Judge Orders Chelsea Manning’s Release From Jail for Not Cooperating With WikiLeaks Grand Jury, Supporters Raise $256,000 Fines

By Andy Worthington (reprinted by permission of the author)

March 15, 2020

Good news from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, where, on Thursday (March 12), District Judge Anthony J. Trenga ordered the immediate release from jail of whistleblower Chelsea Manning (formerly Pfc. Bradley Manning), who has been imprisoned since last March for refusing to cooperate with a Grand Jury investigation into WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange.

While serving as an Army intelligence analyst in 2009, Manning was responsible for the largest leak of military and diplomatic documents in US history, and received a 35-year sentence — described by Charlie Savage in the New York Times as “the longest sentence by far in an American leak case” — in August 2013.

After her conviction, as Savage also explained, “she changed her name to Chelsea and announced that she wanted to undergo gender transition, but was housed in a male military prison and twice tried to commit suicide in 2016.” After these bleak experiences, it came as an extremely pleasant surprise when, just before leaving office in January 2017, President Obama commuted most of her sentence, as I explained in an article at the time, entitled, Obama Commutes Chelsea Manning’s 35-Year Sentence; Whistleblower Who Leaked Hugely Important Guantánamo Files Will Be Freed in May 2017, Not 2045.

Unfortunately, after seven years in prison, Chelsea Manning’s freedom was short-lived. Last March, as Charlie Savage put it, “prosecutors investigating Mr. Assange subpoenaed her to testify before a grand jury about their interactions.” As Savage also explained, “Although prosecutors granted immunity for her testimony, Ms. Manning had vowed not to cooperate in the investigation, saying she had ethical objections, and she was placed in civil detention for contempt of court.”

Shortly after, that first Grand Jury expired, but, as Savage explained, “Prosecutors then obtained a new subpoena, and she was locked up again for defying it in May.” As he added, ominously, “The moves raise the possibility that prosecutors could start over a third time.”

In a brief opinion, Judge Trenga stated, “The court finds that Ms. Manning’s appearance before the grand jury is no longer needed, in light of which her detention no longer serves any coercive purpose.” As Savage described it, the judge’s ruling involved him “dismiss[ing] the grand jury that Ms. Manning was refusing to testify before after finding that its business had concluded,” even though Manning’s supporters “believed that the grand jury was not set to terminate on March 12.”

For Manning the timing is obviously helpful, as, just the day before, she had attempted to commit suicide, and had ended up hospitalized, but Judge Trenga refused to tackle another aspect of her imprisonment over the last year that has been profoundly unjust: the decision to charge Manning $1,000 for each day that she refused to testify, By the time of the ruling, this had reached $256,000, but the judge ruled that “enforcement of the accrued, conditional fines would not be punitive but rather necessary to the coercive purpose of the court’s civil contempt order.”

In a hard-hitting article for the Intercept, Natasha Lennard condemned the ruling for failing to recognize the fact that “the coercive purpose of Manning’s detention had long been shown to be absent,” because “Manning has proven herself incoercible beyond any doubt.” Lennard cited Manning’s attempted suicide as “the most absolute evidence that she could not be coerced: She would sooner die.”

As she also explained, the framing and timing of the decision were ”galling,” because, the day after the ruling, “Manning was scheduled to appear at a court hearing on a motion to end her continued imprisonment, predicated on her unshakeable resistance proving coercion to be impossible, and her incarceration therefore illegal. She endured months of extreme suffering, driving her to near death, but never wavered on her principled refusal to speak.”

As Lennard added, “Again and again, Manning and her legal team showed that her imprisonment was nothing but punitive, and thus unjustifiable under the legal statutes governing federal grand juries. Yet for nearly a year, Manning has been caged and fined $1,000 per day. Ever since she was subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury, which is investigating WikiLeaks, Manning has also insisted that there was never any justifiable purpose to asking her to testify. As her support committee noted in a statement last May, ‘Chelsea gave voluminous testimony during her court martial. She has stood by the truth of her prior statements, and there is no legitimate purpose to having her rehash them before a hostile grand jury.’”

Fortunately, in a sign of the esteem with which Manning is held by her many supporters, the $256,000 has been raised in donations in just two days, and a separate follow-up fundraiser, set up to fund her living expenses, has also reached its target — $30,000 — in a matter of hours.

The Guantánamo files

I’m delighted that so many people are supportive of Chelsea Manning, and I can only hope that they are all fully aware of her service to the cause of transparency, and of exposing secrets that the US government would rather keep hidden. As I explained when her sentence was commuted, in January 2017, with particular reference to the release of one set of files she leaked — the classified military files relating to the Guantánamo prisoners — on which I worked as a media partner:

Any intelligent analysis of the files … reveals the extent to which they lay bare the cruelty and incompetence of the authorities at Guantánamo, providing the names of the many unreliable witnesses, who, as a result of torture or other forms of abuse, or being bribed with better living conditions, or simply through exhaustion after seemingly endless — and pointless — interrogations, told their interrogators what they wanted to hear. And the interrogators, of course, wanted whatever information would make the prisoners appear significant, when, in truth, they had been rounded up in a largely random manner, or had been bought for bounty payments from the Americans’ Afghan or Pakistani allies, and very few — a maximum of 3% of the 779 men held, I estimate — genuinely had any kind of meaningful connection with al-Qaeda, the leadership of the Taliban, or any related groups. Most were either foot soldiers or civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time, dressed up as “terrorists” to justify a dragnet, from September 2001 to November 2003 (when the transfers to Guantánamo largely ended) that is primarily remarkable because of its stunning incompetence.

I began a detailed study of the Guantánamo files leaked by Manning after their release in 2011, but exhaustion, and a lack of funding, prevented me from analyzing more than the 422 files I covered in detail in 34 articles totaling over half a million words, which are available here, although I do believe that my work on the files constitutes important research. One day I hope to complete the project, but even if I don’t, the files Manning released will provide historians with an unparalleled opportunity to understand the extent to which the so-called intelligence at Guantánamo is a house of cards built on torture and lies, and we should all be grateful to her for leaking them in the first place — just as there are reasons to be grateful for all the other documents she leaked.

After Thursday’s ruling, Moira Meltzer-Cohen, one of Manning’s lawyers, stated, “It is my devout hope that she is released to us shortly, and that she is finally given a meaningful opportunity to rest and heal that she so richly deserves.”

The entwined fate of Julian Assange

That is certainly to be hoped for, but we must also all spare a thought for the publisher of the information she leaked, Julian Assange, with whom her fate seems forever entwined. Last April, while Assange was still living in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where he had first sought asylum in 2012, the Justice Department unsealed criminal charges against him. As Charlie Savage noted, “Prosecutors initially charged him with a narrow hacking conspiracy offense, accusing him of agreeing to try to help Ms. Manning crack a password that would have let her log onto a military computer system under a different user account, covering her tracks.”

This seemed to be nothing more than a cynical effort to portray Assange as a cic-conspirator rather than what he and WikiLeaks are and were — publisher of leaked information, just as the Washington Post was, in 1971, with whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers, relating to the Vietnam War. Since then, however, prosecutors “significantly expanded the case against Mr. Assange by bringing charges against him under the Espionage Act for soliciting, receiving and publishing classified information.”

Charlie Savage noted that these charges “rais[ed] novel First Amendment issues,” which, sadly, is something of an understatement, as a successful prosecution of Assange would have a genuinely chilling effect on the freedom of the press, and of freedom of speech in general — and, it’s worth noting, was a course of action that, precisely for those reasons, was abandoned by President Obama after he had initially sought to pursue Assange.

Savage also noted, at the close of his article, that “Mr. Assange has been fighting extradition in a London court,” which, again, is a rather curt reference to the proposed extradition of Assange from the UK to the US, which the British government, to its great shame, is supporting unquestioningly, even though the same principles of what is at stake — the chilling suppression of press freedom and freedom of speech in general — applies as much to the UK as the US, and ought to preclude any notion that his extradition is acceptable.

I have been writing about this since last year, in a number of articles and in various media appearances — see, for example, my articles, Defend Julian Assange and WikiLeaks: Press Freedom Depends On It (from last April), Stop the Extradition: If Julian Assange Is Guilty of Espionage, So Too Are the New York Times, the Guardian and Numerous Other Media Outlets (from last May), As a Frail and Confused Julian Assange Appears in Court, It’s Time For the UK to Stop His Proposed Extradition to the US (in October), and, last month, A Call for the Mainstream Media to Defend Press Freedom and to Oppose the Proposed Extradition of Julian Assange to the US.

I have also submitted a witness statement in support of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, with specific reference to the Guantánamo files, which will, I believe, be discussed in May when the hearing regarding Assange’s proposed extradition resumes, following a disturbing week of hearings last month, in which Assange was held in a glass box, and there were allegations of clear judicial bias, and confusions regarding the terms of the US-UK extradition treaty.

For further information, I recommend the accounts of former ambassador and human rights activist Craig Murray, who attended the hearing (see herehereherehere and here), and also of Kevin Gosztola of Shadowproof, who was also attending the hearings, travelling from the US to do so (see hereherehere and here). Gosztola’s second article looks at, as he describes it, how “Chelsea Manning’s Grand Jury resistance [is] a major hurdle for prosecutors,” who are seeking to revise history to try, erroneously, to make Manning into some kind of accomplice of Assange.