Chelsea Manning, the former Army intelligence analyst and whistleblower who was convicted of leaking classified information, talked about re-entering civilian life after spending seven years in federal prison.
In the year since President Obama commuted her 35-year sentence for stealing classified U.S. military files and diplomatic cables and leaking them to WikiLeaks, Manning has resumed her role of public advocacy — declaring her candidacy for the U.S. Senate in Maryland, granting press interviews and peaking at public forums like today’s appearance at South by Southwest.
But Manning said her private life has been less than the “happy ending” she imagined it would be, once she left her prison cell in Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.
“I’m dealing with a lot of loneliness and struggling to adjust to life,” Manning said in conversation with Vogue’s creative digital director, Sally Singer.
Manning talked about the difficulty of re-entering civilian life following incarceration: How she emerged from federal prison displaced, without so much as a valid driver’s license. This transition was complicated by the fact that her name and gender-marker had changed.
“I couldn’t get an apartment,” Manning said. “For a while I crashed in lower Manhattan. I couldn’t move anywhere. I didn’t have a photo ID. I didn’t have access to my bank account. I had to wait for my lawyers to give em an allowance from my own bank accounts.”
Manning has since returned to her native Maryland, where she is struggling to adjust to live alone, without being surrounded by inmates.
“I’m not used to it,” Manning said. “I get lonely, especially at night. Some of the darkest and loneliest moments that I’ve had are at 1 o’clock in the morning. I’m in this big apartment and I’m all by myself.”
Manning said she’s also found America to be a more frightening place than when she entered prison, a nation marked by a militarization of policing and caustic political rhetoric.
“It’s become so much darker and scarier,” said Manning. “This has been decades in the making and it’s not an aberration. The political rhetoric and style of governance we’ve been seeing is not an aberration. It’s the conclusion of systems that we’ve built.”
Manning said she sees overtones of what she encountered during her service in Iraq, where, then known as Bradley Manning, the Army private observed a stifling of political dissent and indifference to ethnic cleansing.
“I see this mindset has, on the streets of American cities today, where police are viewing entire neighborhoods as criminals. This mentality and tools that are used — the algorithms I worked on in Iraq — have found their way into policing.”
Manning talked about her military work in predictive analytics — how she used math to anticipate when the next attack might occur. She said she struggled to convince senior officers that U.S. military offensives were contributing to a “feedback loop” that would produce the same predictable reaction.
The former intelligence analyst talked about the biases inherent in these algorithms — both in who writes the code, and the data that’s entered. This has implications for civilian police forces that rely on algorithms to inform decisions, she said.
“We have to remember statistics themselves are not unbiased,” Manning said. “If you’re over-policing a neighborhood, and you feed that into an algorithm, it will predict more crime. So it’s not unbiased.”
Manning called on developers to adopt a code of ethics — to take responsibility for the software programs they write to guard against potential abuse. She said in her own experience as a coder, the algorithms she wrote to predict consumer purchasing behavior, based on past history, informed her work in Iraq.
“I reused that knowledge to write software in Iraq,” Manning said. “It’s the same algorithmic basis … It was not for marketing anymore. It was to find people to kill.”
Manning expressed no regret for her decision, in 2010, to leaking more than 70,000 files to Wikileaks, including video taken during an American helicopter attack in Baghdad in which civilians were killed.
“I’m more focused on what’s happening in 2018 than I am with what happened in 2010,” Manning said.