie, The Little Mermaid, and filled his room with military toys. Little Bradley put sister Casey’s hand-me-down Barbies in GI Joe uniforms and sent them on missions.
Chelsea’s father was a rental car firm’s IT manager and from him, most likely, she inherited technological skills. It’s easy also to infer that Manning sublimated gender dysphoria into online self-reinvention, not least self-immersion in the geeky hacker community, with its virtuosic coding, anonymity and antinomian vibe.
To impress Dad, though, and to escape a life of sofa surfing and dead-end jobs, Manning enlisted in 2007. She benefited from the military’s then policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell”, or what should be known as “don’t ask, don’t tell (yeah, right, ’cause that’s gonna work)” policy.
Like a trans hacker GI Jane, she was made into a soldier. Her head was shaved and her body got jacked thanks to remedial fitness exercises. But she was not destined to go into battle: her aptitude for computer-based intelligence work was detected early in training and she was sent to work in Iraq where, fatefully for the US army’s reputation, she was given access to SIPRNet (Secret Internet Protocol Router Network) and JWICS (Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System).
The rest is history, a history Manning tells tersely and, towards the end, elliptically. There’s only one page on her life after jail, though from becoming a trans woman to getting shot by Annie Leibovitz in her swimsuit and running for Senate, it has been packed with incident. Against the odds and against a great deal of prejudice, Chelsea Manning has become a new kind of American heroine.
• README.txt by Chelsea Manning is published by Bodley Head (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply