Interview Conducted by Angela Gruber
American whistleblower Chelsea Manning has been free for a year now following seven years behind bars. She speaks with SPIEGEL ONLINE about her difficult return to freedom and explains why activism is more important than ever.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ms. Manning, after seven years in prison, your sentence was commuted a year ago. How did you restart your life?
Chelsea Manning: At first, there was a euphoria, sort of a honeymoon period after my release. But all of the things that drove me into political activism and sparked my actions have gotten worse and accelerated in pace. So, I never got the feeling that I can just sit down now. There are lots of important political issues out there waiting to be addressed, not just in the U.S. but the whole world. We can’t wait anymore.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Can you provide a few examples?
Manning: We see the rise of authoritarianism all over the world, in Russia, in China and also in Europe. The technological developments have enabled a surveillance apparatus that is much more intense and threatening than ever before. Militarization is another issue: Our local police departments in the U.S. look like military units now. What we as people need to do is fight back.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What toll did your time in prison take on your life?
Manning: Even though there’s real work to be done, what I also realized within the last few months is that I also have to take care of myself. Sometimes I just try to forget about prison and the last decade, because it’s easier for me. My experience now, being a public figure, is definitely drastically different from the life I had – in prison or in the military.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You are quite active on social media channels like Twitter and Instagram. Was it difficult for you to catch up with the technology?
Manning: What I like to remind people of: I was using emojis back in the 1990s when they were still called emoticons. I’ve been on the internet since the mid-90s. Back then, there was the feeling that the internet was special, a place with liberating capacities. But as it became more entrenched in our society, it became a reinforcement of the existing system.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You also are confronted with a lot of hate speech now.
Manning: The experience I have gone through makes this seem trivial. I’ve been held in a steel cage in a desert. I’ve been in a cell by myself for almost a year straight. There’s no troll that can hurt me.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you do to unwind?
Manning: There are no cellphones or other electronics in certain parts of my house. This helps me sleep and concentrate. I do yoga and try to exercise, running and doing jumping jacks and so on. I play some videogames as well and have different consoles. I love to play old arcade games like Tetris sometimes. Also, my friends and family are really important to me. Those are people that have been around for most of my life.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You are one of the most prominent whistleblowers in modern history. Right now, the European Union – and Germany – are considering new legislation to better protect whistleblowers. What are your thoughts?
Manning: I am familiar with the current push for better protection. However, I have some concerns.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Such as?
Manning: I think it’s problematic to give a state the power to decide which case is or isn’t a whistleblowing case – even if it’s the EU deciding that. My fear is that by depending on a regulatory framework, the state will be able to suppress certain information. We’ve already seen this in the US: We have a Whistleblower Protection Act but its name is very misleading (laughs). It was weaponized to be used against sources and media. If they go through the proper channels, they can be targeted by law enforcement. By the way
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Yes?
Manning: I don’t even like the term “whistleblower.”
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why not?
Manning: It makes it seem like the actions of a “whistleblower” are different from any form of political action. But they are not. It’s the same as someone protesting on the streets and just another form of civil disobedience like any other.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The scandal surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica was revealed by someone who identifies himself as a whistleblower. What do you think about the revelations so far?
Manning: Why is this surprising to anyone? This is literally Facebook’s mission statement. Companies like that collect vast amount of data to sort through it and sell their knowledge to business vendors. This is not an aberration. This is an inevitability. And because Facebook, Google and all the other firms have a symbiotic relationship with the government to maintain the status quo, I’m very skeptical our politicians will do something about this problem.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: If you are right and we can’t wait for better laws, then what needs to be done?
Manning: If every user left Facebook, they’d have no business model. But it’s not just that. Software developers and other tech experts have a moral and ethical responsibility. It’s really hard because technology is moving fast and there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but we need to find an ethical framework, a code of conduct.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you doing any programming yourself right now?
Manning: Yes. I do it on the side. I’ve been working with TensorFlow and have been playing around with neural networks, which is fun and intriguing. I feel I am becoming more literate in the field of machine learning by actually doing it. Machine learning will be a big part of our society soon and transform many things. So, it’s also important for me as a political activist to understand these things. Technology and activism go hand in hand.