Chelsea Manning, the American soldier behind one of the largest leaks of classified government documents in U.S. history, was released Wednesday from the military prison at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., after serving seven years of a 35-year sentence.
President Obama, in one of his final acts in office in January, commuted her sentence after deciding that she had been punished enough for handing a trove of military and diplomatic reports to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.
"After another anxious four months of waiting, the day has finally arrived," Manning said in a statement released by her legal team. "I am looking forward to so much! Whatever is ahead of me is far more important than the past. I'm figuring things out right now — which is exciting, awkward, fun, and all new for me."
She posted a photograph on her social media accounts of two feet in black Converse sneakers. "First steps of freedom!!" she wrote.
Manning's lawyers confirmed that she had been released safely but provided few details about her plans, saying that they want to give her time to adjust to life outside prison in privacy.
An online fundraising page set up by her supporters said she was headed to Maryland, where she has family. As of Wednesday afternoon, the page had raised more than $157,000 to help with her living expenses and healthcare.
Army officials said she would remain on active duty, although on unpaid leave, while she appeals her court martial conviction. Under this status, she is eligible to receive care at military medical facilities and other benefits.
Manning, a transgender woman who was known as Pfc. Bradley Manning when she was arrested in 2010, began her transition in prison after lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union brought a lawsuit against the Department of Defense over her medical treatment for gender dysphoria.
But she struggled to cope at the all-male facility, where her lawyers said she endured long stretches in solitary confinement and was not permitted to adhere to female grooming standards. She twice attempted suicide last year.
In a statement last week, Manning thanked the many supporters whose letters she said had lifted her spirits in "dark times."
"For the first time, I can see a future for myself as Chelsea," she said. "I can imagine surviving and living as the person who I am and can finally be in the outside world."
Manning, whose actions launched a new era of massive security breaches in the Internet age, was lauded by antiwar and anti-secrecy activists as a hero, even as others, including President Trump, branded her a traitor.
She was a 22-year-old junior intelligence analyst at a forward operating base outside Baghdad in early 2010 when she began to illegally copy more than 700,000 U.S. military field reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, battlefield videos and diplomatic cables from classified computer accounts.
They included detainee assessments from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and a now-infamous 2007 video of an Apache combat helicopter firing on civilians in Iraq and killing 12 people, including two employees of the Reuters news agency. The military said the helicopter crew mistook a camera lens for a weapon.
Some Republican lawmakers and intelligence officials criticized Obama's decision to commute Manning's sentence, saying it would encourage others to leak sensitive information. But administration officials said Obama believed the sentence — the longest ever imposed in the United States for a leak conviction — was excessive.
The officials contrasted her case to that of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who sought refuge in Russia after leaking what were regarded as far more sensitive documents about U.S. surveillance programs to news outlets in 2013.
Manning, they noted, did not try to avoid justice for her crimes.
She was convicted in 2013 of numerous charges, including six Espionage Act violations. But a military court acquitted her of the most serious charge, aiding the enemy, which could have sent her to prison for life. Her sentence included a demotion and dishonorable discharge order that, if carried out, would cause her to lose her military benefits.
Manning's legal team hailed her release, noting that she had already served the longest sentence of any whistle-blower in the United States.
Although her supporters say she won't be giving interviews for at least a few weeks, she will probably continue to champion the rights of transgender people, a subject she has written about from behind bars.
"The first thing Chelsea always says when we talk about her freedom is that she wants to give back to the trans community — to fight for the many trans people, largely trans women of color, held in custody; to continue to connect with trans young people … to continue to transform the public narrative about what it means to be trans," one of her ACLU attorneys, Chase Strangio, said in a blog post this week. "She has an unrelenting sense of compassion and justice despite all that she has faced."
The rights group Amnesty International also welcomed Manning's "long overdue" release but noted that no one has been held accountable for the alleged abuses she brought to light.
"While we celebrate her freedom, we will continue to call for an independent investigation into the potential human rights violations she exposed, and for protections to be put in place to ensure whistle-blowers like Chelsea are never again subjected to such appalling treatment," Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said in a statement.
May 18, 1:46 p.m.: This article was updated to clarify that Manning, who had been demoted to the rank of private in the Army, is not currently authorized to use any rank as she is permanently off-duty pending discharge.
2:05 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information about the Manning case.
12:50 p.m.: This article was updated with reaction to Manning's release and more details about her case.
8:45 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from Manning.
5:40 a.m.: This article was updated with Manning's release.