tonight, a special edition of "nightline." "declassified: the chelsea manning story." convicted of the largest leak of government secrets in american history. >> so many people call you a traitor. many call you a hero. who is chelsea manning? >> now after seven years in prison, transgender army soldier chelsea manning speaking out. >> i have a responsibility to the public. >> a lightning rod for some of the most incendiary issues of our time. >> private manning is a traitor. >> her fight to be her true self from inside a men's military prison. and the letter to president obama that helped win her release. >> do you feel as though you owe the american public an apology? >> this special edition of "nightline" will be right back.
this is a special edition of "nightline." "declassified: the chelsea manning story." >> good evening. thanks for joining us. she's among the most tumultuous public figures of our time. convicted of passing classified information to wikileaks, chelsea manning's story strikes at a fundamental dilemma of our cyber age. the delicate balance between protecting government secrets versus the public's right to
transgender rights and controversial clemency have thrust her into the center of so many ideological skirmishes. she sat down with me exclusively for her first-ever television interview. blending into the crowded streets of new york city, petite and unassuming, you'd never know this young woman is one of the most divisive figures of our time. >> private manning is a traitor and should not have been turned into a martyr. >> a hero. >> reporter: chelsea manning, the transgender soldier convicted of leaking the biggest trove of government secrets in u.s. history. setting off a firestorm of controversy. >> -- leaked hundreds of thousands of sensitive documents -- >> whistle-blower protections -- >> >> reporter: about government secrets -- >> poses a real threat. >> reporter: national security and the people's right to know. at 29 she's spent nearly one-quarter of her life in prison, up until this point has only told her story through word
so many people call you a traitor. many call you a hero. who is chelsea manning? >> i'm just me. it's as simple as that. >> reporter: yet the road to get here has been rough. growing up in the oklahoma bible belt, she was known then as bradley manning. she says she found it increasingly difficult to fit in. >> i really struggled with gender, i was struggling as a teenager. i'm looking for my place in the world. >> what made you feel the call to enlist in the military? >> i'd see on the television, on the evening news, the surge in iraq. iraq descending into chaos. i felt like maybe i can do something, maybe i can make a difference. >> reporter: manning's computer skills earned her a spot as an army intelligence analyst, deployed to iraq where she was tasked with sifting through classified reports. but she says it opened her eyes to a starkly different version of the war. images like these. american soldiers opening fire from an apache helicopter. >> oh, yeah, look at that, right through the
>> reporter: on what would turn out to be civilians, including children. >> it's their fault for bringing their kids to a battle. >> that's right. >> reporter: among the 12 dead, two journalists from reuters. >> everything you need to know about warfare is right there in one video. >> what do you mean? >> counterinsurgency warfare is not a simple thing. it's not as simple as good guys versus bad guys. it is a mess. >> reporter: manning says she read news articles about how raters had tried in vain to request this video for two years. she decided to bring it up the chain of command. what did he or she say back? >> it's just another incident. the only reason it sticks out and is prominent is because it was two journalists. there are thousands and thousands of videos like that. >> reporter: as manning is dealing with hard drives full of government secrets, she's grappling with a secret of her own. in a moment of desperation she e-mails this photo of herself to a superior saying, this is my problem. it's the cause of my pain and confusion. >> it was draping after a while. i felt like i'm not being myself. >> reporter: she sought solace on
rooms. >> memes of being able to safely and securely reveal government wrongdoing. >> you decide to risk your career, to break the law. what was it that you were seeing that compel the you to do that? >> i stopped seeing just statistics and information. and i started seeing people. >> currently engaging approximately eight individuals -- >> reporter: so manning decided to leak and release that air strike video. and later other classified documents. to wikileaks. >> the material is dramatic. it was classified. >> reporter: thus began a game of cat and mouse with a contact named nathaniel who manning said she believed was julian assange himself. at the time wikileaks was just an obscure open government website. why wikileaks, then? >> i think it's important to remember the context. i tried to go to "the washington post" first. i tried to go to the "new york times." >> reporter: over the course of four months, she leaked diplomatic cables, battlefield reports,
profiles. more than 700,000 documents in all. the impact, explosive. >> it's the biggest leak in u.s. military history. >> there are names. there are operations. >> it is an attack on the international community. >> reporter: less than two months after the disclosures first made news, manning would be taken into custody from her barracks in iraq. did you think you would ever get caught? were you ready to pay the price? >> i'm not focused on consequences or what this means or what that means. i'm focused on the day to day. >> reporter: meanwhile the government scrambling to assess the actual damage manning's leaks had caused. do you consider chelsea manning a whistle-blower? >> no. >> reporter: rick legit was a high-ranking intelligence official at nsa at the time. >> she didn't go through any of the whistle-blowing channels that she had. she could have gone to the judge advocate general. she could have gone to her congressional representatives. they would have welcomed that. >> you didn't think any of it was going to threaten national security? >> no. ther
intelligence community who would argue, you're a low-level analyst, there's no way you could have known the outcome of that would have been. >> right. but these are the reports that i work with. i'm the subject mart expert for this. >> and yet one could argue she was willing to put her own liberty and her own military career on the line in order to expose these. >> does that sound extraordinarily arrogant to you? it does to me. >> in what way? >> it's to say that my judgment is better than that of everybody else, and so i'm going to take this upon myself to make this decision with consequences i couldn't possibly understand and i'm going to do it because it makes me feel like i'm doing the right thing. that's the definition of arrogance. >> reporter: turns out some of the low-level army battlefield reports that manning leaked were found in osama bin laden's compound after his death. you may have been motivated to get the information into the public sphere, but you might have also given it to our enemies. >> right, but i have a responsibility to the public. it's not black and white.
it's complicated. >> reporter: but the law was clear. back in the states, the military's response, severe. 22 charges, many under the espionage act. she was facing up to 136 years in prison. even death. now in a military brig at quantico, nine months of solitary confinement before her court-martial even began. the military says for her own protection. what were those days like for you? >> it's a mind game. you're sitting in a room by yourself. >> the u.n. investigator called it cruel and inhuman. >> right. >> reporter: manning ultimately pled guilty to some charges and after a two-month-long court-martial -- >> the verdict, the army private convicted of leaking america's secrets, but spared of the most serious charge, aiding america's enemies. >> reporter: the sentence handed down the longest ever for spilling classified information. here you are, 25 years old. when they said 35 y
prison, what went through your mind? >> you're thinking more about -- how am i going to get through the next day? >> reporter: manning's appeals lawyers, vince ward, david hammond, and nancy hallendchl er say the military was trying to make an example of her. >> they overcharged and they overreacted. >> and tried to turn it into the case of the century. >> set the whistle-blowers free! >> reporter: her case striking a nerve about the precarious balance between government accountability -- >> no, he shouldn't be prosecuted. >> reporter: and protecting the nation's secrets. >> nominate him for the nobel prize. >> i think he's completely a traitor. >> you can't be messing around with national security data. >> he deserves a medal. >> whistle-blowers play a very important part in our government. >> reporter: within days of being sentenced, manning became the poster child for another cause. and more controversy. what made you decide to come out as trans after being sentenced? >> i had to be who i am.
>> reporter: but at ft. leavenworth, a men's military prison, she had to fight for her right to exist as a transgender woman. so your despair was not with the 35-year prison sentence, it was -- >> much more immediate. >> it had more to do with your needing to be chelsea? >> yeah. i'd never done that. i'd never been able to be who i was. >> reporter: at first the military denied manning's request for medical treatment for her gender transition. what would you say to those who feel that taxpayers shouldn't be paying for hormone treatments? >> well, you know, it's -- health care is something that prisoners have a right to. trans health care is necessary. >> in what way is trans health care necessary medical care? >> literally keeps me alive. keeps me from feeling i'm in the wrong body. like i get these horrible -- used to get these horrible feelings like i want to rip my body apart. it's really, really awful.
>> health care for transgender people is not cosmetic, it is not experimental. >> reporter: but with the help of aclu civil rights lawyer chase strangio, manning was eventually granted hormone therapy, undergarments, and makeup, all heralded as landmark victories. >> she was the first person to receive hormone therapy in a military prison. >> chelsea needs us now more than ever. >> i will never stop fighting for chelsea and my transgender siblings. >> i want people to see the truth. >> reporter: manning's following on the outside growing. bolstered by her prolific writing and tweeting about everything ranging from her thoughts on government transparency to sharing her favorite play lists. while outside, manning's supporters were fighting to sway the court of public opinion, from behind bars -- >> think that you could see that chelsea's state of mind was that she was deteriorating throughout the process of the appeal. >> and you grew so despairing that you tried to take your life?
>> yes. it's a very dark place. you're -- you're like, if i can't be me, then who am i? you just want the pain to stop. the pain of not knowing who you are or why you are this way. you just want it to go away. >> reporter: to make matters worse she was sent to solitary confinement. >> the prison said that she interfered with the good order and discipline of the prison by attempting to kill herself, is just a horrendous thought if you think about it. >> she was punished for trying to survive, and then she was punished for trying to die. and that was just an incredibly bleak, hard time that was during the summer of 2016. >> reporter: so her legal team decided that asking president obama for mercy, for a shorter sentence, might be chelsea's only hope. when we come back -- >> i wrote this letter
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this special edition of "nightline," "declassified: the chelsea manning story" continues. >> one of the most polarizing prisoners in america. chelsea manning convicted for leaking the largest batch of government secrets in u.s. history. do you feel as though you owe the american public an apology? >> i've accepted responsibility. anything i've done, it's me. this is me. it's on me. >> reporter: but last fall, seven years into a 37-year sentence at a men's military prison, the transgend
was growing desperate for a way out. >> i wrote this letter to obama. i'm just like, please give me clemency. and it was real and it was raw and it was only intended for him. the bottom line is this. i'm living through a cycle of anxiety, anger, hopelessness -- >> reporter: her letter part of a plea for a shorter sentence. >> as a person who did not intend to harm the interests of the united states -- >> reporter: the request, including letters of support submitted by her legal team, vincent ward and nancy hallender. >> i don't think any of us really thought there was much of a chance. >> reporter: but then, early this year, a shocker. >> i got this call from my receptionist saying, the white house is on the phone. and the voice on the other end said it all in one sentence. >> good afternoon, everybody. >> the president has commuted your client's sentence and is going to announce it in two minutes. i just screamed. i screamed. oh my god! >> i feel very comfortable that justice hasee
military who ever took care of chelsea was her commander in chief. president obama. >> in this new cyber age, we're going to have to make sure that we continually work to find the right balance of accountability and openness and transparency that is the hallmark of our democracy. >> then i tried to get myself together and said, does chelsea know? >> six security personnel come and grab me. i don't know what's going on, what's going on? the cnn ticker said, president obama commutes chelsea manning's sentence. and i'm like, okay. >> reporter: like everything in her story, her commutation triggered backlash. >> to commute private manning's sentence was a mistake. >> the reaction, rage, frustration, and sorrow -- >> my initial reaction was, what? then once i read about it a little bit and thought about it a little bit i thought, well, that's right, i think she's paid her debt and she needs a chance to start over again with a clean slate wkt
record. >> reporter: after seven years behind bars on may 17th, in the middle of the night, freedom. >> taken out of my cell. i'm given a change clothes. we get dropped off in the middle of the night. i don't know where we are. then i see my lawyers for the first time. >> i don't think i'll ever forget the moment when chelsea looked back at us and just said, "hey." >> the first time chelsea and i hugged each other, really touched each other, was when she got out. >> it was a very, very, very powerful and moving moment for me. because at the prison wide receiver we weren't allowed to hug. it made it real. it was a tactile feeling of reality. so the next day i was surrounded by nature and beauty. and people were beautiful. because they weren't wearing the same uniform as everyone else. >> reporter: for manning, this newfound freedom has many meanings. she could now begin her life as a free woman. tweeting this photo saying, hello, world. having spoken to president obama what would you say to him, if you could? >> thank you.
for giving me a chance, that's all i wanted. >> you wanted a chance. >> that's all i asked for was a chance. that's it. and this is my chance. >> reporter: but manning's fight is not yet over. she's still appealing her conviction, convinced that her case could have greater implications for us all. >> this case really is about what are the scope of the whistle-blower protections for people who possess national security information? >> this is a fundamental issue of free speech in this country. if we don't have free speech, we don't have a democracy. and this gets right to the core of that. >> reporter: yet nowadays there's another cause that's become just as dear to her heart. >> you've got thousands of letters, many from transgender children. what was their message to you if. >> that i need unconditional love. they were seeing in me what i was looking for when i was their age. that's a lot of responsibility to have. you are loved, chelsea. you are an inspiration to so manyf
given me the strength to come out as trans too. >> what's the emotional reaction when you read a letter like that? >> i was in their shoes once. and i needed somebody to have the courage to do that too. >> and you said you feel a sense of responsibility to them? what is that responsibility? >> i don't know yet. i just -- i just know they're watching. >> what would you say to them? >> be who you are. you have support now. if you're struggling, don't do what i did and run away from it. things are better. >> reporter: at 29, she says she's finally getting comfortable in her own skin. you're willing to accept that some people see you as a traitor? >> and you know, okay, you know -- like i disagree. >> reporter: for someone who broke the law, saying her goal was to spark debate, she's certainly not shying away from it now. i get the sense that you are still going to use your voice, that this is not the last we've heard from chelsea manning. >> no.
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thanks for watching this special edition of "nightline," "declassified: the chelsea manning story." be sure to join the conversation online on our "nightline" facebook page about these important issues that strike at the heart of our democracy. good night, america. >> hey, everybody, welcome to teacher appreciation week, where we're playing with some outstanding educators who are taking a much-deserved day off so they can try to win $1 million. i hope they've done their homework. come on. let's play "who wants to be a millionaire." [cheers and applause] hey, everybody. it's teacher appreciation week on "who wants to be
as a spanish teacher and cross-country coach, today's contestant has touched the lives of her students with her unrelenting positivity. from rabun gap, georgia, please welcome mirna valerio. [cheers and applause] hi, mirna. >> hi. >> how're you doing? come on over. >> thank you. ♪ >> your positivity has spread. they love you here. >> well, thank you. i love you all. thank you. [laughs] >> now, what are your methods of spreading positivity to your students? >> i smile a lot. i'm a little bit crazy. i make sure we're always having fun, but most of all, i like to spread joy through being authentic. >> i like that. that's a good message for everyone--not just kids. adults, we could learn a little something there. well, i'm glad you're here. >> thank you. >> thank you for doing what you do, being a teacher, and i'm glad we get to celebrate teachers thi