Chelsea Manning (Via U.S. Army)
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Pvt. Chelsea Manning, the soldier who was sentenced to 35 years in a military prison for giving classified materials to WikiLeaks, said Wednesday that she is excited about what lies ahead, just hours after she walked free after serving seven years behind bars.
"I'm figuring things out right now - which is exciting, awkward, fun, and all new for me," Manning said in an emailed statement. She tweeted a picture of her feet in tennis shoes - with the caption "First steps of freedom!!" - after walking away from the Fort Leavenworth lockup in Kansas.
Manning's immediate plans, including living arrangements, remained unclear. Manning tweeted after then-President Barack Obama granted her clemency in January that she planned to move to Maryland, where she has an aunt. Manning originally comes from Crescent, Oklahoma.
"After another anxious four months of waiting, the day has finally arrived," Manning said in Wednesday's statement. "I am looking forward to so much! Whatever is ahead of me is far more important than the past."
Manning, who is transgender and was known as Bradley Manning before she transitioned in prison, was convicted in 2013 of 20 counts, including six Espionage Act violations, theft and computer fraud. She was acquitted of the most serious charge of aiding the enemy.
Manning, a former intelligence analyst in Iraq, has acknowledged leaking the materials, which included battlefield video. She said she wanted to expose what she considered to be the U.S. military's disregard of the effects of war on civilians and that she released information that she didn't believe would harm the U.S.
Critics said the leaks laid bare some of the nation's most-sensitive secrets and endangered information sources, prompting the State Department to help some of those people move to protect their safety. Several ambassadors were recalled, expelled or reassigned because of embarrassing disclosures.
Manning, who was arrested in 2010, filed a transgender rights lawsuit in prison and attempted suicide twice last year, according to her lawyers.
"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," Chase Strangio, Manning's attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said in Wednesday's statement that included Manning's post-release comments.
"Through extended periods of solitary confinement and up against the government's insistence on denying her medical care and existence as a woman, Chelsea has emerged with grace, resilience, and an inspiring amount of love for others," Strangio added. "I am humbled to fight alongside such a fierce advocate for justice."
Obama's decision to commute Manning's sentence to about seven years, including the time she spent locked up before being convicted, drew strong criticism from members of Congress and others, with Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan calling the move "just outrageous."
In a statement last week - her first public comments since Obama intervened - Manning thanked that former president and said that letters of support from veterans and fellow transgender people inspired her "to work toward making life better for others."
"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. Freedom used to be something that I dreamed of but never allowed myself to fully imagine."
Her attorneys have said Manning was subjected to violence in prison and argued the military mistreated her by requiring her to serve her sentence in an all-male prison, restricting her physical and mental health care and not allowing her to keep a feminine haircut.
The Department of Defense has repeatedly declined to discuss Manning's treatment in prison.
The Army said Tuesday that Manning would remain on active duty in a special, unpaid status that will legally entitle her to military medical care, along with commissary privileges. An Army spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Jennifer Johnson, said Manning will be on "excess leave" - meaning she is considered to be off-duty - while her court-martial conviction is under appellate review. Army spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said this means Manning can wear her preferred civilian clothing, including women's attire, while on excess leave.
The Army said Wednesday that Manning remains subject to the military's criminal code until her discharge from the Army, and that her "excess leave" status will be lifted if she's prosecuted for any violations.
Department of Defense and Army policy also restricts political activities by all members of the armed forces, including Manning, until their service time is completed. Army regulations require that any book or other publishable writings by Manning involving military matters, national security issues or subjects of significant concern to the Defense Department Manning must "consult with" a military public affairs office.
Pulse Films announced Wednesday at the Cannes Film Festival in France that Manning would be the focus of a documentary titled "XY Chelsea" and that she had granted filmmakers "unprecedented access." It was not immediately clear how that would be affected by the Defense Department and Army restrictions.
The Army said that while Manning is being assigned to Oklahoma's Fort Sill, she doesn't need to report for duty there, meaning she has discretion about where she lives.
Associated Press reporters Robert Burns and Lolita Baldor in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.