On a gray morning this spring, Chelsea Manning climbed into the back seat of a black S.U.V. and directed her security guard to drive her to the nearest Starbucks. A storm was settling over Manhattan, and Manning was prepared for the weather, in chunky black Doc Martens with an umbrella and a form-fitting black dress. Her legs were bare, her eyes gray blue. She wore little makeup: a spot of eyeliner, a smudge of pink lip gloss.
At Starbucks, she ordered a white-chocolate mocha and retreated to a nearby stool. Manning has always been small (5 foot 4), but in her last few months at the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, she jogged religiously, outside in the prison yard and around the track of the prison gym, and her body had taken on a lithe sharpness, apparent in the definition of her arms and cheekbones. She looked healthy and fit, if a little uneasy, as people who have served long spells in prison often do.
She had been released only eight days earlier, after serving seven years of a 35-year sentence. Her crime, even in hindsight, was an astonishing one: handing WikiLeaks approximately 250,000 American diplomatic cables and roughly 480,000 Army reports from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Collectively the largest leak of classified records in American history, the disclosures cleared a path for Edward Snowden and elevated the profile of Julian Assange, then little known outside hacker circles. “Without Chelsea Manning,” P.J. Crowley, an assistant secretary of state from 2009 to 2011, told me recently, “Julian Assange is just another fringe actor who resents what he sees as American hegemonic hubris.” To an extraordinary extent, Manning’s actions, in the words of Denver Nicks, the author of a book on her case, represented the “beginning of the information age exploding upon itself”: a new era in which leaks were a weapon, data security was of paramount importance and privacy felt illusory.
In January 2017, after being locked up at five different facilities, in conditions a United Nations expert called “cruel” and “inhumane,” Manning had received a surprise commutation by President Barack Obama. Four months later, she was free, trying to adjust to life in a world she helped shape. Finishing her coffee, she fished her iPhone out of her purse and asked her security guard for a lift back to the apartment where she was staying while in Manhattan. The one-bedroom was furnished sparsely, with a wide glass table and a tan couch, opposite which Manning had set up an Xbox One video-game console. The art was of the anodyne motel variety — an old-masters-esque tableau, a canvas of a zebra standing in a forest. We were many floors up, suspended in the storm clouds, and through the window, I could see the spires of the skyscrapers on the other side of the Hudson River.
Read more at The New York Times Magazine.