The source for some of the most explosive revelations in a generation walked free from a military prison on Wednesday morning.
Army Private Chelsea Manning was released from a detention facility in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas on Wednesday, after being imprisoned since 2010. She was freed ahead of schedule after President Obama commuted her 35-year sentence in January.
Manning was convicted by a military court in 2013 under the Espionage Act, for passing state secrets to Wikileaks.
“After another anxious four months of waiting, the day has finally arrived,” Manning said in a statement. “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 added. Manning came out as a transgender woman the day after being sentenced to prison.
The wider world that Manning left in 2010, when she was first detained, is dramatically different as a result of her whistleblowing. Perhaps the most stark example: diplomatic cables given by Manning to Wikileaks helped spark mass protests that overthrew Tunisian autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
“We knew that what we had in our hands, and in the cloud, was about to change something for Tunisia and beyond,” Tunisian activist Sami Ben Gharbia said in 2013, in a blog post paying tribute to Manning. Protests in Tunisia–also motivated by the self-immolation of street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi–triggered similar movements throughout North Africa and the Middle East.
Manning also provided Wikileaks with detailed records about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and with files detailing the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Records about the war in Iraq sparked a BBC-Guardian joint investigation that linked top US military officials, including Gen. David Petraeus, to sectarian torture squads. The so-called Afghan War Logs, meanwhile, detailed previously unreported civilian casualties, including hundreds of killings committed by coalition troops.
Manning was also the source of Wikileaks’ “Collateral Murder” video, which shows US troops firing on and killing civilians, including Reuters journalists, in a Baghdad suburb.
The effort to get President Obama to commute Manning’s sentence was supported by a network of activists. Obama said he granted Manning clemency because she “has served a tough prison sentence” and because “due process was carried out.”
Some of that “tough prison sentence” included a long stint in solitary confinement — a punishment that can amount to torture. Manning was also denied the opportunity to live outwardly as a woman.
“It is incredible to witness Chelsea Manning’s freedom after having seen and worked with her behind bars for four years,” Manning support network member and ACLU staff attorney Chase Strangio said. “We can all finally truly celebrate the strength and heroism she has shown in surviving and sharing her truth and life with all of us.”
Manning celebrated her release on Wednesday by tweeting out a photo of herself wearing black pants and Chuck Taylor shoes.
“First steps of freedom!!” she said.