Chelsea Manning, the former army intelligence analyst and whistleblower who disclosed intelligence files to WikiLeaks, has been jailed for refusing to testify in front of a grand jury. The timing of the subpoena indicates that Manning was called to give information that may help U.S. prosecutors build a case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who was recently arrested and jailed in the U.K., and who is facing extradition both to Sweden and the U.S.
This is the second time Manning has been subpoenaed to testify against Assange in 2019 – and the second time she has been placed in contempt of court and jailed for refusing to do so. “The prosecutors are deliberately placing me in an impossible position: Go to jail and face the prospect of being held in contempt again, or, in the alternative, forgoing my principles, the strong positions that I have, that I hold dear,” she told reporters before the May 16 hearing, “and the latter is a far worse prison or jail than the government could ever produce.” During the proceedings, Manning reportedly declared: “I would rather starve to death than to change my opinion in this regard. And when I say that, I mean that quite literally.”
Manning was called in front of a Virginia grand jury in February 2019 to testify on her interactions with WikiLeaks and Assange. She refused to testify, claiming that she had already disclosed the relevant information during her own 2013 court martial. She was jailed for contempt of court on March 8, and released on May 9 upon the expiration of the grand jury’s term. A second grand jury was then called and Manning was subpoenaed again – and promptly jailed after again refusing to testify on May 16. Manning’s objections appear not only related to the prospect of the Assange prosecution – but to the very nature of this legal procedure.
Almost unique to the U.S., grand jury proceedings are conducted by a prosecutor and 16-23 members of the public. They are set up to investigate whether an indictment or criminal charges should be brought against a suspect; the defendant is not given a chance to defend him/herself, and the proceedings are sealed from the public. The process has been criticized for its secretive nature, and Manning told reporters before the May 16 hearing:
“I will not cooperate with this or any other grand jury. So it doesn’t matter what it is or what the case is, I’m just not going to comply or cooperate … I’ve already been to prison, so attempting got coerce me with a grand jury subpoena is just not going to work.”
Assange, who was granted refuge in London’s Ecuadorian embassy for the last seven years, is the subject of a Swedish sexual assault investigation, as well as charges in the U.S. for obtaining – and publishing – classified information from Manning about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Manning believed the material to be evidence of U.S. war crimes, including footage of air strikes that erroneously killed civilians, files of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, and thousands of diplomatic and military cables.
After pleading guilty to several charges, Manning – at the time under the name Bradley – was convicted in 2013 for violations of the Espionage Act and sentenced to 35 years imprisonment. In 2017, President Obama commuted the sentence and Manning was free to re-enter public life, including an unsuccessful run for the Senate. She was also offered a visiting fellowship at Harvard University, which was rescinded after the decision was criticized by some, including then-CIA Director and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who called Manning an “American traitor.”
Manning, Assange, and the Trump Administration
There is little doubt that the Trump Administration is working to prepare a case against Assange – and that the grand juries are part of these preparations. President Trump has made it clear that he is not sympathetic to Manning’s cause; after she criticized the Obama administration in 2017, he called her an “ungrateful TRAITOR” who “should never have been released from prison.”
Ungrateful TRAITOR Chelsea Manning, who should never have been released from prison, is now calling President Obama a weak leader. Terrible!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 26, 2017
Trump praised WikiLeaks during his presidential campaign, saying “I love WikiLeaks,” and calling the site a “treasure trove” thanks to the hacked Clinton emails. However, he has generally condemned the intelligence services for allowing information to be leaked to news publishers in the first place. “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!” he tweeted in February of 2017, adding the next day that “The spotlight has finally been put on the low-life leakers! They will be caught!”
In 2010, while speaking to Brian Kilmeade of Fox News, he commented offhand that WikiLeaks was “disgraceful” and that the “death penalty or something” should be given to those involved. Indeed, it is widely thought that the reason Assange has sought to escape extradition from Britain is that he would likely face the death penalty if convicted in the U.S.
The president has since distanced himself from the WikiLeaks issue, recently responding noncommittally to questions regarding Assange’s recent arrest and the potential case against him. “I know nothing about WikiLeaks. It’s not my thing and I know there is something having to do with Julian Assange. I’ve been seeing what’s happened with Assange, and that will be a determination. I would imagine mostly by the attorney general, who is doing an excellent job. So he’ll be making a determination. I know nothing really about him. That’s not my deal in life,” he said in April.
A Matter of Press Freedom?
Manning and her legal team have accused the administration of targeting journalists. After being released from prison earlier in May, Manning told CNN’s Brian Stelter that “This administration clearly wants to go after journalists … Whenever a journalist makes a misstep, I think that they are put on notice now that the FBI and the Department of Justice are going to go after them on administration’s behalf.”
After the most recent contempt of court finding, Manning’s attorney, Moira Meltzer-Cohen, added in a statement that:
“It is a point of pride for this administration to be publicly hostile to the press. Grand Juries and prosecutions like this one broadcast an expanding threat to the press and function to undermine the integrity of the system according to the government’s own laws. This administration is also obsessed with undercutting the legacy of President Barack Obama, from reversing healthcare policy to Chelsea Manning’s commutation. It is up to the press to stand up for themselves, to stand up for the practice of journalism, and to stand up for Chelsea in the same manner she has consistently stood up for the press.”
As observed by LN’s Andrew Moran, however, the media has had little to say in support of Assange or WikiLeaks – does that indifference extend to Manning’s plight?
Opinion is divided on both Assange and Manning. Are they heroes who provided the public a valuable service in exposing government and military crimes to public knowledge, or are they villains who damaged U.S. interests and endangered lives? In either case, it appears the U.S. government doesn’t like to be undermined, and is currently going after those who would make it look the fool.
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