The question has dogged Chelsea Manning ever since she walked out of prison four months ago — nearly three decades short of a 35-year sentence, courtesy of a commutation from President Barack Obama in the last days of his administration.
Is she a traitor? Had the Army private betrayed her country in 2010 when she passed hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks? Or had Manning, as many believe, demonstrated loyalty to the American public by exposing its government institutions?
At least once, the question was put to Manning herself. An ABC reporter asked it in June, in one of Manning’s rare interviews since walking free, but didn’t get a clear answer.
Often, an answer was supplied by another, such as President Trump, who called Manning a traitor in all-capital letters.
Manning was asked the question again Sunday, this time point-blank on a stage on the island of Nantucket, Mass.
And this time, she answered with finality.
“Are you an American traitor?” asked the moderator, in the final interview of the four-day Nantucket Project conference (“the boldest and most thought-provoking ideas of our time”).
“No, I’m not,” Manning said. “And I believe I did the best I could in my circumstances to make an ethical decision.”
And when she said “ethical,” she hammered her fist in her lap.
Not everyone was sympathetic.
As an Army intelligence analyst in 2010, then named Bradley Manning, she perpetrated what The Washington Post once described as “one of the most notorious leaks of classified documents in U.S. history.”
A quarter-million State Department cables. Classified documents about military prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Recordings of U.S. soldiers firing from a helicopter at suspected insurgents in Baghdad (“I think they just drove over a body. Ha ha!”), leaving two journalists dead and revolting much of the American public.
“Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence,” President Obama said seven years after her arrest as he wiped out the remainder of her sentence. “She took responsibility for her crime.”
She had, in a sense. But in Manning’s first interview after going free, she told ABC News she felt a “responsibility to the public.”
“You’re getting all this information, and it’s just death, destruction, mayhem,” she said in June. “And eventually, you just stop. I stopped seeing just statistics and information, and I started seeing people.”
“So many people call you a traitor. Many call you a hero,” said the interviewer. “Who is Chelsea Manning?”
“I’m just me,” she said. And for a while, that answer stood.
Vogue scored another interview in September — a long piece that focused less on Manning’s morality than on her fashion decisions (she came out as a transgender woman while in prison).
And Harvard University has invited her to make a speech there in the future, although the school’s relationship with the private was clouded this month when it rescinded a fellowship offer to Manning, bowing to pressure from upset staff and graduates.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo, for instance, canceled his own speech at the school, calling Manning an “American traitor.”
Pompeo’s comments might be why the Nantucket Project moderator, Eugene Jarecki, used exactly that term in on Sunday, when he and some of about 600 people in the audience questioned Manning, according to the Associated Press.
No, Manning said. She was not an American traitor.
Nor did she mind being snubbed by Harvard: “I view that just as much of an honored distinction as the fellowship itself.”
With a microphone tucked into her shirt collar, sometimes sitting and sometimes rising to face the audience, Manning painted a dark picture of the country where she walks free.
“I’m walking out of prison, and I see literally a dystopian novel unfolding before my eyes,” she said. “That’s how I feel when I walk in American streets today.”
But at one point, she also hinted at her version of brighter future.
“There are things we as people can always do,” Manning said. “Whenever society and the institutions are failing, we can always take our own individual actions against the institutions of power.”