WASHINGTON -- In an unprecedented move, the Pentagon is trying to transfer convicted national security leaker Pvt. Chelsea Manning to a civilian prison so she can get treatment for what has been diagnosed as a gender identity disorder, defense officials said.
Manning, formerly named Bradley, was convicted of sending classified documents to anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. The soldier has asked for hormone therapy and to be able to live as a woman.
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The request was the first made by a transgender military inmate and set up this dilemma for the Defense Department: how to treat a soldier for a diagnosed disorder without violating long-standing military policy.
Transgender people are not allowed to serve in the military and the department does not provide such treatment. But Manning cannot be discharged from the service while serving her 35-year prison sentence.
Some officials have said privately that keeping the soldier in a military prison and unable to have treatment could amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
Two Pentagon officials said Tuesday that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last month gave the Army approval to try to work out a transfer plan with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which provides such treatment. The officials were not authorized to speak on the record and discussed the matter on condition of anonymity.
The two agencies are starting discussions about prospects for a transfer, the Pentagon officials said.
"No decision to transfer Pvt. Manning to a civilian detention facility has been made, and any such decision will, of course, properly balance the soldier's medical needs with our obligation to ensure Pvt. Manning remains behind bars," Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said.
Treating Manning is "a constitutional requirement," said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. "And I think they've realized that and they're trying to figure out how to go about getting it done."
The Army sends an average of 15 to 20 prisoners a year to civilian prisons. But Manning's appeals have not been exhausted, she's still in the military and her case is of national security interest. Those are factors that would normally prevent a transfer to civilian prison.
The former intelligence analyst was sentenced in August for six Espionage Act violations and 14 other offenses for giving WikiLeaks more than 700,000 secret military and State Department documents, along with battlefield video, while working in Iraq in 2009 and 2010.
An Army general upheld the convictions, clearing the way for an appeal at the Army Court of Criminal Appeals.
Part of Manning's defense was that she should not have been deployed because of her deteriorating mental health. That included evidence about the soldier's extreme mental pressure over her gender-identity disorder during the "don't ask, don't tell" era when gay service members could not serve openly. That policy was later changed.
After the conviction, Manning announced the desire to live as a woman and to be called Chelsea. The name change was approved last month by a judge in Leavenworth County, Kansas; the military did not oppose it.
The soldier has been diagnosed by military doctors multiple times, including last fall after arriving at the prison in Fort Leavenworth, with gender dysphoria, the sense of being a woman in a man's body. It is also called gender identity disorder.
By November, a military doctor there had approved a treatment plan, including hormone therapy, but it had to be considered higher on the chain of command, according to a complaint filed by Manning in March over the delay in getting treatment.
The plan the military was considering has not been publicly released, but Manning said in the complaint that she had specifically asked that the treatment "plan consider ... three types of treatment."
Those were "real life experience," a regimen in which the person tries dressing and living in the new gender, though that's not possible in the Leavenworth men's facility); hormone therapy, which changes some physical traits such as breast and hair growth; and sex reassignment surgery.
Manning has not been specific about possible surgery. Experts in transgender health say it can include any of a large number of procedures such as chest reconstruction, genital reconstruction and plastic surgery, including facial reconstruction.
Hagel said Sunday that the prohibition on transgender individuals serving in the armed forces "continually should be reviewed."
He didn't indicate whether he believes the policy should be overturned but said "every qualified American who wants to serve our country should have an opportunity if they fit the qualifications and can do it."
A transgender individual is someone who has acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or presents himself or herself in a way that does not correspond with that person's sex at birth.