In February 2010 Chelsea Manning, a 22-year-old intelligence analyst in the US Army, sat down with a large mocha and accessed the free internet at a Barnes & Noble bookshop in Rockville, Maryland. She began to upload every incident report filed by the US military during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – close to three-quarters of a million documents in total. Manning had downloaded the files several weeks earlier, while serving in Iraq, and burned them on to a series of rewritable DVDs disguised to look like albums by Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. Then she transferred the files to the memory card in her digital camera. When she left the country, military customs did not blink.
Manning had spent months sifting vast quantities of classified information, email updates and video feeds of live conflict in Baghdad. She likens the intelligence operations centre where she worked to a trauma ward. “The United States’ formal promise to the Iraqi government about how our troops would treat the country and its citizens didn’t mean a thing,” she writes. Among the files was video evidence that appeared to show the deaths of civilians during US airstrikes, as well as attempts to cover up a CIA torture programme.
The files took all day to upload, since the connection often dropped. Manning considered hurling the memory card into a bin instead. Then, half an hour before the bookstore closed, the final tranche went through. The information spread, first through the then obscure website WikiLeaks, then via national newspapers including the Guardian (for which Manning later became a columnist). To some Manning was a hero; to others a treasonous spy. After she was caught, the government began, as she puts it, a campaign to “fully destroy” her. She was convicted of 19 charges, including six counts of espionage, and sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment – almost 20 times the previous record for any American whistleblower.
As well as these critical events, README.txt also covers Manning’s early life – and how the army appeared to offer an escape from a traumatising upbringing. But once there she was targeted by drill sergeants for her “slight, childish” appearance and subjected to homophobic insults. In this turbo-charged masculine environment, her struggles with gender identity (she would later come out as trans) became more pronounced: “[It was] less about being a woman trapped in a man’s body than about the innate incoherence between the person I felt myself to be and the one the world wanted me to be,” she writes.
In Iraq the bullying continued. After she witnessed the death of a colleague, Manning felt how “with enough grief, adrenaline and fear”, war can turn anyone “amoral, even malevolent”. She began to wrestle with two life-changing secrets: who she was, and what she saw.
At times, README.txt is vague; some sections have been blacked out, presumably on legal advice. Manning claims to have seen more than she ever disclosed, things she “will never reveal”. “I know this is annoying,” she writes. “But I have already faced serious consequences for sharing information I believe to be in the public interest; I am uninterested in facing them again.” Even so, what remains is a compelling, taut account of what she has experienced, and a persuasive justification of how she behaved.
At her trial, lawyers convinced Manning to issue a mea culpa: “I look back at my decisions and wonder how on earth could I … believe I could change the world for better over the decisions of those with the proper authority?” Today, her view has changed. “What I did,” she concludes, “was an act … of forcing progress.” In an age of digital communication, it is likely that today’s politicians and military leaders “lose” far more information than is ever logged in our national archives for future study. Manning’s efforts preserved a trove of evidence that one hopes will prompt corrective measures. Five years after President Obama commuted Manning’s sentence, history continues to vindicate her actions.
• README.txt by Chelsea Manning is published by Vintage (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply